“I Don’t Want to Do Anything and Not be Good at It”: An Interview with Jean Deaux

Tosten Burks talks with Jean Deaux about her filmmaking aspirations, dealing with trauma, and rapping circles around her peers.
By    May 9, 2018

On a recent rainy morning outside a warehouse-turned-coffee shop in one of Los Angeles’ politically concocted “arts districts,” Jean Deaux discusses grief. Nearly 15 months ago, her cousin Walter Long Jr., best known as the rapper John Walt, a.k.a. dinnerwithjohn, was fatally stabbed outside a CTA Green Line stop in the River West neighborhood of Chicago. Deaux is touring with fellow Chicago artists Saba and Joseph Chilliams, brothers, whom she befriended eight years ago through Walt. “Full circle,” she says. Deaux acknowledges the tragic irony, and points to Saba’s April album Care for Me, a claustrophobic confession of postmortem guilt and loneliness. She too still hurts. The music helps.

“That’s a big thing that inspires me with Saba,” Deaux says. “Just being able to heal through the music, which I am doing too. I’ve always made sad music. I’m just doing it in the opposite way, speaking that joy and happiness into existence.”

Deaux, clad in a black leather jacket and black palazzo pants, her fingernails canary yellow, speaks in hushed tones that bely her elasticity on the mic. A product of her city’s youth spoken word institutions that you’ve heard all about, she’s a unique talent, equally clever at atmospheric soul hooks, intimate house-hop flows, crafty patois, and melodic drill postures—skills featured on tracks by Isaiah Rashad, Mick Jenkins, Mykki Blanco, Sango, and her partner Smino, not to mention the numerous men who have cut her guest verses, as she does not hesitate to mention with a smirk. (“These niggas can’t rap. It’s simple.”) She also directs music videos and co-wrote Kehlani’s single “Honey.” She turned 23 on Friday.

Later this year, Deaux will release Crash Course, her third solo project and first since 2015. “Energy,” the lead single, flaunts and celebrates a coping mechanism. Over a brisk Neptunes-colored spritz of hand drums, claps, bells, and fat synth bass, courtesy of U.K. Soulection affiliate Romderful, Deaux raps about shooing away people with negative vibes. “I don’t like your energy / You don’t have to see it that way,” goes the deliciously dismissive hook. During a particularly climactic moment, she belts, “I cannot focus on the things I cannot change,” content to control her environment. Over tea and fancy toast, she unpacks the claim. —Tosten Burks


How did you meet Saba and Joseph?


Jean Deaux: I was going to this open mic at YouMedia, which is at this library in Chicago. When I got there, I had heard that my cousin John Walt was up there rapping. So I went up there and I saw his little sister, who’s about my age. I was like, what are you guys doing? She’s like, Walt’s here rapping. He introduced me to Saba and Joseph, like, these are my cousins. They’re like, you’re Walt’s cousin? Then you’re our cousin. I’m like, no, absolutely not. I don’t know you. We have to become that.

Walt started telling me to come up to Saba’s studio. I started going over there in the summer. I would just be there every day. Every day, Walt would wake me up like, come to the studio, come to the studio. I would have work or school or whatever. That’s how it really started. I got really comfortable in the studio with him, just being with him, working on music and creating. It opened up a lot about me that I wasn’t even sure I had as an artist, as a creative, as a writer. I learned a lot from Saba in that time.


What were your artistic goals when you started recording? What did you want for the music?


Jean Deaux: Nothing. I just wanted a voice. I felt like in my personal life, in my environment growing up, I didn’t really have the voice to express what I felt, which is why I got into spoken word, because it was the easiest way to do that, to talk about the really deep sad stuff through spoken word. Transitioning to music, my only goal in life with anything is to be really good at shit. I don’t want to do anything and not be good at it. If I’m not good at it, then I’ll just do it by myself until I get better. So at that point, I just wanted to be really good.


You were kinda quiet for a while after the Outer Body EP. What inspired what would become the new project?


