VanJess Go Deeper than Nostalgia with Their 90s-Style R&B

We spoke to the sibling duo about vulnerability and inspiring girls from the West African diaspora, as visible, black R&B artists.

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Nov 19 2018, 3:45pm

“How you dey?” I'm in my room in London, on speakerphone over several time zones with two sisters.

“We dey oh! God is good!” bounces back the matching Nigerian pidgin reply from Jessica and Ivana Nwokike, of R&B duo VanJess. Of course, they speak in automatic harmony (and with total ease). It feels like our Naija-diasporic backgrounds forge an instant familiarity, a kinship – one that overrides the fact that technically, this is the first time we’ve ever spoken.

I say ‘technically’, because – not to sound like super-stan – it doesn’t feel like the first time I’ve spoken to the Nigerian-American sisters. I’ve been following them (smashing like and commenting with heart-eye emojis on their output) for years, having first seen VanJess on YouTube. And I’m talking about 2010 Youtube, an embryonic social-cyberspace that overflowed with home recordings of pets and mumbling chart covers shot in plain bedrooms ( “So, um, this is Grenade by Bruno Mars”).

Filmed a pink backdrop, the girls’ beatboxing acapella covers of artists such as Rihanna, Gaga and Mariah, displayed their range, ear for melody, energy and diverse musicality. In that saturated ‘here I am, covering someone’s music hoping to be discovered’ space, their obvious talent (and the fact that they were black girls – and Nigerian!) stood out to me personally, but also helped cultivate a group of loyal supporters looking for a rare thing in a landscape of cookie-cutter bops: organic, cool, smooth, sexy R&B.

That’s VanJess. You can hear the influences they’ve named before – SWV, Toni Braxton Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey – in melodies that pay homage to the 90s and 2000s. But they innovate, too. “Control Me,” from their debut album Silk Canvas (could you imagine a more perfect R&B album title?!) shows how seamlessly they fold pidgin lyricism into a story of fancying someone who’s… not worth with it: “ this one dey craze be something”. And so their Nigerian heritage lends their music a distinct dimension and special flavour. Since they signed with Keep Cool Records – founded by RCA Records’ Tunji Balogun, who’s helped launch H.E.R, Khalid, Bryson Tiller and SZA – they’ve positioned themselves further as part of a diasporic movement.

Yet, talking to them feels so familiar. VanJess are on the up, but they’re also funny, warm and passionate. Our talk is meant to centre on their brand-new, beautiful Mahaneela-directed video for Kaytranada-produced “Another Lover” (which we’re premiering below), but we talk about so much more. Every once in a while we find our tongues relaxing into colloquially Nigerian inflections, my British-Naija and their American-Naija flexes meeting in the middle as we laugh about nosey relatives questioning our creative pursuits and discuss our favourite Nigerian artists. VanJess are talented, clever, relatable young women who get to live out their dream – and this is their story so far.

R&B duo Vanjess press photo

Noisey: How much did starting out on YouTube influences you as artists, especially in terms of being so exposed to the public so early?
Ivana Nwokike: YouTube had such a huge impact on us. When we first started posting, we’d get so much feedback – encouragement but also constructive criticism. We’d have people telling us, “Hey you could work on your blend here” or “this note was off.” It was almost like a training camp. So, as vocalists we knew what we could work on, what we could get better at working on. It also helped us develop the way we sing together, period.

Your sound is unabashedly R&B and soulful, but it is also innovative in the way you infuse yourselves into it – with Nigerian pidgin and Yoruba, though I’ve read that you’re both Igbo.
Jess Nwokike: With “Control Me” specifically it came so organically. Our background is really important to us, and I think we always just wanted every song we ever did to have our cultural influence and background to come through, but never in a forced and corny way. That’s why we were so excited about how “Control Me” came out. The song is a natural blend of traditional R&B and our culture. With the Nigerian pidgin and the Yoruba, we wanted it to sound natural, smooth. Almost like, ‘if you know you know,’ and if you don’t you’ll pick it up. We really love the idea of making Naija slang mainstream, almost in the way Drake uses Jamaican patois even though he’s not Jamaican. We want people dropping it casually!

