To most folks, the cute girl who showed up on Instagram under Nas’s arm was just another (very) pretty face. But many industry insiders instantly recognized the child prodigy known as Jhene Aiko. Though the mother and current Nas/Lauren Hill tour opener may be brand new to some, the story behind those almond eyes is the stuff legends are made of.
GIANTLife: To those not familiar, how would you describe the music you make?
Jhene Aiko: The music I make is just from my heart and soul. *Giggles* I’ve been writing before I even knew how to write. I used to sit with my mom and make her write out these lyrics and stuff like that. So yeah, my music is just a reflection of the things that I go through.
GL: At 13 you experienced two older sisters having a group and getting signed and you yourself getting a deal. Are these the situations that we’re going to hear about on your new album?
JA: No. Everything that I went through as far as when I was 13, 14… that was like a whole other life to me, because at that point I was a kid and wasn’t really into being a artist. I was just thrown into a situation where all of that was given to me as far as the record deal and touring.
GL: But with that being the case, you should still have stories that a typical 13 or 14 year old wouldn’t have to tell… unless your name is Michael Jackson, no?
JA: I did! And that’s the thing, at that time in my career I was working with some people who would talk to me about the things I was going through and write the song based on it. Like, “Oh, what kind of love life does a 13 year old have?
GL: So you have some ghostwriting credits out there is what you’re telling me.
JA: Oh yeah! I always wrote music, but when I was signed previously I wasn’t comfortable with my melodies. They would put me in these sessions with writers and I’d be like… “Yeah, that sounds good.” I was just saying whatever, it was easier to do whatever they were telling me to do. Now, everything I talk about is everything that happened after that, real life issues. Things that I think more people can relate to, everybody hasn’t been signed when they were 13.
GL: When did you grow up musically and get to the point where you took charge? Was it before or after you left the business?
JA: It was after. Before I knew what I didn’t like; but Sailing Souls is basically when I figured everything out. That was after my daughter was about one and a half. Being a mom, there’s not really a lot of time to be creative and write a song. But once I settled into motherhood everything was clearer to me. I knew what I wanted to do music for, what message I wanted to convey, my vocal ability, how I wanted to sound, what type of melody, what type of lyrics, all that.
GL: About how long were you gone?
JA: I asked for a release from my production company and my label when I was about 15 or 16. So it was about four or five years. In between that time I was working regular jobs. I had a mall job, I was a legal assistant, I was a waitress in a vegan café. But through that whole time I was also either going to school or recording randomly.
GL: Was there ever a time when you didn’t think you’d come back to music all the way or was it always just on the back burner?
JA: Well I never left basically, I got out my contracts but I was still working in music. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to write for people or just demo songs for people and get paid. I just liked to sing. For the most part when I used to write before it was mostly poems or short stories. At the time I was in school thinking about majoring in English, so I was just heavy into writing. At one time I wanted to write a book and a screenplay and stuff like that. But then I realized I like singing, I’m really good at writing, let me just focus on that.
GL: So you decided to stop running away from what was already there in the first place.
JA: Yeah. Sailing Souls was basically me combining both of my talents and focusing on them. Like I said, I never really stopped music because I had met so many people when I was signed who were always calling me with work. I wasn’t necessarily trying to get signed. I was chilling and also entertaining other opportunities.
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GL: So what made this opportunity stand out?
JA: At the time, I was renting a room in my friends mom’s house, working as a waitress at the vegan café, my daughter was 2 and I was trying to record this mixtape just because. The songs were coming out really good and everybody was like “you should NOT put this out for free, you can get a deal off of these songs!” I just wanted to release music but being a mom, working a nine to five and recording was really taking a toll on me. So I was like, I can always get a job, let me focus on this mixtape. So I quit the job and by the end of it we knew we had a solid project.
GL: And here we are. With such a diverse background, do you feel the need to include everything ethnicity wise or are you cool with just being light skin?
JA: *Laughs* I never really even thought of myself as this or that. I didn’t even realize that everyone wasn’t like me until I got to middle school and there were groups of people and nobody knew where I belonged. I had one or two friends and we were just random personalities.
GL: Well thank God for the Benetton Bunch.
JA: *Laughs* It’s weird though because depending on the type of people, I’ve been called the Asian girl, the Black girl or the light skin. When I get my tattoos and it’s a White tattoo artist, they always say “this is going to come out so beautiful because your skin is so dark!” And it’s just like wow.
Watch Jhene Aiko in action!
Check out Jhene Aiko’s single “Stranger,” from her mixtape “Sailing Soul(s)”