Jean Deaux: I think I’ve tapped a lot more into my versatility. There was a little bit of that on my first project, but it hadn’t really been brought all the way to life, just in everything that I can do. I think that was the biggest thing. When I first was known as an artist, a lot of people were expecting me to be in this little box: sad, moody, and sensual music, which there’s nothing wrong with. But it’s like, I’ve performed so much of that stuff that I got so sick of it. Every date on stage, it’s like, oooh, like, slow and dead. You can’t do anything to people with that but make them feel how you feel. I was just getting sick of doing shows where I wasn’t having fun. So, I just made a decision. I want to make fun music. I want to make music that I enjoy, and that other people can enjoy without feeling sad or in a mood.


What challenges did you face in shifting to fun songs, or songs intended to uplift?


Jean Deaux: The biggest challenge was it’s hard to write happy music when you’re unhappy. So, realizing that I had to have some type of psychological breakthrough. A lot of the music that I was making, I was in really toxic environments. It was translating through the music in ways that—once you heard the song, you’ve made a moment, it kinda lives on. No matter who hasn’t heard it, it just lives on. Any time you hear it, or have to perform it, you have to address it, talk about it. So, I just took a moment to myself, which is why I feel like I’m introducing myself, because of that. I had to take a step back and really find that happiness in myself to say, this is the moment that I want to continue to exist, these moments of happiness.

“Energy” is really just about me deciding who is deserving to be in my space and who’s not. Just creating a culture of safety for myself, making sure that people know, in order to be in my space, they have to be respectful and also have to know how to acknowledge other people’s needs and beliefs. It was very big of me because I’ve just been so used to people being who they are, but my own feelings as an experience to that. So, not sacrificing myself or my own happiness for other people’s happiness, which is what I think I used to be bad at.


If you feel comfortable talking about it, however specifically, in what ways did you find your creative spaces to be toxic?


Jean Deaux: I lived in a pretty toxic environment growing up, just in general, up until leaving the house. That was one thing…[At] 18, I moved to New York. I had dealt with an assault when I was in New York, which was really kinda debilitating to me. I moved to this new city, and I didn’t know anybody. I was trying to make friends and it backfired. So that was that. I moved home. [A relationship] became really abusive a few months after me moving home and moving in together. It was really bad. First of all, that was while I was making all that sad music. I had dealt with so much trauma, leaving the house and going to another city, then dealing with more trauma, and coming home.

That was the transition point, getting out of all those situations, those toxic environments. Re-finding myself, re-assessing myself, being like, what do you want to be? Who do you want to be? What parts of you have been compromised and damaged because of these environments? That’s a big thing that inspires me with Saba with the Care For Me album, just being able to heal through the music, which I am doing too. I’ve always made sad music. I’m just doing it in the opposite way, speaking that joy and happiness into existence.


Do you view your songwriting as self-care?


Jean Deaux: I think with the writing especially, sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing. Sometimes I’m writing a message to myself that I don’t really understand, and I’m like, what the fuck does this mean? Then months go by, and I’ll be listening to it, and I’m like, this is starting to make sense. I think that it’s definitely part of the self-care. I’m also trying to journal more recently.

One of the songs on the project, I actually recorded on the day that Walter died, when John Walt passed away. The words are very eerie for the circumstances. I didn’t find out what was happening until the next day, like 4 A.M. I was just recording the song while it was happening, which I later learned. I had no idea. But I remember just having a very, very, very out-of-body experience in the studio that day. I had just come out of a writer’s block. I hadn’t been recording so much. I remember even after that session, all the people that were at the studio and heard the song were like, wow, you’re coming back, keep going, da-da-da. I was just like, damn, this is so crazy, I had such a fucking block, and then that day, I had this flood of creative energy.

I said, “Nothing is forever, I would change forever for you.” Just very small things about eternity, and things about being there for someone no matter what, having that support system. The hook is just about you deserving more: “You deserve more and more and more.” It was just weird. I had never written anything like that, that was kind of uplifting. I didn’t know what it was about, honestly. So after I found out, I was just like, damn, this song is weird now. It feels like I was talking to him, or he was talking to me, through myself, which is very, very weird.

I just was saying, “Even if we married, no one can be buried.” When I wrote it, I took it as, no matter how close you are to somebody, or no matter how much you love somebody, we all die alone. It was weird. I’m still unpacking it. I just remember the words kinda coming to me, which is pretty weird. Sometimes I have a melody and then I find the words that I feel like make sense. But in this case, it was like, I heard the words first, and then learned the melody. So that was different. It opened the door for the entire project. I made all the other songs for the project after that song.


