The Black British music scene is in a healthy place right now. With grime at the forefront, breaking boundaries across major mainstream platforms, it’s also the resurgence of UK R&B that’s making this a truly exciting time.
This revamp, which some call “alt-R&B” and “future R&B”, has birthed a new generation of bold, experimental singers and songwriters who are doing their part to put the soul back into British music. One of the most intriguing artists to emerge over the past few months is Walsall, West Midlands native Jorja Smith—whose laid-back, jazzy vocals and hard-hitting lyrics on social injustice and love offer a stark contrast to her infectiously innocent and sweet persona.
With much of her inspiration coming from her dad, who himself fronted neo-soul band 2nd Naicha, Jorja’s relationship with music runs deep, discovering her love for performance at the tender age of 8 and taking her first leap into songwriting at 11. Having recently left her job at Starbucks to follow her dreams of becoming a bright-eyed singer of songs, Jorja knows exactly what she wants and how she aims to get it.
Complex sat down with the 19-year-old artist in East London to learn more about what the future holds, her views on police brutality, and the need for female solidarity in music.
“Some people think I’m a bitch when they first meet me because of my pictures...”
What were your first experiences of music and who encouraged you to start making it yourself?
Growing up, music was always playing in the house and it’s always interested me. I’d say my parents have inspired me because they were the ones who let me move here [London] and encouraged me to live my dreams. In terms of music and artists, I listen to a lot of Amy Winehouse. I just love her, and a lot of her music inspired me really early on. I’d love to be in a room with her and just write, or even just talk to her. My favourite song of hers is “You Sent Me Flying” and if I could’ve written one song, that would be it. If I could’ve performed that with her, it would be my dream.
Similar to Amy, you’re a young songwriter with the ability to pen some compelling and thought-provoking tracks. Where do you draw inspiration for your lyrics?
I’ve always written stories; when I was younger, I really liked to write and I observed a lot! I take things from my experience, the experience of friends, and just exaggerate a bit [laughs]. There’s some truth to the lyrics, but I normally take it a step further to make it more relatable to everyone else. I listen a lot of Nas, too—he’s a massive observer.
You moved to London last summer and this year you’ve found yourself playing at Wireless—one of the city’s biggest festivals. What was the experience like?
It was so, so good—and really interesting. It was the first time I’d properly connected with an audience. I have this one song called “Loving You”; there’s small clips of it on Instagram and Twitter and people would message me like: “When are you releasing this?” And at Wireless, there was this couple and a girl that I always see at my shows who knew the words off by heart! The song isn’t even out yet, so I was really touched by that.
Before you came in today, we were discussing in the office how well your music has done in what seems to be such a short space of time.
It’s really strange, and I still find it a bit mad how it went like that. But people want to hear good music, they don’t want to hear rubbish, so once something good comes along, it’s going to keep on growing. I had my first two shows at The Bedford in Balham that went really well, and from that, I think people were just be drawn to me. I’m a nice person so that helps... Even though some people think I’m a bitch when they first meet me because of my pictures [laughs]. They think I’m stoosh, but when they get to know me, I’m far from it. Also, because there’s not so much of me out there, I think that’s what draws people in. It’s a bit mysterious.
Your track “Blue Lights” touches on the issues of police oppression. What are your thoughts on some of the most recent cases of police brutality making the headlines?
I’m more vocal about it in songs. I’m not really good at talking so I prefer to write songs about how I feel, rather than just saying them. I have more time when I’m writing because, normally, I just say things without thinking.
How important do you think it is for artists with major platforms to be a voice in support of these kind of issues?
“Blue Lights” was written a year and a half ago, and that’s what’s sad: that a song like that was relevant then, a week ago, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And I think that’s how it picked up in America; to me, it’s a very British song but they could still relate to it. But artists should do it if feels right, not because they can see everyone else doing it. I don’t tweet much, but music speaks to loads of people and, for me, it’s the best way to communicate and voice what I think is right and what I stand for.
On a slightly lighter note, after sampling Dizzee Rascal’s “Sirens”, how did it feel when you got the co-sign from him on the track?
