'Don't waste your mic': Jessie Reyez's advice on mentorship and using your platform for justice

During the pandemic, the Grammy nominee and 2-time Polaris Music Prize shortlister has been focusing on how to pay her power forward.

During the pandemic, the Grammy nominee has been focusing on how to pay her power forward

'People don't really advertise a lot of their failures,' says Jessie Reyez. She's hoping to change that. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Pandora Media; design by CBC Music)

"When I started, I was trash. I had no idea what a key was; I couldn't stay in key. It was awful."

Jessie Reyez is refreshingly honest, talking to a group of up-and-coming artists via Zoom one afternoon this past September. The masterclass is part of her work as artist ambassador for First Up with RBC x Music, a program that launched mid-summer to support emerging artists who have been losing opportunities and work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the pandemic hit in March, the Toronto-born artist was only two shows into an opening stadium tour for recent Grammy winner Billie Eilish. Reyez was coming off a Grammy nomination and two Juno Award nominations (she would later win one of the latter), and was set to release her long-awaited debut album, Before Love Came to Kill Us, on March 27. But the outlook for her big year changed drastically — as did everyone's — and Reyez was forced to shift gears. Instead of touring the world in support of her new album, she's been focusing on sharing her vulnerabilities and her process of getting into the music business, hoping it will help artists coming up after her. (Most recently, she was also able to perform as part of the 2020 Latin Billboard Music Awards in Florida, effectively stealing the show.)

"You can find so many life hacks when you can learn from other people's mistakes," she explains, in a later interview with CBC Music. "Having to force yourself to go through it, to learn what other people have been telling you for years is one of the dumbest things I've ever done. So I feel like if I have the opportunity to kind of save someone [from] that and give them, I don't know, a Level 5 hack, I want to do that. So that's what I've been doing the most, I've just been trying to be as open as possible when it comes to my story and the struggles that I faced."

Reyez learned a lot of what she's paying forward through Toronto's Remix Project, a nine-month arts training program for young people from marginalized and underserved communities. While people in Reyez's life were telling her to go to school and get a job, she wasn't interested in that path — or the debt and associated worry that came with it. She wanted to focus on her music, but couldn't figure out how to make it work. So when she was accepted to the Remix Project, she invested in herself by spending her savings on a plane ticket home from Florida, with enough to get her through the whole program without working so that she could spend all her time in training. And it paid off.

"[The Remix Project] provided a bridge," Reyez says. "My whole life I was watching TV or watching music videos, watching award shows and ... it just seemed like a dream that was so far away I couldn't bridge it. I didn't know anybody in my life who had achieved it…. At Remix they have these workshops and they'll bring in people who have succeeded. They'll bring in these creatives who are working in their field and successful. And they're sitting in front of you and talking to you about this experience. And I'll never forget it because it was like, yo. It's materialized, it's human. The person in front of me believes, just like me."

People don't really advertise a lot of their failures.- Jessie Reyez

And the answer to singing off key? Lessons. ("I still take vocal lessons. I still need vocal lessons," she says.) Reyez —  who has co-written with Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa, collaborated with Eminem and most recently was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize for the second time since her stint at the Remix Project — is constantly working on self-improvement. In her masterclass, she described breaking down songs like Pharell Williams' "Happy" and Rihanna's "Diamonds in the Sky" to learn what makes them so successful. (One takeaway: they're each versions of children's songs "If You're Happy and you Know It" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," respectively.) After each live show, she and her team sit down to rewatch the performance and single out who missed what cues, and how they can improve. Reyez compares it to a basketball team going over plays together.

"I always want to make sure that I say that [I couldn't sing in key] when I talk about my story because I could've gone one of two ways," explains Reyez. "I could've just been in denial and let ego take over and been like, 'No, no, no, I'm fine, I don't need to learn, I don't need any help.' Or I could do what it was that I did, which was I accepted critique. I accepted critique and I took it constructively."

