The musical artist-cum-activist practicing the progress she preaches.
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“Regular institutions don’t cater to creative kids,” Jessie Reyez laments over the phone. “They just don’t. It sucks. The schooling system is set up in a way that — if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer — then it makes sense for you to go to school, because you know that there’s a blueprint. You go to school for a certain amount of years, and then you get a piece of paper, and then you’re qualified.”
Our discussion about “The Remix Project” is what triggered her impassioned monologue. The Toronto and Chicago-based programme, of which Reyez is a proud alum, was created to help level the playing field for young people from disadvantaged, marginalized and underserved communities. “When it comes to art,” she continues, “there’s no blueprint. So you’ve just got to hustle, and you’ve just got to work on your craft.”
The 27-year-old singer-songwriter luckily hails from a family of hustlers. When she was younger, in lieu of buying her a new scooter, Reyez remembers her father rushing to the garage and building her one from scratch, complete with a paint job in the yellow, blue and red of his and her mother’s native Columbia. Looking back on this, Reyez stresses the importance of such an attitude: “There are so many people that want it, but lack the work ethic, or have too much fear. When you fear ‘no’s, when you fear getting rejected, it’s dangerous. You have to be willing to hear a hundred ‘no’s. ‘Cause not everybody’s gonna fuck with you, but not everybody’s supposed to fuck with you.” This is characteristically humble of someone who has built a career on a combination of graft and talent, and Reyez’s unfailing work ethic certainly plays its part, with both vocal and songwriting training regularly practiced and improved. However, despite her claims, it does seem as if a lot of people are fucking with Jessie Reyez right now. And for good reason.
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Her voice is refreshingly raw, reflecting her DIY life-outlook in a Macy Grey, even Amy Winehouse-esque way, and her songs are emphatically stripped back, something she thinks is a vital aspect to her sound. “I don’t want to embellish it,” she explains, “I feel like people can sense when something is inauthentic, when something is bullshit. So I’d rather be direct from the jump.” This directness, this aversion to fear, is what has propelled Reyez to the forefront of the latest crop of newcomers. Her songs pull no punches; not least on her latest EP, “Being Human in Public”. “Bitch, a minority, they wouldn’t let me in” she sings, “if I had a dick then I might get some preference”.
Like her dream collaborator, Frank Ocean, Reyez’s songs are never afraid to confront racism or sexism. Her music is brave, with much of her previous project — “Kiddo” — centred around her own experience of sexual assault in the music industry. This is most prominent in the immaculately produced and intensely personal “Gatekeeper”, in which the skin-crawling reality of lines like “spread your legs open you could be famous” are fed, unmediated, to the listener. The 12-minute short film, released in conjunction with the song, is equally as unsettling, and when I ask Reyez about her decision to tell her story visually as well as musically, she pauses for a long time before answering. “I didn’t want there to be any questions left,” she says. “I didn’t want there to be any questions left. I just wanted to tell my story. I wanted to say what happened.”
It’s this unfiltered journey from private to public, that makes Reyez’s music stand out. The music industry is crying out for a landmark #MeToo movement comparable to its film and fashion counterparts, and it is only the continual voicing of experiences like Reyez’s that will trigger a turning point. Reyez reminds me it’s not only the entertainment industry that is hiding an epidemic of injustice. “There are still offices, there are still schools, there are still different places of work where justice hasn’t been served, or where someone hasn’t been called out, or where nobody stepped up, or where there’s still fear and people don’t want to come forward. I think that exists everywhere. There’s still a long way to go before there’s fundamental change.” She is, of course, correct and already leading the charge, with her relentless hustle, her boldness, and honesty in tow.
Taken from the Winter 2018/19 issue; out now and available to buy here.
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