It all started in January 2016, when Jorja Smith uploaded “Blue Lights” to Soundcloud, her self-released debut single. Written after watching Dizzee Rascal music videos while taking a break from her A-Level dissertation (titled: “Is Postcolonialism Still Present in Grime Music”) the song was inspired by the hostile situations innocent young black men were facing every day, not just in her local town of Walsall but around the world. It blew up unexpectedly, earning the praise of Skrillex and Stormzy, before it was eventually included on Drake’s OVO radio show.
Since then, Jorja has gone on to create a name for herself as Britain’s most exciting R&B songwriter, with a masterful knack for crafting melodies that make you feel like you could be anywhere from a smoky Parisian jazz club to a North London warehouse party. Her two most recent singles, “On My Mind” (feat Preditah) and “Let Me Down” have been testament to her versatility. The former is a garage-inflected club number that comes with a video featuring cult UK comedy crew Kurupt FM. Whereas “Let Me Down” (which premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show) is a slice of effervescent vocal beauty, with a feature from the man of the moment, Stormzy.
Last year, she came fourth in BBC’s Sound of 2017, and this year has been awarded the Brit Awards Critics’ Choice, and will perform live at the ‘The Brits Are Coming’. She’s toured the planet, supporting Bruno Mars in the US, and sold out her Shepherd’s Bush Empire headline shows two times over. And while most teenagers in London are spending their commutes to work listening to Drake, Jorja’s in there collaborating with the Toronto megastar on “Get It Together”, featuring on his More Life project, and performing as a special guest at his UK headline shows. All this for a woman who is only 20 years old, and whose debut album is scheduled to come out later this year.
Jorja grew up in the industrial West Midlands town of Walsall. Both of her parents were musical, and BBC Radio 1Xtra was constantly playing in the kitchen, blasting out bassline classics like T2’s “Heartbroken” as she did her homework. Encouraged by her parents, she started playing keyboard at the age of 8, and was learning to sing classical by secondary school. It’s something that still influences her now, and you can hear it in the vast range of her voice or in certain moments like the choral opening harmonies of “Something in the Way”.
Her mother is a jewellery maker, and her father – who is of Jamaican-origin – was a singer and songwriter in the neo-soul band 2nd Naicha. When she first finished a demo of “Blue Lights” she ran downstairs and played it to him. “Good song, good lyrics,” he said, “Now, go to bed.”
Summers as a teenager were spent floating around town in her friends’ cars, her fragmented memories of it permeated by the sounds of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap drifting through the stereo. Little did she know that many years later (in December 2017) she would be at Metropolis Studios recording an atmospheric ballad cover of Frank’s “Lost” as a Spotify Session, setting the internet ablaze in the process.
From the backseat of that car, she’d listen to her friends talk about other halfs, sweet nothings and broken hearts, and cultivate them into ideas for future songs. All of the songs that would made it onto her debut EP were written during these adolescent years.