First Listen #18: Justy’s ‘Soul Food’

We’re here now.

Justy, “1259, An Intro”

I spent a lot of time over the past couple of days trying to figure out why Justy’s Soul Food (2020) sounded so familiar. The energy, the vibe, the moments of “lol, why does this sound like my life???” – it felt like sitting on the floor with an old (but close) friend, some good pizza, and some tears (happy and sad). Then it clicked. This project feels like Orion Sun’s Hold Space for Me (2020) – in the BEST way possible. I’ve spent a lot of time with Orion’s project over the past few months, and it has become an important project for me, especially right now. Orion did a virtual performance over Zoom a few months ago (it was spectacular – she’s spectacular!), where she interspersed performances of songs from the project with detailing her writing process. She mentioned that much of the process of writing the project relied on honesty. She had to be honest with herself about her wants, needs, feelings, things in her life that were beginning, and things in her life that were ending. And it wasn’t always easy, but it took her leaning into that uneasiness to create a project that would be true to where she was at that moment in her life. And I feel that same energy coming off of Justy’s Soul Food.

speaking of ‘hold space for me’…

Soul Food is a beautifully, relatable project about growing – and all the rough and wonderful moments that come with it. Moments that are filled with love and care intermingle with moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s not a project that romanticizes the process of growth; it’s not a project that presents a neat and tidy version of progress. In fact, there are times on this project where growth means that dirt gets caught in your fingernails as you try to dig yourself out of your own desperation, and no matter how hard you scrub, it never comes off. This project details moments where growth gets hard and heavy, “you…self-loathe…feel insufficient, ugly, worthless, empty,” and it’s a feeling that seems endless. But as Justy offers, in those moments, it becomes increasingly important to remember the times where growth feels good – where L I F E feels good – or tolerable at the very least. Justy spends a lot of time – especially towards the backend of this project – talking about LOVE (in many forms) and the extraordinary feeling of having people in your corner who hold you down. Those people and those feelings are what keep us afloat. And I love that this project explored that balancing act.

(courtesy of Justy)

Sans lyrics, the production on Soul Food is just as impressive. I love the mix of jazz, hip hop, and R&B – with a little bit of guitar on top. Out of curiosity, I asked Justy about where she drew her inspiration from, and she mentioned that she is heavily inspired by Anderson .Paak (love!), Noname (LOVE!), Lauryn Hill (queen!), and Amy Winehouse (*chef’s kiss*). And there are definitely pieces of all of those (amazing) artists scattered throughout both the production and lyrics/flow on Soul Food, though Justy and the super talented folks who worked with her on this project made it a point to bring in a lot of individuality as well. A lot of moments on this also remind me a lot of Saba’s stuff. There’s a “down-homeness” that I usually think of with J. Cole’s music (despite his recent cornball behavior) that I also group Saba’s music into, especially Care for Me (2018). I always feel held very closely when I listen to Saba. And Justy’s project could definitely find home in that space. I love the production on “Ain’t No Problem” (the Shannon Sharpe clip is GREAT) and “WOULD YOU?” – I think those are my favorites on the project. “Representation Matters” is another favorite of mine; I love Justy’s flow on that track. I mean “They say lyrics were dead/ Then why the fuck you lookin’ out for all my similes”????? COME ON!!!! ❤ ❤

I think there’s also something to be said about interiority and vulnerability and the ways that it exists on this project. There’s a book by Kevin Quashie called The Sovereignty of Quiet that I read (the introduction of) last year; I’ve been meaning to actually spend some time with the whole book. Without sloshing through my notes or a Google search – so bear with me lol – in The Sovereignty of Quiet, Quashie talks about how Blackness is always up for public scrutiny; if a Black body does or says something (literally ANYTHING), it’s always done on a metaphorical stage in front of non-Black eyes. Everything that a Black body does is seen as political. Even art. Even when the artist says that it’s not.

The spectacle of Black life tends to leave little room for the consideration of Black interiority – or inwardness – that is linked to humanity. Interiority allows for processing of feelings and emotions; it’s a spiritual connection that a person has with themselves; it’s who you are, why you do what you do, and how the outside lands impact you at your core. And something important that Soul Food does – and projects like it – is that it brings in, makes room for, and prioritizes a vulnerability and honesty that is (necessarily) human. That vulnerability encapsulates the fear, love, sadness, and joy that often is divorced from external views of Blackness, but allows Black folks an opportunity to experience themselves from within, and creates a more well-rounded view of Blackness. Through that, Black bodies become Black people. And it’s so powerful when Black people lean into that vulnerability, as Justy does on this project.

