Jessie Reyez: Falling Deeper Into Her Multicultural Reality

Photos by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla. Styled by Michael Umesi

“You know why this is even fucking more super duper perfect?” Jessie Reyez says, raising her head from a massive plate of food from Sunnyside’s Colombian restaurant La Pollera de Mario. She’s ordered the bandeja paisa, which is teeming with slivers of sweet plantain, cracking morsels of chicharron, and tender hunks of grilled carne asada. The most important part is the fried egg sitting on top like an impeccable crown, its yolk bright yellow but not runny.

“El huevo,” she explains, pointing to it. “They usually make it mad juicy, and I don’t like it, so I always ask for it like this, but I didn’t tell you shit. I didn’t say nothing, and it came like this and it’s perfect. This is delicious.”

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Reyez is spending a hectic couple of days in New York. For a singer who has been generating massive waves of attention for as long as she has, these quick stopovers into the city are nothing new. She’s been working pretty much relentlessly since her music began getting traction in 2017. Her EP, Kiddo marked her breakthrough, with tracks like “Figures” and “Shutter Island” garnering millions of views on YouTube and establishing her raw, acoustic-driven R&B-tinged sound. Kiddo also earned Reyez a spot on Canada’s 2017 Polaris Music Prize long list, while her second EP, Being Human in Public won a Juno Award for “R&B/Soul Recording of The Year.” Both projects built up the anticipation for her first studio album, due out next year. She’s been putting the finishing touches on it, and it’s the main thing people have asked her about while she’s been in New York.

“The government wants us to break up.”

Still, for a moment, she takes a pause from the chaos of everything –the new album, the new music, the new collaborations –to enjoy the meal she’s just been raving about, which has suddenly become a little piece of Colombia tucked into a wildly busy schedule. Colombia feels close to her; the singer’s parents are both from there, and it’s a culture she was deeply connected to growing up in Toronto. Although she moved around as a kid and lived in less diverse parts of the Canadian city, her earliest memories are from neighborhoods where kids reflected African, Asian and Latino immigrant backgrounds. Her first language was Spanish, and she remembers most of the children in school having accents like she did.

Styled by Michael Umesi. Photos by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla
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“It was nice to have allies who were going through the same thing,” she says. “When you’re born to immigrant parents and you’re raised somewhere with a different language in the house, there’s customs in that house, there’s expectations in that house, there’s music, there’s food, everything is different. It’s like you’re in a whole ‘nother country. Then, the second you step out of that door, you’re in another country, with different customs, different expectations, a different language.”

Those bicultural experiences have been in the back of her mind recently. Earlier this month, she released “Far Away,” a song that she initially wrote about a long-distance romance. Right when she was working on the track, news of the Trump administration’s brutal policies of separating families at the border exploded everywhere. Reyez is from Canada, but she says the images didn’t feel far-removed. She had seen videos and heard audio of children crying in detention centers, begging for someone to call their parents. The stories of migrant trauma and suffering ripped something deep inside her.

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“There’s one particular video, it’s when I snapped,” she shares. “I started crying and I reached out to a few of my friends that are in the community, that are activists and making differences, and I was like, ‘How the fuck can I help?’ Because I just saw me, and I was like, ‘Man, if that was me when I was a little girl…’”

A line kept popping into her head: “The government wants us to break up.” She incorporated it into “Far Away,” and the song’s message changed, with the lyrics morphing into a wounded reflection from a relationship torn apart by an I.C.E. deportation. Reyez brought the narrative to life with visuals directed by her longtime collaborator Peter Huang, who also directed the emotional video for her 2017 song “Gatekeeper.” (The powerful track called out abuse and harassment Reyez had faced from a producer as an industry newcomer; she later revealed it was about “Drunk In Love” producer Noel “Detail” Fisher, who has been accused of rape.) The video for “Far Away” is laced with images of Donald Trump on a television screen, and the YouTube description encourages people to “be part of the solution” by linking to immigrants’ rights non-profit organizations like the ACLU, Al Otro Lado, and the Florence Project.

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Reyez’s natural speaking voice is throaty and full of emotion, similar to when she sings. As she continues talking about the victims of family separation, her voice tightens ever so slightly. “There’s this level of pain, this level of ghost abandonment,” she says. “There’s just so much. There’s so much that [the kids] won’t understand until they’re adults, but by the time they do, the damage is already done.”

