How Jhené Aiko Processed Her Brother's Death and Made Her Most Personal Album To Date

The singer, songwriter, and new film director talks how she created 'Trip,' her relationship with Big Sean, and how she uses art as therapy.

Jhene Aiko

Image via Cassidy Sparrow/Getty

Jhene Aiko

Positive energy is kind of Jhené​ Aiko’s thing. Since the release of her 2011 debut mixtape Sailing Soul(s), the singer-songwriter has had the otherworldly ability to seamlessly move between genres, capturing audiences with the serene energy she brings to nearly every song she appears. Her live performances are intimate, avoiding the intricate, overpowering stage designs that are in vogue right now, in favor of simple candlelight. It’s a unique, consistent vibe, and one that’s won her a fanbase and consistent attention.

Aiko’s latest release—a M.A.P. project consisting of a movie, album, and poetry book (which is still on its way)—follows the trend. Trip is a journey through grief, love, and self-discovery as Aiko mourns and processes the loss of her brother, Miyagi, who died in 2012 after a battle with cancer. Aiko is unafraid to get personal, embarking on a psychedelic journey in the hopes of finding and sharing lessons with her audience, who may need them.

Aiko spoke on the phone with Complex about grief, using art as a healing process, and where she wants to go creatively in the future.

You’ve said you look for your brother’s traits in other men and then you have [Big] Sean involved on the project. How big of a role he play?
I had completed the song [“OLLA”] already, and we didn’t know if it was going on his album, my album, or a Twenty88 album. When it was all said and done it went perfectly with my story I was trying to get across on Trip. But he’s just one male voice that is on the album. The guys that’s doing the voiceovers is Brain from the Fisticuffs, he’s the male voice keeping me from drugs and is in a way, saving me. Then there’s Swae Lee, which serves as another counterpart, then my dad comes in, so I feel like Sean just fit in the whole narrative.

He has been my friend throughout this whole thing. I actually met him around the time my brother was dying and he came to my brother’s funeral which was super sweet of him. It’s something I still deal with, searching for that relationship like a strong connection I had with my brother. The deepest bond a man and woman can have is the brother and sister relationship, I don’t think there is anything deeper than that. I feel like with Sean we were friends for so long before we started dating that we are friends before anything and it’s easy for me to separate our friendship from our relationship if that makes sense. And that’s the closest thing I’ve had to that type of connection since I lost my brother, and then there is the romantic part of it too.

Were you more careful of the men you decided to use on this album because of that connection to your brother, you didn’t want just any feature?
For sure, I think that Brian from the Fisticuffs, he’s like my brother. I’ve been working with him since Sailing Soul and even before that, like back in the day I had a song that I did with him that was playing on my MySpace. So he has definitely become like my brother. The crazy thing is he reminds me a lot of my brother and it got the point where he could play that voice and obviously my dad is my dad. Swae Lee was someone that organically happened where he was available and he came through and literally did like one or two takes. I wanted it to be a really simple song and this project digs deep but it’s simple where you don’t have to Google any words so he definitely helped with that. Then No I.D., he produced the song “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and he is also a Cancer like my brother, and Brian from the Fisticuffs is also a Cancer, obviously me and Sean are together. So I don’t just work with random people, we are all connected in some type of way and I’m always careful that it’s an organic, compatible type of collaboration.

Your daughter is on the project as well, and even though she is so young do you think this helps serve as an outlet for her too with dealing with the loss of her uncle?
Yeah, she was really young when he passed but she definitely still remembers and she does a lot of things that remind me of him. He spent a lot of time with her when she was a baby and he was like a big kid, and I feel like she definitely keeps his spirit alive with her joyous and optimistic energy, the same type of energy he had all the way up until his last days. I definitely think that it helps her connect with him being apart of this type of project, just continuing to have that spirit that she has is definitely keeping his spirit alive.

Grief can be a very scary and ugly process but I feel like you articulated it really well through this project through a few different phases. Which one was the most difficult for you to get through?
The depression part of it where I formed a habit. When things weren’t going super well for me, I had a lot of time to think and started to feel like “What is the point of any of this?” Obviously, I found that I could just write a song or record a song instead of letting myself think about it too much and do something that I would regret. That’s just been my passion, but the depression has been the hardest part, if you’re not taking medicine to numb yourself then every day you have to work towards feeling better and find different things that keep you out of that type of place.

