When I call New Zealand rapper JessB, she’s slotting me into a pretty packed schedule—she’s on a getaway with Red Bull, staying in Sydney with a group of artists ahead of a pre Splendour in the Grass show. After our interview wraps, she’s headed to a meditation session also organised by Red Bull, something I imagine you would welcome when your life has been moving at breakneck speed. Jess’s life has been this hectic for a while now, and it’s not surprising when you consider her output over the last few years.
The Auckland artist has slowly but surely been making a name for herself as one of Australasia’s most skilled and dynamic rappers, and her recently released EP New Views is the culmination of years of unrelenting dedication to her craft. She’s not one to shy away from practice and hard work, something you can probably attribute to the years she spent as a competitive netballer.
Her days zipping around the court are behind her now, but she gets the same exhilarating adrenaline rush from live performance. And she’s doing a lot of it. Over the last 18 months she’s performed at nearly every major New Zealand festival and played alongside artists like Little Simz, Stormzy, and Melbourne artist Kaiit. So, with that in mind, perhaps busy is an understatement.
Jess found hip-hop at a young age. Growing up half-Kenyan and half-Pākehā in New Zealand, she struggled to find people who looked like her represented in the media. Hip-hop was a genre she felt seen and heard by, and once she discovered artists like Missy Elliott, her direction was set. That Missy sound is still present in her music today, but Jess’s output is eclectic and pulls from a variety of genres—grime, reggaeton, dancehall, and afrobeat, to name a few.
New Views is undoubtedly a step forward for her as an artist. The subject matter is more diverse, but her artistic vision has never been so clear. She swaggers through tracks like ‘Mood’ and ‘Bump, Bump’, but elsewhere dives into heavier subject matter, exploring romance and heartbreak with searing honesty on songs like ‘So Low’. But she really shines on ‘New Era’, an ode to self-love. She raps about being enough and living for herself with utter conviction, closing the song with the memorable line “It’s the new era we are quite enough / it’s the new era, see the fight in us”. It’s a line that sums up Jess’s growth as an artist and as a human being—she’s found that elusive sweet spot between bravado and self-belief, and she’s absolutely luxuriating in it.
Thanks! Yeah, I mean depending on what it is, like, for my music videos I’ve been pretty much self-styled, I mean obviously with the help of my friends and stuff, but often the budget just doesn’t allow for a stylist. I have a music video coming out soon that we did actually have styling for, but for ‘Mood’ we were just in LA and there was virtually no budget for the video—we didn’t have a budget—we were kinda just working with what we had, so to save money I styled myself. So I just went around to the thrift stores that were in LA and put together some outfits.
I was in the Red Bull studios in Auckland actually. So that was one of the sessions that we had, the producer 10a came into the session and I kind of told him the vibe that I wanted and he started building a beat on the spot and I started writing on the spot and it happened really quickly. And that’s usually to do with the rapport that you have with the producer that comes in and like how much you—if I’m feeling the vibe of the beat, then I can get to writing pretty quickly.
So in contrast to ‘Mood’, what was the process of creating the other single from your new EP, ‘Bump Bump’, like?
So that one was actually a similar process. So I had hired Roundhead Studios in Auckland for a week in February because I’d kind of—it’s hard when you don’t have a home studio. So if I want to have features and producers come through, then I am kind of relying on places like Red Bull studios to be able do that, whereas if I’m at home, I can’t have a producer come through and cook up a beat, because I don’t have anything.
So I hired the studio as a way to get people I know together and have [a] space to do that, so that was made on the first day. So yeah, the beat was made on the spot and then Church Leon who was doing the hook got both of us writing at the same time on the beat, and we kinda just came up with that within a few hours and I worked on it more the next day, but his parts were all done the first day.
Did you two work well together?
Yeah, totally. Church is amazing. He’s a really, really talented artist, so his ideas were all really fun, he was fun to work with.
You’ve done quite a few collabs now and performed alongside artists like Kaiit and Stormzy—is there someone that you’d love to perform or collaborate with?
In terms of like big stars, like my ultimate dream would be Missy Elliott because she was my ultimate inspiration growing up.
I can hear the Missy Elliott influence in your music for sure.
Yes! [Laughs] Also, probably Kehlani, and then there’s just so many dope female artists and producers out there and I’m about it, so any of them to be honest.
I’ve seen interviews with you before where you very fairly enough get sick of the classic, “What’s it like being a female rapper?” question. Instead, I want to know which female rappers you think deserve more recognition. Who are you listening to?
I actually feel like this is a time where more female rappers are getting recognition than I’ve ever known before. And there’s kind of like, such a contrast you know. You have your City Girls and your Megan Stallions, and you have your Tierra Whacks, and they’re all very different and in different lanes and targeting different audiences and having different content that they’re talking about. I mean, I think in general, female rappers need the recognition, it’s still not an even playing field, but it’s really, I guess, I dunno, motivating for me to be able to see it all happening around me and more people popping up, you know what I mean?
Yeah, totally, you can feel that there’s a change underway.
Yeah, and now it’s like you’ve got the biggest A-List girls who are doing their thing, but underneath all that there’s a core of women coming up who are supporting each other and kind of like really not caring about what anyone’s saying so that’s pretty exciting.
It’s definitely an exciting, progressive time to be involved in hip-hop as a woman. I know that for you, making inclusive spaces is a really important focus. Can you tell me about FILTH, the collective and club night that you host in Auckland?