It’s no secret that colorism feels stitched into the music industry, and that most of the visible faces we see in female R&B today are light-skinned. How does this affect the way you see your position within the industry?
Ivana: When we first started doing YouTube, we knew that seeing two brown-skinned black girls doing what we were doing had a certain positive impact. Our position is so important in this industry because we get to inspire people, just by being there.

Jess: People think, ‘Yo, if they can do it, I can do it. This could be hard for me, but there they are, doing that.’ That pushes us and motivates us to go hard and not put limits on ourselves just because other people thought our skin-tone wasn’t ‘good enough.’ Being on tour with Masego is such a beautiful thing, particularly because he has such a diverse fan base. Seeing these beautiful black women coming up to us after the show saying “I’ve never heard of you before but seeing what you do is amazing; thank you for your music, thank you for being you”, is an incredible feeling. Even seeing how Nigerian girls specifically relate to us is amazing.

Let’s talk about that “Another Lover” video, beautifully directed by Mahaneela Choudhury-Reid. What’s important for you when thinking through the visuals that match your work?
Ivana: One of my favourite quotes is, “confidence is being more of yourself”, and that’s really what we think about when making visuals that represent us. Jessica and I are who we seem to be in our music and visuals: we’re laidback, that’s our energy. So when we’re put in a situation where we get to create this art to go with our work, it’s beautiful that we have help manifesting that vision.

It’s funny, because we always have a mood board of what we want – an idea, a summary of how things will go – but on the day of the shoot, things come up, and it will change. Creating is really a spiritual thing and we go where the energy takes us. In the moment, you could be feeling it, you could be giving all of you, and something unexpected will jump out. It’s beautiful how we’re able to bring ourselves out to the world like that.

The song’s lyrics are like so much of your work so far – soft, romantic and personal, but also empowering. Tender and tough. Is this something you’re aware of in the songwriting process?
Jess: I definitely think about being vulnerable – not being scared to fully express how you feel. I think a lot of time nowadays, it’s ‘cool’ to be unfazed by the world and that’s great, but I think it would not be true for anybody to say that you don’t have moments where you’re not fazed. When I was writing lyrics to “Another Lover,” what I did – almost without knowing – was just to be very vulnerable in the lyrics at the start of the song, and then suddenly take that power back. When I started writing it, I was going through something, and you can hear that with “ If you want me you would try…” But as you listen on, you can almost hear the transition where I internally go “fuck this!”. You can hear that switch.

We specifically say I “could” find another lover. Like, “I don’t need one but we could have one if we wanted to.” Thank you, next! That flip in the emotion is a real way of us processing feeling. It’s important for us to be honest lyrically, because it’s the only way we feel that we, as artists can connect to people: through sharing these universal human experiences.

Your connection as siblings feels like a tangible thing, and your voices meld so beautifully. What is it like working with your sister?
Jess: It’s amazing. We can both support each other, and for me, having Ivana there encouraging me was key in us working together, because I was super-introverted when I was younger. The idea of being in front of people by myself just seemed crazy to me. With YouTube, I just kept on saying, “I can’t do this. We can’t do this”, and Ivana told me to go for it. She was the driving force.

If you were to choose one song from Silk Canvas that you think fully represents the VanJess sound to newbies, which would it be?
Ivana: All of them! But “Honeywheat” or “Cool In The Rain” specifically. “Honeywheat” because it really represents who we are in terms of the smooth, jazz-oriented melodies that form our core. The way we harmonise on that song is really the base of who we are as artists, and the way our voices blend represents where we started on YouTube. That song has everything. It’s sexy and smooth – I start off with a low Toni Braxton vibe, and then Jess hits those higher notes later on. It even has a little rap. We’re singing together but you can also hear our individual voices.

And because I have to ask – which Naija artist would you love to work with?
Jess: Burna Boy!

Ivana: Burna Boy is so dope! The bounce to his voice, his melodies. The first time I heard “Like To Party” I knew I was a Burna Boy stan for life! Just to be in this space right now as west Africans in general feels like a moment. It’s so cool to see artists like Wizkid and Burna shining, and seeing their impact around the world. The Africans diaspora is being embraced in a beautiful way.

You can find Bolu on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.