For me, a song like “Oblivion” or “Jukai,” those are just like real things that I think about often. I find a sense of peace in dying. As a responsible adult I don’t believe that I would take my own life because I have a daughter and so much to live for and I’m not a selfish person, but sometimes I feel like a lot of people that have passed away in my life were just the best of the best people. It was almost like, was this a reward for them? Where they get to go to this very peaceful place because they’ve done so much for people in their lives and have lived their life to the best abilities and this is their reward, like a prize? It’s something I’ve always thought about since I was younger. Some feelings of contemplating death and suicide and going to those really dark places has been something that I’ve always thought about. As I get older, I work through it in a more productive way. I don’t harm myself anymore or think about the things I used to think about three years ago when it would get really scary. I find myself through my songs now, instead of letting my feelings consume me. I feel like that’s probably the hardest thing for a lot of people that deal with grief and depression.

It’s like that’s the most difficult part and then the most relieving, comforting part comes right after because you’re not afraid of death anymore. You live your life to the absolute fullest.
Exactly, exactly, exactly. You have to look at things that don’t matter and don’t bother you and now you’re living in the moment, now you’re free. The biggest thing that I learned from dealing with different drugs was the lows you experienced from abusing drugs and it was affecting my health, not only my mental but my physical with my liver and kidneys. My brother passed away from something he couldn’t control, it was a disease. There are times where I will relapse when I’m having a hard day and take a pain pill, but the older I get the more I am affected by it physically. My body will not let me abuse the drugs anymore, literally one time and I’m sick for the next week.

The album was definitely going up and down and trying different things. I wasn’t doing it to make the songs, I was making the songs to get through what I was going through and experimenting with different things. I got to the point where I wasn’t even smoking weed anymore, by the end of the album I was completely sober, not even drinking coffee. I needed to keep my mind clear so I could stay on the right path. Even at my listening party in L.A., I was having really bad aches and pains in my back, feeling old [Laughs] and I tried to talk myself into taking pain medicine like a Tylenol or even a glass of wine, then I talked myself out of it and drinking water the whole night. I was so proud of myself because that isn’t in my nature. Up until this point I have been self-medicating. So yeah, the loss of my brother has taught me so much about myself and life and that’s what Trip is about, how I was lost without him then I came to this realization that he is within me and I am within him, there is no him without me and there is no me without him. There is a movie, 22 songs, and then there is a poetry book of over 50 poems. I hope in all of that someone connects to at least one.

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Do you think that you would want to do more with movies?
For sure. The album is what people expect from me because they know that I make music, but for me that is almost like a hobby. Writing is the true love of my life, not just songwriting. I started out writing short stories and I felt like the natural progression would be turning the stories into scripts and turning the scripts into movies. I always had a passion for acting as well, like theater. I was actually going to school for that before I got pregnant. I was planning on taking community college credits and transferring to a UC to do theater and now I am in a position where I do have good relationships with people who can help me actually acquire that dream.

When I wrote the Trip short film, I got with Tracy Oliver, who is a writer who most recently worked on Girls Trip. She went to school for it and she really gave me a class in storyboarding and turning my poetry and story into dialogue and it was so fun for me. Even directing it and getting stuff for the costumes, I loved all of it. I could see myself not just doing music and doing cinema and everything that has to do with it whether it be directing or writing. It is something that I am really excited about and it makes me really excited for the future. I just feel like I can really do a great job with it.

Do you have a wishlist of directors, actors, or actresses that you would really want to work with? Who is your dream cast?
I think that Donald Glover would be dope. It’s hard because when people were auditioning for my love interest and my brother in the short film, I was actually in the audience watching and there was so much talent. Ben, who plays Dante...I was so convinced that he was Dante, and we were compatible and he’s not a big movie star and to me that’s how it should be, organic. It shouldn’t be about the name of this person or how big or popular they are but who works well with who. For me, that’s the dream situation, where I can write, direct, and star in an amazing feature film with an amazing cast and that we all can be passionate about the stories that we are telling.

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