Henry Oliver talks to JessB about her first EP and how her professional netball career is helping her in the music industry.
JessB is a force of focus and energy, the kind of person that seems to, at all times, be moving toward some kind of achievement. A bit over a week ago, Jess (birth name: Jess Bourke) released her debut EP, Bloom, only a year or so after being dropped by her professional netball team, the ANZ Championship’s Central Pulse. In the meantime, she’s played Rhythm & Vines, Northern Bass, Soundsplash and Auckland City Limits, released a string of must-listen loosies on SoundCloud and was the first female rapper invited on David Dallas’ freestyle video project ‘64 Bars‘.
Bloom is a short burst of colour and pulse, an update of early-2000s Timberland-esque rap that sounds both global and routed in cosmopolitan Auckland. It sounds like a slightly-too-hot summer, full of brag raps, one-liners and party narratives and beats that are as at home on a car stereo, in the club or on the festival stage.
If this sounds like the kind of thing, you’d want to move your feet to, go see JessB perform at her Block Party on Friday 6 April at Galatos, Auckland featuring an all-female line-up of JessB, Ladi6, MC Silva, Villette, Coven (FAFSWAG) and more. To be in to win one of five double-passes, read on…
Your first record is out. How does that feel?
I’m feeling excited and nervous. All of that kind of stuff. It feels quite big for me like it’s been a long time coming. I’ve got so much music that I’m sitting on as well so I’m ready to put this stuff out and continue going. But it feels cool to have gotten to this point for sure.
Sometimes when you put something out, you’re putting something into other people’s lives, you’re also getting rid of something?
Not getting rid of it, but… I guess for me, the songs aren’t new but I have to keep remembering that no-one else has heard them yet so they’re new to everyone else. Of course, I’m still excited to be able to present all that stuff to people but I’m definitely ready to put it out.
But you’ve achieved a lot without having many songs like officially out in the world.
Yeah, I don’t know how that’s really happened. It all seemed to happen quite quickly because it’s really only been two years since I started putting stuff out and giving it a good go. I’ve always been making music, but the uptake’s been quick because there are no other female rappers right now so it’s something different. But to me, I’m like ‘What!?!’ I don’t know how I get to do all this stuff but definitely not complaining either.
Why do you think there aren’t many visible female rappers in New Zealand?
I think there’s plenty of female rappers I just don’t think there’s been any light shone on them. There are definitely some amazing women doing all sorts of hip-hop and have been for ages. But I guess it’s already a male-dominated industry so there’s already going to be fewer women – and then in a population like New Zealand’s, where it’s already small, the number of dudes doing music, compared to anywhere else in the world is kinda small, so for women it’s even less.
Because in the last year, most of the most prominent music to come out of New Zeland has been by women. All the Silver Scrolls finalists, the majority of the Taite Prize finalists, were women.
That’s so awesome.
But they play either pop music or folk, indie, whatever…
And no hip-hop artists. Yeah, I guess, New Zealand definitely loves those genres of music, but I think New Zealand loves hip-hop as well, I just think it’s still maybe an area that developing. We’ve had this new wave of African New Zealanders like me who have grown up here and we bring our own influence to New Zealand hip-hop and it changes the sound slightly and so we’re not the same as the generation before us like 10 years ago. So there’s an evolution happening at the moment in the scene. And it’s easier to connect with people overseas now and it’s easier to make your own stuff like you can do it from home. So it just opens the scene up to a million different types of people.
People my age and maybe a little younger are some of the first generations of African Kiwis were born here. So we grew up as Kiwis but we have that African connection. Whereas, prior to that, it was more immigrants that have a different experience again. For me, growing up here versus growing up in Kenya, I’m a completely different person. I have my own experiences and I see the world in my own way. I’m super Kiwi in the way I like to do things. So that all helps shape a sound.
You were saying you have people’s attention because you’re a female rapper, do you feel a burden of representation? The because there aren’t many high profile female rappers in New Zealand that you have to represent them?
