Jorja Smith, the future of soul

Catapulted to fame after being spotted by Drake and Kendrick Lamar, Jorja Smith is hot property right now. Barely 21, the young British singer has just released her first album, Lost & Found, a mature, assured début that is the sign of greatness to come.

By Christophe Conte

Photo by Rashid Babiker

Any other budding young singer in Jorja Smith’s shoes would have begun hyperventilating after receiving a private Instagram message from Drake, before ripping through her phone directory to tearily trumpet the news to all her girlfriends, send- ing a screen shot off to the entire world and, finally, doing a triumphant backflip in her living room. Instead, Smith replied with a simple “Oh, thank you, it’s cool” to the Canadian rapper, who praised her to the skies after listening to one of her tracks,Where Did I Go?, on SoundCloud.

 

That was in 2016, when Smith was just 18 and, despite the song’stitle, she knew exactly where she was going. Hailing from Walsall, an industrial town in the Midlands, she hasn’t let herself be dazzled by the lucky stars shining over the cradle of her singing career. Without the slightest arrogance, she even seemed to find it normal that Drake, in the wake of his declaration, should invite her to record a duet, Get It Together, on his album More Life, on which she was also treated to a Jorja Interlude rapped out by the master of ceremonies himself. And appar- ently it was just as normal that Kendrick Lamar should immediately offer her a track, I Am, on the soundtrack of Black Panther; nor- mal, too, that Drake should perform with her at one of her concerts, go- ing so far as to visit her in Walsall; normal to have been named one of the 15 most promising U.K. talents in the BBC’s 2017 list; normal to have been awarded the 2018 Critics’ Choice at the Brit Awards, following in the footsteps of previous winners such as Adele or her namesake Sam Smith; normal, again, to release a first album three days before her 21st birthday. Entitled Lost & Found, it has been unanimously praised as one of the best examples of British soul these past few years. “My songs were very quickly shared and lis- tened to, so I had to get used to this fame which came out of nowhere,” she says with disconcerting cool- ness. “I didn’t get the codes, didn’t have the reflexes, but at the same time it was fascinating to find myself so brutally pushed into the limelight. It doesn’t frighten me, I know I’m still Jorja to those who know me. Not Jorja Smith, the singer. Just Jorja. I didn’t expect anything when I madeBlue Lights, I didn’t even think any- one other than my parents would like the song. The social-media snowball effect was so quick that I didn’t even have time to get stressed.”

 

 

“My songs were very quickly shared and listened to, soIhadtogetused to this fame which came out of nowhere. I didn’t get the codes, didn’t have the reflexes, but at the same time it was fascinating to find myself so brutally pushed into the limelight. The social-media snowball effect was so quick that I didn’t even have time to get stressed.”

Photo by Rashid Babiker

Smith titled her first song, written when she was 11Life Is a Path Worth Taking, without imagining that nine years later said path would have turned into a glorious avenue spar- kling with the brightest of lights. And speaking of lights, it was with her talismanic title Blue Lights that she got the hair of an entire nation stand- ing on end, rather than with her high-profile partnerships. Released as a single two years ago, the track, which deals with police pressure and the growing anxiety of young black people (the blue lights being those of police cars), immediately pi- geon-holed her in the category of “conscious” singers at a time when Black Lives Matter was calling for more justice in the U.S. “My father is black, and I always used to have dis- cussions with him about the way black people are perceived in the world. When I wrote Blue Lights, the lyrics just came in one go. Most of my friends were black when I was a teenager, and when we were out in the streets I felt a certain nervous- ness in them. They wouldn’t stop turning round, looking right and left to see if the police were coming after them, even though they hadn’t done anything wrong. This irrational fear seemed like a deep malaise to me. When black people are in the news, it’s essentially to link them with vio- lence, robbery and firearms, and all these young people end up persuad- ing themselves that they’re natural targets for the cops.”

 

 

A fan of Sade, Lauryn Hill and (especially) Amy Winehouse, Smith knows that it’s better to tread softly to capture people’s minds.

 

 

Smith imagined the heady and addictive Blue Lights as the pendant to Dizzee Rascal’s fiery track on the same theme Sirens, a cool-headed com- plement to the burning anger of the English rapper’s recording. Indeed she’s always preferred the calm wielding of the scalpel to the frenzy of the slasher. When she was 13, she wrote a school essay on the theme of “the question of postcolonialism in grime,” an English urban music movement that mixes rap, R’n’B, reggae and electro in a combative, militant dynamic. For the teenager turning into an adult, who grew up with the benevolence of progressive parents – her father is a musician, her mother designs jewellery – music isn’t only a leisure activity, or a pas- sive hobby, but a way of changing things. “My father used to make playlists, and in the middle there were always songs with a message, which made you think. Curtis Mayfield, Damian Marley, The Specials... I very quickly became conscious of the social aspect of some of the tracks.” She could have chosen to go for the uppercut, like some of her rap consœurs who ap- peared at the same time as her – RoxXxan, Paigey Cakey or Lady Leshurr – but she opted instead for a slyer, sleeker soul, better suited to her deep and nonchalant timbre. Even on the explosive track On My Mind, recorded with Birmingham- born producer Preditah and released last year, she retains her smooth vibe, despite all the throbbing syn- copation of the beats behind her.