I really could go on and on, y’all. There are really so many wonderful things about Soul Food. There’s an audio clip from part of Lena Waithe’s speech from the 2018 BET Black Girls Rock Special that is enveloped into the production on “Representation Matters,” and it’s the perfect summary of what Soul Food does. Soul Food represents balance. It’s recognizing that shitty things happen, while also taking a moment to breathe life into the “good things [that] come.” It represents freeing ourselves from — ourselves (and the expectations that others have – or don’t have – of us)! It’s – in the words of Orion Sun – holding space for ourselves and allowing wholeness and humanness and warmth to be found.

See, sometimes we’re so used to things being bad all the time that when good things come, we can’t embrace it. Get free of that…Let’s get free of the idea that we can’t go after our dreams because of how we look, where we come from, who we love, or how old we are. We all have gifts. You can’t live your dream if you never go after it.

Lena Waithe
Tamar: Where – or who –  do you draw inspiration from? 

Justy: My inspiration really comes from life – my living and my observation/reflection on how others are living. All of my work is autobiographical, so there are always hints of my own experiences in addition to me just experiencing life amongst other humans. Inspiration wise, I think it varies project to project. Sonically, I’ve always been inspired by Amy Winehouse, Anderson .Paak, Noname, and Lauryn Hill. With my forthcoming debut album, I tapped into a lot of Marvin Gaye, and in that I was able to infuse some more soul into my more natural jazzhop sound. 

T: When did you begin to recognize that making music was something that you’re passionate about? 

J: I was always a heavy music listener, and I can honestly attribute that to my mom. Back in the day, they would send out these music pamphlets where you could basically choose any CD you wanted, mail it back, and get your CDs a week or so later. So my mom would basically have these catalogues on rotation, and I had access to so many CDs at a young age which helped build my eclectic music taste. Once I got older, I noticed how easy playing the guitar and writing came to me, and the rest of the creative process just felt organic.

T: What does the creative process look like for you while working on a project/song?

J: For me, the creative process usually starts with the production. Whether I’m producing the song myself or working over someone else’s production, I’ll start by humming out the lyrics. So essentially just getting the melody down. Then I’ll go to the vocal structure, and I’ll record section by section (i.e verse – hook – chorus). I don’t write my lyrics down too often, so I’ll usually go back and write down everything I’ve sung in the end. 

T: How do you choose who you make music with?

J: For me that process can be very organic as well. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with people I’m also fans of, so its often fellow creatives who are friends as well or just someone whose sound I admire. 

T: Who is your music for?

J: I think my music is mostly for women, but as a whole its for people who may have had experiences parallel to my own. Maybe we’ve gone through similar trauma, highs/lows, pain/heartbreak. I really strive to make work that is indicative of my role as a qwoc creative, and I think the transparency in my work can in turn be relatable to my listeners.

T: Significance of the title and cover of Soul Food

J: I didn’t design the art or really implement too much of the creative aspect of it, but I think what I wanted to get across in both covers (streaming and Soundcloud cut) was just a depiction of myself perfect or imperfect or even how I was seen through the eyes of another artist. Then the roses are just something that has been symbolic in my journey so far. The thing I love about roses are even with their thorns, they are still considered beautiful/valuable, and I think as a person, I’ve always equated that to us as individuals wanting to be seen as beautiful despite our flaws. 

T: What’s your favorite song from the project? 

J: I think my favorite song from the streaming cut of the project is “Insecure.” For me, it’s probably one of my most vulnerable tracks, and it encompasses that feeling of unworthiness that I think a lot of people may struggle with. I was also able to get my good friend/super talented artist Jaah on the remix which exceeded anything I could expect. As far as the Soundcloud Cut, I really enjoy the track “Lock It Up.” It’s just a simple jazz piano ballad, but I like the rawness and vulnerability in wanting to get something right and secure that connection or relationship once and for all.

T: Your favorite song/album right now? 

J: Ah, that’s a good one. Song-wise I have two, 1. Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown” (I look up to Anderson’s work so much, he’s just one of those beings that is superiorly talented in my eyes). 2. Lauren Jauregui’s “50ft.” (I really love her vocal tone and the vulnerability in her voice. There are moments where she reminds me of Amy Winehouse vocally, and I think that’s super impressive.)

T: What wakes you up in the morning? – this one is my favorite!

J: This is a great question as well! Honestly, sometimes I question that myself on the real. On a spiritual level, I don’t think God is done with me yet in terms of fulfilling my purpose in life, but I also think music has played a big factor in keeping me going. I’ve battled with some mental health throughout my life, but another constant in my life has been music, and I really do think just that determination to see it manifest into something can be inspiring to wake up and try another day. 

Follow Justy:

Twitter: @justysmusic

Soundcloud: /justysmusic

Instagram: @justymusic

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