How has Walt’s presence been felt on this tour?


Jean Deaux: It comes and goes, honestly. I don’t know too much about any of that stuff because I feel like there’s only so much you can know. But I definitely feel it in certain situations. I was performing on stage, and there were these little orbs following Saba and Joseph around stage.

Or, one time we were at the merch table. Saba was sold out of all of his shirts. Like, all of them. And this girl came up, just talking about, I flew in from John Walt Day [a tribute concert in November] to come and support. We were talking about it. She was like, I really want a Comfort Zone t-shirt. I was like, I don’t think there are any more because there weren’t any more on the table. I looked in the box. She was an extra small or small. There was one shirt left in her size. I was just like, not even to be funny, but that was Walt. You came up talking about him, how much you showed support, and that shit just literally came right back. So little stuff like that.

And just having heart-to-hearts with the boys. We had a really weird night. I was with my friend Fresh. We were mid-convo. I started saying, “Walt.” But I was saying it like I was speaking to him, like, oh my god, Walt, forgive me for not coming from the store. Then after that, I probably said his name three times. Every time I said his name, we heard this train blare. The first time, I didn’t really pay any attention to it. It wasn’t even in a row. You know how trains be like, “werr, werr.” It was super off-beat. It was like, “werr,” then three-and-a-half minutes went by, “werr,” all on cue. I’m like, this is really fucking weird. I was just happy that Fresh was there because little shit like that will happen to me and usually nobody else is around, and I’m just sitting there like, damn, am I crazy? But yeah, it’s small stuff like that, other signs and signals that kinda let me know he’s around. I definitely want to believe that he still is. It helps a little bit.


How do you identify artistically right now? Primarily as a musician?


Jean Deaux: I don’t even want to abuse the word musician. I just tell people I’m an artist. People will be like, oh, you sing? Or, you rap? I’ll be like, yeah, how about that, everything. I don’t like to box myself in. Unfortunately people still are pressed to put me in a box, so I’m hoping this EP will push me away from that, away from the whole neo-soul-ass comparison, Jill Scott-ass comparisons. I’m trying to get away from all that. It’s not bad. I love all of those women, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. I just feel so different from all of them. I don’t feel like we make even slightly the same type of music. Sonically, maybe. The different type of voices, maybe.

It’s just, I’m ready for people to start giving artists, and especially female artists, the room to really be ourselves and to have our individuality without it having to be lumped. There can be 50 fucking rappers that are male that sound just like, we could easily group them. Lil Pump, Lil Xan, and Lil All Of Them The Fuck, we can literally put them under one name, and I won’t be able to tell the difference. Whereas there are so many women who have such a different style from everybody else, but we’re just so quick to be like, you sound like this woman and this woman.


How do you approach navigating media? “Wikipedia” feels like a pointed example of you saying, I’m writing my own story.


Jean Deaux: “Wikipedia” was largely written shortly after my exposé on being assaulted in New York, where there were literally a flood of people daily telling me what they think, what they think about me, what they think about the situation. And like, bitch, I don’t care. I wrote “Wikipedia” on a business card. I wrote the entire song on a business card. It was just like, very easy. This is how I felt. Everywhere I go, they look and stare, talk and talk. I probably recorded that full song—Smino recorded me, actually. I probably recorded that full song in 15, 20 minutes. It’s the fastest song I’ve made. It was probably because I was sick of bitches, sick of everybody’s opinions…I think on this EP, and everything that’s coming, I’m ready to gain my power from that situation.


Are you surprised to see abusers in the music industry dodge the accountability coming to some abusers in other industries?


Jean Deaux: To be real, like with the Bill Cosby shit, I’m very happy. He deserves to be in jail, 100 percent. But we are very specific, and the Justice Department is very specific about who they prosecute, who the victims are. Based on who the victims are, if Cosby was actually guilty, there are so many people like, oh, Bill Cosby didn’t do it, he’s a legend, they’re tearing down his legacy. But he went to jail because there are too many women, obviously.