If you look through Reyez’s body of work, she pulls off intensely personal lyricism with ease. For her, how fluidly a song comes together depends on the situation, and “Far Away” was one experience that rushed out of her quickly: “It feels like there’s a faucet and it opens a little bit, and it drips. Then when it drips, you have to build a song slowly – you’re writing, erasing, re-writing, erasing slowly, and meticulously creating. Then, sometimes it’s just like the faucet’s open, and it goes, and you don’t need to write shit down, and it’s just a vibe and it just comes out freely. This song was that. It was dope. It came out real easily and then we moved onto the next song idea.”

“At the end of the day, it’s my truth, so if I’m hated for it… at least I know that it was my truth.”

“Far Away” also came during an interesting period of creation. She started the year in full force; album plans were coming together, she had been on tour, and she had huge opportunities arise (Beyoncé reached out to her at one point and asked her to contribute to The Lion King: The Gift companion album.) But during a festival, she suffered an injury –a herniated disk in her back –and she was forced to rest for months. She couldn’t meditate the way she usually did, which is through hot yoga, and she had to learn new mechanisms to process her thoughts while writing. “I honestly put more of an emphasis on my health now, which I don’t think I was doing. I was, but I was approaching it from an ‘I’m a machine’ kind of way, and it’s almost like God was like, ‘No you need to humble yourself and you need to relax,” she shares.

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She had also been “chiseling ideas down” that pertained to the new album.The injury didn’t change much about the concept; the idea has been brewing for a long time. CBS News recently described it as featuring “messages on separation, life and death,” and Reyez is quick to share the broad-ranging themes behind music she has crafted so meticulously as part of her major debut.

“The idea of the album is a fetus and a coffin. It’s a pregnant mother and someone in hospice on their deathbed. It’s the idea of instead of taking life and death as opposites, it’s taking love and death as opposites, and then switching their characteristics: how we always look at love as something positive, as something that a lot of us aspire to one day find with somebody or multiple people. I looked at it and I was like, ‘Well fuck, the day that you meet the love of your life you’re really meeting the person who’s going to hurt you the most.’”

It sounds abstract, but it’s all grounded in her lived experiences. She can remember exactly when the root of the album came to her: “I can pinpoint the moment when I was in the shower, and he was over and everything was perfect. I looked at the ground, and I was like, ‘Fuck, this feels too good, this isn’t going to last.” It’s impossible to keep that feeling, to make it perfect forever,” she recalls. “But I wish that I had been more cognizant of being present instead of being so aware that it was going to end, because it’s a fact of life. Inevitably, goodbye is coming. I wish I was more present.”

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She also thought a lot about her parents while she was composing: Her mom, she says, is a spiritual person, while her father is someone who has been “through a fucking hell of life” after losing his mother and father at a young age, leaving his native Colombia, and losing the woman with whom he had his first child. Despite it all, Reyez has admired his resilience, and says one song in particular is about her family reflections. The other productions examine love and loss in myriad ways, shaping a compendium that underscores just how transient and fleeting life is. That’s what she wants people to take away from the album.

“You can die tomorrow,” she says. “Not a lot of people find their soul mate so if you do, don’t fuck it up. If you do fuck it up, make it nice.”

There’s still some time before she gets to present the album to the world, and it feels like it’s moving in slow-motion for Reyez. She’s learned to take some time for herself this year, but that hasn’t stopped the excitement from building up.

“I’m ready, girl. I am ready. It feels like I’ve been holding in a piss for a year and I just want to go. I just want to go,” she says laughing. She admits that the process is nerve-wracking, but then her voice takes on her signature tone of gentle intensity. “Of course I’m nervous, but at the end of the day, it’s my truth, so if I’m hated for it or if people don’t accept it, at least I know that it was my truth.”

Production Credits:
Writer: Julyssa Lopez
Editor: Eduardo Cepeda 
Photographer: Itzel Alejandra Martinez
Photo Assistant: Stefa Marin Alarcon
Stylist: Michael Louis 
Stylist Assistant: Michael Aidoo
Artist Relations: Joel Moya