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JusMoni's Universal Soul

Moni Tep, who performs under the name JusMoni, is a Beacon Hill native who’s been active in the music community for years, both as an artist and an organizer. She came up as a poet through the Youth Speaks program and went on to lead it as project coordinator. As a teen she produced and promoted shows at the beloved hip-hop hub Hidmo (resurrecting this year in the newly restored Washington Hall) and grew into a role as an activist with groups like Seattle Young People’s Project. These days she can sometimes be found pulling shots at the Station on Beacon Hill, Hidmo’s heir and a haven for collaborators like WD4D and Gabriel Teodros

This week Tep put out a new album, JusMoni as Saffroniaa, her third release and the first since 2013’s Queen Feel EP. On Saffroniaa her voice is luminous and versatile over a range of sounds, from sultry synth to spare boom-bap. The songs pivot between sweetly soulful and frankly sexual, as in the flirtatious exuberance of “I Could Just Eat You Up.” In “Hot Potato,” a boldly queer come-on and the most lyrically dense track on the album, she’s joined by StasTHEEBoss who spits, “My magic earned me tragic yearning and discerning/I had to learn to curb my perving and my lurking.”

Tep throws an album release party at the Crocodile on April 17, then in Portland on April 21. She’ll be joined by New Orleans rapper Cavalier along with Porter Ray and a rare solo set by StasTHEEBoss.

On an overcast afternoon in front of the Station, I talked to Tep about the new album. 

Who is Saffroniaa?
You might’ve heard the Nina Simone song “Four Women.” She sings about this woman named Saffronia. She tells the story of four different black women and their different identities and why they are the way they are. So it’s an ode to Nina Simone. I’m a black and Asian woman. It speaks to my work and how I walk through the world, making space for myself and my story and other black women without asking for permission.

The other part of why it’s titled that is because saffron is a special and intense taste to me. From the first time I ever experienced the taste of saffron I could never forget it. It’s a taste that lingers—if you were to taste saffron and come back ten years later, you’d remember the moment you first had it. And that’s what I want my music to be: a taste that never leaves you, something you’ll always remember, that you can always come back to. It’s potent.

There’s a blend of styles on the new album—electronic, hip-hop, samples. Is there a specific vibe you’re trying to capture?
Not necessarily. My music and this project are very genre-bending. I just like to get really funky on music. That’s where you hear those bass lines and those funky breakbeats and rhythms.

But also some “doot doot doot.”
Yeah. I have considered myself an electronic soul artist. That identity for me is changing but I love electronic and how it plays with R&B and soul.

Is it a challenge to meld those together—the digital and analytical with the soulful and funky?
That’s why my producers and I have so much fun, because I’m a nonconventional writer and arranger. I like my breakdowns in weird places—you might get a verse from me that’s 10 bars or 16 or 18. I think acts like Shabazz Palaces and TheeSat have inspired me with non-conventional ways to think about music in the Western world. I grew up on Cambodian music. You can hear my scales in the way I sing. It’s pentatonic. I don’t necessarily hear music in the same way as lot of people.

Can you talk about the impact that a collective like Black Constellation has on the scene?
These are the people who have been making and shaking and creating the currents in this city for a long time, and even outside the city. To some people they’re new because it’s more public now, but I think it’s to be understood that a lot of the art that comes out of this city and a lot of the opportunities are in direct correlation to things Black Constellation has done.

You’ve been travelling a lot lately, right?
I went down to Jamaica in October as a part of JetBlue’s Flying it Forward program where a flyer chooses another flyer to go and do some “good” somewhere in the world, wherever JetBlue flies. So I sent them a tweet: “I’m trying to go to Jamaica because I wanna raise awareness about the crisis in the LGBT community that’s happening in Kingston."

It was crazy—they had my pictures in all their most popular newspapers before I even got down there. It was kind of an unsafe situation.

You’re in the papers for all the homophobes to see-
It was hella crazy. “This gay evangelist is coming to disturb our god-fearing country,” or some weird shit like that.

Did you spread the "good news" of being gay?
Yeah, because it’s infectious, right? But that’s the way that I live; I am hella gay. But really it was for the young people. In the middle of the night I went to this outdoor space they called “the cholera cemetery” because back in the ‘80s they had a big outbreak and they burned all these bodies in this landfill and buried them. It’s all unmarked cemetery land and that’s where a lot of these [homeless] young people live, on top of this cemetery, which has very few trees and is very unsafe. But I risked it to go and talk to them and they risked it by talking to me. We had to take them to a secluded location to do interviews.

It was important to me to engage them in a process of documenting their lives so they know their stories won't be forgotten. And I think that’s especially important for black people because much of our history is unknown and erased. It’s important that we are documenting ourselves.

Photo by Robbie J. King, styled by Mia Charnelle.

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