Balancing Act: Jharrel Jerome Talks Kaleidoscopic 'Someone I'm Not' Debut Project & The Beauty of The Bronx

By Bianca Gracie | January 18, 2024

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Photo by Uwakokunre (Kokie) Imasogie

Jharrel Jerome's profound creativity, from award-winning actor to rapper, holds no bounds. He has shone brightly on our screens over the past few years, from his Emmy-winning role in Netflix’s When They See Us, starring in Oscar winner Moonlight and his recent role in Prime Video’s I’m a Virgo. During that time, he’s also been working on his other craft: music. Now, with the release of his debut four-part project Someone I’m Not (which includes Rap Pack, Trip Pack, Love Pack and Trap Pack), the Bronx-born Jerome is set on cementing his name in hip-hop.

When did you first fall in love with music? Do you remember a certain memory from your childhood?

It's funny doing all these music interviews because there's questions I'm being asked that I've never got to sit down and just think about or talk about with myself. So it's exciting for me to think on it and pinpoint certain moments. And I actually did pinpoint this moment. I don't know if it was the very first moment, but at least it's my earliest memory. But it was me on the train with my mom. And she was showing me Slick Rick. That's the first rapper I ever listened to, and the first artists that I ever fell in love with and learn all the lyrics of their songs.

“Mona Lisa” and “Children’s Story” were the two songs she showed me on the train. I remember her saying, “Listen, you're not allowed to listen to rap. But you can listen to this.” And she played that for me. I was maybe eight years old. And that was probably my first memory of hearing a rap song, hearing a story being told from start to finish. And just latching on to the idea of rhyming. Because from then on, I went and listened to all of Slick Rick songs. That's when I got in trouble because he has this one song called “Treat Her Like a Prostitute.” And my mom caught me listening to. That's when she banned me from using my Walkman to listen to music.

But it was really my mom. A lot of her life was raised in the Bronx and she had me at a pretty young age. So she was just always so energetic and full of life. And her favorite thing to listen to was old-school hip-hop. So it was just completely passed down to me.

I liked that you mentioned it's refreshing for you to do a music interview. I'm primarily a music journalist and I love speaking to artists. How exciting is it for you to switch gears a little bit and have music be the focal point now?

Yeah, it's a completely completely different side of me, it's almost therapeutic in a lot of ways. I think the major difference between acting is that you have a ton of people to lean on. Even the words you're saying aren't entirely created by you and your own thoughts. Music is very personal. It's a personal passion of mine. So when the the questions I'm getting asked—What led you here? What did you listen to? What inspired you? What shaped you as a person? As I answer these questions, I'm getting insight into what has made me me, and it's been really cool. So yeah, it's definitely refreshing. I think I planted my feet very well in the acting industry. I still have so much more to do in that field, of course, but it's cool to start speaking on a passion that's been alive for me for so long. It finally feels like I'm taking a weight off my shoulders. I'm finally letting my guard down and showing my fans the world and people who don't know me who I actually am.

JJ_Press_Photo_4_3.jpgPhoto by Uwakokunre (Kokie) Imasogie

That's beautiful. But do you feel more nervous?

100%. I was more nervous. Actually, I just spoke at Culture Con last Saturday. I think there were about 800 to 1000 people in the audience. I'm sitting one-on-one with a moderator and it's an interview for 30 minutes. Before I got on there, I'm shaking so bad. I was damn near sweating. My friends are looking at me like, “This is what you do. You've been doing public speaking. You're an actor. You've done this for so long. Why are you so nervous?”

I looked at them and I was like, “Guys, I'm not going to talk about being an actor. I'm talking about music. I feel like a baby right now. I feel like it's day one.” The 18-year-old version of me when I was at the Oscars and I was freaking out, that's how I feel now. So it definitely put that into perspective for them. This is a much more vulnerable side of me. Like I said, it's so personal. So all the questions I'm answering there my truth. I'm hoping that the world receives it.

You mentioned earlier that with acting, you're speaking other people's words you have a script, but music is more personal. Do you see any similarities with the way that you approach acting when it comes to music?

Actually, there have been similarities for me since day one. I think that's a big reason why, by the time I was 16-17, I knew I wanted to do both. It started off with rap for me, just freestyling and just messing around with it as a hobby. That was when I got into acting, where I started to tap into my inner artists and my inner creative. I realized while rap isn't a hobby for me, it's actually a creative tool that I have. I started realizing the correlations between the two. When you act, you do improv. You make up characters on the fly, you make up words on the fly. That mirrors freestyling, right?