"People don't really advertise a lot of their failures," Reyez adds. She's trying to change that.

'Don't waste your mic'

In June of this year, Reyez demanded change of a different kind: the makeup of staff at labels across the country.

"I want to implore Shane Carter, from Sony Music. I want to implore Jeff Remedios, who I know personally, at Universal, and Steve Kane at Warner Music Canada," she began, speaking as part of her segment in the CTV special Change in Action: Racism in Canada. "If you guys are hearing this or watching this, you guys have right now, in your hands, the power to be pioneers. You guys have in your hands the power to be pioneers and to be legitimate allies. Not allies in posting squares. Not allies in just posting statuses. But actually the partners in this movement. You guys have the potential to be pioneers and actually bring people up and make fundamental change so that in 10 years our kids or your kids or whoever, doesn't have to go through the same thing that's going on right now."

Her request was made all the more powerful by her research: "Sony, it's 90 employees, but only eight are Black; at Warner, it's 86 employees, only seven are Black; and at Universal, — I'm personally signed to Universal, but I'm going to be completely open about this — 175 employees, 11 Black people."

Airing not quite a month after the police killing of George Floyd, Reyez was standing up to her label bosses at the height of the summer's anti-Black racism protests. She says she was apprehensive doing it, but "also felt there was a need. And I am a recipient of privilege, I'm lighter skinned — I'm still a minority, but I'm lighter skinned. And intersectionality is a real thing so I also felt like I had a responsibility to speak up."

I am a recipient of privilege, I'm lighter skinned — I'm still a minority, but I'm lighter skinned. And intersectionality is a real thing so I also felt like I had a responsibility to speak up.​​​​​- Jessie Reyez

Her request didn't go unanswered. "Honestly, the response was lit," she says. "Jeffrey [Remedios, president of Universal] called me. And we had a conversation about how to move forward, about how to understand what privilege is."

"[Systemic racism] happens when you're younger," she explained, relaying the conversation. "It happens when their parents couldn't get the right job because of some racist stuff or because they couldn't apply to the right schools and then end up in a different area and in this different area, the school doesn't have as much funding as it would in a nicer area. So then this child won't get the education or the head start that other kids have gotten before they hit high school or before they hit university…. So by the time we all get to the same level, for example, university or coming out of university, by the time we all get there, the struggles, you can't see them. But you can see them if you step back and you look at the statistics of who's coming in for a job. So that's why I think that if we are going to be lending a helping hand, it's almost like you have to have that in consideration."

Since that conversation, Reyez became the only person to have performed the Canadian anthem atop the CN Tower — wearing a Breonna Taylor neck gaiter. Taylor's name is also in Reyez's Twitter name: Still no arrests. #BreonnaTaylor. To this day, no one has been charged with the March 13 death of Taylor, a Black medical worker who was killed by Louisville police when they raided her apartment while she was sleeping. 

Also since that conversation, Advance, a Canadian Black music collective looking to combat anti-Black racism in the industry, has launched. Universal has also launched a Black youth scholarship in partnership with its employees and rapper Kardinal Offishall, who's also an executive at the label. And while Reyez says that's "beautiful," she doesn't expect swift change immediately.

"I mean, I'm an optimist, but I'm also not naive. I didn't expect things to change overnight. The things that I've seen and heard and been a part of, which I think is a step in the right direction, is triggering more conversations about it, because I think that that's where it starts."

Which brings her back to mentoring. "Mentorship for me is something huge," she says, and it's something she wants to do more of. While opening up about her failures and what path she took to success is important to her, Reyez also wants to hit home that when you're making art for the masses, "it's important to be cognizant of content versus context and not just what you're creating, but what you're creating is going to do." If you're standing atop the CN Tower as the first person ever to perform there, what are you going to do?

 "If you get it and you achieve this [success], don't waste your mic. Because you never know what kind of impact you might have on someone's life. You never know who's watching it."