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Jay Versace doesn’t care who you thought he was. He never has, and never will. Since his influencer ascension through comedic skits via the now-defunct social media platform, Vine, in 2016, Jay has used his platform to amplify Black spirituality, Black creativity, and Black mental health. Through sharing resources to his large following on social media, he’s continuing to do so even now amid these trying times. One of the several things that he’s been doing to help maintain his inner peace as the country is enthralled in protest has been producing music.
Versace made his first beat in May of 2018, and it was actually met with contention from fans who were only familiar with his comedic side. “When I tweeted I was trying to make music, so many people were like, ‘This is what this is gonna sound like,’ and were sending the craziest gifs and memes and I was like, ‘Damn, y'all really think I have no taste,’” he says when recounting the first time he shared his music on social media. “(Laughs) It was very intense and overwhelming, but I was like you know what, f**k them and kept doing it, kept trying.” And he did exactly that, fine-tuned his beat-making craft by digging into the soulful music he was raised on. Thus, the biggest testament to his growth as a producer has definitely been his early 2020 appearance on Buffalo, New York rapper and Griselda collective member Westside Gunn’s latest critically acclaimed album Pray for Paris, where his beat on the self-titled track “Versace” found him in the production credits next to rap royalty like DJ Premier and Tyler, The Creator. Since this major moment in his music career, Jay has been active in both the studio and on the Internet, spreading awareness about Black rights.
There have been a lot of performative activism surrounding the most recent protests against police brutality following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black folk in this country. Brands—and some white allies alike—have cleared their conscience with a lukewarm effort, a solid week of Instagram story reshares of burning cop cars and picket signs, and empty PR promises to “stand by the Black community.” Jay recognizes this and believes white allies need to protest in their own communities first before leaving to go protest in others’. “They go to our neighborhood to protest their neighborhood (Laughs). Like, nah, go to your neighborhood to protest. That’s why I really want to see white people using their own in their own spaces that we can’t get to because of their privilege.”
Jay always speaks his mind across his social media platforms, and he remains jovial, yet candid in our conversation about his criticism on certain people profiting from Black culture and the Black plight. His stance is very clear: if you profit off the Black dollar, then you have an obligation to speak up for Black rights. “You have to realize, if you benefit off the Black community, this is how you give them back all that they’ve given you,” Jay says. “If you’re sitting in a mansion and just sitting on the Black dollar based on what you’ve been doing, then this is how you contribute.”
As a 22-year-old queer Black man, he realizes he has to fight for his rights not only in a racist American society but also in a hip-hop space that is often plagued with homophobia. “I really have to work extra hard to find my own style and my own taste and just perfect what I’m doing because people see somebody that’s queer and they automatically don’t want to associate themselves,” Jay says when asked about carving out his own space in the music world. “Because they’re homophobic, or because they don’t want to be saying ‘Oh, what was you doing working with him? What were y’all doing in the studio?’” Despite this, Jay’s individuality has never faltered and he has turned his personality into one of his most endearing qualities. A close friendship with the ethereal Erykah Badu has also helped him maintain a deep relationship with his ancestry and spirituality, and he prides himself on how much he’s grown into his Blackness.
Even over Zoom, Jay’s energy and spirit erased our digital distance. Despite him living in California now, the lighthearted—often misunderstood —sarcasm that only two people from Jersey can understand blended immediately between us. He is deeply rooted in his beliefs, unapologetically himself, and simultaneously still growing into his newly discovered goals and ambitions. In a conversation with VIBE, Jay Versace talks about the current revolution for Black rights, how his spiritual roots have influenced his soulful beats, and why his future looks all-Black.
What are your feelings like surrounding the current revolution taking place?
It’s mixed emotions. There’s so much good stuff happening, there’s so much bad stuff happening. There’s so much of just both happening at the same time. I’m worried about my mental health and just how I’m, like, trying to be a better version of me so that I can continue to be a voice or some type of spokesperson for people. So half of me is super into it, I’m ready to unpack. I’m ready to change and make everything all-Black, and then on the other side I’m like, “Okay, let me get my mental health together.”
