Jessie Reyez was ready for a summer to remember. Coming off of her first Grammy Award nomination and her inaugural entry on the Billboard 200 with her debut album, Before Love Came To Kill Us — which peaked at No. 13 in April — she had just started opening for Billie Eilish on her global tour and was preparing to make her own first appearance at Coachella. Instead, Reyez spent the past few months turning the spotlight away from herself — and on the widespread demand for racial justice following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Born in Canada to Colombian parents, Reyez, 29, was among the thousands marching the streets of Toronto chanting, “No justice, no peace,” on May 30 just days after Floyd’s death. “People told me, ‘You’re not Black, so why the fuck are you being so loud about this?’ ” she recalls. (Her late grandfather was Black.) “I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I can say every Latino has Black blood in them, but they just forget.”
On and offstage, Reyez — who in July made a cameo in Beyoncé’s Black Is King visual album — is unapologetically blunt, and vocal, about the urgent issues affecting women now, from sexism and family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border to the need for more Black and Latino representation in the music industry. “I remember at the beginning, making music [for me] was very much selfish,” says Billboard’s 2020 Women in Music Impact honoree. “Then I met people at my shows who said, ‘Your song made me step off the ledge,’ or that listening to ‘Gatekeeper’ ” — a song about her own experience with sexual harassment — “made women feel stronger before going into a meeting with a bunch of men. That matters.”
Who were the female artists who made you believe in your dream of singing?
I remember watching Celia Cruz and thinking, “Hell yeah!” I wanted to do shows for my family with fruits in my hair. Another obvious one was Jennifer Lopez — seeing a Latina up there dominating meant so much. And Amy Winehouse did so much for me. She was like a friend in the dark, especially during my first heartbreak.
You’re very direct, emotional and transparent in your lyrics. Growing up, did it always come easy to express or communicate what you were feeling?
I went through stages cause when I was little, I definitely didn’t have a filter at all, and my parents can attest to that. Into my teen years, I started seeing all these magazines and what you’re ‘supposed’ to look like, dealing with puberty and understanding what gender inequality is. All that affected me and it took a lot for me to find my footing again and find my inner child again, thinking, ‘I don’t want to change into who the world thinks I’m supposed to be.’ I still want to be that 6-year-old asking my mom where babies come from on the bus loud as hell with no shame. I want to stay like that until I die.
Who were the women who showed you it was possible to be fearless both in and outside your music?
From a really young age my mom instilled in me to brush off what other people thought. I had other family members, teachers and friends who would say ‘Your hair is a mess,’ ‘Your eyebrows are a mess, you should get them done,’ all these things. I just wanted to be free and let my hair down. I was so lucky that I never got that bullshit from my mom. She just let me be. If I wanted to wear my brother’s hoodie for an entire week, she’d say ‘Do you.’ It’s helped me speak with some [confidence] when people tell me how to dress now.
Earlier this year you were on tour with Billie Eilish, and you played a few shows before the pandemic hit. What were those like?
Great. Billie is dope — it goes without saying. When you meet her whole family, you’re like, ‘I get why you’re so cool.’ It’s nerve-wracking to open for somebody — I’ve done it before. When you’re opening for somebody, there are a lot of people who don’t know your stuff or even like your music. But I feel like when an artist is dope, their fans are dope. When people are dicks, their fans are dicks. It’s a shame we only got a few shows in but I was really lucky to be received with that good vibe, and she always shows mad love for me, and that helped. My fans are dope and cool too. I mean, I’ve never met any dick fans.
This year you also appeared on Beyoncé’s Black Is King and Carlos Vives’ Cumbiana — projects by artists who inject a wider cultural significance into their work. What did you learn from working with them?
Beyoncé is a strong, powerful Black woman who is a thriving businesswoman, taking care of her family and still active when it comes to social justice. All these things she does with grace. I respect that so much. And Carlos Vives is a voice that represents a country. There is so much pride in being Colombian that has been derived from his songs. There is a lot to be said for an artist who is capable of making timeless music — and both of them have done that.
What was it like for you to participate in Canada in the movement against racism?
It’s hard to explain because it’s pretty well-known that we have this benevolent idea of multiculturalism. But if you look at statistics of executives who are at the top [of the music industry in Canada], Latinos and Blacks are still not represented. I think that it’s easy to do enough to appease the public, but it takes more than that to affect the actual boardroom. We need to dig deeper so the statistics match the outer perception of who we are as Canadians.
It feels like we as Latinos are still figuring out the role we play in the Black Lives Matter movement — would you agree?
If the oppressed are the only ones fighting against oppression, how is anything ever going to change? If you’re in a position of privilege, what the fuck are you doing with your mouth closed? It’s a double-sided sword, because I can say every Latino has Black blood in them but they just forget. Go look at your heritage and you’ll figure it out. At the same time, you shouldn’t even need to say that. At the end of the day, we’re all just bags of organs and if I see another bag of organs that’s suffering and I’m not, then why wouldn’t I want to help? In another life, those shoes can get reversed quickly.
It’s been a tough year on so many levels. How has it shaped the kind of artist you want to be going forward?
It’s definitely put a magnifying glass on my psychological health. Going from massive rooms and thousands of people and moving a million miles a minute to suddenly stopping was difficult. I started seeing a therapist this year because I know that if I’m making this machine move and fans are relying on me, then I have to make sure I’m taking care of myself. It’s almost like I forgot that I needed to be okay to make sure I can keep doing what I do. As weird as it sounds, it was recognizing that I’m not a robot.
What does the word ‘impact’ mean to you?
Being able to drop a seed on the north side of the lake and see a tsunami on the south side. Impact to me means purpose, and understanding the purpose that you didn’t realize you had until after the impact. It means strength and truth and honesty and faith and time.
And as an artist who has always been vocal about social justice, what impact do you hope to have?
I hope that when people see artists shaking the hive, it encourages them to speak up when they see some racist shit go down. Those residual effects are the ones I want to make sure I have, and you can’t really track that — so one can only hope.