According to Jean Grae’s Instagram biography, she’s "the Dread Pirate Roberts," a magician, an atom manipulator, not who you want her to be and her mother’s daughter. Unless you still get all your music from the radio (in 2014!), you already know that she is also one of the most prolific underground MCs around. The child of of two internationally-known jazz musicians, her musical prowess should come as no surprise. Sadly, her mother, Sathima Bea Benjamin, passed last summer.
“My mom’s passing last year in August was a moment where it was like don’t wait for anything else. I know she always wanted me to go do other stuff. I remember calling her after the first stand-up gig and she was like, 'Finally,'" the South African emcee tells EBONY.
At the time of her passing, Benjamin was still working on music and preparing for tours. Knowing that her mother was enjoying herself well into old age made Grae want to do more and work adamantly. “She was 76 years old and still thinking about her next album, writing music and organizing her own shows. That’s a pretty good role model to have, if at any point I feel tired and like I don’t want to do this and I don’t want to work. I’m going to do what I love until the very end,” Grae explained. “It was good that I found peace in the fact that she was having a really good time. She had just gotten a whole bunch of awards and they just did a really great movie on her. I never wanted to not be that. I don’t want to regret anything or feel like I didn’t work hard enough. I want to be as dedicated and passionate as she was. She was always like do that, but you have to be better than me.”
Last year, Grae expanded her horizons and appeared in Neil Drumming's breakout film, Big Words, about a once-promising hip hop group who struggled with regret, disappointment and change in their late 30’s. That was followed by starring in, directing and writing her own web-based sitcom, “Life With Jeannie,” where the emcee plays herself. It premiered last Christmas. She can also be found in New York City doing comedy shows. Between recording music, performing live, acting, writing scripts and making folks laugh, one would wonder how she finds the time to do everything. The tattooed Jill-of-all trades has no clue. When asked how she balances it all, the “Kill Screen” rapper responded,”I have no idea. Vodka! (laughs) I never grew up with knowing what a normal 9-to-5 timetable would be. I like multitasking a lot. I try not to feel like a slacker. I had the flu about two weeks ago and I couldn’t get out of bed. I was like oh my god, what am I doing? I had to cancel two shows, which I never do. I also know it’s my body’s way of telling me to sit the fuck down and chill out for a second. I have no idea other than that, I might be a time lord, creating more hours in the day.”
Somehow, in between all of the multitasking, the 37-year-old is still able to whip up a good meal for herself and her friends, which she often proudly displays on Instagram. While chatting with EBONY, she was actually in the middle of cooking a tasty sounding meal of garlic chicken and corn tacos with cilantro, tomatoes and fresh guacamole. “I’ll go anywhere from Japanese to Thai to Italian. I really love doing roasts for Sunday dinner or Thanksgiving. I cook as healthy as possible during the rest of the year,” she said. “I try not to use butter and dairy, but if it hits Thanksgiving, we’re using everything. Anything that brings people together to sit around and have a meal, that’s my favorite thing to do.”
The fact that Grae has no family whatsoever in the United States might be the reason why she enjoys bringing folks together for meals so much. “I’m the only one from my family here [United States]. I’m the only person on this continent and it’s really interesting to be that far away from family. I tell my friends all the time, even if you’re mad because you have to go see your family on the weekend or for a family reunion, I’m like but you get to do that. I have to go so far. And it definitely has had an impact art-wise,” she explained. “And as well as the fact of having two homes and being able to show some sort of duality and in a way having some sort of misfit feeling. I’m not from New York, but I’m definitely a New Yorker. I absolutely understand what that means now. It drives you to find other people that feel misplaced and don’t have a place anywhere. It makes art super interesting because you don’t feel tied down. The last time I went to South Africa was about a month ago with Pharoahe [Monche]. I really took the job because I wanted to go back and see my family, even it was just for a day.”
Whenever Grae returns to Cape Town, she gets a hero's welcome– which is a feeling that unfortunately, she doesn’t get in America. “It’s always such a homecoming and a welcoming. I’m from here [and] I’m from Cape Town. It’s interesting to be recognized in that way, that I never feel when I’m here [United States].” As many world travelers do, Jean wishes to someday relocate back to South Africa. Now just isn’t the time. She has a few more things in the United States that she would like to do.
Releasing her long-awaited album, Cake or Death, is one of them. Grae revealed one of the main reasons why she has yet to release the album that her fans have patiently been waiting for. After performing on stage with her mother during one of her last shows in New York City, she felt her and her mother should collaborate. “She’s on the intro of Cake or Death, the album, which actually hasn’t come out yet. She asked to sing, “Come Sunday,” which is a Duke Ellington song. Her opening that was crazy and it’s actually another reason why I haven’t just thrown the album out there,” she explained. “Right now, we’re still looking at a January 1st release date. She kept asking me when it was going to come out and I was like, ‘I don’t think we’re ready.’ If it was one regret, I yelled at people and I was like I’m going to be really angry if stuff is not done with this album because I feel like my mom isn’t going to be here anymore. I just had that feeling. I was like, ‘whatever happens after that, know that we’ll still be cool, but I’ll never forget.’ I’ve had to let go of that a little bit and just be happy that she is on it and her presence is there," says Grae.
"I guess I should be happy with the fact that I’m really making the time to make it special because it deserves to be.”
Glennisha Morgan is a multimedia journalist, writer, photographer and filmmaker. Follow her on Twitter @GlennishaMorgan or at www.GlennishaMorgan.com.