Central Auckland rapper Jess B has bravado on lock, just check her lyrics for proof. She’s raising eyebrows, and she’s raising hell. You’ll find her in the back of the club where her fine ladies at. She’s Nike with the swoosh. She ain’t with that Jess B gotta chill shit. She’s that thunder. She’s been doing this shit since a Missy Elliot cassette. It’s her world boy, come step into her office. Someone call the paramedic.
Over the last couple of years, Jess has been quietly building an underground reputation for herself as one of the most promising, and thoughtful new rappers to emerge out of the city of sails. Throughout the collection of songs displayed on her Soundcloud, Jess kicks off with a mixture of syncopated and straight-laced rhymes that really deliver. While she’s inspired by jiggy early 2000s rap music (think: Missy Elliot, Timbaland, 50 Cent, Dipset, etc), Jess also draws deeply from a rich engagement with UK grime, afrobeats, blues, and folk. Listen past the braggadocio, and you’ll hear fully fleshed-out stories and observations that could only come from her mind. This year Jess will release her debut EP, and best believe she’s gonna go in.
The photos accompanying this interview were shot by Auckland-based photographer Holly Sarah Burgess while she was handling creative direction for Nike’s Draft The Rise zine – a celebration of Nike Cortez sneakers, and the inspirational New Zealand women who wear them. In her words, “The Nike Cortez was the perfect sneaker to allow these women to powerfully carve out the spaces they are in with such raw, positive energy. A shoe that has been defying stereotypes and breaking boundaries for 45 years, just in the same way these women don’t let their creative energy be confined to preconceived ideas placed on them by society. Their energy and presence is a gift to my camera lens and to our community.”
Could you give us a window into your background?
I am of mixed Kenyan and Pākehā descent. My birth father lives in Kenya, I’ve never met him. I was adopted by my Aunt and Uncle (who I call Mum and Dad), and I grew up with my Pākehā side of the family in Auckland. I guess this made my upbringing very unusual. My take on the world was different for this reason and I struggled for ages with my identity. It took me a long time to like myself. I think getting into hip-hop was my way of being able to relate to people who looked like me. If you are part of the majority it can be hard to realise how much it matters to see people who do look like you, and can relate to you on a really simple level especially when you are growing up. I had a happy childhood in other aspects, but being different in this way was something that has probably shaped me in some ways.
How did you end up gravitating towards rap?
From a really young age, probably ten or eleven, I was learning the raps to songs and watching music videos. I think at that age; I didn’t quite recognize what it meant to me. It has probably only been on reflection over the last couple of years that I’ve been able to see the progression and why I would naturally be drawn to rap and hip-hop. I’ve always loved all genres of music anyway, but hip-hop felt natural.
At high school, I would write raps with my mates, and rhyme at parties, but it was more of a hobby. People would say I was good, but I never thought about pursuing it. At the time I was playing netball quite seriously as well. I had always had aspirations of being a Silver Fern. That was where all my focus and passion was going. Music was something I loved and did alongside sport.
JessB wears Nike Cortez – shot by Holly Sarah Burgess
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to take it more seriously?
When I was in my first year at University, I’d been uploading music to soundcloud. It was a place to put songs I’d written. One morning I woke up and P-Money had followed me, and I nearly fell out of bed. I messaged him, and asked him why he followed me. He wrote, “Hey, I heard your verse on this song. I think you have heaps of potential. Let me know when you put new music out. I’d love to hear it.” From that point, my whole perspective changed. I thought, “Oh shit, maybe I can do this?”
How involved were you with music while you were at university?
I wasn’t. Right through that time I was playing netball. I played professionally for quite a few years. It becomes your life. That’s probably why I didn’t try to pursue music sooner. My netball background has helped me so much though. There are just certain aspects of being a sports player and an athlete that definitely crossover in the weirdest ways. It helped me with my work ethic, discipline, organisation, and being able to go from A to B to C to D, and still be able to do everything to a good level. Fitness is a huge part of my life. It always has been, and hopefully always will be! You have to have a level of fitness to be able to rap and jump around on stage anyway.
How did things progress after P-Money contacted you?
After I had met P-money, we formed a working relationship, and he became a mentor to me. I’ve known him for several years now. It’s been a huge development process. I haven’t put out heaps of music, but I’ve been doing heaps of work. It’s come to a head in the last couple of years after I reached a position where I could focus on music.
A lot of what I’ve been doing has been stuff as simple as sending P-Money demos for feedback, and learning the ins and outs of the business. He’s an O.G. He’s been so helpful, especially with things I probably wouldn’t know about if I was doing this all myself. I actually don’t think I would be doing music if it wasn’t for him. He’s my homie as well. He’s produced a good chunk of the EP I’m putting out later this year.
Tell us a bit about your musical community?
