Redefining the Female SuperStar: Jhene Aiko
written by: iman n. milner
“I’m just a regular person”, says reigning queen of mixtapes, Jhene Aiko as she strolls into our shoot in Beverly Hills with her bouncing 2-year-old daughter in tow. A far cry from many of her industry peers, Aiko is dressed down. Wearing simple sweats and an oversized t-shirt while toting a “mommy bag” over her shoulder she is, in a sense, regular. But there has been nothing regular about the journey that led Jhene Aiko to where she is in this very moment.
Many people would remember her as the sweet faced 14 year old who opened for then superstar boy group B2K and was pegged as cousin of member “Lil Fizz”. Jhene laughs at the memory now because though little has changed about her physically (she still stands at only 5’1 and 90 pounds) so much has happened since we first met her as a package deal decorated by a false story of relativity. “That was just a lie”, she says, “I was 12 years old and I got signed to Sony Epic with B2K, it was a tag-a-long type of deal. I didn’t really have a say in what was happening with my career so I went along with it. I didn’t know that they were going to say that every single time”, she finishes with a chuckle. Jhene is kind, soft spoken and baby faced but displays the grace and confidence of a woman true to the experiences she has lived through.
Though having been signed to record deal at only 12 years old and finding herself opening on great stages at only 14, Jhene Aiko grew up as normal as most. She shares the same story that many Americans find all too familiar. “My mother and father were divorced by the time I even realized what divorce was”, she explains, “We were lower middle class. I’m the youngest of 5 siblings and I grew up sharing everything with a whole bunch of people. There was one point where our house burned down and we all lived in two bedrooms”. But Aiko isn’t looking for sympathy. Her overall message is to stress that human beings share more commonalities than differences and it is in this that she grounds her artistry and has found peace even in her struggles. “People see me and they envision that I live a certain kind of life. I want everyone to know, I’m just a regular girl going through the same things as them”, she says in an even softer tone than usual showing glimpses of her true desire to reach people on a much deeper level than other artists. Though becoming a mother in recent years, Jhene’s transformation came earlier than most.
It came in her courage to walk away from music at the age of 16 by first splitting ties with her Production Company, TMG, and roots to B2K through manager Chris Stokes and focusing full time on her education. “The music wasn’t my own, I was a kid so I was just recording the songs that the label wanted, I wasn’t involved in my career…I don’t even consider myself an artist back then”, Aiko says, “I was just there, put in a good position and I decided that I wanted to focus on school and get that out of the way”. Luckily for us, the split from her management and break from music did not derail her. Instead it gave Jhene a newfound confidence and accountability for her art that she carried with her as she sought to regain the authenticity of her passion for songwriting and singing. Being a veteran in the business at only high school age also afforded her with a fiery, unfaltering expectation of herself and of those who will have a hand in the next stage of her success. “When I graduated from high school, I went harder in music and I had a couple of meetings. I was so used to all of the politics in the music industry and I just wanted to sing…and write, that’s it. I took a meeting, at the time I was pregnant though I didn’t know it yet, I was sitting there with this label head and he loved everything I played for him but he felt like I didn’t “sell myself” and I was like what does that even mean?!” she says with a look of disgust, “I’m not a product, either you want to work with me or you don’t. You see the vision and you want to be partners in this or not because I’m not going to come in here and put on a show and be fake. You either like it or you don’t”.
Aiko is not some good girl puppet of the industry. She is real. Real enough to bear the responsibility of her decisions namely her mothering duties to a 2 year old bouncing baby girl, Nami and strong enough to let the love and struggle of her new life propel her into a part of her career that is nothing short of motivational. At 20 years old she gave birth to her joy and then jumped head first into developing what is now one of the most downloaded and praised mixtapes from a female artist, Sailing Soul(s). Upon first listen, there is a truth and rawness that is so present in the lyrics and delivery that it brings flashbacks of music from late singer, Aaliyah. Her pleasant voice and, dare I say, swag, oozes over each well crafted portion of the 13 track masterpiece drawing comparisons to mixtapes from music peers Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Aiko’s Sailing Souls often plays as an open diary of a woman learning, losing and loving and she credits that to the change her life underwent after the birth of her daughter. “I just had so much to say. I’m not with her father so I was dealing with that. Plus I had a boyfriend and after that I had another little thing. I was in between having a place to live—it was just a lot going on during the making of Sailing Souls”, she explains, “every single song was written by me except for “july”, I would put Nami to bed and just lay a scratch, or just a freestyle. Whatever was on my mind that day or whatever I went through…it all made it onto the album”. Her mellow cool provides listeners with a sound abandoned by female artists, a pleasant and soft tone missing from music for many years until now, and her subject matter seems to stretch over to male listeners as well.
So how is she managing to find success by going against the grain?
“It’s all about being honest with yourself. People feel that. I’ll never again sing something that I’m not connected to, that’s not coming from me. I’m always going through a lot in my life; it’s always chaotic and confusing. Why would I hide that?” she says as her two-year-old climbs under the table we’re sitting at and demands to be shown attention. Prompted by the beauty of seeing her give her undivided attention to her child in that moment, I immediately ask about her journey into motherhood at such a young age. As her face lights up in a way that shows the admiration she has for her daughter she responds. “It’s taught me patience and love IS patient. I’ve learned a lot about myself just through her and watching her. I’ve learned what love really is, what it feels like to have a purpose and to have a life in your hands. When you have a child it puts everything into perspective. You have to put aside all of your wants and focus on what really matters.” As the number of young mothers is steadily increasing so is the stigma associated with it but Jhene has another way of seeing it. “Love is everything and you have to make the mistakes but never give up on it. A lot of people will say ‘look at what he’s letting that girl do to him or look what she let that guy to do to her life’ but people don’t understand that we were put on earth for this, she says motioning towards her toddler, “we were put on this Earth to recreate and it’s important that we find someone to do that with. Everything else is a distraction. Career, entertainment—everything we fill our life with is distracting us from love. Love is not the distraction, love is why we are here”. And as many young mothers work double time to ensure their children don’t make the same “mistakes” they did, Jhene is dedicated to being as transparent in parenting as she is in her music. “My job as her mom is to be honest with her. I don’t want to shelter her from the world. I won’t be that mother who’s like ‘she shouldn’t see this, she shouldn’t hear that’. This is the world she’s going to grow up in. She needs to see and know what’s going on around her. And I’ll let her listen to my music. I want her to. When she’s older I want her to be able to say she knew me then and be able to relate to it and see my growth”.
Though Jhene’s love for her daughter is apparent, she is as dedicated to her fans. As we bring our time together to an end we discuss her legacy and with intensity she looks me in my eyes and explains why she does what she does. “I want people to find themselves in my music. I want to be that artist where a person listens to my songs, reflects and then they feel good about it. Now they’re over that struggle and it never comes back up,” she explains, “I want listeners to get lost in my music and when they’re lost they find themselves. I really want it to be therapeutic and healing to the soul. I don’t do it for people to say something when I’m gone. This music is for the now. I want the feeling to last forever. I want people to feel it and through it…to feel me.” And then her intensity breaks as she smiles at me and says “it’d be nice if people say that they loved me though” as I laugh at her for not recognizing that she is closer than she thinks.
This “normal” mother, singer, writer and LA native is well on her way to building a career worth remembering. And it’s safe to say we all love it.
Photography by: Ashley B. Nguyen
Stylist: Seth Brundle
MUA: Sarah Bahlibi
Hair: Rianna Devine