We See You, Jaah Kelly
Story by Michael Love Michael / Photography by Christian Cody
27 June 2019
It's understandable why 18-year-old Jaah Kelly, child of disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly and choreographer/activist Drea Kelly, would avoid opening up to the media.
But here we are, as Jaah leans against a vintage Mustang with racing stripes in Atlanta, where she lives. She folds her arms and fixes a steely almond-eyed gaze on the camera, as a crew of photographers, stylists and assistants watch nearby. In 90-degree Southern gulf swelter, Jaah's lips alternately curl ever-so-slightly from menacing sneer to a boyish, close-mouthed smile. The sun spotlights her face tattoo, a roman numeral three to represent her siblings, and one on her neck: "Fear is only as the mind allows."Jaah is sexy, fly, and unbothered — and for her first-ever professional photo shoot, a natural.
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Her expressions and poses — free, loose, limber — conceal whatever shyness she might be feeling on set. Because Jaah speaks so little, she is otherwise impossible to read, so when she does, everyone is forced to listen. "There is a difference between someone who walks into a room and demands your respect [and someone who] commands your respect," mother Drea says. "[Jaah] just commands a room. She has that energy, that confidence."
When Jaah was 14, she came out as trans male in a video posted to her then-active Ask.fm account. The announcement was prompted by a question posed anonymously. Jaah Kelly introduced herself then as Jay Kelly.
Top: Issey Miyake, Chain: ALYX
"I believe I am a boy and want surgery and the medication to help me be who I was supposed to be," Jaah explained. She said she knew she was trans at 6 or 7 years old, and slowly started to identify with he/him pronouns. Her family was supportive, she said, and addressed her correctly. At the time, gossip sites reported that Jaah was rejected by her family, though Jaah said on Ask.fm, "[My mom] was like, 'Baby, you know I love you if you were bi, gay, [lesbian], you name it and I would still love you so much."
Following the announcement, which was reported on by a few media outlets, Jaah continued to answer questions from her Ask.fm followers. According to reports documenting the now-deleted video, Jaah shared that at the time she wore a binder on her chest, and wanted to begin taking hormones.
While it's no consolation, had Jaah really been dismissed by her family, she would have been in the company of LGBTQ teens of color everywhere who find themselves facing not only rejection from their own communities but the potential of homelessness and a life of disenfranchisement set forth by a larger white society. Safe Horizon asserts that young people, including LGBTQ youth ages 12 and above, "often become homeless in order to escape violence or abuse happening in their homes such as physical and sexual abuse and neglect." According to a 2015 report by Safe Horizon, unaccompanied homeless youth seeking refuge in shelters, drop-in centers, and even in places where they trade sex for shelter (or are forced to), represent 6 percent of the total U.S. homeless population. Over 70 percent of homeless youth identify as people of color, and 44 percent of them identify as LGBTQ. In many cases, cycles like these can be hard to break free from, once set in motion.
Sweater: Moschino, Shorts: Wild and Lethal, Chain: ALYX
When I, a Black, nonbinary person, first came out at 16 as queer to my family, I, too, soon found myself feeling alone.
On set, this is all front of mind when talking to Buku Abi, Jaah's older sister, about her younger sibling. She flips her lavender hair and speaks softly, but like Jaah, not often. Buku smiles and sways to Solange's "Way to the Show," as the shoot moves indoors and Jaah's hair is teased out from tight knots to a soft, bountiful Afro. When talking about Jaah, Buku's eyes widen and her smile beams. "He's my little one and I adore her," she says, which feels intentional, somehow.
The next evening, Jaah is sitting alone at the bar of The Lawrence in midtown Atlanta, which is often compared to Chicago's gay-friendly Boystown neighborhood. She picked the restaurant, but she ate before she came. Jaah's vegan, mostly because her family is also vegan, and she's not old enough to legally drink, so she's slowly nursing a nonalcoholic beverage. She pulls out an iPhone with an extremely cracked screen and texts her PR rep (a family friend) to let her know I've arrived. She seems a little nervous.