And speaking of things being all-Black, you’re one of the few influencers who have always really advocated for Black rights on your platform. What are your thoughts on a lot of the performative activism we’ve been seeing from brands and influencers lately?
Something told me something like this was going to happen before. A couple of years ago, something told me it’s going to be some people and some brands, and I’ve already just seen it. This type of stuff’s been kind of happening, where brands or people or influencers don’t really care about the Black community, but they know it’s a crowd they need to have a grasp on in order to get them to where they're trying to go in their career. It’s very selfish. It’s something you really just have to analyze. Like, who’s actually trying to contribute towards change, and who’s trying to just contribute towards their change.
I hate it, and that’s why I’ve been calling brands out. So many brands benefit off of Black people and the Black community, and yet they don’t actually help Black people or they don’t actually go into the community and see what needs help. They actually make it worse. They actually make the community worse by the image that they show Black people as.
I think you are the leader of a vanguard of budding Black creatives, personalities, and young people. How have you seen people our age mobilizing right now, and what do you want to see more of?
I see people our age just using their voice. We’re in a completely different time period, where, like, our ancestors gave us the knowledge. They gave us books, they gave us interviews, they spoke out. So I really see people around me, and influencers using their voice but it’s way more powerful and it’s way more impactful now because we have social media where everybody can hear and see everything, and that’s what’s kind of scary. It’s like, I’m not sure if things are worse or better than what our ancestors went through, because they didn’t have cameras to film everything. So now we’re in a time where everybody has their camera out, everybody's using their voices, like every 5-minutes it’s a viral video. That’s what I appreciate about what’s going on right now, we can actually document every single thing.
And what we need to do more of, I feel like it’s a group effort. It’s some stuff that white people need to do more, like, it’s some stuff that white people need to do more of! (Laughs) And then with Black people, we have to organize. We really have to come together and organize better, but just as far as white people I feel like they need to leave us alone and they need to go to their neighborhoods and make changes within their community.
Have you been able to get out and march at all?
No, I haven’t gone out to protest because the way my anxiety is set up. I’m just seeing so much going on with the police. It’s like wars out there, they going back-and-forth, they throwing gas at people, they shooting rubber bullets, and that’s just something that my anxiety won’t let me participate in. I’ve been protesting online.
And people are finally starting to talk about it now, but all the Black trauma does such damaging things to the Black psyche as well.
That’s another thing, I want to add to what I want to see more of. I want to see Black people take care of their mental health because, that first week when things were really hectic, we don’t know how our minds are going to process that within the next couple of months and years. It’s stuff from when I was a little kid that I didn’t realize was traumatic to me, and it’s just now processing. So we really need to take advantage of what we need to do with our mental health because that’s eventually going to take its toll. And even right now it’s wearing down on people’s minds and I just really want people to see that mental health is important.
You’ve always been really transparent about your struggles with anxiety. What’s been helping you keep your peace during these super trying times?
I’ve been making music, I’ve been telling my friends 'cause my friends have been calling me stressed out. I’m like, “Just make music.” Make music because if you think about the other time period where this kind of happened before, with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, there was a lot of music that was being based on what was going on. I feel like everybody was creating. If you’re an artist, whatever you do, you can contribute to what’s going on by using your skills. So I’ve just been trying to do whatever I do best, and that zens me out.
Do you think artists have an obligation to use their platform to talk about social issues?
Yes, just yes. You have to realize, if you benefit off the Black community, this is how you give them back all that they’ve given you. If you’re sitting in a mansion and just sitting on the Black dollar based on what you’ve been doing, then this is how you contribute. These people need you, these people give to you so give back to them. I don’t understand how that’s so hard. Like, I understand taking some time out to process it and then speak out, but to not speak out at all; I feel like that’s kind of messed up. These people are actually paying your bills, so there is a responsibility to use your voice because not everybody has that following where they can get points across, so we need that. We need people to speak up for us.
The LGBTQ+ Community has always been deeply rooted in social activism. Can you talk about any experiences you’ve had fighting for your voice to be heard as not only a Black man but also a Black queer man in this music space?
