Growing up in an inner-city neighborhood is challenging for any child. The various levels of poverty and lack of necessary resources make the idea of "getting out" seem like a distant dream. But for people like Jazzy Amra, rough experiences fueled their escape.
Hailing from Kingsbridge Road, a working-class neighborhood situated in the northwest corner of the Bronx, New York, the singer faced gruesome conditions that no child should have bared witness to growing up. "All I saw were potholes and the train never working," Amra recalls. "It was home, but it didn't feel like one."
At a young age, Amra, along with her brother and sister, lived in a rehab facility and witnessed their mother struggle with addiction. Efforts were made for their mother to get back on the right track, but her demons were too much to overcome. Because of that, the relationship between Amra's mother and her children was severely damaged. "I was placed in foster care, so I wasn't close to my mom and my dad was never there," Amra tells Billboard. "I just grew up with a lot of anger and didn't really know myself. I thought that everything was my fault."
For years, Amra struggled with the realities of being a foster child, spending her days wondering why her life took this difficult path. To make things even harder, Amra's world came to a screeching halt when her mother passed away seven years ago. "That was the point where I really hit rock bottom," she remembers. "I was 18 years old, just graduated high school, and I'm thinking about not wanting to be alive. I was angry with my mother, but I loved her."
With the odds stacked seemingly against her, Amra had to make a decision before she fell deep into her own issues. Driven by the memory of her mother's love for music, Amra turned her experiences into art by writing songs and recording them however way she could. She worked tirelessly on her craft and eventually made her way into the music industry, where she caught the ear of the legendary Wyclef Jean. Jean —- who compared Amra's raw talent to Lauryn Hill, Beyonce, and Mary J. Blige —- took the Kingsbridge singer-songwriter under his wing.
Today, Jazzy Amra continues to make strides in the industry with her soul-baring music. Her impressive debut album Amra touches on real-life situations from break-ups ("Be With You") to finding strength through hardships ("Jazmine's Diary"). Her new song "Single Single" focuses on self-love and refusing to settle for anything mediocre in the relationship sphere. Through music, Amra found redemption as she's determined to regain her life and help the lives around her, despite the muddy path their past laid down for them already.
Billboard spoke with Jazzy Amra about her upbringing, dealing with her mother’s demons, her debut album Amra, having Wyclef as a mentor, why her OZY Fest performance is important to her and more.
I know your mother was a big motivation for you to pursue music, but what else made music the perfect outlet for you to escape your troubling experiences?
Music has always been something fulfilling to me as a young girl. Even like singing in church and around the house just felt good. When I was removed from my mom's custody, the only strong memory I had of her was her singing and dancing in the mirror. When I would miss her, I would just sing and it would make me feel good.
Tell us about the difficult relationship you had with your mother. What was that like seeing her struggle and being taken away from her at such a young age?
Well, I lived with my mom as a young girl and she was fighting her addictions. It wasn't her fault. It's hard when you're addicted to something and your life is kind of falling apart. She had custody of her kids, but she had relapsed. They gave her a chance and sent her to the Odyssey House, a rehabilitation center in Harlem. We lived there for a while but she messed that chance up and we got taken away. I was placed in foster care, my sister was sent to the Dominican Republic, and my brother was adopted by his aunt.
My mom would still be around, and every time I was around her, she would be like, “Jazzy forgive me and I'm sorry. I wish I could've been the mom that I wish I could've been for you.” I got so angry in those moments. Now that I'm older, I know everything happens for a reason.
Everything changed when my mom passed away. I was transitioning into a woman and had graduated high school going straight to college. That’s a delicate time for anyone, and that was the point where I knew I needed to do something with my life. I needed to find myself and find my purpose. I feel like music is my purpose and I have to tell my story through my music to help other people get through whatever they're going through.
On “Letter to Yanni” you forgave your mother for the past. If there's one thing you could tell her right now other than what you said on that track, what would it be?
I don't know what I would say specifically, but I really, really wish she was here. Just for her to see how much I'm progressing in life at this age, and how far it's gotten me. Like even when I'm at my shows and performances and being recognized by all the people that I looked up to, it would've been amazing for my mom to be there. To get her some tickets, to get her a drink and just vibe out with her before I get on stage, pray with her. I just wish she was here.
There's a lot of people who have given in and followed the same path of those struggling with addiction. How did you steer clear of that?
It was hard for me to stay strong. Super hard actually. Not having her there, like I said, I was lost. I didn't know myself and I hit rock bottom. At that point, I told myself am I going to fold or am I going to really put this on myself and make myself stronger. I decided to take the other route because I could've easily got on drugs. I could've had 30 kids by now and just been a drug addict. But I decided to really turn my life around because I know that I'm the one that's like the golden ticket out for my family and I feel like we deserve more than just the hood. I just want to help all my people.
Let’s talk about your hometown Kingsbridge Road. How did the neighborhood contribute to your artistry?
Just being from the Bronx is the sauce, you know what I mean? I was inspired by the people on my block and I developed tough skin early because when you're in the Bronx, what you want to do is make it out, right? You don't want to stay in the hood forever so it just gave me the motivation to really want to be greater and inspire the people around me. That's why the first song on my debut album is "Kingsbridge Road." People in my neighborhood who heard the album are like, “Yo Jaz! You're really doing this. Thank you for putting on for Kingsbridge!” They see that I'm going so far in my life that they'll want to do something too. I'm even motivating the old heads that still be on the block hustling. It's just crazy to me.
