Toronto native Jessie Reyez is a showstopper. At an otherwise lackluster MTV VMAs, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter held the star-studded crowd captive that night with a saccharine performance of her 2018 single, “Apple Juice” — and in denim overalls, no less. “Everybody was like, “It’s your first time here, how do you feel?’ I was crying!” she told Rolling Stone over the phone, while camping with family in Ontario. “I just get hyper-emotional.”
Reyez’s glowing performance was only the latest honor in a series of accolades; this year she won both a Juno Award for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, as well as the SOCAN Songwriting Prize for her song “Cotton Candy.” This week, she announced her upcoming EP, Being Human in Public, which will be out in its entirety later this fall. Her upcoming EP will feature “Apple Juice,” as well as her song “Body Count.” She gets a little help from friends in the new remix, which features Kehlani and Normani of Fifth Harmony fame.
A middle finger to conservative mores around gender and sexuality, “Body Count (Remix)” sees the newly minted squad of R&B queens evoke the flow of SWV, under the influence of feminist thought. (“I dodge dick on the daily,” sings Reyez; “For some pussy,” adds Kehlani, with a wink. “You were birthed by a woman,” sings Normani. “Show some fucking respect!”)
The original video for “Body Count” sees Reyez — who openly accused producer Noel “Detail” Fisher of sexual misconduct in 2017 — play a witch dragged to the stake, ready to burn before a village of sour-faced colonists. “We have to do more than talk about [sexual assault],” Reyez tells Rolling Stone. “We need people at the top to make more conscious decisions about who they work with.” An audacious new voice in R&B, Reyez spoke candidly about her upcoming EP, her Spanish-language venture and her very charmed 2018.
Many people saw you for the first time at the VMAs. Most awards shows tend to drag, but your nimble voice really lit up the crowd. How did you feel when they cheered you on?
I always pray before I go [onstage]. At every show I pray with my band. It’s a big thing. And for the first time ever… I just started crying, in the middle of the prayer. It wasn’t religious, I just get so hyper-emotional!
Can you walk me through the evolution of your singing style? How did you refine your technique?
My earliest memories have to do with music. When I was a kid I put on shows for my folks, put curlers in my hair and shit, and pretended to be Celia Cruz. My parents encouraged me to take that path — I did a lot of talent shows. I remember going to audition in Toronto, for a girl group. I was 15 or 16. I went in with my guitar. I had the wickedest nerves, man! I was decent, but not good enough.
So I got out on Queen Street West, looking all defeated and shit. My dad was waiting in his car. One of the judges [ran] out and said, “Kid! Don’t get discouraged. I don’t think this is for you, but your voice has potential.” His name is Tyse Saffuri. He came over to the crib, met my folks. I got two lessons from this guy and … he just gave me the dopest pointers, I use them to this day. He was like, “If you wanna be one of the greats, you have to study the greats.” I watched videos of Amy Winehouse and Beyoncé, copied runs, did my scales. Then by doing the Remix Project [at the Recording Arts Academy in Toronto], meeting people who achieved what I wanted to achieve? Who are human and bleed like me? Helped me be able to accomplish it.
You released your first original Spanish-language song this year, called “Sola.” Had you written a song in Spanish before? What inspired you to go this route?
I’m not sure! It just felt right to do it. I have written a bunch of songs in Spanish that have been accumulating all these years. [With “Sola”] I had to think, “Can I do this? Do I have a big enough platform?” A lot of people didn’t know I spoke Spanish, but I speak Spanish all the time. My parents immigrated [to Canada] from Cali, Colombia — I spoke only Spanish up until I was five or six years old, then learned English when I went to school. Toronto is very diverse — lots of African, Caribbean, Indian and Asian kids, Latino kids too. It didn’t feel weird that I had an accent. I’m still Canadian, so.
Colombians are repping themselves hard in the mainstream pop landscape — more than ever before. Whose music do you really fuck with right now?
Kali Uchis is a dope person. Her voice, her style — she’s so unique. She’s doing some humanitarian work over in Colombia that I appreciate so much. But also, I really love Juanes! He retweeted my song, “Sola,” the other day. I just… freaked. Juanes, the legend!
There’s been a #MeToo reckoning in nearly every industry, but it’s been slow-going in the music industry. You addressed your experience with a predatory producer head on in the song, “Gatekeeper” — and kicked off a powerful conversation. Other women in pop — like Tinashe and Bebe Rexha — even shared their own stories.
I got many responses, not just from women, but from men too — some who were going through it. [Some] men saying, “I never thought about it from that perspective.” It made them more sensitive to their position of power, and how they should move accordingly. On the other hand, it sucks that this still has to be a conversation. It’s 2018 and we’ve developed so many new technologies, all of that shit. But this is something that’s lagging.
A lot of pop stars are still hesitant to speak out about it the way you have, though.
It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great that it resonated with so many people… It’s also fucked that it resonated with this many people. It’s FUCKED. We have to do more than talk about it — so many people already know, and stay quiet out of fear and complacency. More people at the top need to make conscious decisions about who they work with. These things have to resonate after the headlines stop being fashionable. It’s not cool to just talk about it anymore.
Your work is proof that you can speak out and still have a platinum song, perform at the VMAs, have all these honors. So where are you keeping all these trophies?
I don’t have much! But for the ones I do have, my folks aggressively put it out there, in the most visible part of our living room. I don’t know how I feel about that yet.