Shirt: Issey Miyake, Pants: Undercover, Shoes: Raf Simons x Adidas
We're not here to talk about her father, I assure her. And she should only say what she wants to about that online video she posted years ago to Ask.fm, if anything at all.
Establishing trust with a person like Jaah is important. Growing up, she moved around so often with her brother, sister, and mother, that she could barely make friends. She says she didn't feel she could open up to those outside her inner circle. Even with famous family aside, secretly knowing she was queer in a world that shames LGBTQ+ people is a recipe for chronic distrust.
"When I posted that video, I was so scared," Jaah says. "When I was younger, I always felt like I had to make a choice. I knew that I was a girl who liked other girls. But because of what I was taught, I felt like the only way you could like another girl is if you were a boy."
By 14, Jaah was already someone who rejected binary female coding, opting to wear men's clothing exclusively over dresses or high heels. This self-expression got Jaah "in trouble" in the world, she says, recalling a few occasions where she'd been stopped by strangers to tell her she was entering the "wrong" restroom. This has even happened to Jaah in ostensibly queer-friendly settings. It's something she and Buku have laughed about.
"One time at the Pride parade in Chicago, I was with Buku and my cousin," Jaah says. "My sister had to use the bathroom afterward, but she was in there a while so I went in to check on her. I kept putting my head in the bathroom just to make sure she was good. And this lady came up and was like, 'Sir, if you peek your head in the women's bathroom again, I'm going to call security.'"
Jaah was wearing a button-down shirt with a sports bra underneath it and the shirt was open. "So then I just turned around and flashed her." Jaah says. "She just walked away in disgust after that. It was so funny to me and Buku and often still is so funny — the mystery that people don't know what gender I am."
At home, Jaah says she was especially empowered by her mother to express herself however she saw fit. "She knows I make music, she knows I have tattoos, that I like what I like, and that I like to do things for myself," Jaah says.
"I remember when Jaah first came out to me when she was 10 years old. She thought, 'Oh Mama, I was scared to tell you because I didn't think you would love me," Drea recalls. "But the unconditional love of a mother is like that of God. There is nothing you could do to earn it and there is nothing you could ever do to lose it. I told her, 'I love you because you're mine, not because of your orientation. I'm always gonna be here to protect you.' Meantime, live that best life, and live it out loud and in color. Who gives a damn what anybody else thinks?"
Top: Issey Miyake, Chain: ALYX
But following her online reveal at 14, Jaah fell into a deep depression, which led to a three-week stay in a psychiatric hospital, an experience she declines to describe. After surviving that experience, Jaah says she saw herself differently. Today, she doesn't mind if people refer to her as male, female, genderfluid, or nonbinary — a choice that's becoming increasingly common for her age group. Research has shown that younger generations are "being affected by more open and fluid attitudes," correlated to the ubiquity of self-expression through social media. Studies vary, but all essentially point to this idea. Pew Research Center reports 59% of Gen Zers believe that online profiles asking for a person's gender should include options other than "man" or "woman." Ipsos Mori suggests that over 70 percent of Gen Zers are comfortable with homosexual relationships. A 2016 trend study by J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group posits that 56 percent of Gen Zers strongly agreed that gender did not define a person as much as it used to, while only 28 percent of millennials felt similarly — most said that they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns like "they," "them," or "ze."
"I identify as a lesbian, I know I like girls, but that's as far as I'll go to label myself," Jaah says. "It's up to you how you see me. Either way, I don't care. I stand in my truth, and why does my truth need a label?"
While in high school, Jaah played the clarinet and trumpet, and eventually taught herself to play piano from watching YouTube videos. When things felt chaotic in her head or at home during the day, she would bury herself alone in music at night, sometimes all night, producing and recording tracks at home. Jaah wants the world to soon hear all she's been working on for the past few years. She grew up surrounded by music, from her siblings to her parents, so it's only natural she'd try her hand at making her own.
