Glass speaks with Jhené Aiko, the R&B singer combining music, art and writing to heal scars


It’s all about perspective …

Glass speaks with Jhené Aiko, the successful R&B singer combining music, art and writing to heal scars

JHENÉ Aiko Efuru Chilombo, born and raised in Los Angeles, made her musical debut in the early 2000s when she signed to Epic and contributed vocals to label mates B2K. Leaving her contract in 2003 to focus on studying, her return was not made until 2011, when the birth of her daughter Namiko encouraged her to reconsider music. Collaborating with Drake, Childish Gambino and Big Sean put Aiko on the map and her 2013 comeback mixtape, Sailing Souls, garnered two Grammy nominations.

Since then, Aiko has grown from strength to strength to bloom into one of R&B’s most well-respected singers. Her 2014 album Souled Out received critical acclaim and became the biggest-selling EP in Def Jam history. This success was boosted by her Grammy-nominated #1 platinum cross-over hit The Worst. Last year, Aiko released her second studio album Trip, which debuted at number five on the US Billboard 2000 chart, simultaneously becoming her fourth consecutive top ten debut on the chart. Described as the female Frank Ocean, Aiko sings with a delicate, fluttery voice and her music floats between futuristic RnB, dark alt-pop, and neo-soul – with psychedelic references woven in throughout.

Trip is her most honest work yet, says Aiko, detailing its purpose as a guide for those suffering physical, emotional, or mental strain. And when Glass spoke with her, this consideration of other’s wellbeing was as prevalent as ever. With a newfound desire to reconnect with the real world, Aiko’s direction for 2019 is an inspiring one that is focused on the content rather than the figures, the love rather than the likes and how far she has come rather than how far she has yet to go …

Jhené Aiko. Photographer: Ssam Kim

Can you explain your journey into music?
I am the youngest of five and growing up my dad always had an interest in being a musician – he played the guitar and wrote songs. So, he converted our garage into a studio. He instilled that musical interest in us when we were very young. All throughout my life my sisters were in singing groups and my mum was managing them – I was always with her when they were shooting and [when she was] taking them to shows … and that was really when I decided that it was something that I wanted to do. I did a talent show in the second grade and everyone told me how well I did – from then on I felt like I was good at it. When I was 20, I got pregnant with my daughter and I had to decide if I wanted to continue having a regular job or if I wanted to continue to do music and really focus on it. I decided I wanted to focus on music, writing my own music and really being my own artist.

When I was younger, I didn’t really have the chance to express myself, as I was just singing other people’s songs and singing their stories. At that time, around 20, 21, I had been through so much that I already had all these things to sing about. Now, we’re here and life is only getting crazier. I have more things to express.

The first album I bought with my own money was … there were a few. There was an artist named Sammy, he was an R&B singer, and then I bought Celebrity by NSYNC and then I bought Invisible by Michael Jackson. Probably a Bow Wow CD. I don’t really know which one came first!

What was the first album you ever bought?
The first album I bought with my own money was … there were a few. There was an artist named Sammy, he was an R&B singer, and then I bought Celebrity by NSYNC and then I bought Invisible by Michael Jackson. Probably a Bow Wow CD. I don’t really know which one came first!

 Jhené Aiko. Photographer: Ssam Kim

Thinking back to a time before you had decided to pursue music as a profession, what key piece of advice would you give to yourself?
I would tell myself to be patient and to have faith that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to. Keep the faith in myself.

Your album Trip is inspired by loss and hardship, would you say music helps you process grief?
Yes, for sure. It’s really the only reason why I make music. I’ve always been more of an introverted person, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ll speak my mind to whoever will listen. When it comes to grief and loss, I feel like it’s something that I’ve dealt with since I can remember. Most of my memories I’ve been dealing with loss. For me, I started writing poetry, or even journaling about it, when I was in elementary, and then I eventually started writing poetry. It was my way of expressing it and getting it out so that it wouldn’t be bothering me so much on the inside. Once I started sharing my poems in class, that’s when I realised that it helps other people to relate and it made me feel like I’m not going through this alone. As I got older, I realised that sharing these stories about loss helps people and helps me too. I just feel like we should start to talk about it and ways to heal, ways to be there for each other. The older we get, the more we lose. My saving grace is writing about it.

