Emmy Winning Actor-Turned-Rapper Jharrel Jerome Has Something To Say

Photo: Courtesy of Uwakokunre (Kokie) Imasogie.
Born to traditional Latine and Black American parents in the Bronx, Jharrel Jerome was tasked with discovering what personally tethered him to the character of a queer teen from Liberty City, Miami, when he was cast to play Kevin in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight back in 2016. A first-generation Dominican American, Jerome followed his Academy Award-winning big-screen debut with an ambitious performance of Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. To live out the role of the Exonerated Five’s most controversial figure, Jerome again was charged with the tall order of tracing common links to someone whose life and struggles were a far cry from his own. It earned him the honor of being the first Black Latine and youngest person to take home an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Lead Actor. “I hope this is a step forward for Dominicans, for Latinos, for Afro-Latinos,” he said at the time of accepting his award. “It’s about time we are [acknowledged] here.” 
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Identity is the recurring motif in Jerome’s story. The performance art of becoming someone else, the destabilizing ascent to superstardom, and the intersectional politics of race, gender, and sometimes language have shaped not only Jerome’s elusive persona in the public eye, but his own sense of self. “I hate that because I don’t really speak Spanish that somehow makes me less Dominican,” he tells Refinery29 Somos, half-way quipping. Despite cementing his place in popular culture behind a string of accolades that has positioned him a young Hollywood honcho, the 24-year-old struggles with understanding his place in the world. “All I knew was my life in the Bronx. I come from a small, tight-knit family. I’m very family-oriented, and I had only a few solid friends growing up,” he says. “I went from that to suddenly having people from all walks of life want to be my friend and concern themselves with my welfare.”

“Music, hip-hop, freestyling — that was my first love.”

Jharrel Jerome
Like many first- and second-generation Latine kids born and raised in the United States, Jerome wanted to be the first to graduate from college. He thought going into law or medicine would be his best chance at securing a future for himself and his family. But Jerome’s creative impulses manifested themselves early on, and with the full support of his parents, he prepared for a life on stage — first as a decorated thespian and actor, and now as a new rapper to watch. 
“Music, hip-hop, freestyling — that was my first love,” he says. “I used to write songs for girlfriends when I was younger. That was my way of being cool, but it was also my way of understanding myself and speaking in a different dialect.”
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In “Someone I’m Not,” Jerome’s return to music and declarative introduction to the rap game, he attempts to harness poetry for the same reasons. Using rhyme as his medium for expression, the Concrete Cowboy co-star wrestles with a strong sense of self amid the pressures of fame and fortune. “A couple more checks and I'll probably forget that a ni**a from the Bronx. A couple more movies and I'll start actin’ bougie like, ‘sorry I missed your call, dawg, I'll probably never hit you back ‘cause the day I hit you back is the day that I fall off,’” he waxes with introspection reminiscent of early Drake, who also braved a career in rap after becoming a star actor on the Canadian teen drama Degrassi.
In the same song, which Jerome premiered in August, he also grapples with relationships. “Funny how before the fame she wasn't texting me. Now I pull up in a Bentley, a ni**a got a Emmy, now she beggin’ for a wedding ring, then she hit me with a damn false pregnancy,” he spits.
“I never speak on this in interviews,” Jerome continues over Zoom, “but I'm a very relationship-oriented person. I've been in a relationship and that has now changed. So finding love for myself, and leaning on my own validation and no one else’s, has been one of the hardest things for me.” 
Photo: Courtesy of Uwakokunre (Kokie) Imasogie.
Six years ago, when Jerome emerged from the margins for Moonlight, he was still sleeping in his childhood bed and had his mother’s love and support at arm’s reach. Now that he’s back in his hometown after a nomadic year of work, he mulls over his evolution, while juggling multiple film projects and a promising career in music. “I’m way more cautious, less trusting, a bit less open, and an incredibly vulnerable person,” he says. 
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A self-proclaimed student of Slick Rick, A Tribe Called Quest, and the late Big Pun, Jerome follows in the footsteps of Aubrey Graham, Donald Glover, and Tristan Wilds, among others, as he seeks to transition from acting and establish himself as a new-school MC. “When it comes to music, I'm not in a rush to be on the radio, on the Grammy stage, or on massive world tours,” he explains. “I'm only in a rush to get my thoughts out. This is how I heal myself mentally and how I figure myself out. This is also how I am choosing to emote and dialogue with the world.” 

“I'm only in a rush to get my thoughts out. This is how I heal myself mentally and how I span myself out. This is also how I am choosing to emote and dialogue with the world.” 

JHARREL JEROME
Jerome first professed his love of music when he released his first single “For Real” at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Since 2016, I’ve been putting all the bank I’ve made from my films into studio sessions and recording equipment, trying to find my sound, my voice, my cadence, and my style,” he shared on Twitter in 2020, breaking a social media hiatus and disclosing to fans he no longer wanted to keep rap a hobby. 
“That’s a good example right there of not necessarily compromising my privacy and the thoughts that I keep to myself, but having to constantly find a way to still be out there, to still show my face, my art, my style, and what I do on the day to day without giving away so much,” he says in a tone of frustration, acknowledging that an online presence is integral to his work. “I have a whole PR person right now who reminds me of that every day.” 
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Photo: Courtesy of Uwakokunre (Kokie) Imasogie.
Though Jerome continues to teeter the line between being social and private, working to strike the ideal balance, one thing he stands firm on are his rap dreams. “I want to grab hold of the torch and make some of my heroes proud,” he says. “If those cats can at least say they appreciate my presence and contribution to the game, that would be enough. Because hip-hop can't go nowhere. It can't die.” 
As if maintaining a healthy private life and digital presence weren’t challenging enough, Jerome is equally taxed with juggling acting and music. After wrapping the dark comedy I’m A Virgo for Amazon in New Orleans, he’s back in his native New York filming Full Circle, Steven Soderbergh’s HBO Max limited series. Simultaneously, Jerome flexes production chops in Sony’s upcoming Night of the Assassins. Set in the 1940s in World War II, Jerome will star as Eddie Booker, an important witness who belonged to a famous group of Black boxers called Murderers’ Row. “It’s going to be a crazy epic sort of thing, because we don’t ever get Dominicans in these roles. I’m excited.” 

"I still have so much to prove on the music front. I still have so much respect that I'm trying to fight for and earn. "

JHARREL JEROME
As for the studio, Jerome is steady clocking in the hours, putting a dream team of collaborators together, and earning co-signs from some of the industry's most respected. 
“I still have so much to prove on the music front. I still have so much respect that I'm trying to fight for and earn. But on the low, people are feeling me,” he divulges. “I'm getting a lot of great validation from people I look up to and from other artists or figures who are vets in the game. When they listen to me and they make the face. You know the face I’m talking about, with the eyebrows and the stink. That’s how I know.”

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