I started doing gigs about this time last year. I’ve played with some awesome individuals and groups from Auckland city like Ammo Nation, Omni Potent, Scraps & Debris, ENO and Dirty, and Bailey Wiley. I’m also a big fan of some of the boys from out South like Illa and Lukan Raisey. They’re dope. One of my closest friends in music is Silva MC aka Rubi Du. She’s been supportive of me as an artist and a friend for a long time now, and I have so much love for her. It’s dope because we’re all really different, and we are all really supportive of each other. There is room for all of us to do our thing.
It’s cool, the people I’m doing music with and around are people I’ve actually listen to. For me, that is really encouraging and motivating. I’ve always maintained the idea that if you are good, there is always room for you. If you’re happy with the music you’re making and proud of it, then you have every right to be doing it and have fans.
What sort of audiences are you performing for?
I played with Omni Potent, ENO x Dirty, and Scraps & Debris last night at Galatos. Tonight I’m playing with Meer and a few other artists at Golden Dawn. I’m lucky I’ve been able to do that. I played Whammy Bar a few weeks ago. I enjoy doing gigs in all sorts of different musical circles. The audience that goes to Whammy aren’t necessarily the same ones that go to a straight hip-hop gig. Within my set I have songs that cover a range of different vibes. You’ve got to cater to the audience and have some flexibility. I don’t want to box myself in. I want to make music that I like, and I like a shitload of music.
Meer is great; I remember when her group HEAVY opened for Le1f at Neck Of The Woods. That was one of the parties of the year.
I love Le1f. Have you heard of Cakes Da Killa? He’s my other fave. I want him to come here so bad. I remember when the video for ‘Wut’ by Le1f came out. I loved everything about it. We need that. That needs to be in hip-hop. That’s why I love those guys doing their thing. They don’t give a fuck. Cakes Da Killa’s lyrics are the bomb. It’s cool to see more artists like that getting recognition. They deserve it. They’re dope rappers. Your sexuality and how good you are at rapping aren’t mutually exclusive and shouldn’t have any effect on your fan base. At the end of the day, Cakes Da Killa is sick, and he can spit hard. If your sexuality is something you choose to bring out in your music, then more power to you.
What are the realities of doing what you’re doing as a rapper?
For me, it’s just about building a fanbase and respect within the industry. I really like the idea of working my way up. I started with my first gig last year. From there, I got another one a couple of months later. It’s built to where I’m doing two in a weekend. I really like that progression. You get to know people in the scene, and other musicians and people are hearing my music, but it isn’t out yet. Hopefully, when it’s out, they will remember, “Hey, I saw her perform that song.” Also, it’s about juggling life outside of music. I’m just so hype about everything. Everything excites me in music at the moment.
Has it been an easy journey for you?
That’s what I mean about building it from the ground up. Things come to you when the time is right. Nothing that has happened to me thus far has happened to me by luck or chance; it’s happened because I’ve been ready for it. It’s been years since I met P-Money. It didn’t just happen. I’ve been slowly making moves and meeting people and doing gigs. Things have kind of followed on. I’ve been playing the game. The hip-hop scene in New Zealand at the moment is exciting. Like I said earlier, even if I weren’t rapping, I would definitely still like a lot of artists who are doing their thing right now.
JessB wears Nike Cortez – shot by Holly Sarah Burgess
In the 90s and early 2000s, rap in New Zealand felt very focused around Māori and Polynesian artists. Now it feels like we’re beginning to see more of an emphasis on artists from newer immigrant communities.
Yeah, over the last five years we’ve seen the rise of the Kiwi African influence in music. I never had that growing up. Africans weren’t in New Zealand in the way they are now, and the ones who were here- we were all spread out. Now when I go to a gig, there are lots of other Africans, and it’s awesome. We all have similar stories, growing up in different areas of Auckland. We have all sorts of experiences that we can share and relate to that are can be different to the experiences of other minorities here. Growing up, at school and through playing netball, I had lots of Māori and Pacific Island friends and families around me. I have always felt connected to these cultures and their people, but this is different, it’s a different culture, and it’s in my blood.
Do you have a vision for where you want to take what you’re doing?
I don’t want to get ahead of myself. My dream is to be in a place where I can do shows internationally and have music be the only thing I’m doing. People have to like my music first. I think the first step is to get the music out, do that well, and just keep building from there. I think even further down the track; I would love to be in a position to be able to inspire. If there had been someone like me in music when I was young, it would have been fucking awesome. I think I kind of have a role to play regarding inspiring girls and women, and minorities.
I just want to be a positive example of someone fucking dope, chasing dreams, not holding back, doing their thing, and giving back where I can. I would love to work with youth in music. There is heaps of shit I want to do, but I need to get to a position where I have the platform to say these things and do these things. At the moment, I’m just focusing on the task at hand.
Jess B will release her debut EP later this year.