If there’s one thing you should know about Jessie Reyez, it’s that she encapsulates the age-old adage “what you see is what you get.” She strolls into VIBE’s office around mid-afternoon on a muggy Wednesday (Apr. 25), after a busy day of interview-hopping around New York City. Her signature lengthy tresses are parted half-up, half-down, and her curls cascade over her orange, long-sleeved sweatshirt, which she changes to a black and red plaid shirt for the photoshoot.
Thanks to her energy, which is equal parts demure and zesty, you truly wouldn’t be able to tell she’s on hour six of an empty stomach. She kindly asks if she’ll be able to enjoy a meal during our chat. As her order of chips and a “classic burger with cheese” make its way into her hands, she lets out several cheers of “f**k yeah!” The unapologetic Toronto native brings raw honesty not only to her personal life, but also to her lauded music.
Growing up the daughter of Colombian immigrants, Reyez strictly listened to indigenous music like cumbia, and other tunes deriving from Spanish-speaking cultures like salsa and merengue “until the age of six.” Her older brother introduced her to the carefree sounds of hip-hop and reggae later on. She cites Bob Marley and the late-Amy Winehouse as her “1a and 1b” inspirations, and she’s also a massive fan of alternative rapper and fellow Toronto native, k-os.
Now, at the age of 27, Jessie’s straightforward and relatable approach to tackling life topics such as toxic relationships and manipulation has garnered her a strong fan following, evident by her critically-acclaimed debut EP Kiddo. The 2017 effort features tracks like the haunting “Shutter Island” and the chilling narrative “Gatekeepers.” She recently released “Figures (Reprise),” a Daniel Caesar-assisted version of her highly-favored Kiddo track, which deals with sticking by a lethal lover despite the emotional turmoil that comes with it. She explains that she feels “fortunate” that fans and critics warmly embraced Kiddo, and wants to “stay in that gratitude.”
Reyez continues to excel by being unabashedly herself, and many people are taking notice. She’s been featured on songs from Russ, Romeo Santos, Lewis Capaldi, Calvin Harris and Allan Rayman, and earlier this year, she received her first Juno Award for “Breakthrough Artist.” Social media also hints that she’s been hard at work in the studio with legendary MC Eminem, and she’ll be making an appearance in Someone Great, an upcoming movie with Gina Rodriguez and Lakeith Stanfield.
As an artist and person, Reyez believes it’s imperative to show her humanistic complexities. In turn, this creates that relatability factor fans have come to love.
“[Relatability] is a really positive by-product of me just being honest about my story, which I love and I appreciate,” the Gemini explains about penning tracks that so many fans connect with on a personal level. “I love having that by-product, but I’d be lying if I said I blueprinted to make sure that people relate to this. It’s just not true. It’s a by-product, and I’m grateful that people connect with it.”
Part of creating music that bites back derives from Reyez’s need to keep it 100 at all times. Never sugarcoat things with her, because she won’t be doing that to you.
“Me personally, I have a small circle,” she continues. “Part of that is because sometimes, you meet people, and you can feel the synthetic energy. You can feel a layer of bulls**t. I detest that. I’ve been f**ked over a lot of times, I stay guarded. I’m trying to work on that as a human being, because I know I can’t walk around with a knife, thinking everyone’s gonna f**k me over. I can’t be so guarded up all the time, I know it’s not healthy.”
“I couldn’t say how much I f**king hate when I feel like I’m being lied to, or when I feel like someone isn’t being completely honest with me. I hate that so much that I hold myself to that same standard. In every aspect – in my music, in my life, I’m going to be straight with you, and I tell people too, I’m like that. I need you to just tell me direct, because if the roles were reversed, I’m the type to tell you direct.”
Of course, singer-songwriter aims to keep her new music just as concrete. Her latest solo single, “Body Count,” focuses on rebelling against the constructs society places on women. The snappy, island-tinged track features Reyez crooning, “We don’t care what they say/ we gon’ love who we wanna love.”
“This new song is all about sexual liberation, and about females being able to feel liberated without feeling shame, without feeling criticized, without feeling they have to fit the social construct of what it feels to be a ‘modest women,’ she explains. “Versus men, who never have to feel like that. They can sleep with 10 women, walk into a room, high five all his homies about his ‘accomplishment.’ Whereas, for a woman, there’s a negative connotation. We have the upper hand though, sexually speaking.”
As we’ve seen in the media recently, there has been an onslaught of women speaking up about the injustices of their respective industries, a reality that Reyez vocalizes in her song “Gatekeepers.” Not only does injustice hit home for her as a woman, but also as a Latina in the music industry.
“There’s so many problems to talk about, and it sort of has two sides,” the songbird says of the issues Latinas face. “You can talk about how it’s not fair, we don’t get as much representation as we should. You could talk about how it’s not fair that sometimes if a person of color is included, it’s to be the token, so that a company can say ‘No no no! We represent!’ When it’s, like, one in 100.”
Reyez explains that although the hand is dealt differently for Latinos and Latinas, living in the Digital Age comes with the perk of controlling the levels of visibility.
“Our kids, my nieces, my nephews…they can see people of color on platforms now,” she says. “The power’s in the people, more so because we have platforms that we can control, like Instagram, Twitter, Soundcloud, where we can deliver straight. If you’re building a fanbase, it’s in your hands, it’s not monopoly, you can do it. Now that we have these platforms, it’s not like the gatekeepers, no pun intended! We have more control now. It’s wider.”
Visibility equals more experiences and opportunities for musicians, both burgeoning and seasoned. Reyez’s goal is to match the love she received from her parents, as family is extremely important to her. She aims to buy her father a farm and also wants to establish orphanages to name after her mother. Her parents, who enjoy “getting turnt” in the audience at a majority of their daughter’s shows, worked several jobs to provide for her and her brother.
“[“Body Count”] is…about females being able to feel liberated without feeling shame, without feeling criticized, without feeling they have to fit the social construct of what it feels to be a ‘modest women.'”
“Part of my goal is – I won’t ever do it. I won’t ever do enough to pay them back, because that type of love is so selfless, I can’t even try to match it – but I can strive to do that throughout my life, and try to pay them back,” she smiles. “Nice to have them there, man. They humble me quick, they appreciate my mind.”
As with most musicians, Jessie Reyez has a list of creative aspirations, which include “a shelf full of Grammys,” a featured role on South Park, and to “positively affect the lives of about a million people.” True success to her, however, is freedom and peace of mind.
“It’s not just physical freedom, it’s mental freedom, too,” she says poignantly. “Getting to the point where my insecurities are foreign. I’m not there yet, I still work on myself. Getting to the point where I love myself fully – same thing, I’m not there yet. There are things I still criticize myself heavy for. There are days I have to pick myself back up, but that to me is success; it’s getting to both sides, physical and the spiritual, mental. Just peace. Peace of mind.”