You have the Rising Sun tattooed on your shoulder.
Yes. This tattoo was a tattoo that my brother wanted to get. He passed away and we had this tattoo memorial service.
Was he your older brother?
Yes, two years older than me. He wanted to get all these tattoos and he had this folder of all these tattoos, and I found a few things that I wanted to get in memory of him and that was one of them. It was 16 rays, which is special to me because “3:16”, March 16 is my birthday. It’s the sun, the Rising Sun. He played baby Jesus in a school play when he was a baby, in my older sister’s play, so we always called him baby Jesus.
I felt like, in some type of way, he was our savior. He was sort of the sacrifice and we learned so much about health and how to take care of ourselves when he went through what he went through. He was so enlightened. He was always laughing. He was a big kid at heart and this tattoo represents him, he’s the Rising Sun.It’s also part of a Japanese flag for fisherman to use for good luck, but unfortunately to Chinese and Koreans, it’s a bad memory but I like to explain to people that for me, that’s not the meaning. Just like the swastika, the Nazi meaning is not the original meaning of that symbol. But if someone has the tattoo of it, you have to be prepared to explain it all the time. I just have to make sure people understand, I’m not being insensitive, but for me it has a totally different meaning.
I remember the L.A. Riots. I was maybe a few years old, but I remember where we lived everything was on fire. The grocery stores, everything was on fire, and we drove up La Brea to my grandmother’s house. I just remember going up the hill, looking back and thinking as a child the world was ending.
The song you wrote for your brother is a very beautiful song. Did you intend for it to be heard by everybody?
I didn’t. I just was going through that and I had to express it. I had to express it and I was just like, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t know I was recording it at first, I was just like, I want him to hear it. I took maybe a week and a half writing it and recording it. It was going to be really hard for me to really record it at a real session so I recorded it on my computer and I sent in my vocals to the engineer, like Garage Band vocal, super auto tuned, so it sounds a little weird.
When it was looking like his last days, my sister was like, “You have to play it for him. This is something that he needs to hear.” My dad’s brother was also fighting cancer and we were going to see him in San Francisco and my brother’s like, we don’t know. Any day now, any minute now.
So we left and we’re like, we’re going to do a quick turnaround trip and the day we left is the day he passed away. My mom was with him, but it was kind of like he didn’t want me, my brother and sisters to see that happen. That same day she played him the song. He heard it that day.
Was it a very long illness?
It was two years. It was a brain tumor so it was inoperable. I would say the last six months it got progressively worse. He definitely fought a good fight, but after a while, you know. I would say if I go out anyway, I would go out how we did.
It was at my grandmother’s house, the house we grew up in, the room we grew up in surrounded by family. If there’s any way to go, that’s the way to go. He had the painkillers on tap. Like, “I need more.” My mom would roll him joints and make him edibles, so...
Even as a kid he was the class clown. He wasn’t the type to have girls. He was just everyone’s friend and always happy, goofy. He was the type that all animals and all babies liked him so he was really like this shining light. I feel like sometimes when people have figured out life, they get to be at peace.
Some people would say his journey was complete.
Yeah and he got to teach us so many things in 26 years. Of course, in the moment it was hard to grasp, like ‘Why? He was such a good person. He didn’t get to do this or that,” but when I think about it and I think about how happy of a person he was, it was like “Yeah, he really came here and he did what he had to do.” And it’s five of us, well six because my dad has another daughter, but we all embody him and we all get to take him with us. Now his energy is dispersed amongst us.
Would you mind telling me about the last tweet he sent?
Yeah it’s, “Why aren’t you smiling?” When he first found out he had cancer he got into Buddhism. I had started getting into Buddhism when I was 15. Me and him were super close, almost like twins, and we would get high and have these talks like, “What is life” and go back and forth.
Not until he got sick did he get more and more into it so all of his tweets reflected—it’s almost like he had a crash course in enlightenment. He was so positive through the whole thing, he didn’t mention it. He would see friends out and they would see him walking a little different or he had put on weight, and he’s losing weight and he would never tell them like, “Oh. I’m sick,” he would say, “Nah. I’m good.” He was always tweeted really positive things, that was one of the things he tweeted, “Why aren’t you smiling?”
One of the last surgeries he had, he was cracking jokes in the ER.
Who made you want to rap at seven? Who were you digging that made you want to say, “I want to rap?”
Growing up in L.A. it was Snoop and The Chronic. My older sister she loved Snoop and she loved The Chronic.
So that’s why you said “You a G.”
More than likely, yes. I just remember Tupac and all the rap that was playing on L.A. radio, which was a lot of L.A. ’90s. I don’t know why I thought I was a rapper. [Laughs]
Was that just music for you? Was it real in these streets for Jhené?
It was real in the streets. The house that I came home to from the hospital was on Rodeo and La Brea, which is not the worst neighborhood but it was actually on Sycamore off of Rodeo and La Brea, and I just remember the L.A. Riots.
I was a baby. I was maybe a few years old, but I remember where we lived everything was on fire. The grocery stores, everything was on fire, and we drove up La Brea to my grandmother’s house. I just remember going up the hill, looking back and thinking as a child the world was ending. I didn’t understand. I remember my mom crying because, my grandfather, who’s Japanese, he worked downtown and she was like “They’re pulling people out the cars!” Just crying and not knowing.
When I was five years old, in the same area, I had a dance teacher. We had a dance recital where she would get a big check at the end of it. I went home with her and her daughter, because me and her daughter were best friends and we got held at gunpoint. They put a gun to my head at five years old.
It was two of them. They took her in the room and I don’t remember all the details but they basically robbed her and then the other one held a gun to my head in the kitchen while we laid down, at five.
So L.A., it was real. My brother and my sister, when they were really young they were in a liquor store, someone came in and shot up the liquor store. Gun violence is real. And we always lived in a neighborhood that was a few streets away from crazy stuff. We could hear the gunshots but we weren’t necessarily on the same block.
I always tell people that because they always think L.A. as Hollywood and I think of the real L.A., which is not necessarily the slums, but you’re still experiencing those same types of things that you hear about. A lot of it is just privileged kids, but they have something to prove, so they become a part of the gang and this is just the neighborhood they come back to go to sleep. They bring the violence with them. I’ve lived in the same area my whole life. I still live there. I love it. It’s not super unsafe but it’s definitely, yeah. Everything is there. You can experience it all in a few blocks.