Jhene Aiko on Her Psychedelic Journey Through Grief
In September, Jhené Aiko surprised fans with the beginning of an ambitious three-part project known as MAP. The term has a double meaning: an acronym standing for “Movie, Album and Poetry,” and a literal map of how she coped with her brother Miyagi’s death in 2012. From a mental breakdown in Big Sur to a psychedelic jam session with her estranged dad, the album finds the R&B singer-songwriter going to some truly wild places.
“I’ve always loved acting and theater and the art of writing, so I was revisiting my notebooks and decided to start writing a short film,” she tells Rolling Stone of the psychedelic and emotional visual she released in late September. A 22-song album, Trip, followed just two days later. A poetry book, filled with a lifetime of writing, is due out soon. “Writing was a form of therapy, so all of these things became part of what I was going through,” she says.
Miyagi’s death, due to cancer, was a complete shock to Aiko, and as the title of her album implies, she took various kinds of trips to escape, traveling alone and experimenting with drugs. Trip charts these voyages.
“In the beginning, I take LSD and find myself in Jukai, which is a forest in Japan where people go to kill themselves,” she says of the fictionalized journey through music and dialogue that opens the record. Though she has never visited that infamous locale, she did visualize it on one of her solo excursions a few years back.
“I went to Big Sur by myself, and it was probably at the height of a mental breakdown. I had just driven six hours by myself, and went on a hike while on mushrooms,” she recalls. “I was feeling very emotional and looked up and saw the sun. I was thinking of Jukai while I was there, thinking, ‘Wow, this is such a beautiful place and sometimes people decide to take their lives in beautiful places’ – maybe not for the scary reason people think but maybe because they feel at peace.”
On an album filled with major collaborators – Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, Brandy, John Mayer on guitar and her boyfriend Big Sean – a few lesser-known names leave the biggest mark. Brian Warfield of the production duo Fisticuffs, Aiko’s longtime collaborator, engages her in a dialogue heard throughout the album. And Aiko’s father and daughter turn up at the album’s end, signaling a return to peace after a tumultuous journey.
“In the beginning of the grieving process, I was a lot more standoffish towards my family because it was a reminder that my brother wasn’t around,” she admits. “As I get older, my family, to me, is the embodiment of love.”
She felt that her daughter Namiko, who turns nine in November, dealt with the brunt of her grief. “I feel like there were times where I felt like I wasn’t giving her as much attention because I was just so out of it and trying to escape everything.”
Namiko’s sweet vocal turn on “Sing to Me” arrives after a few spoken-word features from her dad, Dr. Karamo Chilombo, billed as Dr. Chill, on songs like “Oblivion (Creation)” and “Psilocybin (Love in Full Effect).”
“Me and my dad weren’t close,” Aiko says of her relationship with Dr. Chill, who separated from her mom when she was a baby. He is now exploring music – along with being an actual licensed physician in Los Angeles – and the hours the two spent jamming together in the studio — while Jhené was on psychedelics — is the most time Aiko and her father had ever spent together.
“It was a crazy spiritual moment,” she describes. “We recorded 70 minutes of just singing, talking and chanting to the point where we are probably going to do a project in the near future.”
At the end of the project, Aiko feels relief. She spent years in the thick of it, trying both to piece together her MAP and center herself in the face of an unimaginable personal tragedy while trying to build a career, raise a daughter and become an adult herself. “I’ll probably always be expressing the same type of things, hopefully on a more elevated level or more enlightened level as I get older and learn from my mistakes,” she says. “I relapse, falling into the same bad habits. That’s why I was like, ‘I have to make a movie and an album and a poetry book. I have to set the tone for what I believe is right and wrong. I have to express this pain to get better.'”