Jalen Kobayashi, aka JaefKae Credit: Peoples Streets
I met Jalen Kobayashi in 2017 through Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival, where for years we were on separate teams, expressing ourselves through spoken word and sometimes even competing against each other. We’ve since become close friends, connecting through our gifts with the pen and our shared passion for Black liberation. We’ve supported each other’s creative journeys, and we had each other’s backs on the front lines of the fight for justice for marginalized identities during the uprisings of summer 2020.
Jalen is a northwest-side native, raised by the blocks of Albany Park and the lively Humboldt Park streets. He carries the proud boisterous aura of where he comes from, the family lineage that trails behind him, and the legacy he wishes to create. In addition to his work as a poet and activist, he’s also an artist, producer, and musician, recording and performing as JaefKae. Now 22, he started making music at 14. He brings the same unstoppable energy to it that he does to everything he touches: he already has a catalog of more than 200 songs, and on January 17 he self-released his seventh album, Richcraft.
I’ve been there for much of his growth, and I’ve witnessed his craft blossom into what it is today. He’s a music-making machine: he records, mixes, and often produces his own material, and he’s even coined the name of a new genre. The sound he calls “kongri” is a futuristic fusion of American-style hip-hop, Afrobeats, dancehall, reggaeton, and other elements, with a heavy emphasis on percussion.
JaefKae has a lengthy performance history too, which includes opening up for some of the biggest names in hip-hop: he read a poem at a Chicago Ideas Week event in fall 2015 where Common launched the anti-violence video “Put the Guns Down,” and he shared a bill with Pusha T and Nas at Wintrust Arena for a Red Bull Music Festival concert in November 2018. But while he’s brought his music to venues throughout the city, he’s received very little recognition for his efforts.
This is probably because JaefKae is an independent artist in the purest sense of the word. He’s been running the whole show—music creation, promotion, concert booking, press—completely on his own. He has no management, and all seven of his albums are self-released, in digital form only. He’s been learning the ropes himself, battling the challenges of the music industry with very little support. But he’s fueled by the drive to become a household name, just like Nas or Common, and I’m a fan of his passion as well as his music. If you’re not a listener already, Richcraft gives you some great material to take your first dive into.
JaefKae’s seventh album, Richcraft, came out last month.
For this piece, I sat down with my friend and talked with Jalen the artist. Whether you’re coming across his work for the first time or revisiting it, I hope that when you’re done reading you feel connected, drawn in by his honesty, and ready to add some new music to your playlist.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Alycia Kamil: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be an artist?
JaefKae: I’ve known since I came out of the womb that I was going to be a rapper. When I was six years old, I dressed up as a rapper for Halloween. When my mom took me out for trick-or-treating she would go, “How are you going to be a rapper, and you not rapping? You need to rap.” So at every house I would go up to, I would pull out a piece of paper and spit a verse. My rap name was J.J Jones at the time. People were like, “Wow, this kid is crazy—why is he on my porch rapping?”
After that my family has always encouraged me to perform and make songs. My auntie would babysit me, and I would just make her listen to my raps. When my parents got home, she would be like, “Listen to this rap that Jalen made!” So from a young age, I knew what I was going to do.
How much of an impact do your words on paper have on your words on the mike, and vice versa? And can we ever expect to see some more poetry from you?
I have a plan to incorporate spoken word in my next album—a poem to introduce us to the album, and one to take us out. I also want to release more poetry; there’s so much in the vault that never made it out to the ether. The poetry on the page is the poetry on the mike. There’s the rhythm and the poetry. So I make them work in tandem all the time and become best friends.
Do you remember how old you were when you made your first song that solidified your passion to become a professional musician?
It was called “Blow Your Mind.” I was going by the name Young Mind or Bright Young Mind at the time. It was over a beat that my dad made—he’s a real hip-hop head. He used to be a producer and an MC as well. I freestyled over that beat and made that song. I had a little bubble microphone—it was really cheap, but it got the job done. I didn’t have a compressor at the time, so I put a sock over it so my Ps and my Ss were filtered right.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I would say Vybz Kartel, Mos Def, and Lauryn Hill. I love her, by the way—she doesn’t put up with no BS from anybody. André 3000, Erykah Badu, Harmonize. Those are just on top right now. Because you know what? I’m influenced by so much because I like listening to good music.
