Jain has a distinctly 21st century origin story: born in France and raised in (mostly) the United Arab Emirates and the Congo, the 23-year-old singer is a true product of multiculturalism; her music is influenced in equal parts by French techno and African rhythms. DJ and #WeirdTwitter savant Jaden Smith certainly took notice of her, featuring her track "Makeba" on his Beats 1 show, MSFTS Frequency on October 10.
To recap: Jain—a child of the world—wrote an ear-worm about South African singer, civil rights leader, and Mama Africa herself, Miriam Makeba, that caught the attention of Will Smith's son, who then broadcast the song live to over 100 countries via internet radio. Peak 2015.
But Jaden isn't the only one taking notice: Jain has amassed quite the following over in Europe, particularly in her native France, Russia, as well as Poland, where her lead single "Come" has been featured in a TV spot for Polsat, one of the country’s biggest TV channels. The comments on her YouTube videos read like a modern-day Rosetta Stone of fans singing her praises.
At first blush, “Makeba” might be flagged as ‘#problematic’ by U.S. listeners for cultural appropriation by a neo-colonialist. While Jain has roots in Madagascar—Jain herself is white-passing and describes herself as “white.” But in a conversation with The FADER, it becomes clear that her art comes from a place of experience and appreciation, not only for the African continent, but for its kaleidoscope of cultures, art, and music. Even the title of her forthcoming album, Zanaka, is a Malagasy word used to describe a child who has not yet reached adolescence; Jain is fully aware that she has a lot of learning and growing up to do yet.
The chanteuse spoke to The FADER via email about her diverse upbringing, Miriam Makeba’s influence on her, and how she would respond to claims of cultural appropriation.
When did you start making music?
When I was nine, my family and I moved to Dubai. There I studied an Arabic percussion instrument called the darbuka or the tabla. Percussion was my first introduction to music. Then from the age of 14 to 17 years old I lived in the Congo in a small town called Pointe Noire; that's where I made my first songs. After my graduation in Abu Dhabi, I moved to Paris, to attend art school…When I was in the south of France, in a town called Pau, I began making music by taking drum lessons for two years, and Arabic lessons while I was in Dubai. That's where it all started, really. With rhythm. But I really started to make my own songs in the Congo, at the age of 15-16 , because I really felt the need to express myself, to sing what I was living. Back there I met a really important man for me: a Congolese beat-maker named Mister Flash who taught me how to record myself at home, and gave me my first music software—FruityLoops—so I could put my songs on Myspace. So that's where I really started music.
How are you so well-traveled for your age? Where else have you been and how have your travels influenced you?
We moved a lot because of my parents' jobs, and it was amazing to live in countries so different from one another, but still with music all around. I've been to India, Jordan, South Africa, Namibia, Senegal, Australia, Madagascar, Oman, The States, and a lot of countries in Europe, just to visit… I wanted to make music to connect all of these influences, and make a multicultural music with these experiences.
Both “Come” and “Makeba” make explicit reference to Africa. What influence has African music had on you, specifically?
It's in the Congo that I discovered how to make songs, so it's a really important place for me; it's where I was musically born and where I found myself. Also it's in my family—my mother is half Malagasy, so when i was little I listened to a lot of african music, like Miriam Makeba, Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, Youssou N'Dour. I began music with rhythm and African music really moves me, so I'm going back there as soon as I can, but I have some work to do first!
What does Miriam Makeba mean to you? What do you personally admire about her?
I really admire her, because she was a strong woman and she was an incredible performer… When I watch videos of her shows, she had this thing—this aura—around her, full of determination and joy. And she had this groove.
As a white-passing musician from France, how would you respond to claims of cultural appropriation?
The thing is: Yes, I'm white and yes, I love African music, and I can't do anything about it. Because I grew up with Youssou N'Dour and Fela Kuti in my ears, and that was the time and place where I learned my own values. I'm not pretending to be someone else, I just want to make music that is sincere to who I am and I really hope people understand that. Moving from Dubai to the Congo was one of the best things that happened to me, it’s a shock to be confronted by the contrast in wealth and culture, and it’s hard, but I loved it and it influenced me a lot. It's where you realize how much music is universal.
I personally heard “Makeba” for the first time on Jaden Smith’s Beats 1 show, MSFTS Frequency. How did that feature come about?
Well I didn't know! I have no idea…Music is something without borders, Beats 1 plays "Makeba" and "Come", so I really want to thank them for the support!
“Makeba” seems to be a departure from your previous acoustic sound. Are you moving toward a more electronic feel on this album?
I discovered techno after moving back to Paris, and I've really worked on my own beat-making, so I think this is just a reflection of my own evolution. This album is a real melting pot. There're some electronic songs, but also some more acoustic songs with a lot of influence from soul, folk, reggae, etc.
How do you think multiculturalism has affected you, both as a musician and as a citizen?
I think I became more curious to see and learn from what is around me…When I travel I always try to see shows from a local group, and with the Internet it's important to have a global vision of music.