Jefe, Formerly Shy Glizzy, Has Become DC’s Most Important New Rap Voice
The rapper talks about The District's shifting identity, the influence of go-go, and changing his name for the new year.
For decades, Washington, DC, was known as Chocolate City, home to a black population that was once 70 percent of the city. Yet for the the millions of people who visit Washington, DC, each year, the city's former nickname doesn't quite click anymore. Unless you know the exact nooks to visit, it would be hard to believe the city even had such a name. In 2007, a documentary called Chocolate City chronicled one aspect of this change, following a group of women as they fought—incessantly yet unsuccessfully— against the threat of being erased from their respective neighborhoods within the District's Southeast quadrant. The film gave residents a stage to share memories from those neighborhoods, to relive social gatherings on blocks that had been torn down, and to grapple with the fact that they had no influence in that change. Most of the people profiled remembered DC as a city rife with a culture that mirrored their sensibilities and identity. That DC is actively disappearing. The District is now 48 percent black—the first time in over 50 years that this population has made up under half the city's residents.
Jefe (the Spanish word for boss), formerly known as Shy Glizzy, was just 13 when Chocolate City was released. As he often mentions in his music, he grew up in Southeast and prides himself on surviving what many consider to be the city's most ignored and disenfranchised section. It's likely that the structures torn down, left to rot, or sold as prime investments for the future shown in Chocolate City were the backdrop for Jefe's growing up. He often struggles with how to assess those changes and the ones that persist. "With time, everything changes. I can't say that it made the city better or worse," he tells me as we sit at VICE headquarters. "It was a lot of bad things going on. We was the murder capitol and we not even a state. Now, it's like politics and college kids coming there for Howard and different education purposes, and the nightlife popping. I probably wouldn't be me if that didn't transition like that because I was in the go-go. We wasn't going to nightclubs. Culture wise, it's not so good but as a whole with the city, it's a good thing for opportunity and money."
When Jefe walks into the VICE offices dressed in black, he's surrounded by a circle of friends, known as the Glizzy Gang, who are regularly seen and recognized on his Instagram page. He's by far the smallest and scrawniest of the clique, but his posture and aura accurately suggest that he's usually the center of attention. When he finds out the amount of time allotted for the interview, his hushed demeanor quickly transitions to an anxious one; he clearly isn't interested in long conversations with strangers. The nickname Shy was given to him in his early childhood for that exact reason. To start 2017, he changed his name to Jefe in an attempt to rebrand himself, but he stresses later over the phone that he'll always be Shy Glizzy. His most animated moments come when he's behind a mic, using his nasal voice to convey the complexities of street life and the contradiction that growing up in inner city DC can be. On 2014's "I'm On Fire" he raps "I coulda went to Howard but I am a trapper / I didn't go to Howard 'til I became a rapper." He similarly states "Never been to the White House, just the house with the white," on "Prey For Me" from his Young Jefe mixtape.
His profile as a young, smooth and outspoken character with a voice that is light yet confidently forceful and almost naturally modulated is what helped him gain attention of notable figures like DC-area hero Wale, Memphis legend Project Pat, and Baton Rouge's Kevin Gates early on. Now, Jefe finds himself as one of DC's most adored musical figures, showing youth that they could make it as a rappers rather than just members of go-go bands—the locally-created derivative of funk music. His braggadocious 2014 single "Awwsome" introduced him to the national audience, gaining enough traction to get a remix with A$AP Rocky and 2 Chainz, even having Beyoncé dance to it during her performance at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City in 2015.
2016's Young Jefe 2 showed a continued progression of Glizzy being able to harness and control his voice—he's rapping on songs with production more suited for singing and passionately singing on songs that he'd usually give a light harmony to before ("Think About It"). Coming up in a city where rap didn't soundtrack the streets gives him the confidence to be experimental in a way that he doesn't see in his peers. "If I'm telling the truth with my music—and we come from go-go so we already on point with the rhythms—it can be an R&B beat or a trap beat," he says matter of factly, hands clasped together. "Everybody don't got that. And I got a voice that can break through any beat. That's the talent I just was blessed with." One of the best examples of that blessing is "Funeral" from his Law 3 mixtape, where he flips what could have been a dark fixation on death into a harmonious projection of going out like a king with beautiful women, made men, and foreign cars highlighting his ceremony. His dextrous sound also comes through on the angry yelping in his flip of Ot Genasis's "Cut It" and the weirdly-comforting quality of his whiny singing on the hook of Young Jefe's "White Girl" has turned it into a fan favorite. Last week, Shy released the first project under his new moniker Jefe, an eight-track EP called The World Is Yours in which he does much more hyperactive rapping than the jingle-like hooks that are featured on Young Jefe 2.
These accomplishments have helped expand Jefe's national status, but his growing profile hasn't spared him negative reactions to his music. He still finds himself battling against city officials in DC who, he says, have blocked many of his attempts at performing live."There's a negative connotation that's attached to the demographic of crowd that he brings out," DC-based journalist Marcus Dowling tells me during a phone conversation. "Demographically, DC is shifting—economically and socially—so there's a desire, I feel, whether it's implied or on paper, to recreate DC in a way that does not reflect his background."
Angela Byrd, founder of DC-area musical platform MadeintheDMV sees this unofficial ban as an assault on the city's black narrative. "He's from 37th St—a place that very few have made it out of. So to young people, he made it from the bottom and out the gutter and that's inspiring. Shy represents the 'Real DC,'" she tells me through email. "I think our city officials have to stop acting like Shy Glizzy and others like him story isn't important. Some of the city officials are scared to show this side of DC because they would have to look in the mirror." More visibility for an artist like Shy Glizzy, who almost exclusively covers life in the city's most ignored areas, likely won't sell any real estate to potential residents who'd sleep better at night knowing that his crowd won't be anywhere near their new homes and cafes. But for young people living in a similar reality, it can make them feel that someone can speak to their experiences without automatically tying them to criminality. It's a situation that Shy is actively fighting. As we sit in the lobby, he talks about his struggles with DC officials, still visibly perplexed and upset. "I know it's not the people of Washington DC," he says. "It's just that the authorities, every time we set something up, they come blocking it. It's not like that with no one else. Drake can come do a show in the city, but Shy Glizzy can't? That don't make sense."
Looking forward, Jefe's attention transcends issues with his hometown as he zeroes in on establishing an empire of his own. Over the past two years, he's seen his life change from being a potential standout with one hit to becoming arguably the most accomplished rapper from DC's inner city, working with some of the genre's most celebrated producers. "Jefe," once a drop he'd use before verses, is now an official name—well-earned considering his unlikely rise from Southeast DC to a revered artist. "It was something that was set into place on its own," he tells me. "I know I don't make the best music but I'm an underdog; I might be one of the people in a few years that'll be all they listen to. I'm getting me and all my people together and getting the structure there to be one of the biggest brands to ever do hip-hop. Especially coming from DC."
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