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Jessie Reyez on Love, Death, and Her South Florida Bartending Days

Jessie Reyez
Jessie Reyez
Photo by Philip Harris

Jessie Reyez never once ran into Gloria Estefan while bartending at the Estefan-owned Bongos Cuban Cafe locations in South Florida. The stars just never aligned for the then-aspiring musician, but it wasn't for lack of effort on Reyez's part.

Born in Toronto to Colombian parents, Reyez is a hustler. The 28-year-old Grammy-nominated R&B singer, known for her breakthrough single "Figures" and high-profile collaborations with Eminem, Sam Smith, and Karol G, admits she gave free shots to DJs if they played her songs. And long before she collaborated with Calvin Harris on "Hard to Love," she shamelessly snuck on stage during one of the Scottish producer's shows to hand him her demo.

So if she couldn't personally hand her music to Estefan, then she'd find someone who could.

"I told my [Bongos] manager, 'If you happen to put my CD in her hands, I won't be mad,'" Reyez says over the phone. "I was trying to make it happen."

Reyez is a firm believer in destiny. Although she spent nearly three years in South Florida busking on Miami Beach and singing at open-mike nights (and not singing for Estefan), Reyez was precisely where she needed to be. A psychic told her so, in so many words.

Around the end of the aughts, Reyez was working at a gym in Toronto. Nobody at work knew about her musical aspirations. She was so shy about it that she'd only sing in front of friends and family if they agreed to close their eyes.

One day at work, a client asked out of the blue if Reyez was "creative." When she nodded, the woman told her she needed to leave Toronto or she'd never live up to her potential. The woman turned out to be an animal psychic, but she felt such a strong connection with Reyez that she just had to share.

The odd encounter stuck with Reyez. (How could it not?) So when her parents decided to move to Fort Lauderdale after receiving a visa they'd been waiting on for 16 years, she jumped at the opportunity to fulfill her creative destiny.

"I was like, 'Fuck it. I'm going to go,'" Reyez says.

Upon arriving, Reyez tried landing a job as a bottle server at Copacabana. They had no openings for servers but asked whether she had bartending experience. Reyez said she did.

"I lied," Reyez admits. "But I was like, 'Fuck it. I'll figure it out as I go.' And I figured it out. That was my first job [in South Florida]. It was where I learned how to swim."

Eventually, she left that gig for Bongos, where they asked if she could dance. She didn't have to lie this time. The money was better, but she wasn't looking to stay in the nightlife industry for long. As she admitted to Noisey, Miami's nightlife scene was a "black hole" that had her neglecting her real passion: music.

Reyez looked into auditioning for the Remix Project, an arts academy based in Toronto and asked her manager for the weekend off.

"He understood and was like, 'Go get it,'" Reyez says. "I was lucky. I ended up working with people who are lifelong friends."

The academy admitted her to its recording-arts program, and Reyez never looked back. In 2017, she released her debut EP, Kiddo, and the following year, her second EP, Being Human in Public, scored a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album. The music was raw and emotional — or as she often puts it: "I sing sad songs."

That success had led her to announce a tour that was supposed to kick off on May 23 after her scheduled performance at Coachella, and was to have included a June 5 stop at the Wastco Center on the University of Miami campus. But the coronavirus put an end to all that.

Reyez says she considered postponing the release of her debut studio album but changed her mind after polling fans on social media. Before Love Came to Kill Us was released on March 27, as planned. The album includes her third collaboration with Eminem, "Coffin," which she performed from her parents' bathroom on Jimmy Kimmel Live in early April. (Her parents are now snowbirds who split time between Toronto and South Florida.) The album reached number 13 on the Billboard 200.

"I was definitely apprehensive because the album has so much to do with mortality and is a catalyst to think about mortality," Reyez says. "The way I was raised, it was a topic you could talk about without feeling bad. My mom would say she was going to go to the grocery store 'if God allowed.' That humbled me and showed me how fragile life is. I was scared to put out an album in these apocalyptic-ass times and didn't want to be insensitive. I asked people on Instagram, and I think 97 percent wanted me to drop the album. I was like, 'Fuck it. I'll do it.' And I'm happy I did."

Reyez did get to perform in Miami back in March, opening for Billie Eilish at the American Airlines Arena. That tour was halted after three dates when social-distancing guidelines were enacted.

"Honestly, it was insane," Reyez says. "Opening for Billie is such a gift, but it's scary being an opening act. I'm used to walking out and having people embrace me, but the majority of the people in that [arena] had maybe heard one song. I was nervous, so it caught me by surprise how I was embraced. It was wild."

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