The sky was plastered with pink and purple as the sun fell somewhere beyond the Harlem Heights.
I found myself literally running full strides up Central Park West to a Starbucks on 72nd, late to a meeting with singer Jesse Boykins III and his manager. I had been doing a lot of art direction for experimental black musicians, and we talked about some visual elements for his next project. He cajoled me into a treatment filled with extraterrestrial illustrations. Jesse had a vision and wanted to be active in the creative process of his music. I respected it.
This was 2014 and his name had been buzzing in the streets for a few years: “The singer on that one song with Theophilus.” His voice, soft like cashmere mixed with a little butter. His lyrics held hope at the hems. I left that meeting and ran home in excitement. Jesse had planted a seed in my imagination, and I was willing to water it. Unfortunately, we never moved on with the project. My guess was creative differences. I just left it alone and continued to respect the artist in his craft. The meeting alone was enough for me to have hope in the colorful minds of musicians on the horizon.
Time went on. We continued to unite with like minds. Then, we both ended up moving to Los Angeles. The walls of our circle pushed us into similar spaces and places. One day, I’m rapping with my friend Rey Robles and see Jesse standing across from me at the Tonl anniversary party. Déjà vu hit. The timing was precise. Everything had happened in order to get us to that moment. I thought about my hustle up the West Side the day we met and how running is discipline. I recognized the same in Jesse: The look of perseverance. We met for lunch a month or so later to catch up on everything since our first vibrant talk in New York City.
How has the music industry changed?
It’s about to be ten years in November since I put out my first record. Technology has been the constant thing in music as far as how easy it is to make music. There was only Pro Tools when I was growing up. That and actual musicians. From that aspect, and crossing over to the distribution and marketing aspect, everything is here [holds up phone]. I used to be on 42nd St. singing and giving my card out every day. It had my face on it and even my Myspace. I used to sell T-shirts with my logo on it too. That’s how I started. You go from that mentality to like, uploading to TuneCore and then your song is up. If someone sees you, you just send them a link. It’s been more accessible for more people to do music now.
How is that?
Sometimes you have amazing things that happen and breakthroughs in music, and a lot of times it’s regurgitation. You go and see how someone made something and then do exactly the same thing, image-wise and aesthetically. Now you see everything all the time. Everyone starts to get stuck in this bubble where they feel like they only can exist in this bubble or they’re not going to be accepted. That’s bland for me.
I think of myself as a contemporary. I like to do things a little differently. In any aspect, technology is a thing that’s a driving force for all businesses. Even platforms for how you show your art. Before you would have to have a galley, invite people over to walk around, and they might see a painting and want to buy it for 10 G’s on the spot. Now you post a picture online and they might send you the 10 G’s just to send them the painting. Sometimes it’s beneficial and sometimes it’s not, like everything else.
What’s the difference between music and noise?
Substance. That’s the difference. Noise isn’t bad. Depending on if it is complementary to something. Like, this noise complements this space. But music, it ain’t a complement. It’s like, yo, you need this. This is going to make you feel better. You can take it to any space. Intention. The intention in what people are creating.
What’s the intention of your music?
Individuality. Freedom of self. Saying and doing what you feel no matter how you are looked at and what people think. Self-confidence. A lot of my songs are from the underdog perspective. From a perspective where people doubt you and don’t think that you are capable. You have to find it within yourself to use that as motivation and not let that deter you. You can build yourself up to do amazing things. Most of my life, people were telling me, “You can’t do that” and I would be like, “oh naw?” And even if they gave me a list of reasons why I couldn’t, I would be like, ok, thanks for that. That’s what I like to put in my music. Of course, there is always going to have to be sensuality and love in my music. How we are supposed to learn from our relationships? We are supposed to learn from them. We’re not supposed to get caught up in the same shit over and over again. I feel like it happens a lot, based on the fact that people desire this false sense of this beautiful thing that they think they want or they want to possess. You can’t possess people. You have to be understanding and accepting of someone first and foremost, and then y’all can try to elevate together. So I try to talk about those things in my music. From personal experience and from where I’ve made mistakes and where mistakes were made from the other side. I acknowledge those things and I’m still accepting.
What did you learn from your last relationship?
I learned a lot. It’s important to always revisit every issue. People think that you talk on something one time and it’s over. You have to take into consideration that you were doing something that someone didn’t like for a significant amount of time. So that resentment or resentful energy that’s built up is them getting it off their chest. That’s why people go to therapy. You talk about the same shit with a therapist over and over again until you have a breakthrough. That’s what I learned the most from my last relationship: to acknowledge that if someone has a problem, we need to find a solution and we need to practice a solution. Like any relationship, really. I think people just want convenience. I don’t really desire convenience. I think that’s a mirage. When I think about longevity, I don’t see those two things working together. Convenience is a very fleeting thing.
