Several voices in the spotlight have spoken up about the realities of living with mental illness, and that is truly something that would have never happened a decade ago. It's refreshing and it's real -- even if it's ever so slightly done for publicity. For me, I draw the line when there is a new promotion they are keyed into. But there are those that come forward in vulnerability and those are the ones that I think often get overlooked.
Until you catch them in their raw, unadulterated environment.
I've been ruminating on how to best describe the conversation that took place on June 20th at Scala in London at Jessie Reyez's concert. If you haven't heard of Jessie Reyez, you've probably heard her music: namely that Dua Lipa and Calvin Harris hit topping the charts right now, "One Kiss." If you're an Instagram music video junkie, you may have seen a clip topped by the plain text "She calls out her ex in a song" for her track "Figures." This song in particular is why I called up my friend -- read: texted -- when I got the SongKick app notification that Jessie would be performing in London. Obsessed with figures in every iteration -- original, acoustic, duet, remix -- I bought the tickets point-blank and we queued with what we will call a very interesting crowd near King's Cross station at the venue on that Tuesday evening.
I'll admit it: I wasn't a huge fan of her other songs. They struck me as abrasive and unpolished. Though "Figures" is beautifully song, she tended to drift towards rap with the others, a genre that I am still wading into despite years of tepid progress. I was prepared to face whatever came my way just to hear her sing "Figures" live.
I was not prepared for what came next.
Her second song, titled "Shutter Island" sold me on whatever else was to follow. What is typically an eerie track came across as empowering. Jessie walked the stage with confidence and the whole room ate it up. Hands were in the air, moving in tempo.
"Goodness, gracious, I'm replaceable
You say I'm too crazy
I guess you were right
I guess you were right
My straight-jacket's custom-made though (with f**king diamonds)"
And as much as I want to be discrete and forgiving, there's a certain justice in hearing someone else who relates to the experience of being judged as unstable or a liability. I can only imagine what people thing on gut instinct when they read my testimonial. Or, God help us all, when I was actually living that way. But to hear someone else say, "They said it about me too. And this is what I have to say to that," with such confidence -- well, damn. I loved it.
I waited patiently through the other numbers -- all of which were laced with as much confidence and vitriol as "Shutter Island" ranging from justice for sexual assault to LGBT+ rights -- until it finally happened. The lights dimmed. Jessie took center stage with a stool and a guitar.
And she started to explain what this song meant.
Apparently, Jessie wrote "Figures" when she was going through -- what she called -- some real shit. She asked the room if anyone had experienced depression...a roar went up. Not every person, but enough to make shivers run down my spine. Hands went up. My own flew to my mouth to careen around my mouth to make my own whoop fly further. Jessie talked about how she felt in those days, and exactly what she didn't expect to happen when she opened her mouth in the studio one fateful day. That was the day that "Figures" came into being, flowing out of her with an ease she never anticipated -- especially as she hadn't prepared the song previously. They laid the track that day.
Then she started to sing.
Every person in that audience knew every damn word. And understandably the realization that she was across an ocean from home singing a song she had written in her darkest days to a crowd that knew and loved it as if it were their own overcame her. Jessie stopped and started to cry. I'm not talking about that celebrity cry where they wipe a few tears and roll their eyes. I'm talking about that real, body shaking, head-bowing crying that will not be ignored. The audience began to cheer in support and she vowed to start again. She did the whole song -- a lot of which you couldn't hear over the voices of the audience -- and then repeated the last chorus one more time.
"I wish I could hurt you back
Love, what would you do if you couldn't get me back
You're the one who's gonna lose
Something so special, something so real
Tell me boy, how in the f**k would you feel?
If you couldn't get me back
That's what I wish that I could do to you, you, hoo, hoo
To you, you, hoo, hoo"
That night, Jessie added her voice to the We Are Alive movement without knowing it. And that's why I had such a hard time figuring out how to write about this. Because I didn't want to tamper with, make disingenuous, or honestly do anything but share what her story meant to me on that night. It was "something so special, something so real" and I will forever be grateful that Jessie Reyez added her voice to the millions that hot summer night in central London.