A First Date With... Jhené Aiko
Dates are awkward enough without an audience of PR goons and personal stylists but I still gave her my phone number.
Photos by Will Coutts
Interviews are just like dates. Before you meet an artist, you have to research them, listen to their music, and come up with questions, and before you meet a girl you have to Facebook-stalk her, determine her interests, and plan how you’re going to weave them into the conversation. So when Jhené Aiko, whose stoner R&B flow has won her comparisons with Frank Ocean, came to play in London, it only made sense that we had a first date.
In many ways, Jhené is everything I look for in a girl - beautiful, smokes a lot of weed, has a child with Omarion’s brother – I mean she really is a complete knockout. With her Japanese/African/Native American/Latina/French heritage, Jhené is living proof that diversity is beautiful, so you can imagine how nervous I was going into this. I thought it might be “cute” to take her for a proper British cup of tea at a fancy hotel, but nothing could have prepared me for the army of PR goons and personal stylists that were constantly laughing at her jokes (not mine) and fixing her hair every few minutes. Dates are awkward enough without an audience.
Noisey: Hi, how are you. I’m Matt.
Jhené Aiko: Nice to meet you.
How’s it going?
It’s going well. Is there any warm water?
Do you want tea?
Have you ever had proper British tea?
I have, yesterday.
PR Girl 1: Jhené, let me just quickly fix your sleeve!
Yeah, I was gonna say – someone better fix that sleeve soon because it’s pissing me off. Oh wait, no I wasn’t, because it’s a SLEEVE. Chill, she looks fine.
Haha. What’s the proper way to hold tea?
You’ve got to put your pinky out like this.
It’s heavy, though. I broke this wrist a few months ago. So is this, like, black tea?
PR Guy: We got some herbal for you, if you need that too Jhené.
No, she’s having real British tea.
Do you wanna sit next to me? Instead of all the way over there…
Um… Yeah, cool.
So it’s Juh-nay, right? That’s the correct pronunciation?
It’s Juh-nay I-koh.
You can say Ah-EE-koh.
If I want to be pretentious about your name, you mean?
Right because the ‘Ah-EE’ is how the Japanese say it. As two syllables. Like how we say ‘Toke-yo’ but the Japanese say ‘Toke-EE-yo.’ But I’m American so I can say whatever I want to.
Yeah, it’s a cool name. Jhené Aiko. It sounds like it has a hundred ethnicities rolled into one.
And that’s what it is. I’m a quarter Japanese. That’s the only percentage I know for sure because it’s my grandfathers. And then everyone else is pretty much like mixed. So there’s African American, Native American – sorry I like it sweet, haha…
At this point, Jhené, who had been adding a fourth sugar to her tea, gave an ironic giggle. I laughed too.
For a moment, I saw the real Jhené looking at me, her eyes piercing through the glossy media veneer. They seemed to say to me, “I wish you and I could travel far, far away. Away from the media circus watching us in this hotel.”
Jhené Aiko: I’m also Dominican, Spanish, French, German.
Jesus Christ. I feel so fucking boring because I’m one hundred percent white.
Haha, I’m sure there’s something else there.
Some people say I’m an eighth black, but I don’t know.
I think that we’re all…
Wow. It’s like we’re inside each other’s heads. So I saw you were in the Coachella line-up. It was in the small font, but I read the whole Coachella line-up every time.
Yes. The font will get bigger by the year. That just means I perform during the day.
Have you been to Coachella before?
Yes, I love Coachella. I wanna live at Coachella.
On the polo ground?
Sure, but only if Coachella was still happening.
Oh you mean like a perma-Chella?
Oh yeah, my friends and I talk about that all the time with festivals. I went two years ago and it was amazing.
During the Tupac hologram?
Yeah, it was awesome, did you like it?
The hologram? I thought the hologram was weird.
I agree. So weird… So you also have that song "Burning Man", right? Is that about Burning Man Festival?
Sort of. I wanted a song that made me feel like that. I’ve never been to Burning Man. I would love to go, though. I tried to go last year but it’s so complicated to get a ticket.
Yeah I like your lyrics from that song: "If the stars start falling to the ground / Roll them up and pass them all around." Do you write most of your own songs?
All. All my own songs.
Is that why you walked out of your first record label, because they didn’t let you write your own songs?
Well it was because I was super-young – I was 14 – and I wanted to finish high school, so I just asked to be released. At the time I always loved writing. It was my first passion, I guess. I never combined it with my singing until I was older and I had stories to tell. That’s why I can’t sing anyone else’s lyrics. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked "Do you want to write with so and so?" and I’m like "No…" I sing songs to express myself, so if it’s some ones else’s words, then it’s not really me telling my story. At that point I’m just like an actress, and I’m not an actress.
Is this your first date with a journalist, by the way?
It is my first date with a journalist, yes.
How’s it going so far?
I like it. When’s your birthday?
My birthday? December 16th.
You’re a Capricorn?
