On January 9, the day after Jazmine Sullivan released her eagerly anticipated collection Heaux Tales, the Philadelphia-raised artist wrote on Twitter: “What I would love is if me and @IssaRae did a heauxtales short film, and I’d add a few extra songs. But I could just be dreaming. Nvm me. I’m crazy.” Moments later, Issa Rae answered, “Jazmine. Say the f–k less.”
Nearly 80,000 people cosigned the collaboration, which would sync up a mutual respect dating back to Sullivan’s appearance on Insecure’s 2017 soundtrack and her performance for Rae’s 2018 intimate concert series “pieces.” While both are busy with their respective projects—Rae filming the last season of her hit series, and Sullivan headlining the 2021 ESSENCE Festival of Culture presented by Coca-Cola®—the kindred spirits found time on a Sunday afternoon to speak about advocating for women, therapy and authentic storytelling.
ISSA RAE: I just want to dive into, obviously, you, our relationship and just how much you’ve inspired me. When I was trying to come up as a writer, your album Fearless was such an inspiration. You’re such a good storyteller. You’re a writer at your heart. Fearless was your debut album, but you have been at this for a while. What were you looking to do with that specific body of work?
JAZMINE SULLIVAN: I wish I could say I had a master plan, but I really didn’t. I was just doing what felt natural, and luckily I had gotten with a record company and with people who allowed me to do that. But for me, I just wanted to express myself in the most natural way, and that means me writing my stories. So many of the songs at that time came from a lot of the childish stuff I was going through. For example, busting windows out of an ex’s car and literally going straight from doing it to not being able to sleep. I was restless, because I was still in the moment. And so I just started writing about it. I let my girlfriends hear it, and they were like, “Girl, do your thing—whatever this leads to.” And it led to my world opening up in such a different way.
RAE: Was “Bust Your Windows” one of the first songs you wrote for that project?
SULLIVAN: “In Love With Another Man” was one of the first songs I wrote.
RAE: Mm-hmm, okay, it was cheating-inspired.
SULLIVAN: I was not a cheater at that point.
RAE: Oh, okay. [laughs]
ISSA RAE: Talk about the process of creating an album—even now, you’re not calling Heaux Tales an album. What do you call it? A mixtape? An EP?
SULLIVAN: It’s an EP, but it’s changing for me now. I feel like now it’s more of a project or an album, just based on the effect it’s having on women. I called it an EP at first because I felt like it was too short. I had been away for six years. I was like, I can’t come in and just call it an album. But from the response—what it has turned into for women and what it’s doing for women, how it’s empowering them—it’s like an album.
RAE: What specifically inspired you this time around? Are you like some artists where you’re like, I create my best work when I’m miserable or being wronged? Or are you like, I just feel inspired or I’m happy or I have something to get off my chest?
SULLIVAN: It’s about being inspired to do it. I don’t want to believe that I’m my best when I’m heartbroken, but a lot of inspiration does come from heartbreak. And it hits a different way if you are going through things personally. Especially if that’s what you like to write about—and I do write a lot of heartbreak songs, because I’ve been in a lot of bad relationships that just gave me material. Then there’s when the label says, “B–ch, it’s been six years. Just write a damn album!” [laughs]
RAE: How important is it to you to convey different types of Black womanhood?
SULLIVAN: Before now, I had really just been concerned about expressing myself and getting my story out there—and people have connected to that. But for this project, it was important for me to share the stories of the women I love and hold dear to my heart. I feel like they are just as banging and dynamic as me. And I want to give space and opportunity to women, period. I feel like we get caught up in thinking there’s “only one” of us.
SULLIVAN: There can only be one R&B superstar; there can only be one rap girl at a time. That’s not true. God was not stingy when He was giving out gifts. And you’re not the only person. There are many other women, especially Black women, who can do what you do. And let’s all create spaces for each other to get out there and do that. And the women in my life—my girlfriends, my mom, my aunts—the reason that y’all see a glimpse of any kind of greatness in me is because of those women. My girlfriends and I, we literally grew each other up. We’ve experienced so much and gotten through so much and grown through so much. I wanted to do a service to everybody else, by letting people hear that these are my girlfriends and they’re just as dope as me. And just as dope as you and your girlfriends, your aunts and your moms. I just wanted to create space.
RAE: You said a word—something that’s so true for even my own experience. Thinking about the show, it was based off of my best friend and drawing from the real-life experiences of the friends around me. And that’s something you touched on: support from other women in general. How have you felt that way? Have you found a community within the music industry that you feel props you up? Even hearing Ari Lennox on Heaux Tales makes me wonder, what has it been like with other music- industry women?
SULLIVAN: I’m very private, myself, which I’m going to therapy for. I just started, so…
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
RAE: I’m going to be right behind you, girl.
For more of this conversation between Jazmine Sullivan and Issa Rae, read the July/August 2021 issue of ESSENCE. Available on newsstands + digital platforms June 29.