Interview: Last Friday Night, Jean Deaux Threw a Party

“If I was crazy famous, and like a million people came, there would be so many people here that didn’t know why they were here. I can tell that everybody in this room, tonight, was here for me. And that felt good.” – Jean Deaux. Photo by Arthur Hayes

She told me to give her twenty minutes so I went back to the bar, picked up my fourth – or maybe fifth – drink, and waited for the crowd to break up a bit. The artist, Jean Deaux, known for her interdisciplinary, genre-bending, and just plain cool creative direction was standing by the DJ booth giving hugs, taking pictures, and just reveling in the moment. Minutes before, she’d wrapped the second of two performances of KRASH, her latest EP, in as many days.

Thursday, the day before, she’d done a free pop up acoustic show sponsored by Google for her under 21 fans who wouldn’t be able to get in the following night. The Friday show was at the Cerise Rooftop Bar in the Virgin Hotels Chicago. Anyone who’s been to Cerise knows that it isn’t a “traditional” concert hall but, instead, exactly what its name suggests – a rooftop bar. That’s precisely why it was the perfect venue.

To mark KRASH’s debut, Jean Deaux didn’t throw a concert. She threw a party with her closest friends and family. Then – and this is the dopest part – she invited her fans. The whole night felt like a celebration. A celebration of success through failure; of music and the way it makes us move like nothing else can. Of course, first and foremost, it was a celebration of Jean Deaux. By the time the performance ended, everyone lucky enough to be there was so drawn in by her that we felt we’d taken part in something special. Like we were connected to Deaux and her journey.

Before the show, as the DJ curated the vibe with all the undeniable prowess of the aux cord emcee at that one house party you’ll never forget, Jean worked the room. As she fell through, she stopped, now and again, to dance with her friends, pop in on a group of fans, and even post a tweet.

Then the show began.

There was no stage, no barrier between artist and audience – just a girl with a mic and a booth at her back. We stood on chairs, leaned in, and crowded around, raving, shouting the words back at her. She had that classic hip hop energy. That electricity that could just as easily light up a street corner as a packed arena. And yet there’s something undeniably original about her sound. She’s doing her own thing. Charting her own course. As Deaux said herself in “Back 2 U,” with every project she’s “buildin’ lanes like construction.”

I wanted to know where those lanes were headed so, I approached her for an interview and, twenty minutes later, we got a chance to speak. You see, the party didn’t end with the performance. The DJ kept going for hours after. There were still a lot of people dancing and milling around so we relocated to the stairwell where I’d hoped we would be undisturbed by her incredibly enthusiastic fans.

No such luck. When picking the spot, I failed to consider that it was directly along the path to the bathroom. Even still, we worked our way through the interview:

How did you end up deciding on a venue like Cerise for your first KRASH show? It kind of feels like a party instead of a concert – which is really dope.

JD: I wanna say that this is not the official, like, “KRASH show.” But it is the first show that I’ve had since debuting KRASH – my first opportunity to perform songs off the project. The official show will be next year. But there were a lot of people who wanted to come and hear the music so, I’m just grateful and blessed that we were able to do this and that people came out.

Do you like doing a more intimate setting like Cerise as opposed to like a big, grandiose, stage?

Jean Deaux: I think intimacy is used a lot in smaller spaces, but intimacy doesn’t depend on size. The next show that I have for KRASH will be bigger but it’s still gonna be intimate. You know? I wanna create an experience no matter what. I want people to feel like, “wow, I really came and experienced this person” as opposed to, “I went to the show and then I went home.” The only difference between this show and the next one is that it’ll be bigger. But its still gonna be a party – still intimate.

So, where does “Jean Deaux” come from? How did you get your stage name?

“Jean Deaux” came from a twitter name. I wasn’t really making music regularly at the time but I was really looking hard to figure out what my stage name would be. And, I was really into this Rick Ross song  – the one where he’s like “that’s John Doe!” – [everyone laughs] and I’m like “I’m making this my twitter name!” So I type in @thatsjohndoe but its already taken. So I type it out the French way and it was free. I had already been rapping for a bit by that point and on the next song I dropped I decided to make it my stage name. It kind of just stuck. A lot of people thought it was too complicated – too hard to spell, too hard to pronounce – but I decided, like, I really like it so fuck it. People will learn it.

Can you talk about your experience gaining notoriety and recognition in the city? Does it feel different – do people stop you on the street now and all that?