How do you classify your music?
Man. I’ve tried to call it so many things. I put art in the genre. I put world and soul in it. But I’m a Black male artist that sings, so automatically I’m R&B, through and through. I could go do a punk rock song and the world would still be like, this is so smooth, it’s R&B. It’s a thing that I fight against, and I realize that the fight is pointless. People are going to perceive things the way they want, so if people say I really love R&B and I really want to love Jesse, then that’s what it is. I’m influenced by everything. I don’t even take inspiration from R&B. It’s not that I don’t like it; I just think that the meaning of it can’t be the same as what it was. The intention behind the music isn’t the same just because it sounds the same. It’s not about the sound of things, it’s about the energy of it. If we’re talking about Brian McKnight, “One Last Cry,” then that’s an R&B song. But if we are talking about Trey Songz, “Invented Sex”… you know? I believe R&B is poetry. That’s what it should be. I’m a power before anything. I like to bend them, shift them, twist them, and manipulate them until they build a picture. And you’re like damn, that’s a cool picture, I want to live in that picture. Don’t get me wrong. There is some amazing new R&B that’s poetic. Then there is some that is not.
What’s in your diet?
I eat everything. I’m Jamaican. I firmly believe the concept of not abusing things, in all aspects of life. But I don’t like restrictions. So if I’m in Russia and they’re like, the delicacy is deer dumplings, I’m gonna try it. If I’m in Japan and they’re like, we just caught this squid right now, I’m gonna try it. I’m literally coming from a childhood where I watched my uncle kill a goat to feed us. The luxury aspect is just now a new thing. It’s hard to kick away certain things. I like to call it “choiceaterian.” So if I choose to be a pescatarian for four years, then I’ll be a pescatarian for four years. If I choose to not eat meat for a year, I won’t eat meat for a year. If I choose to not smoke weed for a year, I won’t smoke weed for a year. If I feel like I am becoming a prisoner to anything then I’m going to test my discipline without it. That’s how I treat it.
Let’s get on the subject of weed. How is that, or is that, a part of your creative process?
Nah. It’s not really a part of my creative process. I wrote most of my new album in 2017 without smoking the whole year. But it has definitely influenced and opened up gateways and certain aspects in me, to be brave in what I want to do. But I’m never in the studio like damn, I can’t work right now because I need a J. I would never be that person.
Do you drink?
So, I didn’t drink alcohol for a long time. I took a shot of whiskey when I was six. Jamaican rum. My uncle gave me some. Burnt my chest up. After that, I never drank. I was on tour in like ‘07, I think I was 21. Took a shot of whiskey ‘cause I was losing my voice. Lost my voice completely off the whiskey. Those are the only two times I have had a drink. Then when I was 28, I was in Berlin with a friend and we had some Ethiopian food and she was like, let’s go get some wine. I was like, “I don’t drink, but I’ll go drink it.” So I had two glasses. Cab. Like, this is the vibe. Since then, I do the red wine thing and the rosé ting. Sometimes I do the rosé champagne ting. That’s about it. I don’t really drink liquor, at all. I don’t really have the desire to.
Do you drink a lot of water?
I do. I ran track growing up, and my mom was my coach.
(in Jamaican accent)
“Drink some wat ah, you drink wat ah.”
So you’re disciplined from childhood?
Yeah, I went to prep school. I wore uniforms until I was eight years old. I got to Miami, Florida and the elementary school I went to in the third grade told me that I didn’t have to wear uniforms, but I didn’t know what to do. So I wore uniforms for the first two months. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand. It was weird.
Yeah, I would say that. Being an independent artist, you don’t have a huge machine around you, so I’m the one that has to set the deadlines.
So, let’s clear this up. I thought you were signed?
I was signed. For six months. To Def Jam. Then I left.
Why did you leave?
Creative differences, let’s just say that.
Can’t share any more or you don’t want to share more?
It don’t even really matter. I’m used to and accustomed to things at a certain level of quality, and I know what it’s going to take to continue to make that a thing. I want to progress toward this quality that I envision for my music and the things that I express— how it’s all portrayed. Some people don’t want to give that amount of effort. I do. It’s nothing big, it’s not crazy.
So back to independent. Are you looking to stay independent?
