When it comes to manifesting ones dreams, Em Jai knows the importance of sacrificing what one wants in the short-term in order to make the long-term vision happen. At 24 years-old, the singer, rapper and songwriter, who hails from Chicago’s Southside, has diligently built her music career for over a decade, saying, “When people were out kicking it, I was writing and recording,”
Her childhood was filled with piano and vocal lessons, church performances, and a growing love affair with R&B, thanks to the influence of her cousins. In 2012, her self-proclaimed “urban pop” music started opening doors that she didn’t necessarily anticipate; earning her a placement deal with Disney to have her music featured on its sitcom, Shake It Up, and the subsequent soundtrack, Freaky Freakend, as well.
With her EP, Love Etc.etera, completed and currently available on iTunes, this evolving woman has taken ownership over her artistry and is getting comfortable steering her career towards the success that she has always envisioned. The Black, Fresh & 20-Something star shared with EBONY.com how she's been able to create her music on her own terms.
EBONY: Congrats on your placement with Disney! What is it like to know that Disney was around when you were a kid and now your songs are on their channel?
Em Jai: I grew up watching Disney—I was more so glued to Disney than any other network—and so it wasn’t until you just said that that…wow, the channel that I grew up watching, I now have my music featured on! That makes it more cool now!
EBONY: What was that experience like for you?
EJ: Honestly, the whole experience was very surreal. When I was preparing to submit the song, I kept working at it until we perfected it to the best of our ability. We sent it in and they loved it! It was really just a prayer answered and I worked so hard for it. I approached it like, "This placement is mine."
EBONY: So let’s backtrack some because you hail from the Chi. What was your upbringing like growing up there?
EJ: It wasn’t as bad when I was growing up. My parents were very protective over my siblings and I. I mean, we experienced Chicago’s culture and everything that that entails, but I didn’t grow up [in a time] where there were shootings every other weekend.
EBONY: But you fell in love with music there. What has your journey with music entailed?
EJ: I grew up on SWV, Lauryn Hill, Brandy—every great person in R&B. That’s how my love [for music] grew: R&B. I started writing at an early age. I would write short stories and poetry, and so once I listened to more R&B music and music in church, I began songwriting. I recorded my first song at like 12, and ever since then I’ve been in and out of studios recording and writing.
EBONY: You’ve spent over a decade dedicating important developmental years to this. What have you’ve learned along the way?
EJ: My mentor taught me that you should never be the biggest fish in the pond, so I’m always trying to involve and surround myself with people that I can learn from and grow from. I think that was one of the most valuable things that I’ve learned.
EBONY: You recently release your EP, Love Etc.etera. What was that creative process like?
EJ: It took me about a year to do it because I really took my time to gather some experiences that happened to me after graduating college [from Illinois State University]. I graduated in 2011. I journal a lot, so I would go through journals and try to recall some of things that I went through; I just put that all on the EP. I literally did everything: I chose the tracks, I organized the studio time, I went in and recorded, the photo shoot—I spearheaded everything.
EBONY: That’s such a rare and valuable experience in the music industry.
EJ: It allowed me to learn a lot [and] to really practice being business savvy. I enjoyed every aspect; it was a lot of hard work, but it was a lot of fun. With this, I was able to discover my own lane, which I label as “urban pop”. I try to create this balance of urban and pop music because I’m a very diverse person, so I didn’t want to limit myself to one audience.
EBONY: It’s interesting because even in pursuing and growing within your music, your decision to finish school shows a very grounded mentality.
EJ: That was pretty much my back-up plan. My parents always taught us about having back-up plans and multiple streams of income, so that was going to be what I would fall back on.
EBONY: They taught you well. So what are you focused on now?
EJ: I’m connecting and working with a lot of producers to get placements as a songwriter in hopes that that [will] open another door for my artistry.
EBONY: Looking back on your journey thus far, what’s the biggest sacrifice that you’ve had to make for the sake of your dream?
EJ: Time. Even in college, in between classes I would go to the studio and demo records. I sacrificed a lot of time; when people were out kicking it, I was writing and recording.
EBONY: Any advice for other Black, Fresh & 20-Something’s out there?
EJ: Whatever you dream or your vision is for your life, go after it. I’m really learning this even more and more today, because for so long I just thought, I’m a great person, I’m working hard—these blessings are just going to fall. And I wasn’t going after it as hard as I should have. Whatever you want to do, go do it, because it’s not going to come knocking on your front door.