I definitely don’t see it as a burden, I see it as quite a privilege. For me, the representation is super important. I think back to when I was a kid and I had no-one to see in that way, I think about how important it is to fly the flag and think about the kids and the girls who are looking at me. And even women my age who are able to take something from what I’m doing, that’s pretty special. I think it’s important but I wouldn’t say it’s a burden. I’m happy to be doing it.
Your music has socio-political elements, dealing with race and gender and representation, but it’s also about having a good time…
I have this thing about balance: light and dark, fun and serious. Because that’s how we live our lives. No-ones gonna live their life 100% political all the time but at the same time, it’s super important to talk about. So I like to talk about a pressing issue but then at the same time talk about what I’m doing on Saturday with my friends. Because they’re both relevant to the life I’m living. So I just write what I’m feeling and I don’ like to restrict what I’m feeling.
This EP is a lot of different sounds and things I’m speaking on because it’s been a culmination of two years of my writing and they’re all quite different. I mean, they’re all still cohesive and are still me, as a person and as an artist, but I’ve defiantly been exploring a lot of different ideas and discovering more about myself, so the sounds are all quite different, tapping into different aspects of me.
You said you’ve been doing this seriously for two years…
I’ve been writing for a long long time…
So how’d you get into it?
At the end of high school I was putting stuff up on SoundCloud and P-Money randomly stumbled across it in my first year out of high school. That was the first time I thought I could actually do this. Prior to that, it was just an outlet, something I enjoyed doing but I didn’t really think I was going to pursue it. So from there I went out and bought a mic and an interface and recorded a bunch of songs and sent them through to him and from there we just built a working relationship. He gave me a lot of feedback and we went back and forth for a couple years, just helping me discover my sound and get better at writing and then I started writing some of the demos for this EP.
What was your initial start? What were you playing in high school?
First I started learning raps and making people listen to me rapping them then it evolved into making my own little things at school for people like I used to write birthday raps at school for my mates. Just stupid stuff like that. Eventually, it evolved into writing my own raps.
So I hear you were a professional netball player after high school…
I was. In my past life! That’s kind of why I didn’t try and do anything with music sooner, because I was so focused on it, from very young. I started playing at eight and this is my first year not playing. Ever. It’s really weird. I went through the ranks, then I got into the New Zealand programme, from there it’s like a pathway and I was on the pathway for a long time. I thought I was going to be a Silver Fern, thought that was me sussed, my dream in life.
So how did you know your time was up?
The shift from netball to music happened in this weird series of events. I’d been working with Pete (P-Money) for about a year or so and then I got contracted to the Pulse, so I moved down to Wellington for a year and around that time I was still writing but it wasn’t the main thing I was doing. So we didn’t talk that much that year, but at the end of the season I got dropped from the team so I came home [to Auckland] and was like ‘What am I going to do?’. By the time I got home, the teams for the next season had already been filled so I didn’t have an opportunity to play for the next year, so I decided to focus on the music. And at that time Pete had a beat for a movie, Born to Dance, and he sent it to me and asked if I could write something for it. I ended up writing a track and recording it and it ended up in the movie so that happened just as I came home so there was this cross-over of events. I was still playing netball at the next level down, at the national level, but last year, I was much much more focused on music and writing this EP. This year, I needed a break and make sure I could focus on giving music a good go.
Can you transfer that sports determination to music?
It’s crazy how much of it transfers over. Being a professional athlete you have so many people relying on you, you’ve signed a contract so you’re obligated to do certain things at certain times, you present as a brand – so much of that stuff has crossed over for me. So I’ve found it quite easy. Like even talking to you, doing interviews and stuff. So I feel quite blessed that all that experience because it’s definitely helped.
Do you feel competitive with music?
No – not at all! That’s what I really enjoy about music, that you don’t have to be competitive. When I was playing netball, I’d be competing against some of my really good friends for spots on a team. There’s ten of us and there are four spots and it creates this horrible tension and it’s really upsetting. I suppose that’s fine if you’re the one making the team all the time, but I don’t necessarily like that. But with music, there’s room for everyone. Of course, you’re competing for spots on shows and that sort of thing, but as far as I’m concerned, everybody can win. Everyone can be their own artist in their own space, with their own fans and that doesn’t jeopardise anyone else’s career. I enjoy that.