Jay Boogie Wants You to Love Yourself
We spoke to the Brooklyn rapper about taking a message of self-acceptance to a spiritual level on his 'Jesus Loves Me Too' mixtape.
Think about the connection between smell and memory. For example: a waft of the perfume your late grandma used to wear might suddenly transport you to some point in your early childhood. The same goes for music, too. It unlocks the emotional texture of what's known as implicit memory – meaning a song can take you back to how you felt on the day you heard it. By making the music a trigger to revisit your state of mind at the time, you turn that memory into something that operates in your subconscious. You clever thing.
All of this floods my mind when I first hear the Jesus Loves Me Too mixtape that independent East New York rapper Jay Boogie sends me. It sounds like the dark loft parties I used to climb filthy staircases to while living in Brooklyn, to drink cold-ish beers pulled dripping from an ice bucket and dance so hard I'd feel a clench in my calves when walking for days afterwards. It sounds like the chatter in the unisex toilet queue at Bushwick's Bossa Nova Civic Club on a weeknight, like the train clattering above your head after you'd spill out onto the street. It sounds like the slightly blue lights that swoop and circle the ceiling in Brooklyn's late-night spots.
When Jay and I speak, he's flown halfway across the world and is waiting for his brain to catch up with his body. It's about 9PM on a Sunday, and he's curled up on a chair, FaceTiming from Oslo. "I don't even have a remedy for jetlag," he says, laughing, "I just live. I just move on." You could say the same of how Boogie approaches his art, too.
He gets on with it, hitting fans and followers with his steady rap flow riding over wobbly bass, synth stabs and a recurring purrrr that he wields like a percussive instrument on tracks like "Switch It" and his breakthrough 2015 hit "Body". The label "queer rap" doesn't really do his work justice. With his background walking in various categories on New York's ballroom scene, he straddles rap, drag and performance art. Often, his tracks are accompanied by the sort of visuals that are hard to describe in any way but "sumptuous" (see Stephen Isaac-Wilson's direction on "Body Principles"), even though that makes you sound like an idiot. His aesthetic stretches broadly, incorporating everything from mesh crop tops and flowing wigs to careful stubble and click-clacking nails that curl like lashes.
"Everything with gender is taught," he tells me, when I ask about how he toys with displaying all those sides of himself. "It's based off behaviour. There's no way – and I'm living proof of this – that you can expect to perform in just one way because of your gender. That doesn't make sense. I know women who are stronger than me, physically and mentally. I know men who are stronger, too. It just goes up and down across the spectrum." He says he takes pride in having a firm grip on both of what he calls the expected gender performances: "I'm the man my father never was, because his ass left, and I'm the woman my mother taught me to be!" He throws his head back and lets out a warm cackle.
Listening through to Jesus Loves Me Too – which we're premiering in full here – you can hear those multiplicities at play. He whips out the signature purr on "Happy", before Modulaw's production on it bottoms out into a cacophony of trap bass, metallic synths and finger clicks. Worldwide-produced "Featherweight" shimmers in the soft corners of his vocal range, standing in contrast to the song's unapologetic lyrics. There's a forcefulness born from confidence throughout – all of which, as far as femininity is concerned, he gleaned from his mum.
"She's taught me everything about a good wig, she's taught me how to walk in a shoe – all the femininity I exude is from her. Of course, the flamboyance and knowing how to enhance that femininity came from the peers I eventually met through ballroom culture, but the womanhood? That came from her. I often describe my hustle or my aesthetic as single mum: I gotta get mine." In doing so, Jay uses his music to reach a place of self-acceptance. He's well-known among his followers for speaking about self-love, both physical and mental, but the message of this tape takes that to a more spiritual level.
"The whole phrase, 'Jesus loves me too' comes from a particular place," he says, in one of a moments when our talk drifts away from laughter and grows serious. "Growing up in the Caribbean" – his mother is Dominican, his father Colombian – "we had a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholics. They'd always walk by me and say, Cristo te ama, which means Jesus loves you. But it was this passive-aggressive thing, as if to say, 'yes, you're a freak of nature but Jesus loves you too'. My whole attitude and this whole project say, 'yeah bitch, I know. I get it'," and he's back to laughing again, pushing his soft head wrap back off his forehead slightly.
Though he can laugh wryly about it now, the homophobia Jay faced as a teen left its mark. He's four years into the Jay Boogie project, and from the outside it's easy to think he just appeared, fully formed, as the artist you see today. Really, he was more of a sporty kid, who fell into performance as a way to work through his identity. "Performance art became what I had to go through," he says, with a smile, "for the simple fact I had to navigate through the space of heteronormative gang activity in my neighbourhood. I had to navigate through a single-mother household. I had to move through a lot of different spaces at once."
He kisses his teeth, thinking out loud about how playing with the boundaries of gender made him feel stronger. "Shit, it takes a lot more courage for a man to walk out of his house the way I do than it takes for a boy to get on the corner, sag his pants and be with the rest of the boys in the hood. I pump down that same avenue, in that same poverty-stricken neighbourhood, around those same armed men that think they're soldiers and cadets." His face flashes, with what looks at first like anger but is really defiance. "It takes a lot more to me be than the average Joe, trust me."
It has seemed like LGBTQ+ visibility has made strides, but it's still not easy. A few weeks ago, Jay highlighted the case of trans black woman Eyricka King whose mother alleged she had been mistreated and beaten by police while held in solitary confinement in a New York correctional facility. When I mention that there's still so much struggle in the LGBTQ+ world, he nods. "This shit ain't cute: it's the real deal. I know that when I leave my household – whether I'm in my car or in the train – I need to have a 360-degree view of my surroundings. Because I don't know the day that a nigga's gonna snap, think 'fuck faggots' and shoot me in the head." And so, to counteract that, he makes music. He calls it his therapy at one point. "I'm here for the girls in the projects who are out there with the shooters and are still able to be the prissy girl with the bag they want to be. That entails a lot of fighting. In high school, that felt like the whole conversation: you don't like me, so now we have to fight because of that."
His music can then function as an escape, an inspiration –potentially for other young people grappling with their sexuality or gender identity – or simply a turn-up soundtrack. Towards the end of our conversation, he mentions sometimes his passion can be misconstrued as a selfishness, or vanity. "When people hear me rapping about 'I this' or 'I that', some of them are like" – and he puts on whiny voice – "'you cocky'. But what I want is for you to put yourself in my shoes and replace the 'I' with yourself. This is actually a great time to be alive – even with all the shit that's obviously happening – so let's talk about it. What sets me aside from you? Nothing." He pauses, for just a beat. "Unless you're a hatin' ass bitch," and he laughs from a pit in his belly. "Then, this one's not for you."
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