When it comes to that, I have no fantasy. For me, it’s mainly about establishment and a real space where I can develop artistically in every medium. Not only in music. However, I can get those things. I don’t care. I have all of these ideas and things that I want to accomplish. Sometimes labels don’t necessarily understand that. There are very few musicians that desire more than just music. Some people are just content, like, make music and that’s it. Nah. I want to tell stories. I want to build worlds. I’ve been making music for ten years. Maybe I’m not on a billboard or nothing, but I think I have accomplished a lot. With no help. So if you’re gonna come in, I’m gonna need you to help a little bit more than what I can do myself. That’s why I say “creative differences.” A lot of times, what people think is beneficial or what they think is an opportunity, I’m looking at it like… you could give this to anybody. I need customization. I wouldn’t work with an artist and go, you know what, let me give you this music that I’ve been working with somebody else and you can just sing it. I would never do that. I would have a conversation with the artist. I would learn them, know what they care about. What their past was like. I would say hey, you know what story you should tell? You should tell this story. And they are like, oh that’s what I was trying to tell. Dig it out. I don’t really care about monetization as much as everybody else does. That’s not my thing. You know how people be like, I need to get 20 million views on my videos ‘cause that’s gonna … That’s not my thing. That’s not what I’m about.
You just want to get it out there?
I want to know that what I wanted to communicate was executed at the highest level possible. That’s what I care about. After that, it’s art. It might not be 10 million views in two weeks, but it might be 10 million views in ten years. Your 2 million views might stop after those two weeks. But just by putting it out there, it exists forever. That’s what art is. That’s the thing with instant gratification. People get caught up in it. I’m a victim of it sometimes too. When I realized it, I pull back. My self-worth is not ever going to be depicted by a double-click on a screen. I don’t make art for that. I make art to impact people’s lives. I do art to make me feel better. As long as I keep that in mind, everything is great.
I remember when I first heard about you. It was on a pronounced love mixtape.
I think that was 2009. Then your name just kept popping up.You were in everything all the time. What does consistency mean to you?
Not quitting. I mean, I’ve definitely had that moment where I wanted to stop and go get some goats and live in Florence somewhere. Go fishing and ride a bike to a lake and then take my ass back home and read some books. I’ve definitely felt like that a lot. But I literally recorded my first two albums in my bedroom. I taught myself Pro Tools. I mixed my album myself. All these things I did and it reached a global level. I’ve traveled and seen all these places because of the shit I did; I didn’t even know it was gonna do what it did. That is why I keep doing it. I always say that the best art makes someone remember a moment in their life. You always got a song that reminds you of a special Saturday night with your people or something. So as long as I can create art at that level, I’m not going to stop doing it.
Like “Pantyhose”? That period of life?
See, look. That song started off as a joke. I was trying to holler at this older woman. She worked in finance. She was like, you’re too young. So I wrote “Pantyhose” so she could know that I understood, to some degree, what she was going through. It’s the metaphor for the working woman.
What’s something new that you have learned this past week?
There is a difference between being narcissistic and egotistical. This day and age, with social media, everyone is becoming narcissistic in the sense that they are allowed to superficially depict the whole spectrum of who they are. The ego is actually from a place of hope. It’s different. People are always like, chill, calm your ego down. Nah, that’s narcissism. The ego is a battle within and I’ve had a lot of ego battles, but I’ve differentiated the two so I react differently to that kind of response. It’s not a superficial thing. I don’t need people to tell me I’m attractive or tell me anything, because that’s narcissism. Ego shit is me being like, I said I was going to do this, and then something else happens and I feel some type of way. That’s only been the past five months, since the Def Jam split. I think that’s what’s been helping with what I’m trying to communicate with my art and where I’m trying to go creatively.
Do you have your camera on you?
Yeah, I always have a camera. When I moved to New York at 16, I would go to Walgreens and buy one of the disposables and take pictures in the dorms. If somebody was having a concert, I was always there taking pictures. I think that’s what helped me so much with my writing, with my storytelling: The fact that I love to be present. The camera helps me. I have the tendency to map out the next five years of my life, so to take myself away from that, I take photographs, candids. Recently, I started shooting film again. I love how you don’t know what the end is going to be. Then I go back and apply that to my music. That’s why I care so much about the visuals. I won’t shoot it if I don’t think I know the story or what I am trying to portray. Like the “Earth Girls” video. I wrote that treatment in 2015. We didn’t shoot it until the end of 2017. I had that treatment for such a long time, but I needed to find a female director and a female producer. I needed to find women who looked a certain way and find a stylist that understood what I meant when I said, I want aliens, who have to exist on Earth, looking whimsical. That’s what I told her. I gave her my moodboard and the rest was history. I like the process. That’s why I like going to the photo lab to develop my film. That’s my thing. Especially now.
Where do you go?
Valley Photo. It’s right by my house. They do it in two days. They email it to me. Everything is smooth, they know me now so they know to come correct because I’m going to spend money there.
How do you UNDO-Ordinary?
You do what the fuck you want. You don’t fall victim to any system or any protocol. You develop things from a genuine, authentic perspective. That’s how you do it. Life is pretty ordinary if you don’t customize it. That’s what being an artist is customization. Walking into a space and being like, I’m going to make this space mine.