Jesswar: “I can walk into any space anywhere and be proud of who I am”

The Fijian-Australian rap phenom tells NME about the road to her searing debut EP, ‘Tropixx’

In February 2018, Queensland MC Jesswar was due to play her first major touring festival show at Laneway in Melbourne. She was amped. But, that sweltering summer afternoon, disaster struck: her DJ BabyMama’s tech shut down. “The laptop went first. It died straight away,” Jesswar – real name Jessica Koroi – remembers. “Then we plugged in the phone – and the phone died from the heat. It was just not happening.”

“I was like, ‘I can’t let anything ruin this moment, aye. I’ve just gotta keep going.” The dynamic Jesswar – who was wearing a black Divide And Dissolve band T-shirt with the slogan “No prisons, no slaves, no masters” – quickly turned the “scary” situation around: She performed songs like her hit trap banger ‘Savage’ acapella, interacted with the crowd, and cracked jokes. To this writer, Jesswar’s blazing set was among the day’s highlights, even with Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals and Billie Eilish on the bill. Still, while forging her own mythology on stage, Jesswar questioned how she handled things. “I was so unsure of myself.”

She needn’t have been. Last week, Jesswar dropped her official debut EP, ‘Tropixx’. NME links with the Fijian rapper on a Monday in February to talk about the long-awaited project. She’s in the thick of a promotional cycle, having just flown from Brisbane to Sydney to shoot a video for ‘XXL’ – her favourite ‘Tropixx’ track – with the House of Slé fold. Upbeat and funny, she’s an easy conversationalist, often throwing in an “aye” or affirmative “100 per cent”.

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But the 26-year-old also alludes to struggles with her mental health and being “mistreated” as a woman of colour in the music industry – experiences that shaped ‘Tropixx’. “I was pretty angry,” Jesswar says. “I was really tired of being overlooked.”

Jesswar was born in Canberra, spending her formative years in Fiji before moving to the Gold Coast. She discovered hardcore hip-hop through her brother’s CD collection. Jesswar was drawn to female MCs such as Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, and learnt to rap to instrumental B-sides.

Jesswar quit school early – she was not “vibing” with classes – and studied music vocationally at TAFE, where, to her surprise, a lecturer suggested she try university. (“No one in my family was going to uni,” she stresses.) Jesswar enrolled in Griffith University’s Popular Music program but, two years in, she only wanted to gig. “I found the academic side very challenging,” she admits. “I didn’t even know how to write essays.”

Jesswar honed her skills on the local circuit. “My housemates used to take me down to this open-mic night, sneak me in there, ’cause I was underage at the time. They would just be like, ‘Get up – get up and rap! If you wanna rap, you should be able to freestyle and rap right now.’”

She laughs at the memory. “I sucked so bad. I was terrible! It was so awkward the first couple of times, but that was something that really pushed me out of my comfort zone, because I can be quite a shy person in ways.” Jesswar co-fronted the all-female uni band Sneeky Picnic and circulated solo material – notably a credible underground EP, ‘Peachy’. She even collaborated with Saint Lane when he was known as Lane-Harry.

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But, partying young, Jesswar endured burn-out. She eventually relocated from the Gold Coast to Brisbane, having started a job as a youth worker running music workshops. She felt some trepidation, leaving the ocean and natural environment. “Being close to nature helps me go through every day – it’s good for my self-care; it’s good for my mental health.”

“I was hanging around a lot of beautiful brown women at that time, and that’s what was giving me the confidence”

Jesswar belongs to a fresh wave of diverse Australian acts cultivating individualism and celebrating community. Indeed, her identity as a queer Pasifika woman is a touchstone of her art and work. She recorded her bold debut single ‘Savage’ in the bathroom of a share-house, reclaiming gendered and racialised epithets in the introductory salvo: “I’m a savage, I’m a cunt.”

She didn’t initially intend to broadcast the song beyond her circle – now including her partner, visual artist Hannah Brontë, aka DJ BabyMama. “I was hanging around a lot of beautiful brown women at that time, and that’s what was giving me the confidence: to be around your people. We were just building each other up.”

Jesswar ultimately released ‘Savage’ in late 2017 via Hilltop Hoods’ Golden Era Records. She was buoyed by the positive response, considering she was, at the time, “so green to the industry”. “I love that for my baby self, though,” Jesswar adds. “I love that my little self felt that confident in herself that she can be like, ‘Fuck you – I am great.’”

Jesswar broke out with ‘Savage’ as Tkay Maidza was beginning to defy the male domination of Australian hip-hop – and, Stateside, Cardi B mounted a pop culture revolution with ‘Bodak Yellow’. “There’s female artists right now that are taking up heaps of mainstream space, which I really love to see – and I’m really here for it,” Jesswar says, citing Rico Nasty as a personal fave.

Jesswar didn’t follow ‘Savage’ until 2019 anthem ‘Heata’ with Canadian artist Tasha The Amazon. However, she consistently cut collabs – the most buzzy being last year’s remix of ‘Hold Strong’ by Miiesha (“Such a superstar,” Jesswar enthuses) alongside Hoodzy and JessB. Behind the scenes, Jesswar was taking time out to focus on self-love: “I really got myself to a beautiful place in my life where I feel very calm and centred.”

However, the pandemic cost Jesswar both her gigs and youth work. “I was like, ‘How am I gonna survive? How am I gonna pay my rent and stuff?’” Fortunately, she was then offered a global deal with [PIAS] Recordings, enabling her to issue ‘Tropixx’. “It changed my life.”

“You doubt yourself and look down on yourself, and feel like, ‘Shit, can I come back up?’ or ‘Can I do this?’ But you can”

‘Tropixx’, Jesswar says, is “a retaliation”. She flexes her gutter rapping style, but the incisive lyrics are about release and empowerment. “I wanna be standing there tall with my head up and I’m proud of who I am and can walk into any space or anywhere and be proud of who I am,” Jesswar declares.

The lead single ‘Venom’ is a boom-bap clapback to doubters, Jesswar proclaiming herself “King-Queen” and unleashing successive punchlines: “I’m venomous, I’m all four elements / My enemies are envious and jealous of this excellence / I keep ya hooked like methamphetamine / Your shit’s horrific like mood swings on ketamine.” On the deceptively cruisy ‘Saucy’, she targets bro culture. “I was just tired of dealing with some of these dudes in my scene at the time,” Jesswar explains.

“I copped a lot of mistreatment and it just made me fucking angry in the end… It was the ego and the misogyny that inspired that song for me, because I was like, ‘Fuck, this is hectic’. It was really hard. You get looked down on; they were just looking down on me, left, right and centre. I just wasn’t having it.” Conversely, on the minimal ‘XXL’, Jesswar raps at full tilt about her personal “demons”: “I’ve got some vices, that fucked with my life / Had me in a crisis but still roll the dice.”

Today Jesswar is committed to using her platform to represent other women of colour. Her video for ‘Savage’ was proudly communal, and the bumping ‘Tropixx’ cut ‘Hit Em With Bass’ spotlights rising Melbourne MC Kobi Spice. And Jesswar is optimistic about the future. She will tour behind ‘Tropixx’ in May and hints at releasing more music imminently.

“I’ve just been so happy lately,” Jesswar exclaims. “I feel real grateful as well. It’d been so long since I’d done anything. You sort of doubt yourself, and you sort of look down on yourself, and feel like, ‘Shit, can I come back up?’ or ‘Can I do this?’ But you can. I think that’s really special. I want young women to know that, ‘You can do it – you can do anything.’”

Jesswar’s ‘Tropixx’ is out now

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