I feel like, one thing about music is that being someone that’s queer in music is very difficult. It’s so much homophobia. That’s really the genre I’m going into, that underground hip-hop is so homophobic. So it’s like, I really have to work extra hard to find my own style and my own taste and just perfect what I’m doing because people see somebody that’s queer and they automatically don’t want to associate themselves. Because they’re homophobic, or because they don’t want to be saying, “Oh, what was you doing working with him, what were y’all doing in the studio.”Like, every time I work in the studio with somebody and it comes up it’s like: “Oh, what was y’all doing. What did you have to do for that.” And I’m like, “Yo, we can’t just be two creative people? It has to be something about sexuality?” So it’s like, just what I’m going through right now and trying to make music and being in this homophobic-ass genre, it’s very stressful.
But I feel like it’s changing a lot. A lot of people are coming to their senses and feeling more comfortable with their own sexuality and not having to intimidate other people.JAYVERSACE · CROSSMYMIND
You’re also boldly independent, I think that’s one of your strongest personality traits. When navigating this music space, how valuable do you think that trait is?
It’s very important just to be stern with what you believe in. I just also feel like, not everything you want to do is worth doing. Not everybody is worth working with. Not everybody deserves to be in your creative space. I know people really want opportunities to come to them, but not every opportunity is worth it. Like sometimes, and definitely as a queer person, if know you’re working with somebody that’s homophobic, is it really worth it? I think about my kids, what do I want to do to set an example for my kids. I want my kids to feel like, whatever sexuality they are, they walk into whatever room or situation as they are and they won’t change for nobody. They will only allow certain sh*t around them, so that’s what I’ve really been trying to do. Yeah, I play sometimes, but as far as allowing certain things to happen around me, I won’t allow. Because you’ll get run over.
I also want to touch on your other Instagram for a minute too, Jayversay. I like to call it your Sprinsta(spiritual Instagram). You’re deeply in touch with your roots, can you talk about how that plays a part in the messages you spread on your platform and your beats?
My spirituality, just where I come from, my family, everybody was just super Black. And even though I grew up around people who were celebratory of being Black, I also did not want to be Black. I grew up not wanting to be Black. I grew up looking at people on magazines, looking at people on TV, looking at certain Black skin tones. I always felt like I was not accepted.
But now, a couple of years ago, I just started to realize, like, look at my history. I started to really dive deep into these books that my family used to always read and just go deep into my history. I’m like, damn. It just made me very angry, that I had all this kept from me for so long. First I got angry, I went through those emotions, then I just got more proud. I wanted to celebrate it, so I’ve always been about Black culture, Black music, all of that since. And since I first started making videos I’ve just tried to help Black people.
Can you talk about the beautiful relationship you have with the ethereal Erykah Badu? How has she helped guide you in your spiritual journey?
Yeah, Erykah Badu helped me make my ancestor altar, she’s the one who told me I needed one. She’s really, as far as my spiritual journey, made me feel comfortable. She made me feel like, okay I’m not going too far. Cause I was really diving deep into my spirituality, but she was like, “Keep going.” Ever since we first came in contact, she’s always just been trying to help me with everything I’ve been doing. She still hits me up every other week, just asking if I’m good. She’s just a very good person, besides her being a celebrity. Just one of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever come across. I really love and appreciate all the help she’s given me. I don’t know where I would be without her right now.
You were on one of the best rap tapes that dropped this year, and you also have a really expansive knowledge of music, even a brief scrolling of your SoundCloud reflects that. That Clark Sisters sample for “Versace” was beautiful. What got you into listening to the classics?
Just how I was raised listening to soulful music. My grandparents, my parents, grew up around rappers and singers and it just stuck with me. I don’t really know, I guess it was always a part of me because anything I remember from liking music has always been the same type of music. I think it’s just built inside of me to like a certain type of style of music, like classic stuff.
There’s a funny tweet of yours about how people are so obsessed with 808’s nowadays. What do you try to avoid when making your beats?
I feel people use 808’s and that same snare because that’s louder than their voice, so people hide under drums because they know they not saying anything. Like, they know if they actually said it out loud without rapping it, it would not make any sense. It would sound corny, so people hide behind 808’s and those same drums because it sounds good, but that’s about it.
