As soon as the camera turns on for this Zoom interview, Jessi notices something isn’t right. “Hello! Hold on one second, this lighting is really bad.” Her team promptly moves the laptop to another room – a video set with a black director’s chair and a bright pink backdrop. The laptop is placed on a low table, making Jessi look like some modern day deity.
She’s wearing light jeans and a pink, long-sleeved crop top. “I’m in a really bad angle. I just don’t want to have a nip slip,” she jokes. In this brief interaction, Jessi’s strongest traits already come through: she has a meticulous eye for detail, an irreverence that disarms you, and a presence that can’t be ignored.
Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, the 34-year-old rapper and singer grew up between the United States and South Korea. Her first foray into the music industry was in 2005, with the single ‘Get Up’, under the alias Jessica H.O. Then, a series of solo and group projects followed, as well as TV show appearances that consolidated her unique personality, like the 2015 rap competition Unpretty Rapstar. Jessi is outspoken, bold, effortlessly funny – but she’s also relatable, sensible and highly attuned to her position as a celebrity.
After a rollercoaster of a journey to find herself, Jessi is glad to be who she is now. She recently signed with Jay Park’s label, More Vision, and released her first single under it, ‘Gum’, on October 25. Below, she talks about this new chapter, still pursuing happiness and what she has learned after nearly 20 years in the music industry.
How and when did ‘Gum’ come up for you? And why did you decide it to be your first single under More Vision?
“I wasn’t planning on releasing a song until I dropped a [full] album. I was doing a lot of performances and festivals, and I was just, you know, physically, mentally drained. But I had this song, ‘Gum’, and I felt like it was such a good song and had so much potential, I didn’t want to drop it next year. I felt like fans wanted something.
[People around me] were like, ‘Oh, but this is such a summer song’, and I’m like, ‘But the seasons are different everywhere’, you know? People do tend to think that when you drop a song in winter, it should be sad. I have all those songs ready, but I felt like the timing was right, to drop it now rather than later. These types of songs make you want to dance, make you feel yourself, so I was like, ‘Let’s just drop it. Let me do the best I can’.”
Some people have noticed that the lettering for ‘Gum’ can be read as a different word, and also sound like a different word. What is your thought process for layering songs with multiple meanings?
“If you listen to all my music, there’s double meanings in every song, it’s just not in your face. I’m not that type. I’ll keep the lyrics very PG, very ear-friendly, but there’s a lot of subliminal messages in there. If you listen to ‘Gum, gum, gum’, it sounds like a different word. The way I spelt the G for ‘Gum’, it doesn’t look like ‘gum’ at first glance. If you watch the video, like I said, there’s a lot of moments where you see me showing the actions. I know the people who get it, get it. But if you sum it down, ‘Gum’ pretty much just means that we all have different flavours.”
In previous interviews, you mentioned that you want to find happiness, or to discover what happiness is. Do you think that you are a little bit closer to it now?
“I think everyone has a mission in life. Everyone’s goals keep changing, and it’s been a long road for me. It’s been 18 years since I debuted, I’ve been doing this for a really long time and it hasn’t been a pretty road, you know? It’s been a rocky road.
However, my goals are different now. Money, all that stuff is great, but at the same time, what is all that without happiness? So, right now, I’m still trying to find that and I don’t think it’s the people who can bring that to me. I need to find it in myself, but the surroundings are very important. Definitely surround yourself with positive people who support you. Energy is everything. For me, I don’t like being around people who are always so negative, because I’m negative. I’m one of those people who overthink a lot, because it was so hard for me to get here. I have no choice but to overthink, because nobody did it for me.
But happiness truly is the most important thing. And I think that’s what I found out over the year when I had no company. It wasn’t not having a company that made me unhappy, it was just a time when I was the most vulnerable, and I saw a lot of the people that were close to me leave, or screw me over. And that’s when I realised, when you thought that you’re at a certain age, you have all the right people around you, but you know, I was taken for granted. It really hurt me. And I think that’s why right now I’m in a place where I’m trying to find happiness and peace, within my heart and my mind.”
What are some of your goals, besides finding happiness?
“It’s never-ending, but I think one of the biggest goals is to really find what I want. Music is something that’s just such a given, like, I love it in my blood. If you play me a song, or the cameras are on me, it’s showtime. But I do want to have a family. I want to become a better daughter. I want to become a better person. I want to become an entrepreneur. I want to do things other than just music. I want to use my brand to help other women out. I want to write a children’s book, I want to make children’s music. The list goes on. So, anything that finds peace within myself, I think it all connects to that. That’s what I’m striving for.”
