Singer Jhené Aiko has had more than her share of setbacks and misfortune. When she was in second grade, her family's house in South L.A. burned down. She says that as a preteen no cliques accepted her because of her mixed ethnicity — she's a blend including Japanese, Native American, Dominican, black and Jewish — so she asked to be home-schooled. At 20 she got pregnant, and this summer her brother died from brain cancer.
But those circumstances haven't prevented Aiko, now 24, from pursuing a singing career. In March 2011 she released a free mixtape, sailing soul(s). Sparkling with ethereal R&B and her sweet, powdery-soft voice, it features both Drake and Kendrick Lamar. By the end of the year she'd had meetings with all the major labels, and the producer No I.D. asked her to be the first artist on his Artium label, distributed through Def Jam.
Aiko is the size of Thumbelina. “It's a challenge for me just to find clothes that fit,” she says today at the restaurant Vegan Glory, her delicate frame in a slim tank dress. Sweeping aside her thick mane of jet-black hair, she reveals tattoos of a Bible verse in Japanese and a Buddha on her back. She speaks with the calm assurance of a monk.
The youngest of five, she grew up in a showbiz family in an area she and her friends term “Slauson Hills” — a block of houses in the Ladera-Baldwin Hills area. Her mother managed her older sisters in the group Gyrl; they were working with music manager and producer Chris Stokes. When he signed R&B boy band B2K to Epic, he looped in Aiko. “Everything B2K did, I was attached to, which was great 'cause they were big.” Her singing was featured on their albums, she appeared in their videos and she opened for them on tour.
But by 16 she was unhappy with her situation and asked to be released from her contract so she could dedicate herself to her schoolwork. At the same time she was drawn to the evangelical Foursquare Church. “One day [during the altar call] it just spoke to me. I just wanted a new start.” She was baptized.
Things looking up, she enrolled in West Los Angeles College and started taking voice lessons — but then she got pregnant. “I was like, OK, pause, being a mom isn't as easy as I thought. I wasn't in any position to have a kid.” Yet less than two years after her daughter's birth, she took her career in hand, enlisting producers The Fisticuffs to produce sailing soul(s).
She now has an unexpected and promising second chance in the industry, and her debut studio album — tentatively titled Souled Out — is due next year. “I don't have expectations, I guess,” she says. “[My family] have always [been like] that movie A Series of Unfortunate Events. The moment is the only thing that's real. If you can't be happy in this moment, you can't be happy.”
She flicks her wrist, and another tattoo becomes visible. It says: “Why aren't you smiling?”
Jhene Aiko performs tonight and tomorrow night at the Wiltern, with Nas and Lauryn Hill.