JaefKae’s video for “Kilamanjaro,” from his 2021 album Out the Window
You just dropped your seventh studio album, Richcraft. How are you feeling after the release?
Honestly, I’m feeling great. The albums beforehand all have central themes, but they were more of compilations, besides Out the Window, which I released in 2021. I’ve been working on the songs for Richcraft since last year. This is an album that I made for myself with different components, spiritual and metaphysical, combining them all so that listeners can relate to them. They might be going through a tough time, hear the song “Malanga,” and think, “Oh wow, anything I want, I get—that’s it.” Those words can empower them.
What’s the story behind the name Richcraft?
People say witchcraft is bad; people have so many ideas about it. There’s more to the root of it: people who are psychic, have visions, dreams, praying grandmothers, dance, are good at cooking, all these different things that go into metaphysical aspects. I think that’s where I got the name, from the metaphysical aspect of getting money, the “rich” and my craft. The craft of what I’m doing is rich. Not just “witchcraft” and “rich craft” together to rhyme, but the actual way that I’m putting together the songs—my discipline of making music—is rich.
Walk us through your songwriting process, from knowing which beat you’re going with to recording the song.
If I get a beat from one of my external producers, I listen to it for a while. Ride around listening to it, play it while I’m in the shower. Then I’m like, “OK, here it is. Here’s the song.” It just comes, and it comes naturally.
Then there are some days when one of my producers, Daniel Moderhack, will send me a beat and then it’s done in a couple of hours—like the song “June 21st.” Sometimes these songs are like freestyles, because when the beat is hitting how I need it, the words just erupt out of me. Now for a song like “Wicken,” where the writing is heavy, that song took three or four times to write. So I’ll go back sometimes, but more often than not, it’s just something that happens naturally.
JaefKae performs on the livestream of Bluefecta, a 2020 fundraising event for get-out-the-vote efforts in Michigan and Wisconsin. Credit: Video still from Bluefecta, presented by Windy City Indie
You produced seven out of 12 tracks on the album. Did you feel nervous at all before the release, knowing that so much of this album is coming directly from your hands?
No, I didn’t feel nervous. I was anticipating what the response would be because I haven’t done this in a long time. You know, I made my little albums when I was a freshman in high school, where I produced songs on those. I would go to the library and people would be like, “Oh no, this ain’t it, let me help you.” That’s actually how I got some of my first producers.
Hearing my beats now, having other people hear them, I was excited. Even the songs I didn’t produce, I still mixed and mastered. I sat there when there was no song, just an empty Logic file and the metronome clicking. When it’s time and you need the world to hear the music that’s in your heart, then you put it out. You’re not scared.
You coined a new genre called “kongri.” What made you come to this discovery, and what are some songs on your recent release people can listen to in order to hear it?
I’ve had this idea for about three years now. This is an exclusive about kongri, because nobody has come up with it but me! So congri is a dish from Cuba—it’s made around the Caribbean, but it originated in Cuba. It’s a mixture of black beans and white rice. Not a mixture like once both are finished you put it together, but you put everything in a pot and it’s mixed that way.
The kongri aspect of what I’m doing is combining the elements of hip-hop with my Caribbean roots—along with keeping up with traditional styles of heavy bass, lyricism, Auto-Tune, rhyme, fast pace, and flow. Very heavy on the percussion as well on the album. You’ll hear that on “Malanga,” “Stealth,” “Lava,” “Blow It,” and even a bit on “Sometimes.” You’ll hear the cowbells, bongo, conga, and different percussions. It’s about paying homage and combining both sides of where I’m from.
You mentioned you want people to feel like they can manifest their biggest desires while listening to this album. And what are some specific songs on the album that utilize that manifesting power the most?
When I say that [something is] going to happen, that’s because I’ve already envisioned it happening. That’s because I’ve done the work to make it happen. That’s because I’ve put other things in place to make it happen. “Malanga” is a perfect example of that. The spiritual work I do—I see, I listen, I have visions, I have dreams.