I try to avoid sounding like people that I’m compared to. I try to avoid sounding like: “Oh, this is like that!” If I hear that, I’m like, “Okay, bet I’m never going to make music like this again because whatever people hear from me, we already have that.” Don’t compare me to anything, I want to be my own person. So I let people tell me “what I sound like,” so I can not sound like that.
Can you speak on the work you’ve been doing with Freddie Gibbs? You said you were working on a project with him.
Freddie Gibbs is a crackhead, so whatever we’re working on is going to take some time. (Laughs) I’ve sent him beats he’s said he’s writing to, but he stays writing to them and I look on his [Instagram] story and he’s on a boat. I sent him the beats and I’m like, “You know what? I don’t know when I’ma expect a project.” I just know I sent him the beats and he hit me up every now and then like, “Yeah, I wrote to this,” and I’m like “Alright.” So I really don’t know, that’s Freddie Gibbs so I really don’t know. The ball is in his court.
Thoughts on Alfredo?
I loved the album. I actually had the same sample as one of the songs on that album.
Really? Which one?
The one where he was like “Babies & Fools." I sampled that the exact same way and was going to send it to Freddie and I’m glad I didn’t cause Alchemist did it.
I mean, the fact that you and Alchemist are thinking on the same wavelength is impressive as hell.
Yeah, that’s what I keep thinking! I’m like, “Hmm, maybe I’m about to get the next Grammy.” (Laughs) Because me and Alchemist made the same beat by accident, that’s insane to me.
I know you’ve also been in the lab with J.I.D and saw somewhere Ari Lennox too, what’s up with that?
We're just working. Me and J.I.D, we damn near made a whole tape. I’ve never heard this side of J.I.D in my life, so I don’t know what’s about to happen when this gets released because this is like, some of the best music I’ve made. Just with J.I.D and how he’s articulating his words and telling stories, he literally brings the beats to life. He creates stories, it’s some crazy sh*t that we made.JAYVERSACE · KOOL-AID JAMMERS
Ari Lennox, I don’t know how she works so fast, but she’s like Walt Disney. She works very fast, so I’m excited to work with her.
What’s a dream collaboration of yours?
Damn, that’s so loaded. (Laughs) I would love to work with Jay-Z. Jay-Z or Kendrick [Lamar], I would love to work with either of them. Just how much they inspire me and how my beats sound. I literally make beats for them, so I would love to work with them.
You made one of your first beats on May 14, 2018. Now, over 2 years later, what are you most proud of in your growth as a producer?
Oh my God! I didn’t even know that. I’m most proud of myself for continuing to do it because when I tweeted I was trying to make music, so many people were like, “This is what this is gonna sound like” and were sending the craziest GIF’s and memes and I was like, “Damn, y'all really think I have no taste?” (Laughs) It was very intense and overwhelming, but I was like you know what, f**k them and kept doing it, kept trying. Kept trying new styles and sounds out, and the fact that I kept going and it’s gotten me this far and now I can say that this is my job, that’s what I’m most proud of. Just listening to my own voice.
You said that Donald Glover, Tyler, the Creator, A$AP Rocky, and Drake started everything really in terms of helping shape our generation. I know you’re just getting started, but when you’re just an old head from Jersey, what is the most important thing you want to leave behind?
Damn, I don’t know. I want to leave behind everything. I want my whole journey to be analyzed, from beginning to end. I don’t want nothing to be left out, I want the whole thing to be seen and experienced so that people can get inspired and do whatever they want to do. That’s the only reason why we’re on this planet, to show other people how to be on this planet. So I want to leave behind my whole experience.
I remember you talked in a Fader interview about how layered you are. I don’t think making beats is something new for you, I think it’s just a new part of yourself that you’re sharing. If you made your first beat a little over 2 years ago, and just got featured on Pray for Paris, where do you hope to be 2 years from now?
Two years from now, I expect for me to have a successful production company, successful music career, modeling, acting, architecture. Any type of thing that I want to do. Everything just thriving, and Blackness all over the f**king place.