When somebody goes on a beat, and you're just trying to go off top, or you're trying to put words together that you've written in the past, even with characters that you transform into an on stage, it's very equivalent to the cadences and the flows that you put on a mic. That's why I love Kendrick Lamar so much. Kendrick doesn't just rap he performs and he embodies different characters. I think the way that marries each other is so beautiful. It's almost like musical theater in a way where you're singing and you're dancing, but you always have to be acting and you always have to be emoting and showing the underlying truth behind whatever story you're telling. So that's why I also love to do storytelling. Because it just goes hand in hand with who I am as an actor trying to tell stories in my life.

I'm glad you mentioned that because Rap Pack shows more of that storytelling side. It's very lyrics-focused. Of course, you've been putting out music since 2020. But I think Rap Pack is really showcasing like, “Okay, guys I'm not playing around. I have bars just like you. I could spit just as hard.” Was that the intention? To really put yourself out there and show that you had you're as talented on the screen as you are in the booth.

100%. That was definitely the game plan for me. I'm going to be releasing two more packs this year before the year ends. So it'll add on to the two that's already out. That'll make a total of 16 songs by the end of the year. I started specifically with the Rap Pack for the exact point you just made where I'm not here to do a flash song and dance. I'm not here to try to get on TikTok and make the next TikTok bop. I'm trying to get respect from people who are hip-hop lovers and rap lovers from all ages. Like the older kids in the Bronx who are still on the stoop that I grew up on, all the way to young kids in Atlanta growing up loving rap. I just want the respect.

So the first four songs I put out, I definitely wanted to just let them go and show that I do music and I'm here to stay with it. I'm not here to just put out songs that I think will get me a bit more famous or a little more money. I'm here to just put up the art that I love. And even if I'm sacrificing, I don't know, the universal sound of it. I'd rather just show that I can do this and then get to that sort of side of it later. But for now, that definitely was the plan.

JJ_Press_Photo_5_1.jpgPhoto by Uwakokunre (Kokie) Imasogie

By the end of the 16 songs, the plan is for me to show as much range as I can. The same way I'm trying to do as an actor in my career. As a rapper, I want to show that I'm not going to just do this one way, I don't want to be put in one box. I'm inspired by so many artists, you can't just sit here and ask me, “Hey, who's your favorite artist?” I will have a panic attack trying to figure out one. I have such a long list. That list is so diverse, all the way to the point where it's different genres and different styles of hip-hop. So by the end of the 16 songs, I want to show range to where you go, “One, I know he can rap, I have respect for that. Two, I know he could step out the box and get a little weird and risky. And three, I know he can make songs and he can be consistent with it.”

I'm really looking forward to this plan, because by the end of it, all people are gonna think that I took an acting break and dropped 16 songs as quickly as I could. But all the songs I've written in the past five years of my life. There’s not one song that I wrote back to back. I wrote “Uh” in 2021. And then “Mob Shallow” that follows right after I wrote in 2020. So it's all over the place. None of them are this year, I just packaged them all together. And like I said, I'm finally letting my guard down. And I'm just gonna chase the passion that I've always had.

Speaking of “Uh”, that stood out to me the most from both Rap Pack and Trip Pack. You say the line: “My future kept looking scary / It had to be haunted / I wanna get all of the things that my family's wanting.” I wanted to know if you feel even more secure where you are in your career at this moment.

That's a great question. I'm definitely proud of where I’m at in my career. I want more and I know the work that has to put into achieve it. I'm not in the place of trying to slow down. So that being said, I am happy with where my career is. I'm proud, but I am every day waking up, pushing my needle and trying to figure out how I can where I want to get to, even quicker than I'm doing now. But yeah, I am happy. And I did get a few things that my family has been wanting. So it's nice.

I know you have Love Pack and Trap Pack coming out. Are the titles more literal?

Yeah, you got it. I think by December, I will have another package which should be Love Pack. Again, it's a set of four songs that don't feel like the last and I think will make you put your eyebrow up. Love Pack is definitely more literal. It's my favorite pack. Honestly, I'm a lover boy. I'm a hopeless romantic. I'm always learning something new every day about that version of me. So I'm very excited to drop the next pack because I think it really hits home for me a lot and I can relate to the subject matter a lot.

But it's definitely more literal and it touches on just my different views of love. Whether it's heartbreak, or whether it's falling into it. Then Trap Pack is me having a lot of fun. I think when you listen to Rap Pack and they listen to Trap Pack, you're like, “Wow, this guy's serious. This guy is very much about it and wants us to listen.” I take a break and I show a little more range and show that I can have fun on beats that slap hard. I don't want to say I dumbed down my lyrics because I write every lyrical intention but I definitely ease up and don't take myself as seriously.

