Interview: Jelani Sei Discuss “Rep. Maxine Waters”

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Photo by Christina Morgan Photography

This past March, alternative rock band Jelani Sei released an impactful single as a followup to their amazing record LVNDR TWN. Though we always tend to hype the newest releases, “Rep. Maxine Waters” is a single that still has the same amount of relevancy as it did in March. As you may notice, the single is named after a certain California representative that empowers many with her work to combat Trump, inequality, and injustice, Maxine Waters.

I had the great pleasure of talking to Connecticut natives Jelani Sei about inspirations for the song, and breaking through glass ceilings as a person of color in a scene that sometimes has a problem with acceptance of people who might not look like them. This interview was inspiring, heavy-hitting, and gives a voice to those who might feel silenced. Personally, I believe the discussion of diversity in the scene needs to be amplified, and “Rep. Maxine Waters” is a perfect single to connect to that. Plus, it is a groove.

Where did the inspiration for the song come from? Do you feel as if Rep. Waters represents a group of the often silenced who refuse to be overlooked anymore?

The inspiration for the lyrics and the song itself are two different sources. Our guitarist Scott White wrote the form for it and we workshopped it together from then onward. Lyrically though, sometimes there are certain words that hit Kay and I first, and when we listen back; we piggy back off of those freestyled lyrics and build a theme from there. For us to name the song after Rep. Waters; we basically had a song about cultural appropriation and the desire we feel that operates a lot of white mindsets to become black and replace black people. So yes, to the second question! We’ve always thrived to get to and remain in a position where controversy became knowledge and enlightenment to those who want to listen. In this, we give other POC the courage to speak up and hold those who refuse to speak up accountable.

This single is very thought provoking, but how does it feel as a band knowing many in your audience listen on autopilot? Autopilot isn’t always bad, but in this case, autopilot can look ignorant.

It can be a bit daunting, but we know that at the end of the day if someone is listening enough, each time they’ll find a new part to listen to. Whether it be the instruments that lure people in, the lyrics are hard to overlook once you listen a few times. It’s even funnier knowing the listener may feel offended or apologetic and seek change within their local world. And I think the end goal is both.

As a band with members of color, are you often put under glass ceilings you’re trying to break through? For example, being classified as just “R&B” or just “Soul,” while it’s true your music does have those influences, it’s also very clear you are an alternative rock band.

We really appreciate your asking of this question, the entire interview, really. Yes, though! All the time! We had issues figuring out what to call ourselves, and being in CT made a lot of people feel like the only way for them to describe us was with that lazy moniker of R&B. So we tried to adopt it ourselves and dubbed it Progressive R&B or Indie Rock R&B. A plethora of names. But yes. We are an alternative rock band. And even that to us is sometimes conforming. We are much more than a band as well. The thing about being a band, though, is that a lot of predetermined notions come with it. And recently we’ve been trying to stray from that. At the same time embracing that we are a band with the gall to be different in the age of repeat.

The Bandcamp description before the lyrics is “RECLAiMING MY TiME”. What does the iconic statement mean to you, and why that quote?

“Reclaiming my time” was the statement that resonated with this song because we blatantly speak about how culture vultures (some white people) want to claim everything as theirs, whether stolen or not, so it means that we’re here to make space. Not to take space from anyone. But to make space for others. To reclaim beauty and power. To recognize that if it’s dope on that white body then they are thanking us for introducing it to them, never comparing and having us (POC) on low ranks. We are not looking for validation from white sects of power but are calling out the origins of things they pretend they’ve made.

You mentioned the song has a couple of different meanings. I’d love to know all of them. I’ve also pulled a couple lyrics that especially related to my experiences being a POC in the scene, even though the whole single does. Can you explain the thought behind them?

So there are quite a few meanings. With these quotes specifically:

“Blank stares while I walk through town/always question my own brown”

We’re talking about the constant sense of dissociation from the emo scene and our own city scenes, seeing how they’re both so different from each other, and feeling insecurity about personal identity when it comes to being in these white cis male dominated spaces. Sometimes it’s fun to laugh at the weird looks because there’s a sense of power that comes from not adhering to DIY social norms or being different in these spaces.

“Social Justice Romance/Social Slow Dance”

That line pertains to everyone who claims to be an ally. Being an ally is more than sharing a link, it’s about talking to ignorant friends about why a repeat dimension punk show isn’t all that fun anymore. There’s an infatuation about thinking that you’re being helpful rather than doing the work to make sure you’re being a facilitator in dismantling this age-old system.

After the release of your single, Rep. Waters spoke about those that threaten her life and said, “You better shoot straight.” Would that quote have influenced your song if you were still in the process of writing it?

In relation to the song maybe not! But it would’ve helped knowing how hard she is! She means business and so do we.

For some audiences, this song is a rallying cry. For others, it’s criticism. I hope we can all listen and feel empowered to act. Representation is important; the alternative genre doesn’t have a skin color or gender prerequisite, so we must ask ourselves why it can feel and look like that. Some fans can’t take off their color at every show and it’s often unfair to feel like we should to feel welcomed. Representative Waters speaks for all of us as the single does. In short, we aren’t shutting up because others are trying to speak over us. We’re all reclaiming our time.

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Kayla Carmichael // @kaylacarmicheal 

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