There's still a lot of time left in Summer 2020, but on the last day of July, we declared Koffee's "Lockdown" Boomshots' official 2020 Summer anthem. Produced by Dane "Raygad" Ray from the Unruly camp, the song finds Koffee asking all of the questions everybody in the world is asking themselves right now. What will the future be like "when the quarantine thing done and everybody touch road?" As soon as we heard this tune, we knew it was outta here! (That was way before we saw the video with cameos from Popcaan and Dre Island.) More than just a COVID-era contemplation, "Lockdown" is also a poignant love song that speaks to the challenges of romance during a time of the viral pandemic. As such, it represents a milestone in Koffee's catalog.
At the ripe old age of 20, the youngest Reggae Grammy winner in history has given us her first love song—and without overthinking it one bit, she might just have given us a follow-up to rival her breakthrough smash, "Toast." When you hear Koffee sing "if you love me, you should let me...," it's clear she is in her feelings on this one. Of course, everybody wants to know who this song was inspired by, but all we can say about that is just "cool." In her first interview since "Lockdown" dropped, Koffee tapped in with Boomshots' Reshma B on VIBE's Instagram Live and spoke about the inspiration behind the tune.
BOOMSHOTS: So much has happened and obviously, with the lockdown, we haven’t seen each other.
KOFFEE: That’s true.
We haven’t spoken since you won the Grammy so let me start with a big congratulations.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
You made history there. You’re the first female and the youngest to win a Reggae Grammy, as I’m sure you know.
So I’ve heard, so I’ve heard. (Laughs) Thank you.
How was that experience for you?
It was amazing for me being able to be there and represent Jamaica. Because at the end of the day, I feel like—even to be real nobody knew me at the ceremony. As you know the reggae category and some other categories are separated from like big categories like rap and stuff like that. So we’re not in the big ceremony. But it felt so good going up on the stage and collecting something on behalf of Jamaica, on behalf of reggae. There’s a lot to give thanks for regarding that. It’s good to be able fe spread light and just inspire people.
You know there was a time hip-hop was not getting televised either.
Yeah, so it’s a journey.
We all know someone who’s lost someone in this pandemic. It’s difficult adjusting to this new normal. How have you been coping with the lockdown?
For me, thankfully, I haven’t been directly affected by the COVID, and I don't’ know anybody who’s been directly affected. But I send my prayers out to those who have been and those who find it difficult during these times whether financially, even emotionally. It’s a very very very hard time and I can tell even out in the streets it shows. Before you had homeless people and beggars but now when you look pon them face it’s so rough. Me know say it tough out there. So me just a try to put that energy—channel it into anything I can, which for me is music. You know I’ve been working on my album.
How did the “Lockdown” song come about?
The song was actually a very spur-of-the-moment song. I had been planning to go into the studio with some musicians, like some guitarists, pianists, drummers, and stuff. And for the time being, that had been kinda stalled because of the whole COVID. So I was supposed to be in the UK actually doing a camp. And I was just going to the studio—you know Popcaan?
Of course, we know Poppy. Shout out to the Unruly Boss!
Sorry, my bad... I take it back! I take it back! Poppy has a studio, right? So I started goin’ by his studio to just record some stuff like in the meantime while everything is kinda shut down. And there I met a producer named Dane Ray. Now Poppy have a song weh him release the other day, I think it name “Numbers Don’t Lie” and him say, “More gal fe me and Dane Ray.” You get me? So you know say Dane Ray is like him bredren and stuff. So me set a link there and Dane Ray play me a track, which was “Lockdown” instrumental. And me just decide inna the moment, say, ‘Yo, let’s just write some lyrics to it. Some nice melodies that I’m feeling.’ And I literally just did it. And then probably like the week after that I just listen to the song and said “I really like this.” And me just call my manager like, “Yo, let’s do a video. This is who I want in it. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” We call producer, call everybody, call videographer, and we just got it done and then we just release it. It was so—we didn’t even think twice. Me never think it woulda reach this far.
Everything went natural.
Yeah, just so natural.
And now you're hot like thermos!
It’s so crazy right now.
This is the first time we've heard a love song from Koffee. I hear you say things like, “Givin’ you my heart beg you take it from me.” It’s so touching to hear that!
Yo, that was so serious. I swear. Me nah go answer no question about who and the speculations. But I’m tellin’ you that song was so real, I meant that sh*t. (Laughs) I mean that!
Watch the full interview above.