How has motherhood influenced your work ethic?
Motherhood has definitely made me more aware of the things I am saying in songs, especially the older she gets. When Post to Be came out, I went to her school and the older kids came up to me and said, “we love your song – the booty song”. Even though she knows, and I explained to her [that] it was a joke, it just made me feel that I need to be more responsible. I am a young mum and I am still learning and growing. Me and her have super-open discussions about things, she knows right from wrong already without me having to explain it to her. Having her has really taught me that work is not the most important thing, it’s really spending time with people that you love.

When she was younger, I justified working myself too hard by saying, “Oh I’m doing this for my daughter. I need to sacrifice time with her so I can make more money for her, [and] have better opportunities for us”. But at the end of the day, especially as she gets older and is more vocal about wanting to spend more time with me, I know how to balance it – by maybe missing [something] because it may take away too much time with my daughter. The sacrifice is the reward – she is my reward.

Jhené Aiko. Photographer: Ssam Kim

Your Instagram and Twitter makes many references to Buddhism, and your star sign, Pisces, is tattooed on your wrist, would you say you are a spiritual person? If so, what experiences have most shaped your spiritual life?
I would definitely say I am a spiritual person, but I am also a person who has a thirst for knowledge and loves reading about different religions and science. When I was about four or five, I met my great-grandmother for the first time and I remember being so fascinated and in love with her. When she died, I was like, “What does that mean?”. From that moment, I was on a quest to understand life and death. She was Japanese, so her funeral was a Buddhist ceremony, and we had to do a whole week of Buddhist traditions [where] we learnt all about the ceremony and the incense offering. From that moment, I was interested in Buddhism. My grandmother would take us to the Christian church when we were young, [and] my mother’s aunt was Catholic and she would take us to the Catholic Church. From a very young age, I saw that there were lots of different ways of practising spirituality and faith – I’ve always been intrigued and interested.

Social media holds such an intrinsic position in today’s music industry. How do you maintain a healthy relationship with the world of social? I ask because I’m curious to hear the reasoning behind your recent break from Instagram and Twitter.
Recently it was becoming too much for me, I am like an obsessive person. [It’s] like a candy bar, I’m going to eat it until I throw up. That’s what social media was becoming for me, an addiction that was affecting my mental health. I felt like I was becoming consumed by it and I feel like a lot of people feel that way. We get so into what people think about us, or how all these strangers perceive us. I wanted to become more a part of the real world. I wanted to be more present. I enjoy being out, going to the grocery store and having random conversations with strangers, or going out for dinner by myself or having real genuine social interactions with people. I feel like social media is not real life, but it’s a good tool to promote things or to voice your opinion. I am too sensitive to deal with so many opinions and feelings about things.

Jhené Aiko. Photographer: Ssam Kim

How important is fashion to you as a way of expressing image?
Fashion to me directly reflects how I am feeling. I wake up some days and I feel completely confident so I want to put on some heels [and] a bold colour. But some days I feel super lazy and I want to put on something that is very comfortable, and I don’t care if it matches or not. For me, style is definitely an expression of my mood, and I am not afraid to try things – if I’m not sure if it will look good on me, I try it anyway. I don’t want something that everyone wants; I just try to stick with what I feel. Sometimes it is trendy, but I have no idea.

