By Chelsee Lowe
Photography by Stewart Shining
Styled by Heather Smith
When I first spot Jhené Aiko, she’s posing in a giant makeshift box with white foam-board walls. She adjusts her body often, according to instruction from the photographer. Once the session is over, Aiko pops into a dressing room and emerges wearing a self-selected outfit: an oversized Alo hoodie, Adidas sweatpants and a Childish Gambino T-shirt. With a quick stop at the computer monitor, she gives what seems to be quiet approval of the photos just taken.
“How’d that go?” I ask.
“It went well. Easy breezy,” Aiko says.
This is her vibe—calm, cool and collected—and as her story unravels, it’s clear that this feeling of centeredness is something she works for, something she needs.
The 31-year-old is perhaps best known as a singer-songwriter, but she was a poet first. Among her earliest memories, Aiko recalls her mother transcribing her rap lyrics for her, long before she could put pen to paper herself.
Aiko says her musically inclined household enhanced her skill with words. Her father was an aspiring musician who transformed his garage into a studio space at one point. Her older siblings’ experiences in music and their individual tastes also ensured that she was immersed in the industry.
“My older sisters were in a singing group, and my brother was, too,” Aiko says. “Of course I wanted to sing; I was looking up to them. They were always playing music, too, so that’s where my compilation of influences comes from.” If one sister blasted Prince and Michael Jackson, the other followed up with Snoop Dogg and Tupac, Aiko says. Her brothers took over next, cycling through tracks by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. When she was old enough to have a say, Aiko added voices like Mariah Carey and Sade to the mix.
“Singing was just something I was doing, but then I found a passion in writing,” she says. “I didn’t really combine the two until I was maybe 15. Then I was like, ‘I have some stuff to say, I’m a writer.’ I saw that I could turn my poems into melodies. Now I can’t sing a song if I haven’t written it.”
Aiko’s professional music career began at age 12. She gave birth to her daughter, Namiko, in 2008, and released her solo debut in 2011, a mixtape named Sailing Souls. In 2013, her EP Sail Out garnered her two Grammy nominations.
One might think Aiko would slow down after so much work and change. But her sound and creative goals took on a new form instead. Putting out another album didn’t feel like enough.
“I wanted to do more,” she says, “and because I love to write, I wanted to explore that.”
That ambition, plus her poetry, fueled “Trip,” a short film she penned. But she didn’t stop with just a writing credit. Aiko immersed herself in the process, from initial storyboards and location scouting to the final cut. The film is also scored with all original music by her, and the 22 tracks made for the film became the album Trip, released in 2017. Some of her poetry helped lay the foundation for lyrics on Trip, and she later released that poetry and more in a book of poems called 2Fish in 2018.
The entire project was based on Aiko’s experiences and dreams. At the root of the story is the loss of her brother, Miyagi, who died in 2012 from cancer. Aiko essentially plays herself in the film, dealing with loss and escaping through travel, love, drugs, and, of course, writing. “I loved the whole process of the project,” she says. “It was the perfect blend of business and pleasure, and I’m proud of it.”
It may seem ironic, but Aiko loves silence. She’s not someone who has music playing in the background all the time, she says. Her home is near the ocean in Marina del Rey, California, and she has a meditation space with singing Tibetan bowls and crystal bowls. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has influenced her meditation practice since she was a teenager.
“I’ve been studying healing sounds and tones, and that’s where I want to take my music moving forward. Right now, I’m still expressing my frustrations,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not the healer I want to be yet. But sharing your stories is important, because people want to relate. When you share your stories, other people feel less embarrassed about what they’re going through. That’s part of the healing process, too.”
Aiko likes to reflect and heal by the water. Her favorite places to enjoy the silence and the scenery include Big Sur, California, and Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii. Wherever she is, she’ll make time for the water. “One of my favorite memories in Miami was when I was in town for Art Basel, which I love,” she says. “I had a show that night, so that day I was on the beach in a cabana. A lady was walking up and down the sand, asking if anyone wanted a massage—a massage, on the beach, before a show. It was the best massage I ever had.”
But Aiko isn’t resting on her laurels for long stretches of time. The artist’s “five-year plan” will lead her to new creative terrain. She and fellow neo-soul singer Erykah Badu recently announced a joint headline performance in London on June 9. A fiction series for young readers and an animated film are in the works, she says, and there’s more music coming. The working title for her forthcoming album is Chilombo—her last name, and the name chosen by her father when he renamed himself in his 20s.
“Aiko is my middle name, which people get confused about,” she says. “When I was younger, I didn’t like the name Chilombo. No one could pronounce it, and it wasn’t really my name. But as I got older, I started to love it. My father chose it from a Brazilian name that was spelled a different way. We like to take words and play with them.”
Aiko’s full name—Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo—represents her diverse roots. Her mother is of Japanese and Latin descent, while her father has African-American, Native American and European roots. While these varied cultures exposed her to multiple religions—Buddhism, Christianity and Catholicism—she doesn’t label herself easily.
“I don’t like to put any name to what I am,” she says. “I believe in lots of things, and I love to learn and explore.”
Aiko researched the derivation of “chilombo” and learned that it can mean “wild,” “beast” or “monster” in an African language. Those meanings speak to her at this point in her career.
“This project is more unstructured,” Aiko says. “It’s more of me freestyling. I’ve done music like this before. Minimal production and raw emotion are my favorites. It’s been a super easy process because it’s easy for me to just be like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna say it how I feel right now. There you go, that’s the song.’ I feel like Chilombo is me coming into my confidence and independence.”
Brands to love: On any given day, you’ll see Aiko wearing Off-White, Nike, Adidas and Alo. “Every day I wake up in a different mood—like most of us, probably—so I dress for my mood,” she says.
Recommended poets: Aiko is a big fan of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Dr. Seuss. “I’m a big rhymer,” Aiko says. “I love when poems rhyme but also make perfect sense. My favorite poem is Dickinson’s I’m Nobody! Who are you?”
Cool cats: Every year during the “kitten boom,” Aiko fosters kittens to help ease the burden on local animal shelters. She ends up keeping one each time. “Cats have this alien, otherworldly quality,” she says. “I’ve felt like that myself at times, picking up on things before they happen. I think they protect me, too.”
Photographer: Stewart Shining
Stylist: Heather Smith
Hair: Jazmine Harris
Makeup Artist: Juanice Reed
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 Issue.