Speaking of not taking yourself seriously, a lot of your roles have been more serious and very emotionally gripping. How does it feel to tap into that more playful side when it comes to music? Does it feel like a release in a way?

Yeah, there’s definitely a release. There's always been a part of me, that's wouldn't necessarily mind living a life as a very dark, brooding, dramatic actor. [laughs] But I think by time I’m 50-60 I might regret it. And I might think that there was more to offer. So that's exactly what I'm doing right now. I'm being so aware of how passionate I am about something and I'm chasing it. With that, it's allowing me to show another side of me. I think I'm definitely going to be thankful for that in the future when I can show that I can be dark and brooding and I can tap into an emotional state. But at the same time, I am still human, and I am still your homie from next door who can kick it with you. So the music is going to show that.

I wasn't able to go to CultureCon but I saw that you mentioned Childish Gambino and Lady Gaga as examples of artists who don't have creative limits. I want to get more of your thoughts on the importance of not limiting yourself. Sometimes we put a lot of these boundaries on ourselves, maybe because we might be scared to try something new. But I think we have to overcome that fear and just tap into a different side of us that may be hiding. That part can be the most the dopest part of us that we haven't tapped into yet.

I wish I can grab your question and just make it my answer. I fully agree with everything you said. I think it's almost even a mental health conversation that you get down to it. Just just allowing yourself to be here to breathe and live in every part of who you are. Of course, there's always going to be a natural doubt and fear, especially when the world is so designed and things are so based off an algorithm and data. That can get into any artist’s head and stop you.

It almost becomes a mental health conversation where it's about allowing yourself to spread your wings. I almost am having a hard time answering it because you said it so well. That's exactly why I'm doing it. I think when I'm 45 years old or 50 years old and I look back and I go, “I love rap but I never dropped music.” There just be a part of me that feels empty and a void that I've allowed myself to have. I should or can't allow anybody to tell me not to follow my passion. So if I did it, it was always on me. So I don't want to do that. I want to chase my dream and chase my passion. Like you said, I think it'll open up a different side of me. It already has. There's things I'm saying and feeling—especially in the music I've been making this year—that I've never actually thought I'd say out loud and I'm finally putting it to paper and it's making sense for me.

I read that you were in ciphers when you were growing up and selling CDs in high school. Do you remember some of the bars that you were spitting?

I don't think I want to remember that. [laughs] I think I definitely always showed potential. But yeah, it was always energy. My high school was right next to a park. And that was always the place where we would meet up and we would get in circles. It was part of the New York culture. There was really a time when rap was really the cool thing to do. So I got to grow up in a time where if you had bars, people were interested in hearing them.

So I would get around there'll be six, seven friends of mine or even people I wasn't friends with just people I knew rap, we'd get together and we'd trade bar for bar. I'll never forget the feeling of making somebody go, “Ooh.” That feeling is addictive, I think, for any rapper who's young and really loves the bars or really loves to write and rap. That's the feeling that pushes you to keep rapping or at least did when you were learning how to rap, you know? I never forget those days actually. I'd become famous enough with the music I'm pretty sure some videos and circulate of some of those cyphers.

Yeah, the way that people find old content is so wild.

It’s insane. I am terrified. Honestly, I'm terrified. But I'm ready for it. I think I was hot enough to at least be spoken about in a way where people would think I had it. [laughs]

What do you think makes Bronx hip-hop so special?

I think the Bronx has always been about familial rap. It's always been about the people at the party and not the party itself. I don't know if that makes sense. Artists like Big Pun, where he would go off, and he would bar up and he talked about the girls, but you always felt this essence of family behind them. You always felt the essence of with my brothers with this group. And I think I think most regions have followed that. But I think the Bronx is really the first to do that, especially with the idea of getting everybody together at one apartment in the Bronx and hip-hop being founded from just that alone. I think the deep-cut lyricism, just the idea of grabbing a sample and making sure that the bars are sharp, as knives.

I think that was a great way to end the conversation, by repping our hometown.

Yeah, And being a rapper who's coming from the Bronx, I always represent the Bronx, and I always put on for the Bronx. I like to say my style is inspired by many different places. But I always, always, always, always give it up to the Bronx. It taught me how to rap and taught me how to actually move forward with the passion of rap.

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Photography by: Uwakokunre (Kokie) Imasogie