It’s a chilly October night, yet Jain has packed the mid-sized Brooklyn venue Warsaw with a mix of New Yorkers and visitors from her native France. Over there, she’s a phenomenon: Her 2015 debut, Zanaka, which blends pop with Afrobeat, is certified diamond, and her follow-up, this year’s Souldier, hit Number One on the country’s albums chart. The 26-year-old regularly plays multiple nights at venues like Paris’ historic Olympia and Marseilles’ Le Moulin, and she’s opened for Seal and Christine and the Queens. Here, though, it’s clear she knows how to work a slightly smaller crowd.
With a striking concert presentation and a set list full of dance-floor movers, she gets the crowd jumping, dancing and singing along. She does it all while alone on the stage: Like a DJ, she has a podium where she controls her music — loops she creates in real time, sometimes using a remote-control gauntlet she’s woven into her blue jumpsuit that looks like a high-tech Wonder Woman — and she’s enfolded herself in video screens and lighting arrays of pure color.
“You wanna be a staaaar, but you don’t know who you are,” she sings amid jittery synthesizers and a hip-hop beat on “Star,” off Souldier. Based on how confident she looks, it’s hard to imagine she’d be singing about herself.
Although Jain sings in English and is a smash across Europe and Canada, she’s still working on making a dent in the U.S. The video for “Makeba,” her song praising the late South African civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, earned her a Grammy nomination, and the song appeared in ads for Levi’s and Mitsubishi, but she’s still proving herself here. Judging from the Brooklyn show, she’s beginning to turn the tide. That’s partly because Souldier, with its rap and Arabic influences, reflects who she has become since her last record as much as where she’s come from.
“I wanted to talk about women, the star system and the technology that surrounds us and people that are trying to sell things all day long,” she says a couple of weeks after the Brooklyn show. Her voice sounds both confident and optimistic. “[Souldier] is a little bit more adult and engaged, and it’s mostly about our modern society.”
Jain has a unique view of the world, mostly because she’s lived all over. She was born Jeanne Galice in Toulouse, in the southwest of France. When she was nine, her family relocated to Dubai for her father’s work in the oil industry, which also took her to Congo and Abu Dhabi. It was in Pointe-Noire, Congo, where she lived from ages 12 to 16, that she began making music. Her big sister started playing guitar and taught her a few chords. Jain wrote “Come,” a catchy, acoustic foot stomper, and met a local producer who called himself Mr. Flash. He helped her make what she remembers as a “really cheap” recording of the song, and she uploaded it to Myspace. “I sent this demo to every major record company in France, and I had only one answer,” she says. “It was from the person who became my manager.” (She pays tribute to the man who kickstarted her career on Souldier’s “Flash (Pointe-Noire).”)
Her manager, in turn, introduced her to singer-songwriter and French hitmaker Maxime Nouchy, aka Yodelice, who produced Zanaka and co-produced Souldier with her. “I fell in love with the way she approached music, mixing a lot of different influences and weird, ethnic percussions with more of a hip-hop and electronica programming,” he says. “She was 16 when I met her, and she had a very unique way of approaching rhythm.” She returned to Paris at age 18 to study graphic design (“I wanted to make covers of albums,” she says), and she and Yodelice shortened and refined “Come.” It went on to become a Number One hit in France and Spain.
“I’ve always thought she’s very, very special, probably because she grew up in so many different countries and feels a part of so many cultures,” Yodelice says. “She’s very chill and really open.”
For Souldier, Jain expanded her musical vocabulary even more. “I really wanted to go further than just putting my Congolese influences on the album,” she says. “I listened to a lot of Arabic music, a lot of hip-hop. I tried rapping a little bit.” The artists she looks up to most these days include Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, and she still enjoys what she calls “classical” albums by Michael Jackson and Otis Redding. Another influence comes from her time in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where she heard lots of Bollywood music from the Indian immigrant communities there. Her favorite lately has been a Lebanese artist named Fairuz. “She’s a legend in the Arabic world, and she has a beautiful voice,” Jain says.
Since the release of Zanaka, Jain has faced questions about cultural appropriation from the press, but she brushes them off. “Cultural appropriation is a big problem, but the thing is, I didn’t invent my life,” she says. “I really lived in Africa. My mother is half-French, half-Malagasy, so I’ve been listening to African music, like Malian and Congolese music, since I was a child. What I want to tell people is that you can mix the culture a little bit and it’s not always appropriation. It’s just part of my own story and my own life.”
She says she intends to live her life and draw inspiration whenever it hits her. She came up with the concept of a “Souldier” after seeing a people bringing flowers to the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, in the wake of the mass shooting there in 2016. “I thought it was beautiful to be able to forgive and give love and to fight only with flowers,” she says. “So I created the idea of a ‘Souldier,’ which is like an army guy but fights for love.”
Stardom is something she’s still getting used to. She describes “Star,” that song about wanting fame but not knowing your own identity, as somewhat autobiographical. “I’m really shy and introverted, so it was hard for me to be in front all the time,” she says. “I had to learn how. That’s why that in that song in particular, I mock myself a bit and I also mock the society that we put ourselves in front of all day long.”
At the Brooklyn show, there’s no question that her star is on the rise. During the encore, she asks everyone in the room to get on their feet and jump when she says. It’s a risky move for such a young artist, especially in a room of jaded New Yorkers. But the whole audience was up in the air on her count to three.
“My team was hoping for success,” she says of her career so far, “but we couldn’t even dream about this.”