I know! I know! I was in a car when he messaged me on Instagram saying how much he liked it. He’s the reason I actually made the song, so I’m really happy that he’s a fan of it. It’s crazy, because when I used to live at home, whenever I’d write something new, I’d always play it to my dad. With “Blue Lights”, I took a break from doing my coursework and played it to him, and he was like: “Yep! This is good.” We just thought it was a good song, and didn’t really think it would go on to do what it’s done.
It’s interesting that you speak about doing coursework side-by-side with writing music. How did you cope with balancing education and chasing your dreams?
To me, it’s always been normal to do both. As soon as I got to second year in sixth form, I started writing more and doing more with my management I wanted to leave, but my mum and dad were like “Finish it!” You can’t start something and just not finish it, so I did it and now I have that, I can fully focus on my music.
You mentioned that you get your dad to listen to your music—is he involved in any of the writing process?
More when I lived at home, he’d be like “I can’t hear a chorus”, or, “Try this.” He used to be in a band, and he’s really into music. He knows all the current stuff and he’s on Twitter, so he literally knows what’s gwarnin’ on the scene right now. But I haven’t written anything new recently. I’ve been so busy and I’ve written so much over the years that I’m kind of just living. But whenever I do write something, I send it to my dad straight away [giggles]. We wrote out a spreadsheet of all of the songs I’ve done and because he knows how this works, he’s written down “Mezza”—that’s what he calls himself—right next to certain songs, so it’s like: “Oh! You helped me write that, did you?”
He wants credits!
[Laughs] Yeah, but it’s all good.
“People can see from my Instagram that I try to keep it minimal—I don’t want people to look at me first, and then listen to my music.”
Some of your music has a grimey undertone, whether it’s sonically or in the rawness of your lyrics. Do you take any inspiration from grime?
I’m not going to say that I was a hardcore grime head, because I wasn’t. But when everyone started getting back into it, I was listening to it a lot more. Lyrically, some of it is interesting; when they’re telling proper stories, it’s good to listen to. It was always playing on 1Xtra when I was growing up so I liked listening to it, but I’m influenced by all sorts of genres. I bring it all together to make my own. Well, not my own genre, but my own sound.
It’s been a breath of fresh-air seeing the comeback of the female vocalist in British music, and there seems to be a wave of new R&B talent breaking through. Where do you see yourself fitting in with some of the other female acts killing it right now?
I just see it as me making a space for myself, not against anyone else. Just to be up there with them—because everyone’s different and everyone has something different to offer, musically—it’s a great feeling. And it’s good for females to support each other, especially in music. It’s nice for us all to be noticing talent and not getting jealous about anything.
As a singer rising through the ranks, do you feel that age-old pressure of selling sex to sell records, or has time shifted where females no longer have to live up to that stereotype?
I think people can see from my Instagram that I try to keep it minimal, because I just want my music to be heard. I don’t want people to look at me first, and then listen to my music. There are so many pretty girls on Instagram who have followers because they’re pretty. And before I started all of this, I didn’t have Instagram; I made it just before I released “Blue Lights”. So all the followers I’m getting are just from music, so what’s the point in changing? Plus, I don’t want to change my image. I like how I look, and it’s not even about how you look—it’s more about what you say.
You shot the video for “Where Did I Go?” at home, on your banister. Was there a deeper reason behind this, and how important is it for you to be involved in all aspects of your career?
I did it at my aunts, where I live at the moment. On her stairs, there’s a little skylight and the lighting was really good. I just had a little handy-cam and put it on the banister, and just...
Started posing up?
[Laughs] Exactly! I think I played the song about four times and just kept singing to it, and then edited it together. It wasn’t supposed to be the video; I just did it and sent it to my manager. Since we were going to put out the song, we said we’d just put a visual out with it. And I think it’s good because people will get to know me more through the video. That’s the reason I like it: it’s just a normal girl singing along to a song that any girl could do in her room. For my upcoming music, I’d like to start designing more for that, more artwork etcetera. But I'm always involved and have a say in how I think things should look and go. I never get told what to do.
Would you like to continue on this independent route, or is a label signing on the horizon?
I like how this is going, and I’ve got an amazing team around me. We’re just seeing how far we can take it all, really. We literally started in January and I’ve got a lot of material and made a load of connects, so we’re going to keep rolling with it since it’s going so well.
Photography: Ashley Verse
Stylist: Connor Gaffe
Make-up: Carol Lopez Reid