Life with Jeannie

Sabelo Mkhabela

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Labeled “the best-kept secret of New York’s indie hip hop scene” by the reputable Rolling Stone magazine, it’s easy to tell why the spotlight has been successfully eluding Jean Grae. She chose to not rap and perform in a bikini and heels. Her name mostly comes up when a wanna be-hip hop expert wants to prove […]

Labeled “the best-kept secret of New York’s indie hip hop scene” by the reputable Rolling Stone magazine, it’s easy to tell why the spotlight has been successfully eluding Jean Grae. She chose to not rap and perform in a bikini and heels. Her name mostly comes up when a wanna be-hip hop expert wants to prove to a trend-follower that Nicki Minaj is not the best female rapper on earth. And also because the term “co-existence” doesn’t seem to feature in the JeanGrae_nelsonmandelaaverage hip hop head’s lexicon. You know, the notion that Nicki Minaj and Jean Grae cannot exist on the same earth. Sadly the music industry chooses to go with the same belief.

Jeannie is however not against Nicki. At least that’s what she said in a workshop held at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in 2012 while she was here for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Naturally humorous, she introduced herself as Mos Def to the excited audience of fans, bloggers and likers of things.

I never attended the fest, missing what could have been my first and last chance to witness her live on stage. Up ’til today, I still haven’t (unless of course Youtube performances count).

After listening to her verse numerous times and asking myself who that girl rapping about Cape Town and Swazi girls (yay!) was on Talib Kweli’s “Black Girls” during the audio cassette era, my first full experience of her music was through Jeanius. Entirely produced by my then-favourite producer, 9th Wonder, the album, I would come to learn, was leaked in 2004 and officially released in 2008, the year I got to listen to it.

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Her impeccable wordplay and flawless delivery over 9th’s laidback sample-heavy production made me fall in love with her (er…her music) immediately. She was able to fit humor, comic super-heroism, self-introspection and personal (often too personal) stories in 12 tracks. She admitted at the aforementioned workshop that she worries that she divulges her life a lot in her music. She worries that her songs are too personal. I immediately thought of “My Story”, a song where she tells her story of committing an abortion and the emotional repercussions it inflicted on her.

Of course, abortion hasn’t been the only issue she has had to deal with. Her career hasn’t been without any drawbacks. Frustrated by the game, on April 28, 2008, she announced she was retiring through her myspace page. Signed to Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith Records at that time (since 2005 until present day), the retirement never really happened. But then we all know rappers never really get to retire, right? I see you, Hov.

Towards the end of 2013, Jean Grae lost her mother. In an interview I read online, her mother’s demise was a wake up call in that she stopped just dreaming and started doing. And doing she is! I can’t think of any rapper who is as prolific as she is right now. The Cape Town-born New Yorker has in just above two months, managed to release four EPs (the Gotham Down Cycle trilogy and recently, Jeannie) an audio book, The State of Eh and a web-based sitcom, Life With Jeannie. NB: In a dramatic twist of events, she recently removed the Gotham Down Cycle trilogy and The State of Eh book from her bandcamp page.
Also stretching her arm at philanthropy, she’s part of the Power up Youth Project – an initiative that aims to make education accessible to every child in South Africa.

The rapper who was born Tsidi Ibrahim in Manenberg to two musicians, jazz maestro Abdullah Ibrahim and late vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, is the embodiment of the word ‘independent’ . She has produced most (if not all) the music on her recent EPs and directs, writes and stars on the Life with Jeannie sitcom. She also directed the video of her own “Kill Screen” and Talib Kweli’s “Favela Love“.

Jean fans are probably the most confused hip hop fans on the planet. Jean has been trying to tell one story ever since she started rapping. “The Gotham Down series follows a story I began telling on my Bootleg of The Bootleg EP. It was released on October 7th, 2003. That’s exactly 10 years ago today, if you were not counting…” she explained in a social message that accompanied the first installment of her Gotham Down Cycle trilogy, Gotham Down Cycle I: Love in Infinity. It’s only in the deluxe version that the story (which involves a lot of people getting killed) is told in a linear manner.


Her character-shifting tendencies do her more good than bad (if any). She switches from an emotional woman (as demonstrated on her latest EP, Jeannie) to the blood-thirsty psychopathic awesomeness she displays on the Gotham Down Cycle trilogy all with wordplay stylistically delivered at catastrophic standards. She described Jeannie as “a six-song EP that’s a little softer, a lot more personal and no one gets murdered”. Taking off where “You and Me and Everyone We Know” left off, it oozes emotion and even displays a woman who’s dealing with being 37 and still being single and having to co-exist with Worldstar.

Her album, Cake or Death has been “coming soon” for a couple of years. She released the DJ Drama-hosted Cookies or Comas mixtape in preparation for its release but up until today, the M-Phasez-produced “You and Me and Everyone” has been the only glimpse of Cake or Death we’ve had. Maybe cake or death really is a hard choice to make after all.

With killer cameo verses on songs such as Talib Kweli’s “Uh-Oh” and Pharoahe Monch’s “Assassins”, Jean has made sure her relevance among major hip hop circles stays felt…and not lightly!

Whether you questioned if her South Africanness was enough for her to represent South Africa (Cape Town specifically) on the 2012 BET Awards ciphers, or are just special enough to not recognise what a great MC she is, you have to appreciate her independent consistency and her surreal creativity. Let’s not forget the refresher that is her tweets.

Or else Jean will kill you!


Her latest EP can be purchased here 

Twitter:  @JeanGreasy

Images taken from Jean’s facebook page

Written by Sabelo Mkhabela

Twitter: @SabzaPassword