After her brother’s death, the soulful singer lost herself in psychedelics, only to find what she was looking for
Maybe the first thing people notice about Jhené Aiko is her tattoos. She has a lot of them, but one, in particular, caught the internet’s wandering eye in early October when Miryam Lumpini, a Los Angeles-based tattoo artist who works under the moniker “The Witch Doctor,” shared on Instagram the art she had inked just above Aiko’s left elbow. It was an unmistakable portrait of Big Sean, the Detroit rapper that Aiko has been dating since last year. The tattoo features a stoic Sean, clad in a bow tie and tuxedo, and it caught my eye, too, when the 29-year-old singer arrived at The Forge studio in Cypress Park, Los Angeles, for her NYLON photo shoot. Enshrining a romantic partner’s face on your skin is risky business, so when I sat down with Aiko to discuss her latest album, Trip, I had to know what compelled her. “Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but I have a lot of tattoos,” she says, brushing her glossy black hair back behind both ears. “I just love his face. I think his face is perfect.”
If this one tattoo is a love letter to the man Aiko calls “part of my family,” then almost all the others pay tribute in one way or another to a member of her actual family, her late brother Miyagi, who died of cancer on July 19, 2012, at the age of 26. Miyagi, who was two years older than Aiko, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2010. Miyagi’s death along with the birth of her daughter, Namiko Love, are the defining moments of Aiko’s life. Aiko and her brother were glued to each other growing up, sharing a bond that left a profound mark on her life. It’s a mark that can be found all over her body in the form of tattoos, ranging from his entire name—Miyagi Hasani Ayo Chilombo—scrolled in red cursive just below Aiko’s left collarbone, to the words “Why Aren’t You Smiling?” on her right wrist, a reference to Miyagi’s final tweet, to the seven principles of the samurai—courage, honor, benevolence among them—written vertically in Japanese along her left leg, a code of conduct that Miyagi “really believed in,” says Aiko.
If her tattoos are personal reminders of lives lived—her brother’s, her own—then Trip is meant as a paean to those lives intended for the rest of the world. The record, which Aiko surprise-released on September 21, is a psychedelic, 22-track semi-autobiographical concept album that came accompanied by a short film of the same name, directed by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, and an upcoming collection of poetry, compiled with works dating back to Aiko’s teenage years. “She’s a brilliant writer and storyteller,” Oliver says. “I was really impressed with her ability to float between so many different mediums with ease: songwriting, poetry, and screenwriting.” Inspired by her brother’s death and influenced by the drugs she was taking to help cope with it, Trip is told from the perspective of Penny, an alter ego born from the nickname Aiko’s great-grandfather gave her after she was born (Aiko has a penny tattooed on her outside left wrist).
“Penny is my true self, the child that’s still within me,” she says. “We all have that seed of that child that’s still in us, so I feel like that’s who I’m getting back to. She was creative, and optimistic, and expressive.” The entire multimedia project, which Aiko calls M.A.P. (an acronym for movie, album, and poetry book), is Aiko’s purest form of expression to date, a fully realized vision of a soul in search of itself, that stands as a creative capstone to a career that began before she was a teenager.
Aiko, who was born Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo, grew up one of five siblings in the Ladera Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, with a mother who has Japanese, Spanish, and Dominican roots and an African-American, Native-American, German Jewish father. She was one of three girls, and each of the five siblings was two years apart, “like steps on stairs,” she says. “Because my family was so big, none of us really had a lot of friends—it was like we were each other’s friends.” But it was Aiko and Miyagi, who attended middle school together and shared friends, who were closest.
From a young age, Aiko found herself in L.A.’s urban pop ecosystem, first on its periphery and later navigating its labyrinthine center. Her father, a pediatrician with a passion for music, converted their home garage into a recording studio. Her older sisters, Jamila and Miyoko (the latter accompanied Aiko to the shoot), were members of the R&B group Gyrl, and it wasn’t long before a 12-year-old Aiko had her first record deal with Epic Records. Soon after, Aiko embarked on a merry-go-round of guest vocals for the boy band B2K, soundtrack appearances, and endless recording sessions (Aiko estimates she recorded over 200 songs during this period). It was all part of her label’s attempt to find a direction in which to steer their budding star’s career. Throw enough things at a wall, and something will eventually stick. But the aimlessness and lack of trajectory frustrated Aiko, who had also begun a habit of writing down poetry and ideas into notebooks, fodder for songs not yet recorded. “I would say that 75 percent of my songs are poems that I just put a melody to,” she says. “The notebooks that I’ve been keeping since I was 12 started off as scrapbooks. They’re very immature—a lot of magazine clippings and stuff like that, but eventually, that turned into straight-up writing.”