Jorja Smith – “Blue Lights” pour Colors

A fan of Sade, Lauryn Hill and (especially) Amy Winehouse, Smith knows that it’s better to tread softly to capture people’s minds. With her minimalist production and her vast range of influences (from folk to reg- gae to jazz), Lost & Found is clever enough to find fans well beyond the boundaries of rap or R’n’B, but with- out attempting to do the same thing as American colossuses in the genre, keeping her British particular- ity in the eye-to-eye storytelling and taste for post-adolescent romances treated with unusual gravity. Moreover, when Drake first asked her to do Get It Together, Smith re- fused, which seemed totally crazy at that stage in her career. “It’s only when I split up with my boyfriend that the song struck a chord with me and I ended up accepting. I have to be honest when I’m singing, it has to seem like something I’ve lived through.” “Honesty,” “sincerity” and “trust” are words that she constantly uses, a way of arming herself against the consequences of a flash-in-the- pan effect by which she might mis- take herself for one of the manufactured R’n’B superstars.

 

 

In life as on stage, Smith rolls like a wave that no rock could break. Yet neither her body nor her singing voice are synchronized with her speed of speech in interview.

 

 

She knows by heart the words of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, the Animals’ classic hit, via Nina Simone’s sensu- ous version which her mother used to listen to when she came back from school – and which she thought was being sung by a man. Nothing frightens her more than being “mis- understood” in an era of throwaway celebrities and the digital pillory, of fires that burn too fast and the fatal effects of sudden flashbacks. “Nina was out of the ordinary, I wonder what people would have said about her if social networks had existed back then.” The girl who collects countless followers, millions of views on YouTube, praises from the great- est – Kendrick Lamar told Billboardthat she was “the present and the future” – was paradoxically brought up to be patient. Her father, of Jamaican origin and a former mem- ber of nu soul group 2nd Naicha, refused to allow her to take part in a TV singing competition, and she thanks him as sincerely today as she resented him for it at the time. Throughout the liner notes ofLost & Found she has scattered pho- tos of her childhood, while in the song Goodbyes she seems already to be mourning the lost innocence of the girl who has “reached the light.” She left Walsall for London with no regrets two years ago, but admits that she “likes to look backwards” without misting up her vision in a veil of nostalgia. While working at Starbucks in the heart of London, rising at 5.00 a.m. to churn out cap- puccinos, she had time to live the ordinary life of those who now buy her discs or stream Blue Lights,Teenage Fantasy or On Your Ownover and over.

Jorja Smith – “Lost & Found”

A few months after hanging up her uniform for the last time, she was opening on Bruno Mars’s world tour before beginning her own sold- out 17-date American tour. Walsall continued its sleepy way without her: “I wouldn’t write the same songs if I’d stayed back there. I like fast places, nerve centres, whereas in Walsall I tend to turn back into the quiet little girl I used to be. When I go back, the people I knew haven’t changed, they still do exactly the same things. I couldn’t be like that.” On her first E.P., Project 11, a plaintive duet with Maverick Sabre entitled Carry Me Home sang the joys of returning to the fold, but it was all a role, for today nothing seems to eat at her more than this desire to escape. In life as on stage, Smith rolls like a wave that no rock could break. Yet neither her body nor her singing voice are synchronized with her speed of speech in interview. When she talks, words seem to rush out at high speed from her brain, but her eyes remain half shut and she seems to be a little distant, at the boundary of lassitude. When she sings, her very confident timbre, which sometimes seems too profes- sional, gives her the stature of a per- former who’s already adept at all the moves. But in conversation she’s still the little Jorja in the photos, the Jorja who sang Silent Night in the local church and stuck her tongue out at the camera. She simpers a little, smiles a lot, never gets impatient, and all the weight of promise and potential that must be pressing down on her shoulders never stops her from swinging. At the end of the interview, she smiles and says, “Oh, thank you, it’s cool,” just like with Drake. No more, no less. Jorja Smith will go very, very far.

 

Jorja Smith, Lost & Found (FAMM/Because Music), out now.