Stevie Wonder, Sade, Prince and The Beatles—what do all of these icons have in common? They’ve refused to compromise on their artistry and that determination subsequently changed the music industry. They’re also a few of Jesse Boykins III’s biggest influences—an artist who is also fueled by delivering his music and doing it his way: “What you have to say and how you feel about the world holds power, and if you stay true to that, the people who need to hear you and people who want to connect with you will.”
While you may not have heard of Boykins before 2017, Bartholomew (out Dec. 8) is actually his fourth release. His career has been a slow burn and he prefers it that way because it’s allowed him to learn and evolve as a musician and a person. “I always try to put myself in new settings, with all the knowledge I’ve gained from what I’ve done so I can be open to learning some new shit.” he remembers. “It’s about being super fucking courageous. If you’re brave in what you’re doing—expressing something on a genuine level and having the right people around you who understand and connect with that—you can excel.” The right people, for Boykins, is Def Jam Records. While he admits that he received his first offer at age 17, it wasn’t until now, at age 32, that he finally decided to sign with any label. What makes Def Jam different, besides an impressive roster and rich history, is that they honor Boykins’ want for creative control. “As long as I’m able to creatively oversee everything and express myself in the way I should and need to in this life, then I’m good,” he says.
It is difficult to place Boykins’ music into any one genre. His latest compilation is 17 tracks of what he dubs “world soul” laced with an otherworldly meeting of keys, reverb, snaps and claps. His vocal performance is a combination of spoken word and silky smooth croons. On his opening track “Earth Girls”, in between ahs and ohs, he sings about admiring the beauty of women—not because of how they gyrate or seduce, but because of how tenderly they love. How, in so many ways, women make the world a better place. The album also welcomes equally talented artists like Willow Smith, Kilo Kish, Little Simz and Noname.
Bartholomew features male artists but the cast of characters overall is predominantly and purposely female. “I don’t feel like that voice gets to be in the conversation as much as it should be,” he explains. Boykins hopes to create dialogue between men and women and to break down societally-constructed stereotypes that prohibit men and women from talking openly about the dynamics between them. On the song “Vegetables,” Boykins declares, “She can buy her own things on her own nights,” followed by Willow Smith, who chimes in, “She said you must become what you run from.” Boykins articulates his goal for the album with a thoughtful request for his listeners: “Listen to it and maybe it’ll open up a conversation between whoever is in the room listening to the project at the same time. About what men are afraid to talk to women about, what women are afraid to talk to men about. We need to kill that route real fast. That needs to be over with right now.”
I want to know that I’m actually impacting and influencing people to do something. I don’t want to just take money from them without any tradeoff.
On a personal level, Boykins’ route has been and continues to be calm, steady and steeped in tradition—practices from a childhood spent in Jamaica and Miami. As a child, Boykins learned to sing in church, and in high school was selected to sing with the Jazz Grammy Ensemble. After moving to New York City to attend the New School for jazz and composition, Boykins expanded his musical skill set, learning production skills and exploring the musical communities that New York had to offer. It was in New York that he met multi-faceted Grammy-award winning singer and songwriter Bilal. Their meeting wasn’t a chance encounter; rather, it was another example of Boykins’ hunger to learn and evolve. Boykins heard him perform once and later discovered that Bilal had also attended the New School. He proceeded to attend every one of Bilal’s gigs, repeatedly introducing himself until he mustered up the courage to ask him for a voice lesson.
Recounting their first lesson, Boykins begins, “This is a funny story.” He laughs to himself before he proceeds, “I showed up to his house in Jersey City, and he had on a silk robe with his dreadlocks in little rolls and incense sticks. And then he made me work out on an elliptical machine until I was breathing hard. And then he said, ‘You see how you’re breathing right now? Every time you take your first breath when you’re on stage or in the studio, this is the breath you take, no matter what.’ So it was more like he was my sensé, not just in music, but in life.”
In terms of what he has learned to pay attention to? Not money. “My motivations and goals have never been on a superficial level. I’m not saying I don’t like money or enjoy making money, but at the same time, I want to know that I’m actually impacting and influencing people. I don’t want to just take money from them without any tradeoff.” Boykins mentions that he feels the world may not have been ready for his message and delivery up until now. But today, in a time overwhelmed by sexual assault accusations and rife with power grabs for basic women’s rights, listeners just may be ready for an artist—and a character—like Boykins.