Intersecting between being Afro-Kiwi, female and queer makes Auckland MC JessB even more multi-faceted than many humans – importantly able to connect and offer a voice to some less visible communities. Of Kenyan descent, Jess Bourke found hip hop offered a means to explore her identity in a way that felt natural – providing a cultural touchstone as a minority in Aotearoa. Bridie Chetwin-Kelly caught up with this busy artist on the eve of the release of her second EP, ‘New Views’.
The last year has been a big one for fast-rising Auckland-based rapper JessB. Following her 2018 debut EP, ‘Bloom’, she performed at most of our 2019 summer’s major festivals and has been actively building an international foundation for the next stage of her career. She’s spent time with fellow creatives in London, Amsterdam, LA and New York, performing in London and at the Venice Biennale. In July this year, she started to make headways across the ditch, taking the stage on the opening night of one of Australia’s biggest music festivals, Splendour in the Grass.
“I placed a lot of importance on it. I needed to nail it, to get people into it – and you just know in about 10 seconds if you are going to like something or not. I was super nervous but people came super early. It was fun and a great place to start.”
That northern NSW festival gig opened the door to other Aussie avenues as well, a slot in Triple J’s Bars of Steel as their first-ever international rapper, and play on MTV Australia. She’s clearly aware of the importance of ‘connections’ in this industry, actively working on making more.
“That’s how things happen. The only way you’re going to get opportunities is if people give them to you.”
On the eve of release her new seven-track EP ‘New Views’ she seems calm, yet ready to move onto the next part of her career and show the world how she has developed as an artist. Consider ‘Bloom’ as her introduction, a first rung on the ladder. The developments she has been making are evident, with a plethora of Kiwi names participating on the new EP, international producers and the likes of rising UK dancehall artist Big Zeeks.
“My musical progression has been based on experience. The fundamentals haven’t changed but my lived experiences have changed.”
Integral to any music connections run the connections she makes within her culture, giving visibility and using her musical platform to connect.
“I place a big importance on connections with other African youth, as well as the connections I had made on creative levels, or whatever it is. They have become a massive part of my identity and it was something I didn’t have when I was at high school.”
She recalls growing up watching netball when the Northern Mystics imported a coloured player from the UK, it was the player she took a liking to the most.
“Just because she was one of the few African netball players I knew at the time,” she smiles. “People like seeing people they can relate to on a big screen. Like [MMA fighter] Israel Adesanya, representing for these Afro-Kiwis, there’s a whole other community that needs visibility.”
Speaking about her 2018 single, Take It Down, she described it as blending the significance of discussing serious issues with the necessity of having a good time with the people you love.
“I am very passionate about my role as a female artist and what I want to be saying in my songs. I think it is super important to have a balance between talking on serious issues that affect myself and other people of colour, and women of colour, but I also think it is so important to remember that we also need to have fun with life and our friends who we cherish.”
As an artist JessB has attracted some valuable friends and admirers. P-Money is her regular producer and often referred to as a mentor. Auckland’s Red Bull Studios has provided her with recording and production hookups since her early days as a performing artist. Sony Music NZ were on board with distribution for her first EP, and she signed to Australia’s Kiwi-friendly Niche Talent Agency late last year.
NZ On Air have been another long-time backer, supporting four singles to date and providing New Music Project funding for ‘New Views’. The EP was literally recorded all over the place, so even she finds it hard to break the production down.
“Some songs I went in and started at one studio, but finished at another. It was also over the period of over a year, so nothing was done in one studio session really. I recorded at Red Bull Studios, Roundhead, Big Pop Studios and Low Key Source studios in Sydney, as well as at home.”
On So Low, featuring personal friend / singer Paige, with production by Tia Drumma, she reflects on another kind of connection she’s made, a romantic one. The heartbreaking and relatable song is genuine and honest and you can’t but help but to sympathise with her when you hear it.
“It was cathartic and reflective of the space I was in at the time that I wrote it. It was really organic, it’s cool to look back and see despite how sad I was at the time, I have a finished piece that I’m proud of. I knew early on I wanted Paige on the song, I liked her voice and how they sounded acoustically.”
Booking Roundhead Studios for a week, she invited artists she wanted to work with to come to the studio to hang out and record, and fill any gaps still left. One of the first to show up was Church Leon of rap duo Church & AP. On day one in the studio their track, Bump Bump, was completed. With the assistance of P-Money the two nailed a song that has potential to be one of the biggest tracks of summer. That’s the thing, she says, about the NZ music community.
“It’s small, making no one unobtainable, and it also makes for a good community of support.”
The bones of the EP had been there for the last six months but the self-described “pedantic artist” needed things to be just right, including working with what she called a wish list of “realistic” international features, one them being on-the-rise UK dancehall artist, Big Zeeks. Timing it when she was in the UK, she was able to link up with the ‘Fresh Prince of Harlesden’, as he is tagged.
“I met him in London and went to his studio. They were really nice and it was just as exciting for them to be on this artist’s EP, from a foreign country, as it was for me to work with someone like that!”
Also featured on the resulting work is rapper Gino October, one of the first people she befriended outside her own group, following a small show performed at Auckland’s Ink Bar in the beginnings of career. With two feature artists, JessB takes a backseat on the song, Zeeks and Gino flow seamlessly together, despite their parts being recorded separately.
While not dancehall itself, the general sound of ‘New Views’ is certainly dancehall-inspired. With parts of it created in Amsterdam, POE, featuring Yaw Faso and production from Tia Drumma, is a track that highlights this the most.
“When I was over there we made a boom-bap kind of sound, with a hip hop beat but we wanted something more dancehall so that was a bit of a collaborative effort.”
All up, ‘New Views’ seems perfectly named and reflective of where JessB is in her musical journey. As she continues to occupy a space that needs filling in the NZ music scene, she continues a step by step cl.imb to what will surely become a global platform. NZ hasn’t slept on JessB on her way up, and we would be wise not to lose sight of her now, as this is only very early beginnings