It’s hard to tell the Nwokike sisters apart, until suddenly it isn’t. On an overcast New York day, the Nigerian-American singer-songwriter duo arrives right on time in the front foyer of Chelsea Market. Before hugs, formal introductions and the walk to the top of The Highline for a quick, drizzly photo shoot, my eyes shift back and forth between them. For both women, waist-length poetic justice braids frame even brown skin, romantic almond eyes, full lips, striking bone structure and beat faces Ms. Fenty, herself, would be proud of. The real delight, though, is witnessing their complementary personalities come into full bloom as the day unfolds.
Jessica, who considers herself the shyest, has the most to say. Warm in nature, she talks through smiles that curl at the corners when she exchanges pleasantries. Ivana, older than Jessica by 15 months and an expert smizer and Milly Rocker, emits an effortless cool. Together, Jessica and Ivana, the two sultry voices who make up R&B pair VanJess (they decided on their group name in church), finish each other’s thoughts and sentences and sound like magic when singing in harmony. It’s this natural chemistry—both the result of literal DNA and the way they oscillate between the extremes—that makes for an unbeatable work relationship.
“It’s a blessing having a sister that can sing with you,” Ivana says over a plate of hot ravioli. We’ve since retreated from the elements inside the Tribeca eatery, Sarafina. “I don’t think that’s something that always happens.” Jessica, forking through her Tartare di Sofia and Brussels sprouts, nods in agreement. Singing on church and high school choirs initially tipped the sisters off to how well their voices melded together. Ivana and Jessica would often handle the organization and arrangements for the school talent shows and holiday concerts, even though they didn’t yet know the name of their skillset.
“That’s when we were harmonizing a lot more, and [made sure] everybody got included,” Ivana says. “Even without realizing it, we were arranging at that point. That was our way of developing our harmonizing together.” By 2010, all the positive feedback received from their small-scale productions sparked the transition to the next incubator for their professional careers: the Internet.
VanJess began dipping their toes into YouTube’s uncertain terrain singing covers. Each day after school, they’d drag their keyboard into their bathroom and knock out acapella covers of popular songs before their parents got home. YouTube’s cover circuit at the time only included Esmee Denters (who went on to compete on The Voice UK), Dondria Nicole (the eventual Def Jam signee went by the username “Phatfffat”) and bowl cut-era Justin Bieber. When VanJess started, there weren’t opportunities for revenue, let alone any blueprint for leveraging the platform into a formal career. The site was just a tool to gauge their improvement. “When we started posting, people would instantly tell us, ‘Oh you have to work on this and that,’ so we used it as a way to grow,” Jessica says.
Opening themselves up to the wrath of the Web proved to be more fruitful than frightening. Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed” was the first cover video to veer into viral territory, but their beatbox-accented rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”—Ivana typically handles all the percussion and instrumentals—still holds the record for most views on their channel with 5.4 million views; quite a feat for a couple of teenage girls who only started singing for kicks. None of them expected for their channel to reach such a wide audience and, ultimately, turn into their bread and butter. “It [was] just for fun, a hobby,” Ivana says. “Who knew that years later, so many people would be doing the same thing and utilizing it as a platform to find their way through the music industry?”
Fast forward eight years later, and VanJess has made the transition from singing their faves’ songs to fans serenading them with their own melodies. “Any moment, any time/You can make me move my body, when no cares or worries yet/Everybody’s staring, oh the night/I can’t promise that my hands won’t touch the floor, yeah,” the two sing on “Touch The Floor,” their infectious 2016 single featuring slick saxophone handiwork by singer/rapper/instrumentalist Masego. The summery, feel-good song—fueled by the energy of a blissful beach day and tasty Jamaican food—was penned on the short car ride on the way to the studio. “Touch The Floor” was a welcome deviation from their stockpile of mid- and down-tempo selections. “I was like, I think we’re going to write something fast today,” Ivana recalls. “I just had a feeling, because that was just a vibe.”
With that new upbeat energy in mind, VanJess felt that Masego, whom they’d met on set at Goldlink’s “Palm Trees” video shoot, would be a perfect fit for the song. Cozied up in producer Jay Kurzweil’s Los Angeles apartment, he knocked out his contribution in just two takes. (The sisters hint that “Best Believe,” an unreleased song recorded in that same session, will be another surefire addition to warm weather playlists.) A similar easygoing energy funneled into the making of “Through Enough” featuring Goldlink, which found a home on the soundtrack for Issa Rae’s Insecure.
While VanJess’ career is on the upswing, their professional journey hasn’t been without bumps. “Drumroll,” an ill-fated attempt at a mainstream pop song, easily comes to mind. Although their voices sounded pretty rich on the 2013 track, it’s clear that the bombastic island-tinged vibe wasn’t really them. “At that point, we weren’t being ourselves. I think we didn’t really know who we were,” Jessica says. While they had some say with the lyrics, they had no input in terms of production. They trusted the counsel of their previous handlers more than they should have because they were still fresh in the industry and unsure of the lane they truly wished to explore. “That was us saying, ‘Let’s channel what our sound would be.’ But I think we let a lot of people pull us in the wrong direction.”
VanJess has since figured out that their sweet spot lies between slinky slow-burners and trap undertones they love listening to in their leisure (Ivana does weekend cleaning to Post Malone and Kodak Black, while Jessica doesn’t try to hide her Drake adoration). The soft thump of songs like “Adore” and “Easy” (featuring rappers Berhana and Leikeli47) are clear markers of this fusion, where they flaunt a sensuality that toes the line but never spills over into being overtly sexy. Notes bathed in indigos and violets paired with their command of the low-register easily nod to the ‘90s essence of TLC, Brandy, and Brownstone. The links are something they’re aware of, but promise nostalgia isn’t their intentional shtick.
“The ‘90s really set the tone for our inspiration, our vibe,” Ivana says. “And the thing is, to be honest, it was never like a thing of, oh my gosh we’re just engulfed in the ‘90s.” According to Jessica, when you think about music that makes you feel something, that was just the time where much of music did that. “That’s the spirit we’re trying to bring back. Just soulful, feel-good music,” she says.
Rather, Nigerian music, Aaliyah, TLC, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Mark Morrison (“Return of the Mack” is Ivana’s jam), Elton John, Madonna, and even then-Puffy Combs contributed to a “feeling” they grew up with around the house, both living stateside in Fontana, Calif., and in Apapa, the Nigerian town where they spent nine years growing up. (“I think [Apapa] gave us a sense of culture and coming over here, we kept that. It’s nice to have two things that influence you.”)
The plan is for these myriad influences to culminate on their forthcoming debut project, which they promise will be consistent with their previously released singles. “Production-wise, we have a lot of electronic vibes, dance vibes, also hip-hop and very forward thinking R&B,” Jessica says. Stuff that makes you feel good, essentially. Either way, the sisters are ready to share it all. “I feel like we were given a gift and it wasn’t given to us to keep it,” Ivana says. “I just want people to receive it as much as they can.”
Videography by Jason Chandler