At the Lawrence, Jaah queues up a demo (working title: "Trapping For My People") she'd been working on the night before until 6 AM that day. In the atmospheric mix, Jaah's voice is both fragile, as if cautiously woven together by threads of fine silk, and surefooted. She sounds in command of what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. The voice sounds genderless, and the music genreless. There are clear roots in golden-age hip-hop and R&B, and Jaah's staccato vocal style recalls the era's top acts, from Missy Elliott to Destiny's Child. The lyrics feel foreboding and serious, but they're intentionally obscured.
In "Reservoir," another JaahBaby original premiering today on PAPER, she emerges more clearly from the shadows a self-styled player. Jaah's aims to please her partner are direct: "You know how bad I want it/ On the bed/ Spread your legs/ Get you wet/ Kiss your neck, love," she says.
"Jaah is fearless to me as a person, and as an artist," Drea says. "One thing she gets from her father, true in her DNA, is her ability to create and produce by ear. She's entirely self-taught. When she wanted to learn piano, she just came to me one day and told me she taught herself how on YouTube. The same goes for making beats. To have my JaahBaby [Jaah's artist name] doing what she does in a male-dominated industry makes her all the more extraordinary in my eyes."
Sweater: Moschino, Shorts: Wild and Lethal, Chain: ALYX
When it comes to producing her own music, Jaah is laser-focused, though she claims she can only make music when in a good mood. "If I am in a really good mood, I can write a song in probably an hour, make the beat in an hour, and then record it in an hour," Jaah says. "If I'm in a bad mood, it's hard to write. I'll get stuck thinking about too much and won't have any clue what to say. Sometimes I sit there until I force myself to get clear."
More recently, she's posted snippets of her music online, and people often ask her to define her vocal style as either singing or rapping. "I'm always like, 'I mean, yeah, I sing a little,' but it's not that simple. I just use my voice," Jaah says, adding that "vocalist" is the best way to describe it. "It's like my name, Jaah, which can be male, female, whatever. That's also literally on my birth certificate. Music to me is the same way. It can be whatever you want it to be."
When Jaah gets stuck in her head while writing music, she watches Netflix shows about extremes, like the cycles of death tackled on How to Get Away With Murder. With that show in particular, Jaah relates to star Viola Davis' morally ambiguous character, Annalise Keating. "You don't know who she likes, if it's women or men she's attracted to," Jaah says. "The show doesn't really answer questions about who she is or why, or make a big deal about it. She just is who she is. And with more people being like that in the world, maybe we're really starting to let people be who they are."
Independence of spirit and self-liberation are key messages Jaah hopes to communicate through her music. "I'd want people to know that you can do whatever you feel you want to because you have one life," Jaah says. "The reason I dress the way I dress is because I want to. The reason I do anything at all is because I want to. It just makes me happy. I feel like there are so many people who don't do what they want to do in life. But sometimes they can't because of safety reasons or there would be negative consequences if they did. Maybe people who feel like that can listen to my music and feel like they can do whatever the hell they want. Music doesn't have one sound, one identity, and neither do people. Just let go of everything."
Growing up, it wasn't particularly easy for Jaah to learn to let go. Her environment was full of constant external change. She moved around a lot, staying at homes in Illinois, California, and these days, the greater Atlanta area. While she admits to typical, misunderstood middle child syndrome, Jaah says that she mostly kept to herself in school. Her classmates were predominantly white students, who she didn't necessarily feel she could trust, so she relied on her family for kinship. In between transitional phases of her life, Jaah has worked a few regular jobs: one at a baseball stadium and another at a warehouse. Despite these social exchanges in the world with other people, Jaah still decided she didn't need friends to make it in life. She tells me several times that she doesn't consider herself "a person with friends." Jaah insists she had a good experience in grade school (currently, Jaah is a high school graduate and is exploring the possibility of enrolling in music recording arts programs at higher-education institutions like Full Sail University.)
