Interview: Jamaican Rapper Racquel Jones on Thievery Corporation, Black Beauty, and the Trouble With Religious Faith
Racquel Jones‘ story is one that has “destiny” written all over it. Jamaican model turned burgeoning, ideological rapper – and painter – has a chance meeting with Thievery Corporation‘s Eric Hilton at a studio in her island hometown of Portland. The two sense an immediate kinship, and the former becomes a key player in the latter’s 2017 “comeback,” writing, recording (check out ‘Letter To The Editor’) and touring with them, and utterly wowing the dynamic DC duo’s surely not easily impressed followers.
Her new album, the provocatively titled IgnoRANT, drops today – April 23 – via Magnetic Moon, and it’s as fierce as it is utterly unforgettable. It opens fittingly with ‘Invocation,’ which finds her laying down an opening manifesto of sorts: “This is not about you / But it is at the same time / I don’t ever take shit personal / But I do at the same time / I’m offended on my behalf, I’m offended on your behalf”. She goes on to take aim at religion (‘Sacrilege’) and the modern beauty myths (‘Queen’), gets deeply philosophical on the pensive ‘Manic’ (“As I lay in bed / And fall into my head / It’s so damn beautiful / But I’m still scared to fall / I go deeper than you”), and in the overall just incisively and effectively takes down anyone or anything that would stand in the way of her delivering the imperative messages of truth and justice.
Musically, her ability to cross and mix genres with lighting speed and cool effortlessness – a bit of trip-hop here, a hint of calypso there, a hit of old jazz – as well as her reimagining of the contemporary R&B codes that we’ve come to expect of the likes of Janelle Monae, are at times nothing short of breathtaking.
We slowed Ms. Jones down just long enough to get a sense of where she’s been, where she’s going, and, most importantly, why we should all be paying very close attention while she’s doing it.
You live in LA now – but can you describe your cultural/philosophical relationship to Jamaica, where you were born and raised?
I’d like to think I’m an authentically packaged product of an honest representation of Jamaica, that has endured simultaneously extreme circumstances of both good and bad. The core of who I am and my values were molded and gifted by Jamaica, whose culture is built upon making magic through difficulty and beauty from endurance.
How did you come to connect with Thievery Corporation?
I met Eric Hilton in my beautiful hometown of Portland, Jamaica while I was at a studio recording at a villa where he was staying.
What was the experience like, recording and touring with them?
Amazing, fulfilling and somewhat indescribable. Thievery Corporation is a world renowned, respected and accomplished band, so it was the highest honor to have had my career really started by touring at the highest level.
IgnoRANT is a really amazing title for an album. What are you trying to say with it?
IgnoRANT is really acknowledging our pain from both sides of the spectrum, understanding that we are all ignorant about our experiences. So we become judgmental and use stereotypes as a dismissive tool of not dealing with our ignorance, and in some ways lack of empathy. So this album is a way to initiate these conversations, so we will become better, and treat each other better.
What were some of the things that influenced the new record, musically, lyrically, ideologically?
I approached the record like I approach my visual arts. Forgetting everything I have ever learnt but [being] open enough to let it subconsciously lead and influence me while creating – and still at the same time exploring new ideas. So that kind of covers my aesthetic approach. As for the content, there are things that need to be said without embellishment, and often times artists – even myself – shy away from them because we are faced with making our art commercialized and palatable. To me, to be really effective, truth must be shared in its rawest form. My only obligation is to be creative.
‘Queen’ seems to be celebrating Black beauty. How do you feel the beauty industry gets it wrong when it comes to Black women?
This conversation is very important to me for several reasons. I have had experiences in modeling, pageantry…and I also grew up in a country that was tainted greatly with the challenges of colorism. Being that my skin is of a darker shade, I have faced challenges – along with having the will to garner and nourish confidence within these constructs. It is important for me that I did my part in contributing to the representation of darker women seen onscreen as beautiful and powerful, but also inspiring and empowering confidence. The beauty industry has failed black women for a long time in how they are treated and represented. Countless black models including Tyra Banks have openly spoken up about it. They’ve also failed us in film. It’s now amazing to see Black women standing up and being adamant about how we are represented.
Regarding ‘Sacrilege,’ I think you’re the first one to ever rhyme “gospel”, “apostle”, “Pentecostal” and “colossal.” Did you get how good that was after you wrote it?
Thank you for noticing. I take great pride in my lyricism and it’s always flattering when it is noticed. I write with the intention that my lyrics will read interestingly and also be read as poetry, even without a beat behind them. I love words, and I love playing with words in unconventional and unique ways.
You don’t hold back criticisms regarding spiritual matters – yet ‘Doxology’ is an earnest hymn of praise. What is your relationship with God and organized religion?
This is an interesting question. I grew up in a Christian household, my mom is a minister. ‘Doxology’ was sung at church every Sabbath during the ceremony at divine hour. For me, it is my way of saying that there are things that will never be unlearnt courtesy of religion. It is also saying, despite my questions about the validity and basis of religious faith, and the many things that are wrong with religion and how it has hurt us, I have managed to separate that from my spirituality and my connection to a higher being.
Regarding more earthly matters, how does the music industry need to change to allow Black women to thrive?
By just stopping not giving Black women the space to thrive. Remove the restrictions, that’s all.
So, how would you sum up the Racquel Jones philosophy, and how does it come through on IgnoRANT?
I am still learning, still growing, and this is my first time here in this lifetime, as is the case for all of us. So I figured, if we could find some way to be kind to each other, be empathetic, understanding, patient and unified, it will make this scary unprecedented experience called life easier on each other.