JJESS KNOWS HER PLACE
JJESS’ music has been making waves for many reasons. Her DJ sets feature musical transitions that feel more like spatial shifts, spanning geographies and genres. These mixes create a sonic crosshatch, weaving techno beats with Afro house, big name artists with avant-garde sound.
This multi-genre trademark is the offshoot of creative ingenuity. But it’s also a reflection of Jess’s interdisciplinary approach to work and life, an unwavering tenacity to find her place within a variety of spaces, even those that might feel inaccessible.
Growing up in east London, Jess established her DJ career after leaving university in 2017. Since then, she’s navigated the music industry from all angles, working in radio production, playing clubs and festivals, and curating a professional identity online.
“My background’s in radio,” Jess tells me. “That’s actually how I got into DJing. I was working with [people] that played so many different genres of music. It opened my ears and my mind to all the different sounds out there.”
Despite early exposure to the industry, Jess tells me a sense of belonging took time; “I always wanted to DJ, I just didn’t really know how to start. I still didn’t feel like I could call myself a DJ […] for a few years.” This separation came from a feeling of inaccessibility. As a Black woman navigating a predominantly white cis-male industry, Jess recalls feeling anxious in certain spaces: “It was as though I didn’t really belong [in them].”
But a deep love of music pushed Jess to make accessible what had previously felt exclusive. “I’d never seen [music] as a career […] but I’ve always been surrounded by it. My dad was heavily into collecting CD’s and buying sound systems”.
Starting work in radio production for the BBC was a way in, though Jess describes the constraints it had on her creativity. This encouraged her to navigate the industry on her own; “I wanted to explore how the different sounds in my head could sound to others […] explore my own avenues and work on my own terms.” By carving out spaces that once felt unattainable, Jess has found creative agency and a stronger sense of identity.
“That sense [of not belonging] can sometimes consume you […] but I just remember why I started. I wanted to be the DJ that elicited that same feeling I felt when I was listening to a set.”
Since the pandemic, the spaces which Jess moves in have shifted. Clubs have closed and digital platforms are taking over, forcing creatives to navigate more uncharted territory; “Social media is tricky, because it feels like so many opportunities come from [these spaces],” says Jess. “It’s just another place where I need to present a certain image of myself, and you can get lost in that”.
But despite these shifts, Jess takes new spaces in her stride. I ask her where she feels most creative – playing out in clubs, recording in a studio, or sharing her work online. She tells me she likes a balance. Playing out allows her to build a community: “I want my shows to be […] a place to discover new music”. And in the digital sphere, she cites playlisting as another means of sharing with that audience: “it [allows me] to be that kind of discovery platform for others”.
This open dialogue is something Jess treasures in her work with the Girls Can’t DJ (GCDJ) collective, an initiative showcasing women and non-binary artists by giving them the platforms to network and perform. “Jords, who runs GCDJ, has been amazing at giving women the space to have certain conversations about things we all go through [in this industry],” says Jjess “Having that [space] to share things, it’s super important. It’s just made me feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
Jess recognises the importance of these outlets now more than ever, with the post-pandemic landscape favouring mainstream venues. “Spaces for women, for people in the LGBTQ+ community, it’s just almost non-existent. I’m hoping small clubs will start re-opening but it all comes down to funding”.
We talk about stagnant discussions to this effect. Every year within the music scene, Jess tells me, “We have the same conversation, that there’s not enough women on festival lineups. But nobody’s doing anything about it”.
Despite her evident frustration, Jess maintains a calm demeanour as we talk. I’m struck by this pragmatic sense of hope, a sign Jess hasn’t simply found her place, but is becoming that space for others. “I’ve always said, if anyone has any questions, just ask me. Slide into my DMs. I know that’s really scary, but I want people to feel comfortable enough to talk about these things”.
In this way, JJESS’ music becomes a conversation. Despite the divisions between Jess’s physical, digital, and sonic environments, she’s found ways to bridge the versions of herself that inhabit each space.
“It’s a very interesting thing, the different versions of yourself that exist in different spaces. When I’m DJing, I feel more confident. Whereas day to day, I think I can be pretty reserved.” This confidence ripples into all aspects of Jess’s life, “It affects your day to day mood. Just knowing that you’re talented, you can transfer that into other things.”
“Certain spaces can feel very intimidating. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done for women DJs, unfortunately.” She recalls being typecast as a Black woman, with bookers often expecting her to play rap or R&B. “After a while, you think ‘maybe this is what I’m supposed to play’ but I’ve realised I only want my set to be booked in spaces that will accommodate my sound.”
It’s inspiring talking to Jess, witnessing her steadfast response to adversity. But it’s also a reminder that, in exclusionary spaces, the burden of creating change often falls on the shoulders of those marginalised people. DJ training programs aimed at women and non-binary artists – like Mix Nights in Bristol – are positive signs, but they remain few and far between.
I ask Jess if she thinks industry leaders are doing enough: “Definitely not. Booking agents, the people in charge of festival line-ups, they’re the gatekeepers. They’re the ones who have to be willing to make changes.”
Rebuffing the borders erected by these gatekeepers comes back to JJESS’ multi-spatial, multi-genre sound. She pulls inspiration from everywhere she can, telling me her home city of London is unmatched in its diversity and creative opportunity. And it’s not just music she turns to for motivation; “People who’ve started a brand, and built a community around that brand, I think that’s so cool. I love when people think outside of the box to elevate other projects.”
DJing is ultimately a way for Jess to express herself – in the many forms that entails. “It’s like music. It has different genres, and those come from certain subcultures with their own way of dressing, their own way of living. DJing is definitely an extension of myself, my creativity, and how I portray myself.”
Perhaps most overtly, it’s her upcoming project, ’Code Switch’, that unravels this multi-faceted identity. Spanning various mediums, it’s a reflection of her transcendental sound.
“I wanted to connect to my Nigerian background. I went every year as a kid, but I wanted to find my own way there as an adult. I’ve started going quite frequently by myself.” ‘Code Switch’ draws on this experience of diaspora and identity through soundscape, music and film. Jess describes it as a research project, seeing it as a chance to explore the backstories behind our musical identities. It highlights an inspiring truth: that Jess’s capacity to weave spaces together exists in each of us.
“I’m speaking to people who live in lots of different spaces. Talking about growing up in a certain city, the music, sound, smells that describe that space, and how it’s shaped their creativity.” Jess says completing the project is her biggest goal this year. It certainly feels like a natural next step.
“Everyone’s a DJ” she tells me. Despite my lacking musical talent, I’m inclined to agree. Because for Jess – whose navigated a rigid industry by pushing a composite sound – DJing is more than a technical skill. It means trying to embrace the many versions of yourself that grow from different spaces, and filling those spaces unapologetically. If you ask me, she’s certainly succeeding.
Editor – @igweldn
Photography – @stuartnimmo_
Photography Assistant – @rhysbawilliams
Words – @flobellinger
Styling – @rachel.parisa
Design – @jack___sharples
Production – @pifivy