South African-born lyricist Tsidi Ibrahim, better known as Jean Grae, is in a bit of a predicament. With the first half of her career revolving around enough guest appearances to get her dubbed the “cameo queen,” Grae admits she’s still a bit overwhelmed by life in the limelight. Set to headline her first U.S. tour, Grae humbly confides that she could use a little help up there on stage. “For the Detroit show, I just realized that my set is like an hour and 40 minutes, which is scary,” Grae says. “I’m used to doing an hour set, so I’m looking for my Detroit peoples to come through and get on the mic.”
Grae, who now lives in New York, had a monumental year in 2004. She not only dropped verses on Talib Kweli’s Beautiful Struggle and the Roots’ Tipping Point, but her second solo LP, This Week, landed her in almost every urban culture magazine on the planet. As one of hip hop’s most talented MCs — male or female — she’s unfortunately been stuck in the “next big thing” category since her days with her mid-’90s band Natural Resource, which disbanded in 1999. Grae still finds a serious record deal elusive.
“I had a very short deal with Babygrande but that’s pretty much over,” Grae says. “I would love to start my own label when my finances are in order and I’m less haphazard, but now is not the time.”
Grae’s sympathy for underground artists may have started in the womb. Her mother, jazz vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, struggled as an independent artist in both South Africa and New York for much of Grae’s childhood. Her father is the celebrated jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who also spent formative years in Cape Town’s subterranean jazz scene before fleeing apartheid.
In other words, it was both nature and nurture that double-teamed Grae at an early age. A former Alvin Ailey dancer and student at the Fiorello LaGuardia School of the Arts and Performing Arts (made famous by the television show Fame), Grae was classically trained in dance and Italian opera before she ever dreamed of being an MC. Grae also hasn’t ruled out a collaboration album with her mom. “Nas and Olu Dara ain’t got nothing on us,” she says.
In the summer of 2000, Grae traveled back home to Cape Town and Johannesburg with fellow musicians Bobbito and Mr. Len (Company Flow), where they played to sold-out crowds. Grae says the outpouring of support was overwhelming.
“The shows we did in South Africa were ridiculous. The crowd wasn’t all excited about Jean Grae, they just kept saying, ‘Welcome home!’ The amount of love people showed me was incredible.”
Her upcoming album, Jeanius, was recorded in five days with producer virtuoso 9th Wonder late last year. But, unfortunately, the album leaked onto the Internet several months ago. Grae is doing her best not to be discouraged.
“It was hard to stomach at first,” Grae says. “I went through a stage where I didn’t even want to put the album out. But I realized we’d be doing a great disservice to ourselves and our fans not to release that album.”
Grae’s last appearance in Detroit was in the spring of 2004, performing with longtime friends Invincible and the Athletic Mic League. She was awed by the amount of talent in Detroit and hopes to collaborate with local acts in the future: “I definitely want to do something with the Lab Techs from AML when I’m there in Detroit. That was one of the best beat CDs I got all year.”
See Jean Grae on Sunday, Jan. 16, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit). For tickets call 248-645-6666. Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]