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"In school I was super in the background," Jaah says. "I didn't talk to anybody or speak unless spoken to, basically. But I've always been independent, more to myself. Honestly, I kind of taught myself what I know. Obviously my mom played a huge role in that, but when I was alone and didn't know what to do or what decision to make, I realized I had only myself. It kind of helped me as I grew up. Being independent in a way forced me to really connect with who I am."
Though I'm hearing all of this, I'm still stuck on Jaah's insistence that she doesn't have or need friends. I ask her what she defines as friendship.
Top: Issey Miyake, Chain: ALYX
"I honestly don't know," Jaah says. "I'm a good listener and I'm there when people need advice. But then, people will try to be my friend but I don't know what to do to be a friend back. I also have a thing where people reach out to me and I don't always hit them up first. It's something I've always struggled with, because I've had horrible trust issues. Sometimes people get really mad at me. I know I can't be that way for the rest of my life."
She holds up her phone: "I mean, look, I talk to my brother and sister, but I'm not, like, constantly texting anyone," Jaah says. "I guess I have my cousin I'd consider a close friend."
When it comes to dating, Jaah says that she doesn't get into relationships with anyone. "I'm starting to open up," she says. "Like, I'm completely open when talking to people I'm interested in. But even if I was in a relationship, I probably wouldn't be in a relationship with just that one person. There are too many personalities and experiences you can miss just talking to one person every day of your life. It just seems like there's so much more you can explore with other people."
I remember how I felt and where I was when I was Jaah's age. I can certainly relate to the feeling of being alone. At 18, I was already living on my own as a high school senior, having left the house during junior year. I felt my family had rejected me for coming out queer; they could never understand who I was, let alone who I was becoming. I worked several jobs to put myself through high school and slept on friends' couches, and sometimes, outside in inclement weather. My friendships were hardly what one might call stable. It was a chaotic time.
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Part of what got me through was a survival skill: self-reliance, the ability to be guarded, and even to lie when it felt necessary to protect myself. Experience eventually wore my guards down, and sooner than I expected, openness became my new mechanism for survival. I became weary of how often I shut people out, and maintaining a facade of being strong and okay when I didn't actually feel either. I realized how painful it was to go through life alone. I had to learn to trust myself and others, and in order to do so, I had to tell the truth. To someone — anyone who could listen and hear me.
"I know finding a way to open up more is part of my growth," Jaah says. "I know that's something I have to do. I have to get out there in the world more and not be so shy. I have nothing to lose by trying."
Part of Jaah's journey might involve a similar trajectory or not, but she's clearly, for now, putting her soul and a lifetime of emotions into her music as JaahBaby. She's ready to share it with the world, and seems intent on music being her lasting impact on others.
Sweater: Moschino, Shorts: Wild and Lethal, Shoes: Rick Owens, Chain: ALYX
When we finish dinner, Jaah rides along with me to the Atlanta airport. We talk more about the music industry, and the many ways that artists package and sell themselves today. She misses old Drake, loves the psychedelic vibes of Jhene Aiko, and feels that vocally gifted artists like Alicia Keys and Anthony Hamilton are underrated. As we part ways, I notice a vulnerability appear in Jaah's eyes that has been hidden all weekend. While some choose to see vulnerability as a sign of weakness, others argue that showing vulnerability requires hefty measures of openness, strength, and trust. Brené Brown has written and spoken extensively on the subject. "Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection," she has written, defining courage as a process that starts with "showing up and letting ourselves be seen."
After years of hiding in the background, Jaah is slowly letting herself be seen, both as an artist and as a human being.
"Going after my music is the thing I'm proudest of in my life," she says. "I've always been such a background person, and never wanted to do anything in front of anyone. I'm really proud of myself for letting people listen to my music. There was a point where not even my sister, brother, or mom could hear it. I was the only one who knew what I was capable of. Now, everyone else will know, too."
Photographer: Christian Cody
Stylist: Metta Conchetta