Jackie Hill Perry wrote her first poem when she was 19, feeling the need to express herself.
“I always thought poetry was super corny,” she says in an exclusive interview with HipHopDX. “That wasn’t something that I was like trying to get into. But I was at this community college and I was super bored. And I was like, ‘I feel like writing. I don’t know why.’ So I just wrote a poem and it was kinda good to be like my first poem.”
That was in 2008. Six years later, with a successful career as a spoken word artist, she released her debut Rap album, The Art of Joy, via Humble Beast Records in November. Being surrounded by other spoken word artists, she challenged herself to rap like they did.
“I got into Rap and Hip Hop just because it was something I wanted to see if I could do,” she says. “I was around friends who were poets that could rap, too. And so the fact I wanted to write raps, it felt like a challenge. Like, ‘If y’all can do poetry and rap then I can, too.’ So really it just became something to do on the side, something I enjoyed but not necessarily something I wanted to pursue. But I have a lot of people around me who were, I guess, trying to affirm me and be like, ‘Hey, you actually do this really well. This could be something that could really glorify God. Your gifts are not your own and so do it.’ And so it kinda just happened like that where it was just like, ‘Alright, I’ll do it.’ And here we go.”
She had gotten to know Braille and Odd Thomas, the founders of the independent label, by traveling around to different conferences. They followed Perry on social media and built a relationship with her. Last year, they brought her to the Humble Beast headquarters in Portland and invited her to join the team.
“It just kinda happened real naturally, not weird,” she says. “I wasn’t calling them trying to get on they team at all. It’s just they had been watching and observing and asking people about me and it just happened.”
Jackie Hill Perry Grew Up Listening To 8Ball & MJG, Three 6 Mafia
Perry says what she has learned most from Humble Beast is how to define her sound. Growing up in St. Louis, she listened to 8Ball & MJG, Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat. When she started rapping, she rhymed over trap beats. Joining Humble Beast helped her become her own artist.
“They were trying to show me like, ‘That’s probably not the best sound for you. The best sound for you is probably more East Coast, more subtle more stuff like that,’” she says. “They really helped me to just learn what my sound is and what I should be doing… They definitely have made me who I am or who I am becoming, rather.”
“Not her content of course,” she says of the Disturbing Tha Peace rapper, “but Shawnna’s flow is just ridiculous, so I listen to her a lot to just learn how to ride a beat and stuff like that.”
Another one of her inspirations is the Lauryn Hill. Perry explains how growing up, Hill was an inspiration for a young Black girl like herself. On The Art of Joy, Perry pays tribute to Hill with the song “Ode to Lauryn” by honoring her but questioning her at the same time.
“I always wanted to write something about Lauryn,” she says. “One time, I was up watching videos, just for hours. I was watching all her old videos, The Fugees, Miseducation and just watching who she was, her demeanor and I saw like kinda this joy, this free spirit, really happy and then when you kinda watch videos around now, the last five years, she’s not the same person, really. She seems a lot more serious, a lot less lively. And there was this intrigue I had, like ‘What happened to you or was in you that has caused you to change so drastically?’”
Perry’s album is full of storytelling and wordplay. There was a buzz over a line on the opening song, “The Argument,” when Perry says, “I know you read about him, but tell me / Did you read right? Did you Andy Mineo? / Did you see light (C-Lite)?”
Many people took the line as a diss to the Reach Records rapper, who used to go by the name C-Lite. However, Perry says that was not her intention at all. She says, at first the claims didn’t bother her because from her poetry experience, she is used to being misunderstood. But then, she received an e-mail from a concerned fan and decided to take to Twitter to clear the air. She explains that even though competition is inherent in Hip Hop, her faith calls her to a different standard of respect.
“To me, it shows I think a lot of people just have to be taught how to listen in context,” she says. “The entire context of the song will show you, like it would be so random for me to diss him right there. Like it just doesn’t make sense. And even like that would be an issue with my character if I did.
“Jesus has called me to be humble and to serve and to love people,” she continues. “Envy and jealousy and competition shouldn’t be a part of it. Now, I can be spurred on by my brothers. Like I can listen to a verse from somebody like John Givez or J Givens and be like, ‘Dang, they just killed that. I gotta do better.’ Like it’s not a competition. Like, ‘I wanna be better than them.’ Nah, man, like they killing the game with how they spit. How can I change the way I spit because of it? I think it’s all about perspective. If God is the one we serving, in the end, competition is dangerous because it gets to a point where you wanna like beat down your brother lyrically.”
Jackie Hill Perry Defines Success
Humble Beast gives away albums for free via download on their website, but those who want to support can purchase all of their material on iTunes. This forces their artists, including Perry, to view success much differently than most rappers.
“If my goal was money and sales and all of that, I would be really disappointed and discouraged,” she says. “But it wasn’t. I set out to do something to impact people in a certain way with a specific agenda. It was completed and it happened and I have evidence. Therefore, I’m successful.”
Ultimately, Perry says she wants listeners to get something more out of her music than catchy beats, lyrical somersaults or beef. She wants them to find the same joy and hope that she has. She uses her own story of transformation in order to invite her audience to experience true fulfillment.
“I have tried to find happiness and joy and satisfaction apart from God,” she says, “whether it was weed, whether it was women, whether it was men, whether it was porn, whether it was masturbation. I really tried for 19 years and it didn’t work. I’ve never truly had the peace that I was searching for, I never had the wholeness that I was searching for until I finally just laid down my affections and my desires and realized, ‘No, you were created for God, therefore, you can only be satisfied when you come to God.’ It’s basic logic.”