For people who maybe don’t feel like they could have those same visions, “Malanga” is telling you that you can. “Anything I need, guaranteed / No wait for the ripe, my green yellow banana.” What that means is if I have the fruit already, and it’s the fruit of my labor, I don’t need to wait for it to ripen. I just need to open it, enjoy it, and go as far as I can.
I incorporated other languages on this album because manifestation happens when you can say it in different ways. When you can say one thing three ways, then it’s more likely to happen. If you’re in a dark place, this is music to uplift you. Everything on this album is high frequency, with not a lot of minor chords, and it has catchy hooks that you’ll find yourself repeating and dancing to. “Bask in the sunlight when it’s all bright / Life move fast, it’ll be alright.”
“I incorporated other languages on this album because manifestation happens when you can say it in different ways,” says JaefKae. “When you can say one thing three ways, then it’s more likely to happen.” Credit: Peoples Streets
If you’re not behind a mike performing, we can catch you spitting revolutionary truth at actions throughout the city. What’s the connection you find between your artistry and your activism?
My artistry is my activism. After the summer of 2020, and realizing that the words I said could get me maliciously targeted and dragged and brutalized by the police, I realized that things are at much bigger stakes than they seem. It’s not important to always be in the cameras, at the actions with the megaphone. So now my music, I’m empowering the youth and the community with high vibrations and frequencies that are real. In my music, I don’t talk about killing people, shooting, or selling drugs—my music is meant to empower. I empower people through positivity, not just false positivity. I talk about real shit.
At the same time, the way I go about it is the way I want people to go about it in their everyday life. All of these songs are still tied back to Black liberation, to the plight of Black people and African-descended people in America and the Caribbean.
We can experience so much pain, strife, and erasure. What’s something you want to see for Chicago citizens? What are some words to give to up-and-coming artists and the youth of the city, being a young person yourself?
First one, Chicago citizens, we need a long life. The age disparity between the west side and the north side, the age disparity between Black people and white people in this city, is so much more than just something you see on paper. It’s in real life.
Our babies are too young to be doing drugs. Too young to be worried about getting shot, and thinking they won’t be anything in life when they grow up. The pressure put on our young people, specifically Black people in this city, is you either make it out of the hood or you’re going to die.
For people who exist on the outside with privileges who claim to be allies to Black communities, there is work that needs to be done. For people in the community, we all need to work together, and not be so ignorant of each other in the city. We don’t know who stays on the next block from us, and we don’t know who stays in the next neighborhood from us. We don’t care about them because we’re so worried about ourselves. It’s a survival method, but it’s getting us nowhere. We have to branch out, lend a helping hand, listen to one another, and be willing to go out of our comfort zones.
JaefKae released “Vice Grip” as a freestanding song and video in 2021.
To the young artists in this city, your discipline is going to take you wherever you want to go. There are so many ways you can be successful and still do the art that you love: putting your music in shows, being an engineer, a producer, teaching music to the next generation. It doesn’t just take you having a title to be able to do something. Don’t let anybody tell you who you are in your music and influence you to be someone you’re not.
The last thing, as a young person who was born and raised in this city, I’m just very hopeful all of the time. I’m a very hard-praying person that things change for the better. We need to start putting each other on and stop putting each other down.
You see a lot of rappers that claim to do anti-violence work but talk about killing people in their songs. Rappers who claim to fight for Black women but refer to them in derogatory terms, enabling abusers in the space. You cannot have both. So hold people accountable in your circle. When you see somebody who is struggling and putting in the work just like you did, make that connection. Build with each other and get in how you fit in. That’s my word on that.
Fifty years from now, what do you see yourself doing, and what would you have hoped to accomplish by then?
Fifty years from now? Damn! I want to have made all the music I wanted to make. I want to have made instrumental music. Yeah, I want to be able to play instruments, make jazz music, and stuff like that. I want to have my own record label and bring a new generation of artists who are like-minded and similar in style.
I believe in the freedom of our people, the liberation of our people, the empowerment of our people, our traditions, and where we come from. I don’t believe our history started with war. So I want to work with people who can eventually get to that way of thinking. I want to have been able to help them navigate the music business and produce them. I want to sit back and let them do the real soul cleaning. Fifty years from now, I want to be somewhere where people can’t find me. I want to have a big happy family and be able to look back and say, “This was all worth it.”