Jay-Way knows his purpose. He’s here to give people hope.
The Dutch rapper has been releasing music for six years, but his most recent release, July’s No, I’m Not Ok, stands as his most personal. Crafted during some of his darkest days, the seven-song EP lays bare Jay-Way’s ascension from depression to optimism in an effort to help others do the same.
“I hope for my music to not leave people in a place where they only feel like they can relate to it,” Jay-Way begins, “I want people to feel hope.”
Jay-Way initially began his rap career by rapping in Dutch, the official language of the Netherlands, but that all changed when he spent some time living with family members in New York City. Emboldened by compliments praising his accentless English and possessed by a love for the language, Jay-Way started writing his rhymes in English.
“I moved to the Bronx in New York for a short while, and when I came back [to the Netherlands], it was hard to adapt back into the Dutch language and make it rhyme,” Jay-Way explains.
More specifically, the writing process for No, I’m Not Ok began when Jay-Way realized he wasn’t in a great place mentally.
“It started as noticing it was hard for me to write bops because I was going through it,” he says. “I started to write about what I was going through as therapy sessions for myself.”
Jay-Way cites a diverse group of artists as his chief musical influences, most notably N.E.R.D, Lil Wayne, Linkin Park, and Avril Lavigne, and the styles and sounds of these names appear all over No, I’m Not Ok. On the titular track, Jay-Way channels the pop aggression of Linkin Park to produce an explosive, rock-infused vent session atop electric guitars and snappy hi-hats.
The penultimate track, “On the Rise,” serves as a shining light. Jay-Way’s vocals seemingly stretch to the sky on the song’s chorus, genuinely making the listener feel as if they’re rising above their circumstances into brighter days.
“I want people to feel they’re not alone and that there’s still hope,” Jay-Way says.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Who is Jay-Way?
Jay-Way: Man, I’m from Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. I grew up having my dad being a DJ, so I loved a lot of genres, and I heard a lot of sounds. I’m from an area where there’s a lot of different ethnicities, so it was a hub of different backgrounds, and every ethnicity had their style of music. But the one bridge, the one unifying genre, was hip-hop, so that brought us together. It wasn’t only a genre; it was also a lifestyle in the way we would dress and talk.
Dutch, of course, is the official language of the Netherlands, but you rap in English. What led you to perform in English rather than Dutch? Was it difficult?
I always loved English. It changed for me when I moved to the States because when I just started rapping, I [was] rapping in Dutch. I moved to the Bronx in New York for a short while, and when I came back [to the Netherlands], it was hard to adapt back into the Dutch language and make it rhyme. After New York, when I would write raps, it would naturally just be in English, so I stayed with it.
I remember when I moved to New York, all of my cousins were like, “Yo, you sound like you’re from here,” and I think that’s due to the fact I’ve always loved the English language. I grew up watching a lot of Cartoon Network and a lot of [American] movies. I absorbed the language a lot growing up, and it became natural for me.
You’ve mentioned Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park, and Michael Jackson as some of your biggest musical influences. How did hip-hop influence you?
Hip-hop is big among the culture here in the Netherlands. It’s the number one genre. Everybody would identify with hip-hop. The way we would dress, the way we would talk—hip-hop had a huge influence on us.
Plus, I love pop [music] a lot as well. That’s why I love pop-slash-rock like Linkin Park and Avril Lavigne because I just love pop music with aggression and rebelliousness to it.
N.E.R.D. is my favorite band ever. The thing with them was they mixed rock with funk and hip-hop. They made it acceptable, I would say. They showed us a different way [to do things], and Lil Wayne was the first one to teach us how not to be confined. He showed us you can bite a rapper’s head off lyrically and still be a rockstar, you feel me? I gravitated towards that as an artist growing up.
The material on No, I’m Not Ok is some of your most personal and emotional work to date. How does it feel having these songs out in the world?
I remember when we were a day before the release, I started feeling nervous because [the project] was so personal to me. I wrote this project in a dark time in my life. It started as noticing it was hard for me to write bops because I was going through it. So I started to write about what I was going through as therapy sessions for myself. To now put this out for the world, it was scary. But, seeing the responses [to the project], it feels like it was needed as well. I’ve been overwhelmed by the encouraging messages.
What’s your favorite track on the project?
To be honest with you, I have a different favorite every day, man. But, I love “No, I’m Not Ok” a lot because of the message. The song is about rebelling against putting up a front. When we look at society, all of us, we post our best pictures on social media. When people ask us how we’re doing, we automatically tell people we’re good when maybe we’re having the toughest time. With this song, I wanted to rebel against that tendency and just be open and vulnerable about what I’m going through. I feel like “No, I’m Not Ok” is my most important song.
Your music videos are consistently high quality. How important are visuals in your artistic expression?
Man, they’re super important. I grew up listening to a lot of Michael Jackson, and I was infatuated with his videos. I loved the fact he would invite us into his world, and that’s what I want to do with my videos. I want to invite people into my fantasy world visually. I want to invite people into my mind. I want people to see what goes on up there.
In past interviews, you’ve expressed a love for cartoons. Has that love influenced how you’re approaching music videos?
Yeah, most definitely. I’m a huge Dragon Ball Z fan. When it comes to my styling, I don’t look at other rappers for my style. I just look at anime characters, for real. It might be anime characters; it might be characters in Tekken I draw inspiration from.
One of my biggest influences, as far as style, is Trunks from Dragon Ball Z. We saw a warrior on our TV screen with a crop-top jacket, and that was iconic to me, you know? I remember when I first saw him; the way he looked, just everything about him. Before he said a word, I was flabbergasted by his looks and overall appearance. I want to bring that back into my style and pay homage to that.
You’ve been officially releasing music for six years now. What motivates you to continue to create new music?
There’s a lot of songs in the world that talk about depression, but what I don’t want to do is… I’m not an emo rapper, so I don’t want just to let people relate to [depressing] songs. I want to give hope along with it. The whole project, it’s not an emo project; it’s a journey. One of the last songs is “On the Rise.” Even though I’m not okay, the conclusion is that I’m still on the rise. I just want to give people hope, along with being honest about what I’m going through. I want people to feel they’re not alone and that there’s still hope. That’s my motivation.
Songs about mental health and depression can go one of two very different ways: either you’re trapped in the pit of depression, or you’re extending a ladder to help the listener climb out of the pit.
Yeah! There are so many songs about depression, and a lot of artists talk about depression, but then their solution is drugs, and I’m like, “No, I listened to the song, but I’m still down.” I hope for my music to not leave people in a place where they only feel like they can relate to it; I want people to feel hope.