The London DJ and creative makes a mix that flies from London to Lagos
Words by Geralda Cela
In a digital world that’s become a mess of content, written interviews often fall by the wayside. For East London’s Jess Ajose, however, words still hold weight. “Targeted questions trigger thoughts that become more coherent and help me simplify what I do,” the DJ and creative explains when we sit down to talk ahead of her performance at Lucent Edition 03. “In my head, everything is jumbled up. Questions help me streamline my thoughts and words.”
Born in London but travelling back to Lagos often, Ajose draws on disparate styles from both of the cities’ scenes for her output. Based in Hackney, the DJ’s bi-cultural identity of British–Nigerian is the foundation for her sonic sense of self, and it’s this essence which she’s channelled into a fluid mix created exclusively for Lucent. Guiding us from Nigeria’s contemporary alté scene with breezy vocals from Santi, a spearhead of the movement, back home to London and harder-hitting club sounds soaked in industrial noise, Ajose handpicks sounds from all over. As sound bites from Frank Ocean’s “Be Yourself” make their appearance before giving way to hazy, meditative melodies, elsewhere Nigerian and British vocalists collide. It’s a mix that looks forward at the same time as it make space for listeners to ponder over the words that have come before. As well as unravelling its creator’s childhood and current cultural influences, this piece of work showcases Ajose’s code-switching abilities and her dexterity in working with a range of vocals, moods and melodic structures.
It’s an approach the DJ also uses to weave together her monthly radio slot on Peckham’s Foundation FM which serves as an essential platform for showcasing her work. “Before that, people looked at me as a young black woman and just assumed I played R&B. That used to grind my gears,” she sighs. Now, Ajose’s budding career as a DJ is flourishing and she’s being given the space to fully trust her own tastes and embrace the fluid approach to blending genres which comes most naturally to her.
We caught up with the multifaceted creative to talk more about her sonic style, how to balance a full-time job with DJing and dive deeper into this mix ahead of her performance at Lucent on 5 June where she’ll be soundtracking the night.
This mix goes full circle, starting and ending with moments from Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator. Why did you decide to include them in a piece of work which explores your own identity?
Jess Ajose: Sound bites can help frame the narrative of a mix. I used the Frank one because it’s all about being yourself, which was what I was trying to show in the mix. The Tyler one, from Igor, says, “Exactly what you run from, you end up chasing” and that was true for me. I ran from being proud of being Nigerian, of being black, of being a woman, because it wasn’t an identity that was particularly championed when I was growing up and I didn’t have any role models I could identify with. On top of that, investing time in creative things or having creative aspirations was seen as Western and not ‘Nigerian’ – especially by the older Nigerian generation and even by my parents. So, I suppressed my creativity to please my parents but that didn’t last long! Now I’m very proud of how I can be all these things – Nigerian, British, a creative, a DJ and more. Also, Tyler’s of Nigerian heritage and so different from the traditional sense of what it allegedly means to be Nigerian. He’s just himself and that’s why I rate him so much.
Did it take you a while to trust in your own taste and pursue what you wanted to?
Jess Ajose: To be honest, I’m still on that journey of trusting in my taste. Whenever I’m preparing a set I always want to make sure that I’m true to my own sound and what I enjoy playing. The reason I started DJing was because I wanted to make mixes that no one else was making so that I could listen to them in my room. And, it just so happened that people liked what I was playing. I was kind of surprised! I do sometimes have that anxiety that the mix still belongs in my room, though.
Have you experienced challenges in bringing together the Nigerian and British parts of your identity and bridging that gap musically?
Jess Ajose: Sonically, yes. Sometimes it doesn’t work when you’re trying to mix the two. And I’m conscious of things sounding quite random in a mix because I want them to marry each other and be fluid and make sense. But, culturally, not so much. It wasn’t cool to be African or Nigerian before, but now it is and people can be Nigerian and unapologetically themselves without wanting to be Jamaican, which used to be it.
When we first spoke about this mix you mentioned code switching. What does that look like in your everyday life?
Jess Ajose: Growing up in East London I went to school with so many different cultures that we kind of created our own language using plain English, slang, patois and also, from within the Nigerian language, pidgin English. That’s how my friends and I tend to speak to each other when we’re in our own company, but when it comes to being in a professional space more time you have to speak in a way that everyone can understand. So existing in those two spaces means that I tend to code-switch quite a lot.
Over the last year, you’ve been pursuing DJ much more seriously. Is it frustrating to only see the ‘made-it’ side on social media but rarely the work that goes into getting booked?
Jess Ajose: Oh yeah, I hate my Instagram because it looks so polished that it’s almost become like a second CV. When I bump into people I haven’t seen in a while they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re doing so great’. And I’m just like, ‘That’s what it looks like’. Even though I feel like I am doing well, it’s sort of amplified online when, actually, I have to juggle a job and DJ as a side thing.
Do you feel like that needs to be talked about more?
Jess Ajose: 100%. When you’re getting more bookings and doing things with higher profile places that people admire it creates a certain illusion and, in a way, you’re dehumanised; you just become this thing where people say, ‘Oh my god, this person is doing amazing – they’re above this and that.’ A lot of the time you have to start out by doing things for free – I only started getting paid for DJing towards the last quarter of 2018. No one talks about people not knowing who you are and working for free and before the bookers think you’re worth being paid. Even now, I feel that I have something to prove. Money needs to be spoken about more. As a beginner, when people ask you, ‘What’s your rate?’ you have no clue what that means and when you’re inexperienced they’re more likely to pay you less or not even pay you at all. The only way to get over that is by speaking to other DJ friends and, as cliche as it sounds, you have to know your worth, which you’ll learn as you progress.
You mentioned juggling a have a full-time job – how do you manage that alongside DJing?
Jess Ajose: I don’t know how I manage it, but you just make it work. Planning you’re time really well helps a lot. So, planning a set or planning things at work so you can get out a little earlier – it’s all in practice. And mentally preparing yourself for missing out on sleep sometimes.