There has always been a strong bond between people from the Bronx, but are there people in your hood who doubt you and your success?
It gets tricky because when you're so busy and wanting more for yourself it comes across as either being Hollywood, or I'm not putting on for the hood. How am I going to put on for you all if I'm not established yet? As soon as I'm established I'm going to put my hand out and put as many people on because that's what it's about right? Helping people and building your community is important. I have such a big vision for my community like building centers and redeveloping the old parks, opening new ones. But, sometimes, it comes across as me being Hollywood. There are a lot of people who support me though, and I appreciate that.
What’s it like working under the tutelage of Wyclef and how did that happen?
When I met Wyclef I sang my heart out to him [laughs]. I was like, "This is the only opportunity I have," you know? It was crazy because my mom used to love The Fugees. Singing in the mirror, dancing to their music. He embraced me quickly and believed in the talent, and we've been rocking with each other ever since.
How does it feel to hear him say he works with you for the same reason he worked with Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé, and Mary J. Blige?
I can't believe it myself. It's a lot to take in. I'm destined for this. Hearing that just reassures me I'm on the right path, and I'm really, really made to be an artist. I respect him on a thousand and he inspires me. I learned so much from him. The best advice he’s ever given me is that it's all about the vibe. People could take it in so many different ways but it's all about the vibe.
On your debut album, you have anthems on there like “You Got Me” and “Waste of Time.” Take us behind those records.
I just wanted fun, feel-good records because I love timeless music like that. You know Wyclef is a timeless artist so I was definitely inspired by him to make records like these. We just put it all together and it's a nice bop. I feel like they'll be timeless. They were fun to record and also fun making the videos.
Where do you find the comfort zone to talk about personal issues like break-ups on “Be With You” and your upbringing on "Jazmine's Diary?"
When I wrote "Be With You" I was just getting out of a break-up and I was actually writing that in my room while listening to the beat. I was just in my bag so it's all about the vibe and whatever I'm feeling in the moment. I throw on the beat, write it out, record it, switch some things up and that's how it usually goes. When I record I usually put the melody first and then I put the words to it. For "Be With You" that's what I felt, I just wrote first instead of finding the melody.
Your new track “Single Single” plays on the self-empowerment and independent vibes of your debut. How does this track relate to the Hot Girl Summer wave that’s dominating our culture?
[Laughs.] It was a coincidence because I had recorded "Single Single" months before and I guess now was a great time to put it out. It's a Hot Girl Summer — word to Megan Thee Stallion and the City Girls. But yeah, I'm single single. I was in a four-year relationship, my first relationship ever and I feel like I'm a better person now. I thought I couldn't live without the guy after all those years, but now I'm good. I'm vibing, doing my thing and following my dreams. This is for all my females who are empowering, we don't need a guy to feel like a woman.
Congratulations are in order for you. You’re the only female R&B artist at this year’s OZY Fest. What does that feel like?
I'm amongst John Legend and Miguel. I'm so honored and so blessed to be apart of it. I'm super excited to really rock out. I'm on stage for an hour and it's my biggest festival ever. I've never done a festival of over more than 100,000 people. I'm rehearsing a lot with choreography and exercising my voice. I'm staying really focused and getting my mind and my body into a zen mode. It's a first, so I'm excited.
And OZY Fest actually falls on the anniversary of my mother passing away. I usually go to her grave on that day. I haven't missed one year since she passed but this year I'm going to be at OZY Fest with my family and it's going to be an emotional roller coaster for all of us but I know they're proud and my mom is proud that I'm doing what I love.
That must raise your nerves a bit higher now knowing you’re performing your first festival of this magnitude on the anniversary of your mother’s passing.
I just want to do good. It's normal to feel those jitters before going on stage. I'm not nervous now but I know on Saturday it will be there. Hearing the countdown and getting on stage seeing those people, it's going to be crazy. I know I'm going to do great.
What does it mean to be that voice for all the children that are in the position that you were in as a child?
It means everything to me because I really used to be so embarrassed about my story. I used to be so sad and angry about it but I just decided to make it something positive. Of course it's not positive that your mom passes away and you're in foster care. I have a song called "Put It All on Me," and if there's anything I can do, just view me as the person who done been through it all, and to inspire you. Just because you've been through all this negativity doesn't mean you can't be a better person. I just took it all and turned into something positive. I love that I can be a voice for those kids and I can possibly help save lives with my music and be transparent with my artistry.
What about the ones you can't directly help because of your growing career?
If I can't help you now, I promise you I'll come back for you later. I always tell the young kids on my block good advice in one way, shape, or form. It's not only foster kids, but all the kids in the hood. It's about giving advice and helping them find their purpose. We're not all meant to make music — there's other things out there to look at. People get confused, thinking that their purpose is stardom and flashing lights, but it's not always that. You might be the greatest book writer, or the greatest engineer or teacher. I make sure to tell them to find what they really, really love and just go for it.