Welcome to The Drop, Refinery29's home for music video premieres. We want to shine the spotlight on women artists whose music inspires, excites, and (literally) moves us. This is where we'll champion their voices.
Jensen McRae is a "word girl." She's a songwriter, a poet, a screenwriter, a blogger, an essayist, and a recent college graduate (class of 2019). After going to GRAMMY Camp in Los Angeles while she was in high school, McRae received a full ride to attend the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where she studied popular music performance. So, it's no surprise to hear that she not only wrote "White Boy," the song she's premiering with Refinery29, but she developed and wrote the video treatment as well.
On both fronts, her work is ambitious. McRae wanted to start a discourse among women of colour about their marginalisation and racist microaggressions. She quickly realised that as a songwriter, she had the opportunity to step up to a much bigger platform, and generate a much broader conversation about the inner lives of black women.
Ahead, McRae talks to Refinery29 about the college party that inspired everything, learning to listen to her instincts, and being a stan for Zendaya.
Refinery29: What was the inspiration that got you started on writing this song?
Jensen McRae: My junior year of college, I was at a party and I didn't know anyone except the girl who invited me and my friend. The girl who was hosting it introduced me and my friend, who happens to be white, to this guy, who was also white. When we were introduced he looked at me and immediately turned to my friend and started talking to her without acknowledging that I was there. It made me feel awful, invisible, and paranoid. I stood there for awhile being ignored and eventually I left the party.
"The whole way home, I thought about how for my whole life I've been a brown girl in predominately white environments. I was trying to figure out, in all these interactions I've had in my life, was there a racial undertone or was I imagining things? That I even had to ask that question is so problematic, complicated, and nuanced. Then I started writing the song right away."
Did writing the song help you work through your feelings about it?
It was a delayed reaction. After I wrote it, I didn't play it for anybody for a couple of months. I wasn't sure if it was good, on the surface. I think at my core I knew how good it was and the power that it has, how vulnerable it is. I played it for my mum first, who told me it was special and I should do something with it. Then I started playing it out at shows and for other people. The more that I played it, the more I was able to process what I was saying with it. I think I was afraid to listen to myself. Over time, I started to internalise the more empowering parts of the song, but also was able to return to the more vulnerable parts of it when a situation like that would arise again."
Part of what I want to accomplish as an artist is showing that black women experience a full range of emotions. In addition to being engaged in political topics, we're also engaged with romantic love, mental illness, adolescence, and adulthood. It's been mostly supportive [reactions], though some people have felt it was a little too frivolous. To those people I say, I have a lot more to say.
What was the concept behind the video?
Since I wrote this song two years ago, I had been thinking about the video for a long time. I wrote the treatment. I wanted it to be a series of interconnected vignettes. It changed shape a little in the hands of everyone involved, but the core of it was I wanted a scene with a white male guitar player with me next to him and us never making eye contact. I would reach for him, but never be able to touch him. I also wanted dancers, a Black woman and a white man, to tell the story through dance. And I wanted to recreate the scene of the party, where it all happened.
I wanted a lot of natural light. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I didn't want it to look like a [typical] music video. I didn't want it to be fluorescent or super harsh; I wanted a good amount of darkness and for it to be more cinematic. I've never seen Euphoria, but when they showed me the lighting for the party scene, I said this is gonna be great! And they were like, yeah there's kind of a Euphoria energy. I'm obsessed with Zendaya, so go for it. [laughs]
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.