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.
Authenticity. It's a word that comes up often in conversation with the Ivana and Jessica Nwokike, but only because it's the driving force of everything that they do. As two halves of R&B sensation VanJess, the sisters have been constantly striving towards being their authentic selves from the moment that we first met them in their first video, a wholesome acappella cover of Mariah Carey's 2009 Eminem diss track "Obsessed." In a time long before making content on YouTube was a full-time job or TikTokers were able to get record deals, the bright-eyed pair excitedly uploaded the content without any pretense or expectations. They truly just wanted to sing.
Years later, their intentions haven't changed. Even though their platform has grown exponentially, and they're now major league artists signed to Keep Cool/RCA Records, the duo is still very much all about keeping things as real as possible. Their most recent releases speak to their commitment to remaining genuine through it, with visuals for songs like "Honeywheat" and "Come Over" subtly paying tribute to their deep rooted Nigerian culture via early 2000s-Nollywood inspired aesthetics and fashions — think original babes Genevieve Nnaji and Tonto Dikeh — courtesy of the organic synergy they have with celebrity stylist and fellow Nigerian Ugo Mozie.
New single "Caught Up" (featuring talented Brooklyn music collective Phony PPL) follows in that same vein. One of the songs on the newly released EP Homegrown, the track sees VanJess injecting the glittering disco elements that they grew up on with their natural R&B sensibilities, resulting in a groovy song that is sonically refreshingly but still very much true to their core sound. The accompanying visual, premiering right here on Refinery29, places VanJess at their most luxe thus far — colorful, sparkling, and glamorous.
Ahead, the sisters sit down with Refinery29 for a Zoom conversation about finding inspiration in their heritage and the winding road that led them to Homegrown.
Refinery29: It's a weird time to be making and releasing music given everything going on. Have you found that your creativity has been affected during the pandemic?
Jessica: "It's been in waves, I think. Because we holed up with our family and stayed away from the noise, our creativity wasn't really as impacted as it could have been. Being a duo and not having to be alone in your own world also helped for sure, and we've been able to still be creative as a result."
Ivana: "It's a really good time to be making music because people need something to uplift them. That's why we really wanted to get [Homegrown] out to the people right now — the whole project is about feel-good vibes. I hope and pray that people can feel the light and the energy that we put into it and heal."
Your first major project, Silk Canvas, was released three years ago to critical acclaim. Was it hard to get back in the studio to try and capture that same success for Homegrown?
Ivana: "After we'd dropped Silk Canvas, we were also going through different things, and those experiences were organically creating the music as well. We were just in the studio constantly and preparing to drop a particular project which wasn't the EP that we're releasing now. But, the pandemic sort of switched everything up, and we didn't feel like the songs we'd prepared were for the moment, so we just held off. Life happened."
"We shared our first single 'Come Over' — a song that we'd written in 2016 as just an acoustic — on Twitter and on Instagram just to give the people something, and then made a project out of it. And we just had a bunch of other songs that we've created over the last few years, so it was just full circle."
Jessica: "It's crazy because the pandemic made us go back to the music we had created and rethink what we wanted to put into the world right now. There were a lot of records that we low-key slept on and a few that we had just recorded right before everything went crazy, so it just made sense."
Let's talk "Caught Up." How exactly did the single come about? And please spill the tea on the Donna Summers-inspired fashions in the video.
Jessica: "It was 2016, and we did this session with Pomo — the first session we did. And in our minds, we was like this is our chance, we are not wasting this opportunity! The lyrics came easily at the time and it just flowed out. But then it didn't come out for years because Pomo said he was using it for his project, and it never saw the light of day! So later, we were able to get Elbee and Phony PPL involved, and that just took the song to a whole other level."
Ivana: "For the styling, we already had a vision. We're natural, so we're keeping our hair the way it is. We're touching on 70s hairstyles and fashions but still keeping it within our culture without necessarily trying to be too trendy. So when we first met Ugo (our stylist), the timing was perfect because we knew what we were trying to say and showcase to the world, and it was easy because our ideas just aligned. It was just a beautiful collaboration."
You guys were actually among the early innovators of this modern wave of R&B music. How does it feel to see finally things come together after years of creating and flying under the radar?
Ivana: "I don't want people to get confused about Jess and I — this is who we've always been. It just doesn't work if you don't know who you are."
Jessica: "And that's so powerful because, as Nigerian-Americans, this path is not the one that we're told to take. Even now, as we're not even necessarily represented in music and especially in R&B, it means a lot for us to be able to say, 'Hey, we're Nigerian' just so that our community sees that."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.