Jean Grae does not hate kids. Sure, she makes jokes about giving cocaine to babies and tells children to kiss her ass on songs but now, the daughter of South African jazz giants, Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima Bea Benjamin, has named her new multimedia company, Kids Are Gonna Die! But no, Jean Grae does not hate kids. “Does it sound like I hate kids,” she gasps as we skype chat on a hot Thursday night while she’s nursing a cold.
“It’s exactly the opposite,” pleads the South African-born, Brooklyn-based rapper who was christened Tsidi Ibrahim at birth, “I’ve made a lot of cocaine and baby jokes over the past couple of weeks because it’s just the furthest thing you could say. But you can’t do that. I hope no one is giving cocaine to babies. It’s terrible. I absolutely, absolutely adore kids.” So deep is her love for children and concern for lack of afterschool programmes funding, that she conducted workshops at last year’s Willie Mae Rock camp for girls and will be a
part of the creative writing programme, 826NYC, which works out of the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.
“But yeah,” your friendly neighbourhood superhero cheeses, “I totally want kids. Sometime soon would be good. My mom would be really unhappy if I didn’t have any kids and she lets me know every time I talk to her. She’s like, ‘so, what’s going on with that? You know, I’m 76.’ I’m like, look man, I’m doing my bit. Dating is hard. And I’m trying to find a suitable DNA match.”
Until then, Grae’s brainchildren include a forthcoming web series entitled, Life With Jeannie, which will be produced by Kids Are Gonna Die. Ah, yes, that curious title. In 2011, Grae and her friend/tour back-up singer, Mela Machinko, started a mock-band called The Hellpit Faeries and recorded rendititions of Christmas songs with titles like Jingle Fucking Bells and (Not So) Silent Night.
“We were in studio,” she explains, “and were talking about our version of Rudolf The Red-Nosed
where Rudolf was actually on a coke binge and I said that would be terrible for so many kids. Like if he got loose in a department store. Before the engineer hit record, I yelled out ‘Kids are gonna die!’ It fell in a perfect place and I said let’s keep it. Then I couldn’t think of a company name so I was like, I might use that.”
Heading up a company is in Grae’s character as she says she’s “always been more than hands-on on everything – from that era of mid to late 90s and even early 00s.” Those years resulted in a few albums under her belt including the seminal This Week and the critically acclaimed collaboration album with producer, 9th Wonder, Jeanius. After unceremoniusly leaving the Babygrande record label, Grae signed to Talib Kweli’s recently defunct Blacksmith Records. But under Kids Are Gonna Die – where Guy Routte of WAR Media “takes on more of the managerial roles in a lot of things” – Grae’s gore-fuelled video for Kill Screen became “the inception of my company and partnering with WAR Media. What wearing the business owner hat has done is give me the freedom to be like I don’t have to answer to anybody. I never have to wait for anyone to say this is a better release date. So we were like lets do movies, let’s do TV shows, lets do everything!”
First up on that list of everything is Life With Jeannie. The half-hour-an-episode internet sitcom that is written and directed by Grae (“they might have to talk me out of editing but we’ll see,” she chuckles) features real life stories that Jean started blogging about under Life With Jeannie: The State Of Eh. The hilarious slice-of-life anecdotes range from dates gone wrong to recalling her fear of the pommel horse when she was a kid gymnast.
“The pommel horse,” she sighs when I tell her that’s my favourite story, “That goddamn pommel horse. I’m going back and adding a few chapters because I’m doing a self-published e-book [of The State Of Eh]. But writing [a chapter called] Richard and the Yakuza meant a lot to me because it was the first time I was like, I’m really going to go in and tell these stories. It was the first time I’d read anything in that kind of form and realised how much I love doing it. I enjoyed it and had people enjoy it but it can be done in another medium.”
That medium is the online sphere where “The State of Eh will be the foundation for Life With Jeannie and all the ridiculous things that I’ve done. Visually, Life With Jeannie is more exciting because I get to really flesh out stories. I get comments on social media of people being like you’re weird or your sense of humour is odd. And I’m like, no, I don’t think it is. Maybe you’re not used to it coming from me in general or from a place where black girls aren’t supposed to be sarcastic or witty.”
“I know that it’s not a weird or odd thing because I have friends and women who respond to me online and I know there’s an army of us out there, around the world and not just America. It’s really nice to look up and see yourself in someone else and not feel so alone. I don’t feel like we’ve been represented enough.” I mention the success of Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl and Grae excitedly says she’s “a huge fan. I think Issa is great and it was another voice that was absolutely needed. It’s not necessarily my voice but we need to diversify our goddamn voices. My stuff is definitely darker, more cynical and has a lot more of a New York edge to it.”
The second season of Rae’s series is funded by Pharrell Williams’ i am OTHER company, while Grae goes the independent route. The U&Me&EveryoneWeKnow rapper says, “Deals like Issa Rae’s don’t happen. There’s not going to be people who are going to hand you a bunch of fucking money and be like go do what you wanna do. I didn’t wanna wait around for things anymore. Creatively, we’ve got to find other ways to do it which means we’re going to definitely shoot more indoors but still keep the tone. But it was definitely important to me to not wait [but to] shoot the season like this, get into the groove of things, build a fanbase and see where it takes us from there.”
The rapper formerly known as What? What? was hoping to premiere the first episode on valentines day but “I’ve released nothing on Valentines Day for the past two years, so I’m like ‘maybe Jean, it’s not your thing, maybe you should rethink that.’ So I’m considering April Fools’. That seems more like my day. It might be a real show on April Fools’ or it might not be, we’ll see.”
She may not want to commit to a date as yet but Grae says she “made myself make the commitment instead of just saying in my mind: I’m gonna shoot more stuff. I actually went to purchase myself a camera and get all the software and get the stuff that I needed in order to be like, now what? Now do it. You said you were going to do it so do it.”
This was the same manner in which she approached stand-up comedy. Grae’s upcoming album, Cake Or Death is a hat-tip to an Eddie Izzard gag and the naturally funny Grae says, “moreso than rap, [doing stand-up] has been my recurring dream since I was little. My mom was super awesome in letting me stay up and watch Saturday Night Live and there were so many great stand-up shows on HBO and my mom had all these records of [George] Carlin and [Richard] Pryor. I’ve been wanting to do that forever.”
“So last year, I got to a point where I was like what the fuck, I gotta do it. I loved it and I was like, if I start doing this now, I’m never gonna do anything else ever again. This is going to be it. So let me go write and finish the music that I have to make. Comedy felt comfortable and is something that I will come back to this year, definitely. I’m so glad nobody recorded video though,” she laughs. Comedy may be another feather added to Jean Grae’s colourful cap but the prospect of keeping with rap, running a company and maybe even rearing kids means that she won’t be retiring (again) anytime soon.
(Ed’s note: We stumbled on this new free-to-download track by Jean Grae commissioned by author and comedian DC Pierson to accompany his new book Crap Kingdom. H/T Nah Right)
Look out for Jean Grae’s ‘Life With Jeannie’ (maybe) on YouTube on April