Jhene Aiko Shares ‘Unstoppable’ Spirit After Brother’s Death, ‘Souled Out’ Debut Wish List
At 24, Jhene Aiko, the wistful-voiced Def Jam signee with a history in the music industry dating back to her preteen years, has a sprightly, sanguine personality despite a career that already includes one soured record deal.
Upon walking into our interview at the Beats by Dre headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., I discover the L.A. native nestled comfortably with her team -- a far cry from the harried and irritable artist one frequently contends with at the end of a press day.
She and her assorted friends and family crack jokes as we sit down, her 4-year-old daughter patiently dangling her feet off of a table in the hallway, peering around as her mom knocks out interview after interview.
"My family is very supportive because there's a lot of people in my family that do music," explains Aiko, whose mixed background includes Japanese, African American, Native American and Jewish ancestry.
"I grew up in a household where my dad always wanted to be a songwriter and a singer, my sisters were in a group and my brother was singing, and so they're all supportive. Even the ones that aren't in music are happy to see me doing something productive, 'cause when I had my daughter everyone was sorta like nervous. They didn't know how that was gonna go."
Aiko was first signed to Marques Houston and Chris Stokes' T.U.G. imprint at the age of 12, and paraded around as B2K member Lil Fizz's cousin, although this was not technically the case. By 17, she had talked her way out of the deal, and by 20, given birth to a baby girl with Omarion's brother, singer O'Ryan.
As motherhood beckoned, a new career began to unfold, and on the strength of her Sailing Soul(s) mixtape, which featured collaborations with Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, she signed with Def Jam, under the tutelage of newly appointed executive No. I.D.
"I was really skeptical about doing a label deal, just because of what I had dealt with when I was younger," Aiko shares. "The more that I worked with [No I.D.] and was in the studio, I just saw how similar we were. He's older than me, so it was like a very good example of what I'm trying to do.
"He's peaceful, healthy, and into the same philosophies that I'm into, and it's great to be around that in a working environment, because the music comes out great."
Her Sailing Soul(s) mixtape was recorded with the support of her family -- she pantomimes cradling her daughter as she recorded, and while she and O'Ryan aren't a couple, considers him part of her "supportive family" as well. Now, 12 years after her first deal, Aiko is going after some of hip-hop's biggest names to appear on her debut LP, Souled Out.
"I'm looking forward to collaborating with Kid Cudi. It's on my wish list, I'm not gonna say, you know, that he's gonna be on there. One day, maybe," she says, shooting a pointed look at a member of her team. "Big Sean, some of the TDE cats [Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock] may make an appearance on there.
"Another one on my wish list is Eminem, 'cause I love him. And, yeah, Frank Ocean. I really want to get Frank Ocean on there."
Sadly, five weeks ago today, the Los Angeles native's 26-year-old brother Miyagi died after a two-year bout with brain cancer. Aiko responded to his passing with "For My Brother," a poignant tribute to her musical mentor, begging him on the song, "Don't give up, don't give up on us/ I just want you to hear this/ Don't give up on us."
"He was two years older than me and he was always the one giving me new music, before all the blogs had 'em. You know, 'Oh, have you heard this, have you heard this?'" she says.
"We were always sharing ideas and dreams and things that we wanted to do. It's actually been like... a month since he passed, which is crazy, but I personally feel like he's more here than ever," she says. "I feel like his energy was just divided between me and my brothers and sisters.
"All of the ideas that we talked about, and all of the things he wanted to do, those are all mine now. That's my job now, to get those done."
She continues without hesitation, eyes wide, shoulders straight, empowered, despite her loss.
"He was a fan of my music, he would listen to it on his own. Amazing, you know, your brothers and sisters, you're not sure if they're gonna make fun of you or whatever, and he was always just really supportive.
"I would see it on his playlist or he would make a mix and he would have one of my songs on there. That meant a lot to me."
She pauses for a moment. I glance at her team around the room, smiling, her daughter waiting patiently, hair all curls.
"I know that he's still here and when I look in the mirror, I see him," Aiko reveals. "We look alike and all of that. Everything is times two now. It's like me plus him, so I'm unstoppable."