Aiko left Epic Records in 2003 when she was 16 and spent the next few years working odd jobs, attending West Los Angeles College, and giving birth to her daughter in 2008. But she never stopped writing. “I write for myself, just to get through things, just to express myself so that it’s not stuck in my head and I end up going crazy,” she says. After Namiko was born, Aiko returned to making music, releasing the mixtape Sailing Soul(s) in 2011, a confident collection of moody R&B featuring guest verses from Kanye West and Drake among others, based on an eye-opening meeting she had with a label executive who encouraged her to sacrifice her artistic integrity in the name of record sales. Miyagi, who was at home battling his illness, helped look after Namiko while Aiko lost herself in her work. “I’m an escapist,” she says of trying to distract herself from her brother’s condition. “So it was like, if I don’t pay attention to this, maybe it will go away.”
I write for myself just to get through things, just to express myself so it’s not stuck in my head and I end up going crazy.
Aiko followed the mixtape with the Sail Out EP, which she released in 2013 under her new label Def Jam, featuring guest verses from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino. These two releases served as the blueprint for Aiko’s debut album, 2014′s Souled Out, in which she solidified herself as a major label artist with an independent streak. The songs—soothing, atmospheric, and lush with avant-garde production flourishes—were in step with a new wave of artistically ambitious R&B being popularized by singers like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and Miguel. The album lacked an obvious single, and instead, was made up of deeply personal songs written by Aiko. It was the product of an artist refusing to fit into a box someone else had built for her. “My motivation is not money or fame,” she says. “Even when people are like, ‘I want you to write for me,’ or, ‘Do you have any songs to shop around?’ I’m like, ‘No, these are all songs I created for a purpose,’” she says, ensuring the last word lands.
At this point in her career, Aiko was just as well-known as a featured vocalist on songs by Drake and Big Sean as she was for her own work. After the release of Souled Out, Aiko was fielding offers of more features, remixes, and dance records, which at the time were beginning to take over pop radio. If she wanted, Aiko could have chased the superstardom tasted by peers like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, but that’s not what drew her to making music in the first place. “Jhené doesn’t try to imitate other artists or follow trends of what’s hot at the moment,” says Oliver, who was a fan of Aiko’s music before the two of them met to discuss collaborating on the short film. “She does her own thing, even if it’s not commercial enough by someone else’s standards,” Oliver says. Aiko recalls being offered other people’s songs, in the hopes of releasing a hit. “People would say to me all the time, ‘I have a great song for you, I have a smash No. 1 record,’” Aiko says of the pressure put on her. “And I’m like, ‘That’s cool, but I write my own music. Give it to someone else who cares.’”
After Miyagi died, Aiko found herself struggling to understand a world her brother was no longer a part of. “I never thought of a life without him,” she says. “That was not something I ever thought was possible, you know?” She describes the surreal feeling of losing someone so close to her: “Sometimes I’ll have a great understanding of life, and understand he’s still here, that he’s within me and my siblings and my daughter and my parents and in the stars,” she says. “And then some days I wake up, and I’m like, ‘Wait, what? Where’s my brother?’ And it’s literally like, I don’t know what kind of day it’s going to be, and because we were so close, it feels wrong when I start to forget, when those memories start to fade.” To keep that memory alive, Aiko began taking solo trips to remote destinations like Big Sur and Hawaii, where she wrote poetry about trying to find peace in the face of overwhelming grief. She also turned to drugs, specifically psychedelics.
