Jamee Cornelia Is Redefining Hip-Hop for a Brave New World

Jamee Cornelia brings new ideas and energy to modern rap.
Jamee Cornelia brings new ideas and energy to modern rap. Kodak K

Jamee Cornelia raps the line "Heard they won't give it, so we gonna take it" on "Back Pay" off their new-ish YOU SHOULD SMILE MORE demos EP. The lyric encapsulates this young MC's self-starting approach.

"Sometimes if you hire a bunch of people, they give you what they see of you instead of who you are to yourself," says Cornelia, who uses they/them pronouns. "If I get caught up in what everyone else has to do, then I'm too busy measuring myself and that can stoke your insecurities."

The 27-year-old, who grew up in North Carolina before eventually relocating to both Phoenix and Atlanta, has been making music since day one. 

"My family owned a church, so I was in the church choir when I was little," they say. "I learned how to play piano and played in the marching band. I joined my first punk rock band in high school."

In fact, it was that first experience with a proper band that would launch Cornelia on the path as a mostly self-driven creator.

"I actually got kicked out of that band because a new singer wanted to be in a band more than I did," they say. "So I wanted to keep going, and I learned how to make beats and just make music by myself. I was always thinking about pricing and how much I'd have to pay everyone. I thought I'd save money if I learned to edit [videos] and spend time learning things."

On the one hand, working solo has allowed Cornelia to "create [my] own definitive aesthetic and branding." But it's also afforded them the space to operate without pesky deadlines.

"I'm fortunate enough to not really have any other hobbies," they say. "Since I do everything myself, I can finish half a beat and then if I have an idea for a cover, come back to that later."

Still, it hasn't always provided a chance for introspection, and to truly understand the scope of Cornelia's songs. But part of that has to do with a distinct aversion to genre, likely another side effect of growing up influenced as much by rap as punk, Britney Spears, Outkast, and neo-soul.

"It's the artist's job to create, and then it's up to the marketer or the label or the person buying it to decide genre," they say. "Some people receive music so simply and they just need something else to compare them to so that they can understand it. I don't got into the studio and say, 'I'm going to make a conscious rap song.'"

But as Cornelia explains, they see only commonality between different musical styles.

"Punk bands are like, the first one to really accept hip-hop early on," they say. "And I've been skateboarding since I was maybe 10 years old, and hip-hop and punk are always intertwined in skate culture. When I was a senior, that's when Odd Future was getting real big and everybody had a band."

When further pressed, they'd often tell people, "I'm like Missy Elliott in a punk band."

There's no denying that Cornelia's approach has proven effective creatively, especially now with the rise of similar genre-bending artists like Rico Nasty and Kid Cudi. No matter the sounds Cornelia references, the music hums with equal parts heart and intensity, marrying the political and the personal with massive results.

"It's easier for me to state it in a song," Cornelia adds. "My mom's a civil rights case investigator, so I've always been pretty wordy and eloquent because I've had to state my case my entire life."

That approach has influenced not only how Cornelia makes music, but the topics worthy of discussion. There are very few things deemed taboo, and Cornelia touches on Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights with honesty and integrity.

"I don't think I have a topic that's off limits, but I do have a presentation that's off limits," Cornelia says. "I think trauma porn or saying overly triggering things doesn't help as much as people think. I don't really make things that are overly sensational because it can bring someone into a spiral."

Yet there still are limits to just how political or even "controversial" Cornelia's music might lean. While they're happy that hip-hop is returning to its politically savvy roots, true balance is much more important.

"We need as much fun as we need, and we need as much rebellion as we need," they say. "Honestly, it's more radical now to try and have fun. As much as I want to see people stand up for their rights, I want people to find their joy."

Seeking joy (and the creative fulfillment that often accompanies) is exactly what brought Cornelia to Phoenix. Prior to COVID-19, Cornelia and some collaborators planned to use Phoenix as a kind of hub, another clear reflection of her own efforts as a genuine self-starter.

"We planned on driving to California more 'cause Atlanta to California is so expensive," Cornelia says. "So we can live in California and drive to Phoenix because it's affordable. Artists have a real pride about being from Atlanta, and in specific, what side of Atlanta you're from. But my goal has always been to find like-minded people rather than putting this city on." 

Chalk that up as a leftover from "[growing] up behind the computer," Cornelia says. This whole multicity campaign depends so much on a proper web presence, and between Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, Cornelia is a child of multiple territories.

"Because if you get into a situation, like we're in now, and you only rely on shows, what do you do? You may not always be able to perform," they say. "How most people become a fan of my music is on stage. But how people connect with my personality is online."

Even if the pandemic delayed any long-term plans, Cornelia is always looking at the bright side. Because if you can't find the silver lining, who will?

"I had just got a cool job as a sushi chef," Cornelia says. "But I've always maneuvered around misfortune 'cause you can find something good out of everything that happens. So I almost appreciate everything that's been happening. It's a chance to reintroduce myself to myself."
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan