msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February.
Jean Grae is a hip-hop pioneer who has extended her craft to comedy and acting. She was born in Cape Town, South Africa and raised in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City by two accomplished jazz musicians, Sathima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim. She recently chatted with msnbc about her idea for an Anthony Bourdain type show, why she’s no longer exclusive with hip-hop, and having bourbon with President Obama, if given the opportunity.
Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:
I’m Jean Grae and I do everything.
How far back can you trace your family history?
I was watching “No Reservations” again and I was like I would love to travel around the world and do what Anthony Bourdain does, but let’s be really real about it. That small town in Sardinia that he’s having so much fun in … look at me. I’m not going to be as welcome in all of those places. So I thought, “what’s a way that I’d be able to do that?” What I would love to do this this year is pitch a show doing a DNA swab, finding around the world where these people are and going to figure out heritage and family … sitting down and breaking bread and going back to Cape Town and sharing it with everyone.
You were born into an amazing family of Jazz musicians. Describe some of the sights, sounds, and tastes from your childhood:
Beside them just being them it was also their choice of where to live in New York, choosing to be in Chelsea but also specifically choosing to be in the Chelsea Hotel was something you don’t realize until you get to be a little bit older. There was a lot, there was New York at what I consider a great f–king New York time. The Late ’70s, ’80s, and even the ’90s and even watching the community be gentrified over 20 years. My mom took great care in letting us be exposed in dance classes and walking around Manhattan.
Who or where are you drawing creative inspiration from?
The comedic world has been very welcoming and open. People like Hannibal [Buress], Wyatt [Cenac], and John Hodgman.
In August of 2013 during Afropunk you were dealing with the death of your mother who was a well known jazz musician. How are you coping with that?
It definitely threw me into a different kind of work mode where I didn’t want to wait for anything anymore. There’s too much precious time. I had a really hard work ethic before that but it really pushed me to do a lot of things and to work further outside my comfort zone which is weird because I didn’t think I really had one.
On the topic of remembrance, the anniversary of J. Dilla’s death is coming up [2/10/2016] and his birthday was last week [2/7/74]. How has his music influenced you?
I like anyone who kinda steps out and is like “I’m just going to f–king do something else”. Even something as small as “I’m not just going to quantize this beat”… It’s finding kindred spirits in people who are able to make people see a different kind of beauty. I’m a huge sucker for chord progressions and rhythmic changes that don’t fall into what the norm is. So it’s always nice when you see an artist and you’re like you oh ok, yeah “I can f–king do what I want and it will be great.”
“Love of My Crew” is one my favorite songs. My hip-hop professor, Prof. Tricia Rose included it in her curriculum. Tell me how that song came about? How does it make you feel to be part of an academic curriculum?
Everyone really loves that song. What did I do? That song is interesting because … it will probably fall under my “meh” songs … It was definitely at a time when I was trying to find my voice as a solo artist.
Some other songs that are newer, “ACME (Take it to the Wall)”:
“Take it to the Wall” is fun because it was the last song that I recorded on “Jeannie.” and it was about 4 a.m. and I was like I have got to put another song on this and I had run out of samples … I’m feeling a little, not “gospelie”, “jip-joiney” kinda like that. So I did that song super fast … and then I played it for Neil Drumming and he was like “ … this is possibly the blackest song you’ve ever done”. And I was like “thank you for f–king saying it, it feels like being in a back water bar and everyone is really really sweaty and I’m performing half of this from halfway across the bar and somehow Sly Stone shows up” … that’s how it feels like.
Why did you recently tweet “suck it, rap”? Why are you saying that now?
I have privately been saying “f–k rap” for a very long time but also felt that that’s super damaging if you’re in the middle of putting out a bunch of rap albums … At the point where I am now, knowing that I’m fine with doing rap but not focusing on it as this is my only egg in this basket. And also having done enough things … So this isn’t “hey I never didn’t try, I never didn’t give it my all.” But as in any relationship that’s not working, you’re not feeling reciprocity, it’s a bad idea to stay there, it’s a bad idea for you, your spirit and your soul … and not that I don’t love you, I just have to go. We can be friends.
Kanye went in at the Grammys and said that Beyoncé deserved Album of the Year over Beck, he also said: “All I know is if the Grammys want real artists to keep coming back they need to stop playing with us.”
There’s a lot of sh-t that I don’t like or don’t agree with when it necessarily happens and it doesn’t mean that I have to jump up and dim someone else’s light in order to do something, so that’s upsetting to me. That’s fine Kanye … but also don’t take [stuff] away from Beck. He’s a musician, he’s an artist, he works hard too. What is it going to do for your life if you didn’t jump up on the stage and take a moment away from someone else.
My second thought was, there’s a pattern here … let’s visually look at Taylor Swift and look at Beck. So maybe Suge Knight, just go with me here, made an album and it won over Beyoncé in that category … don’t really think Kanye would be jumping on that stage to say Beyoncé should’ve won … so there’s kind of bullying there.
Then I’m curious to know what you thought when Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”?
I’m fine with that. I don’t think there was any bullying going on there. I’m fine with people speaking their mind … it was the truth. It didn’t hurt anyone’s feeling … I don’t like bullies … don’t fight the weak kids.
Who is killing it in music right now?
I was stuck on James Blake for a while. There’s a really beautifully complicated simplicity to his stuff. I enjoy Sia a lot … I really like good writers who can make these huge pop songs … I miss Amy Winehouse a lot.
If you had to play two songs on repeat:
Stevie Wonder – “They won’t go when I go” / Duke Ellington and John Coltrane – “In a sentimental mood”
What does it take to be Jean Grae?
It depends what day it is. Sometimes it takes a lot of cooking to get me through the day.
If you had a chance to speak to President Obama, what would you say?
I’d like to have a really good conversation with both of us not completely sober, like with really good bourbon or something.
If you had to rewrite history …
I would want to be paid heftily for it, it’s a long job. How much would I get paid for that?
What were your memories of Black History Month as a child in school and what do you make of it today?
My mom made sure that I attended very liberal and kinda hippie schools. There was a lot of lice, which they said I would not get because black kids don’t get lice. But no, lice many times … It was the usual Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King but they definitely were open about atrocities and going further back than just civil rights … I’m surprised that it’s not Black History Month and Women’s month just all in February.