Even to that point, it’s like, so many black women were assaulted. Now, the R. Kelly thing, it’s way overdue. Where were these same people when all these men have been predatorial on young black women for years? It sucks. I just feel like it depends on the victims. This dude is still out here working. Not only assaulting multiple women, putting them at risk for diseases. It’s just on another level of danger. To even know women who have been infected with something, it’s terrifying. Then you feel blessed. I’m healthy, but so many other women are not.


Let’s talk about songwriting. When did you first write for another artist?


Jean Deaux: I had a little few, not-serious songwriting sessions. I still wasn’t feeling myself as a songwriter. The first time I thought about it as far as writing for other people was when Kehlani asked me to write, have a few sessions with her. I was just surprised by that because I didn’t know that, or never thought that I was cool enough to write a song. And then we wrote “Honey” together, and people were messing with it, so that felt really good. Now I’ve made some goals to myself, some personal goals, to work with more women, especially in the industry, work with more women who need writers.

I just have so many ideas. Like I was saying, I’m super versatile. I’m learning if I tap more into the songwriting, it’s just like, every song doesn’t have to be for me. Every sound that I think of, or that I want to work on, might not be for me. It’s pretty cool. I’m just now coming into that fully, that realization. I definitely see more of it in my future, for other people.


Anyone specific you want to throw into the universe?


Jean Deaux: Rihanna, Beyoncé, Cardi B.


Would you rather smoke a blunt with Beyoncé or write a song for her?


Jean Deaux: We might be in the studio smoking the blunt. That’s what’s gonna happen. We’re gonna be smoking that shit and I’ll be like, let me hit that. Ahhh. Then Ima cry. I would cry. I would be like, don’t even give me that. I’m saving this for the rest of my life. I obviously won’t be able to tell anybody because I’ll be signing that non-disclosure. But when I get on tour with the half-blunt in the frame, niggas gon know. People gon know. I won’t even have to say nothing. I’ll just be like, y’all know what this? I can’t tell you. You just gotta figure it out.


Do you want to direct anything beyond music videos?


Jean Deaux: Yes. I’ve written my first short film, which is kind of a thriller. I have two movies—they might be tv shows. I’m still working on them. They’re mental ideas. The goal is to have time to sit down and really focus on that. I really want to get a Netflix original, or one of these major cable shows, HBO or FX, one of them. But I think I have some pretty good ideas. I don’t want to have to choose what I want to be. I want to be everything that I want to be, on some Childish shit.


How would you describe your new project’s sound?


Jean Deaux: I wish I could think of a word that means it covers all the bases. It feels just, complete. I think I’ve pretty much addressed every pocket of my existence, if that makes sense.

Evangeline, my manager, really wanted me to make the introduction one of my singles, and I can’t because I just need people to experience it for the first time with the project. It’s so good. It’s very emotional…It was super interesting recording because I have sinus problems. I get a lot of mucus in my throat. [Saba] started recording me before I cleared my throat. So the first verse sounds very—it sounds good, though. It’s weird. It gives me this tone that I’ve never heard from myself, probably because there was this coat of mucus on my vocal chords. But it just sounds really good. It was just super on point for the feeling of the song.

When I hear it, I just see all these people connecting to it all over the world, because it’s one of those songs where it’s uplifting, but it’s relatable, and it’s kinda sad, but it’s not really sad, it’s kinda melancholy. The first two songs: It’s that, “Way Out,” and then it’s “Deserve.” I feel like those give people a taste of what they’re used to from me, and then it shifts out of that.

I’m just working on, right now, the final pieces of it. Making everything cohesive and everything. That’s the final step.


Since you’ve mentioned it before, I have to ask. Who has asked you for a verse and later cut you from the song?


Jean Deaux: I won’t say names. A long time ago, it started off with [redacted]. [Redacted] were asking me to get on so many songs. I’d get on the song and they’d be like, yeah, I think I want to re-record this. I didn’t really know you was about to do all that. I’m like, do all of what? Rap well? Don’t ask me. One of my songs is gonna—I think a single from the project—is like, “Think twice before you ask for a verse from me.” Don’t ask me to get on anything because I’m gonna spaz. I’m gonna go as hard as I can. I don’t want to hear, oh, we not rapping. Don’t ask me to be on it, period.


It’s interesting the number of your early features that only include your hook.


Jean Deaux: It’s because these niggas can’t rap. It’s simple. I’m hoping to prove that shit, that niggas do not fucking rap.