I mean it’s always a blessing. I’ve always had people recognize me at some places, every now and then, but it’s never too frequent. I’ll probably notice it more when it’s more frequent but its not overwhelming yet. But in general, it just makes you feel good, like you’re on the right path. More than people recognizing me – when I stand in front of people and they can sing my words with me, tonight was the first night I ever really experienced that. I’ve been on tour and I’ve experienced that with maybe one or two songs but, since my project came out, its different. It feels really amazing to stand in a room and not only have people receive you but know the project already and come for a reason. I just feel honored that people continue to receive my music and receive me as an artist. That’s the biggest, biggest, most important thing to me. I don’t really care about notoriety. I just care that I’m touching the people who do know me in real ways and not superficially. If I was crazy famous, and like a million people came, there would be so many people here that didn’t know why they were here. I can tell that everybody in this room, tonight, was here for me. And that felt good.

What was different getting to the finish line on this project compared to the others?

Well this was the first project with features, really, for one. I put a lot of work into my first mixtape – I remember – but I listened to it right before KRASH came out and I was like “this ain’t it.” But I remember back then, being that age, and feeling like it was. That puts everything into perspective for me. It just makes me realize that everytime I make a project, I’m gonna think “this is it” because it represents the peak of where I am at that moment. Come the next project, it’s going to be like “no this is it,” you know? I’m looking for an indicator of growth every time and I never wanna feel like I’m in the same place from project to project. With KRASH, even though its not an “album,” I put a lot of thought into every single piece of it. So, putting all of that together, it just made me proud.

The thought definitely shows. There’s definitely an element of storytelling to the project. What story are you trying to tell?

Failure is kind of the theme of KRASH because that’s where I was at in my life leading up to this project. But the story that I’m telling – the way that I see myself as an artist, I’m not here for a short time. I’m not here for one project. I’m not here for one single. A lot of artists today are comfortable with that – they’re comfortable with having one hit that sails them through the rest of life. I’m not like that. The story that I’m telling is very complex. It’s going to take a while before people are able to put it all together. But, I’m dedicated to telling it. I don’t worry about whether people will get it all right away. That dedication and that confidence assures me that I’m on the right track. I know that, later on in life, people will see it. That’s what’s important to me. I don’t just make music, I make film, I write stories. So, incorporating all of that to tell the story – my story – and to grow with that story is what I’m after.

What has been your experience navigating the industry – a space characterized by a lot of toxic masculinity, bullshit sexism, etc.? Do you feel a weight or responsibility that comes with that?

I mean, this how I feel: I’m gonna always deal with dick heads. At the end of the day, my reputation is being that bitch – I stand on that. There’s nobody that I work with that can say that I didn’t come through for them, or say I let them down, or went behind their back. So ultimately, that’s how I move in the industry – that’s what I focus on. I know that I’m a good person. If anybody takes advantage of that, or exploits that – that’s on them. Not on me. I constantly remain myself so that other people can reveal who they are. When they do, I don’t change for them. So that’s how I move through this male-dominated, rape culture ass society. And I keep real people around me, at all times, so that I don’t ever feel alone. So that I always feel protected.

You mentioned that you always keep real people around you. Your song “Energy” touches on that topic a bit. Is it mostly just members of your circle, that you work with, or – [Just then, as if to accentuate the point, one of Deaux’s cousins passed by and swapped out her empty glass for a fresh new one]. That’s a friend right there!

That’s my cousin [laughing] that’s why I say I keep real niggas around me at all times. But, to the question, the chemistry has to be natural. If I don’t know the person, I’ll work with them if I really, really admire them. If I don’t know them but I can get a sense of who they are through their music, it’s easier for me to collaborate with them. I use her as an example a lot but – Queen Key, for example. When I worked with her, I didn’t really know her that well. I had just been listening to her music and one day she retweeted one of my tweets about being a woman who could rap. I saw she retweeted it and I was like, “Oh my God, girl, like I love you!” [Laughs] It was like instant – I fuck with you, you fuck with me. Her name is “Queen Key” which means she’s already aware of the goddess that she is. She isn’t intimidated by other woman in the industry and that’s important for collaboration.

To wrap up, a few of the articles that I saw said that, in their opinion, on this project, you sort of came into your own. Is that true? Do you feel like you came into your own on KRASH?

I feel like, with this tape – I’ve already come into my own – but, I am introducing myself. I’ve got my haircut [laughs] and my confidence so I’m ready to introduce myself to the world. I feel like, on the inside and the outside, I’ve come into myself. So, I think KRASH is the perfect introduction as to who I am as an artist. I feel like, from this point on, I’m just able to soar because people will already know who I am.

KRASH is available anywhere you listen to music. Deaux’s entire library is available on Soundcloud. Do yourself a couple favors: listen to KRASH (on repeat) and stay tuned for details about the next Deaux party.

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Arthur Haynes