Do you think that you are a very different person offstage than you are on stage?
“100 per cent. I mean, if I’m on stage, I’m cursing and swinging all the time. In person I’m always focused. When I’m offstage, people around me make mistakes, or whatever it is, and I’m very – you know, it’s like the military for me, because that’s how I grew up. I don’t really go out. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t really have a hobby. So other than work, I’m just always home, doing nothing.”
It’s a very different image than people might have when looking at you and listening to your music.
“Yeah, I think it’s all art. Music and real life are so different, it’s crazy. A lot of people would think when they see my videos, or they see me on TV, or when I perform, like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s so loud. She’s such a savage. She’s so obnoxious,’ but it’s entertainment, you know? Why are they putting me on these shows if I’m a rude person? It is what it is, I can’t ever change. This is who I am, and I’m very content with where I am right now.”
You’re a person who changed so much until you got to where you are. Do you think that change is a core part of your identity?
“I think the only thing that changes is my brain. I’m getting older, so I’m getting wiser and smarter and becoming more of a woman. Those are the qualities that obviously change, [but] the person that I am, I’m the same. With age, you experience more and stuff like that, so, in that sense, yes, I’ve changed a lot.”
What is the importance of your style and your looks as a part of your work?
“It matters a lot. I’m a perfectionist, and I think that’s a blessing and a curse. I look at every little detail, which is a good thing, but it’s a bad thing for me, because that’s when I stress myself out. And I’m like, ‘Why am I overthinking everything?’ But I don’t think anyone could change that about me, because that’s how I was built in this industry. I didn’t have a silver spoon handed to me. I had to make it big myself, grow my role on my own and ground myself.
When it comes to music videos or fashion, stuff like that, yeah, looking good is great. But, in general, I don’t care as much about what people think. When you see me, normally I’m not wearing makeup. I wear the same shirt every day. But music videos are forever, so I definitely have to contribute [creatively].”
As someone who always tries to be an uplifting presence to others, what do you do when you don’t feel your best?
“I just brush it off. I plug it out. When it comes to my work, I overthink, so I’m always thinking 10 steps ahead. When things are out of my control, that’s when I go crazy. I learned it the hard way. I never got complimented my whole life, and now I am, so when I talk to other people, when they ask me for advice, I give them the fucking truth. I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy, I’m not going to tell you that you’re great, you’re amazing, if you aren’t. I never heard that growing up.
For me, it’s really hard to get compliments from people, I don’t know how to take it. I react like I’m so negative, like, ‘Oh, shut up,’ but I think that’s just one of my natural mechanisms. I’m just so not used to it. So when it comes to giving people advice and stuff like that, I am positive, but I will give you the good and the bad. I’m going to tell you just because I think that’s how it should be. You shouldn’t get that false hope, you know what I mean?”
Yes. Lots of people don’t say anything bad ever.
“Because people are faking it, that’s the thing. I try to be as loyal as possible and not sugarcoat anything. There’s no point for me to. If the person has potential, I’m going to tell them that they have potential. A lot of people ask me, like, ‘Give me some tips on how to become a K-pop star.’ I don’t know how to answer that. ‘I want to become like you, how do I become like you?’ You can’t. You can be inspired, but you can’t become me, just like I can’t become Beyoncé. You can’t be somebody else. I am me, you are you. So, I just try to give the most honest feedback to anybody who ever asks me, and I think that’s the best way to do it.
What has been your biggest realisation since you started out in music?
“I realised that I’m human, I’m in the public eye, so I’m always gonna get shit. It is what it is. But one thing I must say is that I’m just glad that I never changed, and I will try to never change as well.
I just want my fans to always remember to stay true to yourself. Don’t let other people kill your dreams. Just follow your dreams, and if you fuck up, if you fall down, get back up. There’s so many people these days who give up so fast, and you’re a sucker if you do that.
If you want to become an independent woman, there’s a lot of things you have to go through. It’s not an easy journey. Listening to opinions is great, but believe in yourself, and stay authentic.”
You also mentioned that you wanted to release a full studio album. How is that going?
“The album is not ready yet. I just dropped ‘Gum’, so I’m trying to focus on [that] right now. If I do release my album next year, I want it to be more relatable to my fans, and not just pop music. So, I’m not even thinking about my album, but when it’s ready, it’s going to be amazing.”
Jessi’s new song ‘Gum’ is out now
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