Jorja Smith walks on The Novo's stage and the downtown Los Angeles crowd falls silent. Her hand glides from the bottom hem to the bodice of her hip-clinging, fluorescent orange and black dress while the other reaches for the mic. She smiles, closes her eyes and turns her head. Her vocals smolder with a smoky, deep husk that travels effortlessly from line to line.
Such coming-of-age tracks add thoughtful texture when juxtaposed by Smith's sophisticated views on the state of humanity, like what we get from her on “Lifeboats.” On top of a static thump and guitar riff, she contemplates our society’s lack of community. A call-and-response in between spoken word goes, “Why do we watch them drown? We’re too selfish in our life boats.” And the best part? The three-minute long thoughtful commentary on what’s broken in our modern world is a freestyle, proving just how brilliant Smith is with storytelling.
I wasn’t so confident growing up. I thought I wasn’t thin enough or too tan. Now there are so many people watching me, I have to try to not care.
The woman I was introduced to that day, whom so many have seen on stage and have heard in the studio, is a result of her upbringing. She describes Walsall, her hometown in Midwestern England, as ragged—a place left haunted by the 2008 recession. But it is this small community that allowed Smith the self-assurance to start singing at the tender age of 8 and begin writing songs at age 11, and at the same time, motivated her to take her voice beyond Walsall’s lines.
Smith was born to a mother who crafted jewelry and a Jamaica-born father who sang lead for a neo-soul group called 2nd Naicha. Her house was filled with the assortment of genres that touch her songs throughout her debut album—rock, soul, funk and the like. “I’ve been singing some of these songs for ages,” she says before pointing out that the oldest songs on Lost & Found were developed when she was 16 years old. Following a dazzling performance at her local church, Smith’s father insisted she learn piano. Her instrumental and vocal skill impressed so much that it landed her a scholarship at a renowned school where she would be classically trained.
“I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. But I definitely didn’t think I’d end up where I am now,” she remembers. Following “Blue Light,” Project 11 shows that Smith is no one-hit wonder. The four-song compilation feels like a sort of introduction to what she has yet to present on the 13-track Lost & Found. It is a kindly threaded chapter in the life of a woman who, with innate artistry, is prepared to share her intelligent and effortless gift. “I don’t like setting goals and stuff, I just like doing it,” she says about the compilation EP that inspired Drake to invite her to open on his U.K. tour that year.
Since Project 11, Smith has earned a Brit Award and countless A-list collaborations beyond Drake's tour and More Life mixtape. Her most revered work, however, came with the release of the soundtrack for Black Panther. Written alongside the iconic Kendrick Lamar, “I Am” is yet another political offering from Smith. This time she uses the Marvel platform to declare the backlash black women face when attempt to speak freely. “Somebody's always gonna say somethin'. Try and shoot me down for voicin' my own opinion,” she sings in her signature husky warble. The soundtrack landed on the Billboard Top 200. Now, her first album marks a culmination of two years of growth and what feels like endless buzz—and it comes just three days shy of her 21st birthday. “I can’t complain,” she laughs.