Aiko speaks about her history of using drugs with a candor surprising for someone who was media trained at the age of 12. (She even received a certificate from her training, which she proudly keeps in a treasure chest filled with other personal souvenirs, including her daughter’s umbilical cord). “Growing up in California, I experimented with marijuana very young, and I had older friends, so I was drinking at a young age, too,” she says. Soon after, Aiko began experimenting with sleeping pills, “over the counter stuff,” she clarifies. “I was just sort of sneaky and bad, but never bad to the point where everyone was worried about me, because I was still responsible.” Her habits escalated after Miyagi died. “That day I took a Valium, and I feel like from then on it was like, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ I was just very naive in the sense of not realizing how it was affecting me, or how it could affect my health.”
Aiko tried to counteract her drug use, which included downers like Percocet and stimulants like cocaine, with veganism, but she kept getting sick. Her small frame, she says, made her hypersensitive to whatever drugs she consumed, even birth control. During this time, she developed a habit of performing live while under the influence of alcohol. “Like, literally drunk,” she says. “I would have a drink on the stage to the point where I was just sick.” Relationships also helped numb her pain. In 2014, Aiko married Dot da Genius, a producer with whom she collaborated on several songs. (She filed for divorce last year.)
Ironically, it wasn’t until Aiko discovered psilocybin, a psychedelic mushroom, that she was able to quit everything else. She began experimenting with the drug—she made “mushroom tea”—during her trips to Big Sur. It was during that time that her vision for what would become Trip began to crystallize. Aiko, who named one of the songs on the album after the drug, used it to open her mind up to the natural world around her. “Sometimes I would talk to trees and hear them say things back,” she remembers. “But to me, it wasn’t a hallucination. It was me being open enough to receive what they really were. Hearing birds—it wasn’t them just singing, it was them communicating with each other. There was a real world all around me.”
That dreamlike mentality can be heard all over the album, on songs like the ambient opener “LSD,” in which Aiko sings, presumably to her brother, “How you like it up there?/ What’s your view from there?” On the floating ballad “Jukai,” Aiko grapples with death by singing about a place she’s only been to in her imagination, the so-called Suicide Forest in Japan. “If anyone should try and find me/ Just know I’m where I want to be/ I left the house all clean and tidy/ Don’t come searching please,” she sings, imagining her own death. But by the song’s end, Aiko offers a hopeful reprieve: “Surprise, I’m out alive/ Made it out alive/ Away, away, away.”
That journey, from world-is-ending darkness to the light of spiritual reawakening, is central to Trip, and one Aiko couldn’t have made without relying on the love of her siblings, her parents, her daughter, and her boyfriend. On “Nobody,” a mournful song Aiko wrote over a two-year period of depression and self-medication, she sings, “I’m in here in this hell that I don’t want to live in/ I smoke on my own/ I drink on my own/ I don’t need nobody.” But on “New Balance,” a song which Aiko began writing while she had a crush on someone, she sings, “You’re my salvage/ you’re my balance/ You’re so new.” When that crush ended, Aiko abandoned the song before it was done. Then, after a long friendship, she and Big Sean found romance, and Aiko picked it back up: “It hit me like a tidal wave/ Knew that I was in love with you right away, yeah/ Turned all my days into brighter days.”
Sometimes I would talk to trees and hear them say things back.
As Aiko prepares to embark on a headlining nationwide tour this month, she describes her current state as one of happiness. She speaks of her newfound sobriety, which for her means an occasional drink in social situations, like the two mojitos she had last month at rapper Gucci Mane’s Miami wedding she attended with Big Sean. Maintaining a relationship with the rapper while balancing their demanding schedules is easy, she insists. “We trust each other, so there’s nothing to worry about,” Aiko says. “With cell phones, it’s easier. It’s like, ‘I love you, goodnight. Good morning, I love you, TTYL.’” Recently, the two performed the Trip song “Moments” on The Tonight Show, and their chemistry crackled. “It’s strange performing with him, because I think he’s so attractive that it’s weird for me to sing to him. I still have a crush on him,” she says.
“Moments” was recorded on a trip Aiko took with Big Sean to Hawaii, a place that has become something of a spiritual home for the singer, and where she’ll symbolically end her tour. Aiko also found out recently that her great-grandmother was born in Hilo, on Hawaii’s Big Island, one of her favorite places, a discovery Aiko describes as “full circle.” Aiko now has a tradition of visiting the island, one that began with her best friend, and which now includes her mother, siblings, and daughter. Miyagi didn’t get to see Hawaii before he died, but whenever Aiko travels to the island, he’s right there with her.