Jahzel Talks ‘The Wake Up’ Album, Religion Against Rap and Creating Brand Awareness [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
There is more than drill music emerging out of Chicago and rap newcomer Jahzel is proof of that. Raised in a strict Jehovah's Witness, Nigerian household, the rapper was prohibited from listening to secular music. The MC with a conscious flow found his way to hip-hop through a more unconventional route than most rising rappers out of the Windy City.
By the time he was in high school, the life his parents created stood no chance against his own desires. Jahzel starting rebelling, hanging out in the streets and enjoying the music he was taught to disdain. He began writing and eventually built up the courage to enter a school talent show, which allowed him to confirm his career path and it was on from there.
Now, more than a decade since his first time grabbing the mic, Jahzel released his first album, The Wake Up. The sonic diary details his life growing up in Chi-town, along with the internal battles he faced in deciding a career path and choosing the evolve in a city where a life of violence and crime can keep you stagnant, in jail or, worse, dead.
Jahzel chops it up with The Boombox to talk about life as both a Jehovah's Witness and a rapper, his influences, how he infuses his Nigerian-American roots into his new album, The Wake Up, and more. Get in on the discussion below.
The Boombox: Growing up in Chicago, who were some of your musical influences?
Jahzel: "I would say as far as when as I was growing up, a lot of my music was influenced by R. Kelly. R. Kelly is the R&B king. What he does is inspiration. Of course, Kanye and Common and even old school like Twista are inspiring. Twista is a legend in Chicago. His Adrenaline Rush was actually one of the first CDs I listened to.
Do you recall the first time you performed in Chi-Town? Tell us about the experience.
My first performance in Chicago that was notable to me, which propelled me into rapping was a few years back at my high school [Lincoln Park High School]. [It was a] talent show open mic. Mad people came to this open mic. I wasn't even supposed to go on or whatever, but I happened to do it and the crowd was just rocking it with me. I couldn't believe it. Then it was a wrap for me, I couldn't do anything else. I said this is what I am going to do forever.
Watch Jahzel's "Who Is You" Video
Not only are you from Chicago but you are also Nigerian. How do you fuse your roots into your music?
Sometimes it's a struggle. I think Nigerian culture, it's a happy culture so we put a lot of that into our music. I take that positivity from my culture and the good vibes and I tried to bring into a couple of records that I did. In African culture, drums are heavy and the same thing is with hip-hop, so there is that direct correlation.
How do you feel about the emergence of Chicago's new, younger generation of rappers like Tink, Lil Herb, Lil Dirk and Lil Bibby?
I like it. I don't do music like them. But I feel it. Most of them do drill music -- thats what Chicago is mainly getting attention for. I feel like it's great that they are putting what goes on in their lives into their music. Anything that is getting attention in my city I am rocking with it. Growing up out here, you are associated with it [violence], either you or someone in your family. I can understand the struggle on their records.
So if you are not a drill music fan, who else are you listening to out of the Chi? Any new artists?
I am a Lupe fan, a huge Kanye fan... I mean who isn't a Yeezus fan? As far as artists who are not really known, I like A-Cross, a Chicago rapper. I listen to Noelle and I know MC Jenkins is coming up now; he has some fire.
What were some of your struggles going from being raised in a strict Jehovah's Witness household to finding a career in hip-hop?
First off, I wasn't supposed to be listening to rap music at all. It had wild curses and on top of that, we didn't really have any money to buy albums. I came up on music late as hell, basically if it wasn't on the radio I didn't hear it. But even then, sometimes I couldn't listen to the radio because of the subject matter. Secular music wasn't what was happening in my religion. Like I didn't hear Biggie's Life After Death until 2004. When I heard it I was like, "Wow, this was the best album!" I couldn't believe that was it and he was gone. I was late as hell and that was a challenge for the most part. I just started doing my own things on the low. When I had access to music, if I could listen I would outside of the house because secular music wasn't allowed.
How did move forward to pursue a rap career?
I was bad, doing things I wasn't supposed to do in the streets. I would listen to music from my sister, she wasn't living with us, so I would take her music. Being out with the homies, I would learn different things. At first I didn't want to be a rapper. I wanted to be Diddy more than anything, shiny suit and everything.
Are your parents happy with your music?
It's awkward because they are Witnesses, but I think they are more happy that I am happy doing what I love. Not so much with the music.
Watch Jahzel's "Wake Up" Video
Prior to the The Wake Up, your catalog was all mixtapes. What influenced creating the album?
I feel like as an artists I always want to improve. I think the The Wake Up is a reflection of that. People are rocking with it, I haven't got a bad review yet.
Explain to me your message on the track "Wake Up."
On the track "Wake Up," I am talking about just literally waking up [in Chicago] and being happy to be alive. You can be minding your own business and not be involved in an altercation but you end up dodging a bullet from someone else's drama. Basically I want people to one, I am a Chicagoan, two, I am happy to be here, and three, although I am here my time could be gone at any moment. I am just trying to create awareness and deliver my music. I want people to wake up to the life of a young black man growing up in Chicago.
What about the track "Who Is You"?
"Who iz You?!" is like you are in this situation, who are you going to be? At the same time who am I going to be? I know I want these nice things -- car and a big car and to take care of my family -- but who am I going to be? Am I going to be a positive person, a gangster or a drug dealer? It's about decisions and choices.
What's next for Jahzel? You dropped the album now what, a tour?
We are putting together a college tour, with stops in Wisconsin and Cali. Also, we have an EP coming out this summer. We don't want to lose traction from the album.
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