Yeah, so, FILTH is I guess a party that I started with my best friend, who is also my DJ, Half Queen. So I guess we’ve kind of been lucky enough to travel to places like LA where, they’re hubs for, you know, different communities, like queer communities or POC communities and those places are already quite solidified, so we just kind of felt like there was a space missing that was prioritising the experiences of POC in, I guess, the nightlife scene.
And then also [playing] the type of music that we wanna hear. So it’s not like an exclusive party but we wanted to make the space as safe as possible for those people to kinda come and know that this place has already thought about the framework, the kaupapa of everything, and it’s aligned with our values and other safe spaces.
That’s super cool to hear and I know in Australia as well there’s more and more club nights and collectives that are built around that same ethos.
Yeah and I think we were quite overwhelmed with it because we’ve only done three, but they’ve grown immensely each time and to me it just shows that the demand for these spaces is there and they just haven’t existed in Auckland to our knowledge before, so yeah it’s really exciting and hopefully like you say, more will pop up.
For your last EP Bloom, you hosted a block party style event for its release. What’s the plan for the release of your next EP?
So, I am planning a tour once this EP comes out, so it will be my first like, I guess, official tour and I’ll probably be doing four or five New Zealand dates and hopefully coming over to Australia to do some shows as well, it just depends on a few things. But definitely the New Zealand dates are all booked in.
You’ve been writing all over the place at the moment—Amsterdam, London, LA. What’s your favourite city to create music in?
For me it’s more about the, I guess, the chemistry between me and the producer and how much they understand my sound and excite me in the same way that I would excite them. I mean I’ve had great sessions all over the world obviously, including back home in New Zealand, but probably from the trip I just went on and the sessions I had, it was probably the sessions I had in Amsterdam. So, I was unsure going over—I went to Amsterdam for three days to write music and I wasn’t sure what would happen, I kinda was just open to the idea of it.
But the Dutch sound and their hip-hop at the moment is very up my alley in terms of just the components that they kinda use from reggaeton, dancehall, kind of like UK hip-hop, they kinda are merged and bashed together in this quite unique Dutch sound that is still very understandable from lots of different points of views. So I just had the best time and wrote like five songs in three days and [it] absolutely was a positive experience. I wanna go back and work with the people that I worked with because that was kinda one of the first times that I, well, in that experience I really felt that I’d found the sound that really suited me and that just kind of seemed to fit perfectly with my own personal style of how I rap and what I’m ultimately trying to achieve through my songs. So yeah, it’s really exciting.
In terms of Dutch rap and hip-hop, do you have any recommendations for people that don’t know much about that scene?
I don’t really know that much about it, but when I was over there I was kind of learning about the scene and how it works over there, but Amsterdam itself, a producer was telling me, has the most festivals in the world out of any country, so during the summer—so right now—they have like three to four festivals a day. They have festivals going every day of the week, so what Dutch artists can do over there is make all their money by just doing back-to-back festivals every week for like three months in Amsterdam during the summer and then they kinda, it’s almost like they don’t travel outside of their area to make money, so obviously language is a thing too. Dutch language isn’t gonna translate as well to English speaking music, but they don’t need to.
Wow, that’s a crazy interesting model compared to what artists around the world have to do to make a living.
Yeah, so if you can get on the festival circuit in Amsterdam, you’re gonna be doing really well for yourself.
Yeah, I did find that really interesting because I didn’t know that about the festivals in Amsterdam.
What’s a festival you’d love to play at?
Well, I mean there’s definitely a lot of festivals I’d love to play, like Glastonbury, I mean all the really big ones, so I mean…
You gotta manifest it though.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I wouldn’t say that I have any specific rituals, but I definitely kind of treat it like a, I dunno, I like to warm up, like I’m about to go play a game of sport. I find it just helps if my body is warm, I think like everything like my breathing is better on stage and like my movement. So I guess that is a ritual, but I don’t have anything specific that I do before it. I just bounce around.
You played netball professionally for quite a while—do you miss the competition element of that, or do you find you get the same adrenaline rush from performing?
Yeah, I went and watched a netball game recently and [I] kind of realised that I did miss the actual game play of it, but I think that I’ve realised that the aspect that I love most out of netball I still very much get out of being involved in music. I guess those high performance, high-pressure situations, in terms of performing but also just like having a team and travelling as part of a team or a band, you know, and being able to connect with people in places that you go, it’s all very similar, so I haven’t kind of missed it as much as I initially kind of thought I would.
Yeah I’ve never thought about how similar the two are. I think I’ve gotta let you go soon, you’re heading off to a session with Red Bull right?
Yeah, it’s a session on mindfulness.
Oh, very new-age, that sounds great. So what’s next for you?
I guess there’ll be the roll out of the tour and hopefully some shows in Australia.
Nice. One last thing, I work in the same office as Complex Australia and you filmed a GOAT video with them last year. I’m a bit of a corn chip connoisseur, and in the video you mentioned that you’re very into corn chips—what’s your GOAT corn chip?
[Laughs] Oh yeah, hmm, Mexicano for the brand and the humble jalapeno [flavour] is probably my favourite.
Great choice. I’m from New Zealand too, and you can’t get Mexicano over here in Australia, it’s terrible.
Yeah it really is, the tasty salsa was one of my faves.
Fun fact, Mexicano actually followed me back on Instagram. I talk about Mexicano so much, I should just be an ambassador at this point.
You actually should be.
I’m like, is this something we can talk about? Let’s work this out.
Well you know what, mentioning them in this interview, maybe that’s the first step towards a sponsorship deal?
I know, maybe I’ll be the very first ambassador of Mexicano.
Check out JessB’s new EP above and follow her here.