From the Church to the Superlounge: Meet ESSENCE Festival Performer BJ the Chicago Kid

Photo by Shawny Smiters
This Motown music-maker has songs you need to hear ASAP. 

At an intimate dinner held in his honor, celebrating the release of his Motown major label debut album, In My Mind, BJ The Chicago Kid moved around the room, guest to guest, offering a splash of Hennessy to top off a drink or an opportunity to capture a photo for Snapchat. In that moment he stepped outside of his role as one of R&B’s emerging artists standing at the forefront of the genre’s evolution. He wasn’t the guy who’s a part of the movement to make music from the soul hot again. He was simply BJ and he wanted to be sure each guest had a great night. 

Though you may have gotten to know him through his latest single “Church”, BJ is no newcomer to the industry. He’s the child of two choir directors, which explains his Sunday morning gospel vocal range and tone that he’s perfected and now uses to lay sweet melodies about everything from conquering lust’s grasp to praising the power of a woman. His career launched as a background singer for Mary Mary which launched him into priceless opportunities to work with music’s greatest including Stevie Wonder and Kanye West. 

Get to know him, he’s gonna be here for a while. 

So you’re gonna be at ESSENCE Festival this year, that’s exciting.

BJ: Yeah, that’s one of the biggest  R&B and soul accolades you can get, in my world I understand how big it is and how potent it is to our community so I’m honored to be there honestly. 

What has this whole moment been like for you with the release of your new album and all the buzz?

BJ: It’s been an incredible ride honestly. We’re not close to the end, we haven’t even really begun yet, it’s just the beginning but I’ve enjoyed the ride from songwriting to background singing to being a solo artist I’ve enjoyed every part of it. Learning from every artist I’ve worked with, having the opportunity to incorporate into my own life it’s been a blessing. 

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What is the message you want to leave with your fans? 

BJ: Quality over quantity. Always heartfelt, I pray that anybody who hears my music, no matter second verse, middle of the second verse middle of the first verse. I’ve designed it for it to somehow grab you in some way. It’ll somehow capture your ear and make you wanna know more, so In My Mind is pretty much structured to be a magnet. 

I like to describe your sound to people in a particular way: if church and lust had a baby it would sound like his voice.

What makes you rub your neck like that when you say that? [laughs] 

Honestly I’ve found a way to capture both worlds of my life and put it in a song the best way possible. I just hope the people that never really had a voice for that conversation or that topic finally feel like they have somebody to speak for them. 

Do you feel like you speak for a certain group of black men? 

I speak for a certain group of black people, not just men, women as well.

Coming from Chicago how has that shaped you? 

It shaped me so much that I had to incorporate it into my name. And I choose to embody that in one of the most positive ways. When you hear something about my city 90% of the time it’s something negative. But immediately when you say my name you’re speaking about something positive. You’re speaking of a brother who has no police record, never been arrested, never had anything crazy going on in his life and I always fought for that balance. God knew that this time would be, so the balance would be for people to know that real pure people still come from the South Side, from the concrete and still birthed to be something incredible to the world and I just wanna continue to show my gifts so the world can continue to understand what comes from that.

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 You have a church background, right?

Absolutely, I grew up in church. But I grew up on the block too.

Throughout your album I can hear some personal influences, is there any specific lady you’re singing about? 

Some songs, yeah, meaning past relationships. No woman right now. I’m single, yes I’m single. 

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What do you feel makes you stand out as an artist?

My passion, my vocal ability, my music in itself, my aggression. 

Coming in as an R&B artist in this current landscape, what do you feel about the state of R&B? 

I’m currently loving the new wave of what’s going on, I got my surfboard. I feel like Fetty Wap is a singer. I feel like BJ The Chicago Kid is a singer. I feel like Ty Dolla $ign is a singer. Drake sings, what is “Hotline Bling”? A song, it is not a rap song. Tory Lanez is singing. I mean some of the best are singing. Kanye’s a singer. I feel like all of this helps make room and welcomes what I’m about to do right now to keep the ears warm to what’s about to happen. I personally applaud anyone who has to stand before me not knowing what I’m about to do and people after me that don’t know who I’m setting up - we’re all setting each other up. That’s how I look at it. 

Michelle “Elle” Nance grew up reading album credits and song lyrics like novels. Now she spends her free time sharing dope music and under-discovered artists with everyone she loves.

@TheSuzette_ | IG: @elle.m.n.o.p_

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