“I hadn’t really heard anyone doing shit like this in New Zealand… it’ll be interesting to see how people respond. I call it turbo music.”
JessB has a new style up her sleeve — a mix of dancehall, reggaeton, EDM and hip-hop — and she’s introducing it to Aotearoa. I spoke with JessB via Zoom - an iconic staple of everyone’s 2020 experience. It was during the second lockdown, she seemed eager to be set free again. JessB was chilling in her hoodie and eating a banana — the life of a musician looks pretty sweet to me. She’s thoughtful when I ask when we talk, not giving me generic answers, but actually taking her time to get her point across. JessB lights up when I ask her about new music, a big smile spreads across her face as she details how a few days in Amsterdam opened her eyes to a whole new way of making and performing music in the festival scene, “they can make millions, they’re sorted for life and they don’t even leave their country… I was like what the fuck!” JessB, like everybody, had highs and lows in 2020. Through memes, fears, lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protesting, JessB tells us her take on it all. Reminding us, if you don’t bring online activism into your real life, what’s the point? “Because the spaces you’re in still aren’t reflecting what you’re talking about – so are you really talking about anything?” Hearing your city rapped in a song hits differently for kiwis. Many of us idolise stars overseas, but JessB is Auckland’s own prodigy — she’s breaking down the patriarchy and she’s the boss. JessB radiates pride, confidence and a little bit of filth. The lyrics tell it all: “Auckland City where my people stay proud” is a perfect homage to her city, JessB is quick to remember where she comes from and gives Auckland rugrats an anthem. We talk about all things music, pandemic, Black Lives Matter and self-love. Lyricist JessB raps “shut up more and then listen” — so with that in mind, here’s our conversation from August…
So you’ve got new music coming out soon, can you tell us about getting out of your comfort zone and trying new styles?
It was so crazy how it all happened. Somehow Half Queen and I managed to get ourselves flown to Europe. Then randomly my publisher told me “We’ve got a potential for a three day studio session in Amsterdam if you’re keen.” The next day we flew to Amsterdam and did three days back to back and made the songs that are on the project. It was the craziest experience. I was opened up to this whole new world while I was over there. They have the most festivals per capita in the world, they have a huge appetite for the hard-style, EDM-type sounds. They have three festivals back to back to back in a weekend, for the entire summer. The people making music don’t even need to leave Amsterdam, they’ll be world famous in Amsterdam and won’t have to perform anywhere else. I was like what the fuck, I want to come here and do fifty festivals in a month, let’s go! The dude that I worked with, Max Oude Weernick, has a really cool style that was a mash-up of a bunch of genres that I’m super into. Dancehall, reggaeton, EDM and hip-hop – so it was this crazy sound that I had been looking for, and had never heard any producers in Australasia that were remotely similar. I really went over there not really knowing anything about Max, I was like “cool, lets wing it”. I had no idea how it was going to go, but I walked in and he played me the first beat, and I said “wait… what?!” For the next three days I was just powering through, and it was done. 3 Nights In Amsterdam — quite literal with the name there. I was so hyped on the sound that I just kept writing. I hadn’t really heard anyone doing shit like this in New Zealand yet… it’ll be interesting to see how people respond. I call it turbo music.
How have the two COVID-19 lockdowns been as a musician inside of the music industry?
It's definitely been a rough year, first and foremost from a financial point of view. Obviously we’re not doing shows, so really my only income has been the subsidies. I think what was most buzzy was not knowing when it would pick back up again. Festivals are being cancelled and they might not even happen next year, it’s crazy. I think that for all the creative industries it’s going to take a few years before things get back to where they were. Which is daunting – it means everything is up in the air. I didn’t do much in the first lockdown honestly. I thought I was going to write an album. I was like, “Oh my god I’ve got so much time – I’m going to make a classic.” Then all of my flat-mates were home, there was no quiet time, no privacy – nothing. So a couple weeks in I was like, “Fuck it, I’m just going to kick it” otherwise I’ll go crazy pressuring myself.
2020 has been historic. Pakeha people are joining in the Black Lives Matter conversation, with what feels like a greater intention. However, the majority of activism has shifted online because of the COVID-19 lockdowns. What is your take on online activism?
For me personally, I feel like there is a fine line between online activism and virtue signalling. I guess just ‘doing the thing’ because everyone else is ‘doing the thing’ but then not using that as motivation to go out into your actual life; to your work, or to your friends or family, and actually make those changes. On the other hand, I do think that online conversations are also allowing more people to learn what their circle might not be talking about. If you’re interested to learn I think going online is a really cool tool to learn more about what is going on. But it can’t stop there. Online activism doesn’t really do anything – it raises awareness for the issue, but it doesn’t change the issue. So, I guess I wouldn’t necessarily believe it until I saw further actions in someone’s actual life.
There is a real difference between calling out racism online, and calling racism out face-to-face, right?
Yeah and if you’re someone who’s workplace is completely white, and you’re talking about all these issues online, then you go to work and you don’t bring up anything? Then what is the actual point? Because the spaces you’re in still aren’t reflecting what you’re talking about – so are you really talking about anything? I think that young people are actually way more clued up in a lot of ways than the older generations, being able to not rely on black people to do the teaching and give the knowledge. You’re able to go online and have conversations with other white people about what Black Lives Matter is about and what it is trying to achieve. I felt a huge responsibility to be sharing and educating, I also had so many people ask me questions and ask for my opinion, and the constant output is so exhausting, so if people can have conversations in their own spaces then I think that is really, really beneficial.
“I do think that online conversations are also allowing people to learn something that their circle might not be talking about. I think going online is a really cool tool to figure out what is going on and learn more about it.
But it can’t stop there. Online activism doesn’t really do anything – it raises awareness for the issue, but it doesn’t change the issue. I wouldn’t necessarily believe it until I saw further actions in someone’s actual life.”
Yeah totally - we cannot expect black people to have to educate us on their struggle.
For me in New Zealand, I feel like I didn’t just wake up and have all of this knowledge in my head because I’m black. I have been studying it, I’ve taken an interest in history and I took a couple of papers at uni. I’ve been interested in the way the world works, and I’ve learnt how things are - so I feel like not having the knowledge isn’t an excuse. Especially in New Zealand, I’m not having the same experiences as an African American, but I can still understand their struggle because of what I’ve learnt – and anybody can do that.
With people of colour, it’s not the same type of learning white people have to do, white people can read about it in the comfort of their own home on their phones - but people of colour learn from the moment they start observing the world around them, and how they’re treated.
Listen to Three Nights In Amsterdam on Spotify below - and also check out JessB's remix of 'Best Friend' with Saweetie, Doja Cat & OKENYO below:
Words by Ruby Clavey
Photography by Oli Spencer
JessB is the first cover star for Tenner Magazine Volume One.
Order your copy of Tenner at www.tennermag.com/shop