Your taste for mixing high-end fashion, bohemian style and luxe streetwear has caught the attention of many and you’re now a favourite on best-dressed lists. How has your aesthetic and style changed over time and where would you like to see it progress to in the future?
I have always been this way, [but] I think that now I have a more expensive taste. When I’m going shopping, if I like it and it’s more expensive I think that it’s worth it to invest in myself. I think when I first put my mixtape out, in my mind I thought I needed to have an image, I needed this one consistent thing, but that’s not me. I am consistently inconsistent. I am a bunch of everything. I started off with the bohemian, no shoes, kind of thing, but I didn’t always feel like that and I felt uncomfortable. So now, it’s a mix of these different styles, because I am a mix of these different things. I would love to have my own clothing line that offers a variety of sizes – especially for my short girls. I would love to have a clothing line that appreciates every single size, and every gender, too.

Your approach to music is authentic and artistically driven in an effort to, “sail my ‘self’ rather than sell my ‘self’”, as you’ve said in the past. What keeps you motivated when making music?
Just life really. Like I said earlier, when I’m writing or making music, 98 per cent of the time I am going through something, so it really is just my way of surviving. I have to put it in some form of art. It really has a lot to do with people coming up to me to tell me how my songs have helped them, and how they can relate to my stories. There have definitely been times where I’ve felt like I’ve given so much of myself and I felt like I am not getting back anything. Then I will go out and someone will come up to me crying about something similar [that] they are going through in their lives, and how one of my songs has helped them to not commit suicide, and stuff like that. Then I know that this is bigger than me, because I am not writing this music from a place where I want to be famous or popular or to make money – this is what I am feeling. There is a higher purpose.

Were you motivated in the same way when building your project MAP (stands for movie, album and poem)?
I knew that when I put out my first album that I wanted to do more than just an album. I have always enjoyed poetry, I have all of these poems that I have been writing since I was a pre-teen, so it made sense to share them and release them into the world so that I could let go of any of the hurt I was holding on to. I love writing, and so writing the movie Trip was actually my first priority after I did my second album. I want to make a movie, I want to write it and I want to act in it – I have always been interested in acting. I didn’t even realise it would be a trilogy,  I love acronyms so it made sense – it’s all about the journey of finding myself, and guiding others to find themselves, too, through my stories and me.

Jhené Aiko. Photographer: Ssam Kim

What with the success of your latest album, going on tour with the likes of Lana Del Rey, and collaborations with other artists such as Kris Wu this year, what can we expect from you in 2019?
The year 2018 has been, for me, one of the craziest years in terms of dealing with mental health and [the fact] my daughter is going to be 10. Dealing with her reminds me that life is real right now. I turned 30 this year, and everyone I know who has turned 30 has shaken up their lives. I don’t want a mid-life crisis, I feel like one’s coming but I am embracing it, I am sober. When I was doing Trip, and the years a little before, I was really on a downward spiral when it comes to self-medicating.

So [for] 2019 I am definitely moving in the right direction. A lot of times we talk about what we are going through and our problems, but now we need to focus on resolving the issues and how can we help each other get through this life. In 2019 there’s no specific time frame but I am working on projects that I would love to share as soon as possible, but I want to make sure that I take my time [because] I am writing everything and putting it together [with] an amazing team who help me. As I get stronger within myself, I will be able to share a little more personally. [For now] I am taking a few steps back.

by Lily Rimmer

Taken from the Winter 2018 issue  of Glass

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Photographer SSAM KIM
Production Coordinator WINDY LEE
Fashion assistant JENNIFER LEE
Photo assistant EMERY SHIFFRAW


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Earrings, shoes LOUIS VUITTON

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LOUIS VUITTON sweater and jacket.
Radiating Lotus earrings with white diamonds (2.08 carats) set in white gold
Radiating Lotus necklace with white diamonds (29.57 carats) set in white gold
Infinity Half Band with white diamonds (1.63 carats) set in yellow gold, all DE BEERS

Image three:
Radiating Lotus earrings with white diamonds (2.08 carats) set in white gold
Radiating Lotus necklace with white diamonds (29.57 carats) set in white gold, both DE BEERS

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Necklace, earrings BEN AMUN