Grae appears Friday, Jan. 13 at the Brava Theatre, as part of an improv show by the WorkJuice Players (with comedians Craig Cackowski, Mark Gagliardi, Marc Evan Jackson, Hal Lublin, Annie Savage, Paul F. Tompkins and Janet Varney); they'll perform an improvised show based on Grae’s monologues. I caught up with her by phone over the previous weekend, when she was holed up in her Brooklyn apartment during a snowstorm.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
KQED Arts: You grew up in a musical family, studied music when you were young, and have been making music all your life. Was comedy always in your back pocket as a career change? Was there something in particular that made you branch out?
Jean Grae: I’m one of those people who believe we have a very short time in this physical world, so if you can go do a bunch of things, then you should. I did rap for like 25 years. That’s a long time -- and even falling into that was kind of an accidental career, I knew that’s not necessarily what I wanted to be, or all I wanted to be. But it was, ‘I can do this, I like writing, and audiences, and music, and I’m really f-cking good at it. Oh, and also, you guys are giving me money.’ (Laughs.) At some point, I made a decision that when I got to 33 or 34, you know, ‘You have to go do this. This is your other life. Do it.’
I think about Jack Beers -- do you know him? He was a strongman in New York, but then he went on to become an engineer, he built Radio City Music Hall, he was an actor, he had like eight or nine different lives. I think especially for women and especially for women of color, we’re not really encouraged as much to do that, to go be a f-ckin’ polymath if you’re multi-talented. And I've always admired people who incorporated all different kinds of performance in their careers -- Gilda Radner, Josephine Baker.
Sounds like the music world started to feel limiting for you.
Rap in general was always really confining and frustrating, and especially being put in a "female rapper" category, I never got to discuss all the other things I did. I engineered records, I produced them, but we're never gonna talk about that. Also, in a really simple way, just having to rhyme stuff gets really boring. (Laughs.) People don't talk like that! If you hung out with Dr. Seuss and he talked like that all the time, you'd be like "f-ck this dude." So I get to have normal conversations now, and there is great freedom in [comedy] and in this new career path. People ask to me to do a show, and I say "What do you want me to do?" And they just say, "We just want you."
Tell me about being a minister for the Church of the Infinite You -- which is not exactly a traditional church. For one, it's held at the Brooklyn music venue Union Hall.
Well, it’s definitely not a Christian church. It came out of me just talking to people -- asking, 'What do you really want to do?' And then following up: 'OK, why are you not doing that?' Kind of Tyler Durden-ing, if you will, without the life-threatening gun in an alley situation, which I would also be down with, to be clear, but it’s kind of frowned upon. The Church is about having a place to talk about all the sh-t you want to do in your life, and saying ‘Yeah, you gotta go do that sh-t.’ Talking about how to be our 100-percent best.
As a general thing, once you get a bunch of people in a room, that collective energy -- that’s what church is anyway -- the more you create energy, the more you can actualize and realize things. It was important to not do it in a place that was sterile, either. It was ‘We need to be in a place where we can drink and curse, and you don’t have to feel weird -- you can just be you here.’
It’s great. It can also be really overwhelming. During this last one I ended with a guided meditation to Radiohead, and I was like, 'I don’t know if this is gonna work,' but it did.
That kind of space seems like something a lot of people are going to need these next few years, considering... well, I don't know if you want to talk politics.
Oh, yeah. Sure.
How did you spend election night?
Well, I didn’t have any alcohol in the house. And it got to be about 9pm, and I was like, ‘Oh no, oh I see, I’m gonna need some alcohol.’ So I immediately, in my best adult reaction, got some alcohol. And my boyfriend and I were actually in the middle of a breakup -- he was in New Orleans and I was here, and we were on the phone the whole time. I think we both spent a lot of the first few hours being like, ‘Hold on, I have to go throw up.’ And then discussing, once we knew the outcome, it was like: life is short, and if this is gonna be how it is, we need to work our relationship out. Get our priorities straight. So that turned out to be great in a weird way. But it was a long f-cking night.
Look, although I am a U.S. citizen, I am an immigrant, I am a brown and black woman, I have a Muslim name [Grae's real name is Tsidi Ibrahim]. My first reaction was like, "So, we should go, right?" I was up until four in the morning looking at other countries to move to. But you also realize as you're making that decision -- I've traveled to a lot of places -- and some things might be better, but race relations aren't exactly awesome right now in other parts of the world either.
I was also just not as surprised [by the outcome] as a lot of people. So there was the crying and the vomiting, but honestly it also didn't feel foreign. I feel like we spent a lot of time doing that in the last year, in reaction to police shootings, just having to feel what it feels like to be black in America. And [the election] was a cap on all of that -- kind of the resounding answer of "F-ck y'all." It was just not that unexpected.
Do you feel creatively driven by that kind of pain? Obviously there's this huge tradition of hip-hop as protest music... but I could also understand just wanting to curl up in the fetal position.
One thing is that it's just difficult -- it was difficult all of last year -- trying to release projects, music, and it’s a sh-tty thing when you have a release you wanna put out but first you wake up and go, 'Okay, who's dead? What's the hashtag?' Do I have to feel insensitive putting something out now, or am I even gonna feel like doing it at all? I was doing a book, and I didn't want to promote it, but you have to, because you need to eat; I can't just stop working.
But again, it's not a new feeling. I don't feel like every artist has a responsibility to address it -- everybody needs different outlets anyway. You have to go and laugh, you have to go dance. I was like, 'Well, Church is going to be interesting.' Also we have to understand better, obviously there are important artists who have come out of protest movements, but when people have been like, "I can't wait for the great art that comes out of this"? Please shut the f-ck up. Amanda Palmer, shut the f-ck up. "Oh, it's gonna be so punk." That's like saying "Yeah, slavery, man -- but how about that gospel music though?" I don't think you have to be experiencing great pain to create art.
Amen to that. Here's a music vs. comedy question: Assuming it exists in both, how does the industry bullsh-t compare? Or the boys' club aspect?
Nothing tops music industry bullsh-t, except for politics. Well, maybe sports. Never gonna find that out. I will say one thing, which is that in comedy, there are just so many more women. They're everywhere! I'm really thankful that I'm here at a time when that's the case.
But also, I've come to realize, you could put me in any room and I'll be fine, because I generally don't exist. The blueprint for what I want, who I am, what I want my career to look like, that's not a thing until I make it a thing. That's why I find the title polymath so freeing. That's what I want people to come away [from my shows] with, is we can all do those things. Well, not exactly what I'm doing, maybe; calm down. But everyone can be everything. We talk about being renaissance men and women, and if we really want to be that, it means if you're curious about something, you have to just go do it. We don't know how much time we have.
And also, we have the internet. Go learn something! Today I learned how to make pretzels, and they smell f-cking amazing.