Jorja Smith just wrapped a sold-out show at Chicago’s 1,300-capacity Thalia Hall, but she still has work to do. The 21-year-old London singer takes a seat backstage as her hairdresser appears and begins to meticulously braid each strand of Smith’s hair into tight knots – an eight-hour process that has been on and off throughout the day. “But it’s so worth it!” Smith says, reclining and smiling, holding strands of both real and fake hair waiting to be weaved in.
Smith is fine putting in these kind of hours because she’s been working toward this moment for a decade. Her debut album, Lost & Found, released last month, has become a critical favorite for its alluringly serene hip-hop-soul intimacy and Smith’s thrilling vocal turns. Last week, the album was shortlisted for U.K.’s prestigious annual Mercury Prize against the Arctic Monkeys, Florence + the Machine and Lilly Allen. Smith’s fans include Drake, who slid into her DM’s after hearing her spare, hypnotic breakout song “Blue Lights” and recruited her for two tracks on his 2017 mixtape More Life. After that, Kendrick Lamar enlisted her to co-write and sing on his Black Panther stomper “I Am.” Smith was surprised to hear Lamar had wanted to work with her for a while. “[I said] but you don’t fuck with me on Instagram so how was I supposed to know that?” Smith says with a grin.
Growing up in Walsall, a small town three hours outside of London, Smith’s house was flooded with music; her Jamaican-born father was the lead singer of the neo-soul band 2nd Naicha and constantly played hits by Curtis Mayfield, Michael Jackson and Damian Marley. By 11, Smith was writing her own songs and impressing her classmates and family with her massive voice. She says her father could be a tough audience: “He’d say, ‘I can’t hear a chorus in that.’ He’ll criticize me and won’t lose any sleep over it.”
As a teenager, Smith was accepted into an elite secondary school on a music scholarship and began posting covers on YouTube. She became obsessed with Amy Winehouse’s debut album, Frank. Inspired by the singer’s raw approach to songwriting, she decided to forgo an audition for The X Factor and focus on her own material. By 15, armed with a notebook full of personal songs, she attracted the attention of her now-manager, who began booking sessions for her in London. She moved there full-time after high school, living with her aunt and uncle and paying the bills as a Starbucks barista.
Smith suspects she’d still be serving coffee if it weren’t for a song she wrote in high school. When she was 17, she was assigned a project that touched on white privilege in the media. As a part of that project, she went around her school asking children what they thought of the police. Black students told her about being racially profiled: “This little 11-year-old was like ‘Fuck the feds! I hate them. We’ve done nothing but they’re always after me.’ It was a common theme.” She imagined being wrongfully accused of a crime herself after a friend left a pouch at her house that contained a knife. She imagined a scenario where “he’d done something and cut someone and gone to a friend who’d done nothing wrong to help him get out of this trouble.” A song started to take shape. “Blue Lights,” a slinky rebuff of stop-and-frisk policies, blew up on Soundcloud. She promoted an open-mic appearance on her social sites. “The whole place was packed,” she says. “I didn’t think that would happen!”
Smith used to rehearse interviews she’d give once she was famous. Now, she can’t take public transportation in London without being mobbed. She hopes she can stay “relatable” so her music can reach teenagers struggling with issues like mental health. She’s kept mining her personal life for material: She wrote the Lost & Found song “The One” about her relationship with 25-year-old musician Joel Compass, detailing a rough patch they endured last year before committing to each another.
Backstage in Chicago, it’s nearing midnight, but Smith’s hairdresser is still here putting the finishing touches on her hair. Drinking a cup of tea and picking at a late-night plate of mussels, Smith’s mind wanders to future goals. “I’m going to work with Rihanna,” she says. They haven’t met yet, Smith says. “Maybe she’s pretending that she doesn’t know about me. But she definitely does.”