Is that okay? Are we incompatible? Because I could totally feel your aura when you walked in…
Well my ‘rising’ is a Sagittarius (your rising is what people see you as). My dad is Sagittarius. I don’t know if that means anything…
That means a lot. To me, at least. So… do we have a chance?
Not by the book; we are not compatible according to the book. They never say that that’s a compatible sign, but I find that I’m compatible with Sagittarius.
Sweet, things are going well already then. The stars are aligned. Is that a Buddhist symbol on your arm?
This is the will of Dharma. I got it like two days ago. It represents the Eightfold Path, which includes right intention, right speed and right mindfulness; there are five others that I could pull up for you on Google… But they basically represent the path I would like to take in my life. It doesn’t mean that I have them all down yet. It’s just like setting the ship in that path.
And then sailing – like your album Sailing Soul(s)!
So do you believe in reincarnation?
I believe that energy doesn’t die. So I feel like your energy can become anything. I feel like once your body stops - or ‘death,’ as some people prefer to call it - your energy is free to become anything, whether that be another person, an animal or a cup of tea.
It would be way better if you were an animal, though, like a cheetah or something, instead of tea.
Well technically you could become tea, because it’s leaves, it’s living.
That’s true. That’s totally true.
I mean, you never know.
What, like, is life? What does it even mean?
To me it’s just energy.
Some people believe Tupac was reincarnated, what do you say to that?
I read in an interview that you have an alter ego rapper named J. Hennessy. Is that bullshit or true?
No, it’s true. I have a few alter egos. They’re not serious; I don’t like wake up and say, ‘Call me J. Hennessy today,’ but it started as a joke because of the spelling of my name, J-H-E-N-E, which could be pronounced "J. Henny." In middle school I had a friend who called me that. Then I started drinking Hennessy as I got older. I also like to freestyle and battle rap. Sometimes I say some really good bars when I freestyle, but I’m more of a battle rapper.
It has to be adversarial?
So if we freestyle right now, would that work?
Aww, you’re too nervous!
I am nervous; I don’t know! I’m not really feeling any animosity towards you.
Nice, that’s good.
You have to say something bad about me so we can battle rap. Then I would be like ‘whhhhhhhaaaaaaaat?’
I can if you want?
No please don’t, because then the date would be over.
So J. Hennessy is a rapper alter ego, but I always say she’s not a rapper yet; she’s like an aspiring rapper.
Who am I speaking to right now?
You’re speaking to Jhené.
So in your video for "Bed Peace" you’re recreating John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-ins for peace, which is a cool idea. Are you a fan of Lennon?
I am a fan of anything that has to do with peace because I grew up in LA where there is not always a lot of peace, except by the beach. When I became a teenager, I started reading about things like Buddhism, which made me find inner peace. John Lennon was like a spokesperson for world peace, so I just fell in love with him and Yoko’s relationship. They were always in pictures together, and you could just feel the love. That was something I really admired, because people are so afraid to admit when they’re in love with someone.
If you’re in love with me, then you can just admit it. That’s totally fine.
Did you know that when Lennon and Yoko were doing their bed-ins they sent acorns to all the world leaders to try to get them to plant them in support of peace?
I did not know that.
But no one did.
Aww. I just love how they were really like, ‘We can do this.’ The reason why I wanted to make a visual re-enactment of their bed-ins is because I felt that "Bed Peace" is about slowing down and just being with the person that you love. I do that all the time – I’m like ‘I’m going to stay in today and not do anything,’ and I just feel like that goes hand in hand with world peace. If everyone did that, then they’d be able to go out into the world and deal with things in a more peaceful manner. So I’d like to bring that message to my audience and to people who may not know about John and Yoko’s message.
Cool. What’s Childish Gambino like? Is he hilarious?
He is! He is really funny; he has a dry sense of humour. When me and him have conversations it’s sarcasm all day; it’s kinda obnoxious.
Okay cool. I’m not jealous at all. You are single, by the way, right? No one’s going to beat me up for this?
They may, I dunno! I am… I am a sailing soul, a free spirit. I don’t think I could ever be tied down. Yes, I am single.
Cool, cool. So how do you think it’s going so far?
With this date? I think it’s going good. We could have a second date.
Really!? How long are you in London for?
Only for the night, haha.
Yeah I don’t always record my dates with a bunch of people in the room, but this has gone okay.
Jhené and I were keen to get some alone time by now, so we went upstairs to a hotel room. That short walk was one of the happiest moments of my life. I knew I wasn’t going to get any real action, but I was at least hoping to lie next to Jhené on the bed and gaze wistfully at the ceiling while we talked deeply to each other about energy, star signs and the meaning of life.
I gave her my number. She hasn’t texted me yet – obviously she’s really busy touring, and she’s trying not to come across too keen. One day, though, we’ll meet on the sunny plains of Coachella, two sailing souls gazing into each others chakras like lovers from a past life. Call me, Jhené. I miss you.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @Matt_A_Shea
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