This Parisian Pop Star Dresses Like a Nun — But Wants You to Dance
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because bubblegum doesn’t have staying power, but good pop does.
By Kate Crane
On the day of the Brussels attacks, Jain calls. In our troubled world, she says, her message is optimism. A line we’ve heard before, mostly from tech bros and members of end-times cults. But Jain? She’s more fun, and her songs are like, well, Life Savers — pretty candy, but also classic, with potential staying power.
Even if when watching the video for her song “Come” for the first time, I shuddered. After 14 years in Catholic institutions, that was my reaction to Jain’s black-and-white dress, which looks a hell of a lot like a nun’s habit. It sparked unwelcome recollections of Sister Barbara, who insisted the word “divine” refers only to God. So seeing the young French singer in it while she trampolines and drinks hot pink cocktails poolside? Divine.
Any girl who runs around singing decent pop in Holy Roller getup and sneakers has to be a little off.
But Jain’s look is as Hindu as it is Catholic. The cover of her debut full-length CD, Zanaka, depicts her with lots of arms, like Kali or Durga. On her feet when she performs: white sneakers. Which is to say that any girl who runs around singing decent pop in Holy Roller getup and Nikes has to be a little off. I was charmed.
That girl, who turned 24 in February, probably also has a killer marketing team. Jain’s slick look — call it wholesome oddball with a cheerful edge — is new, accompanying and no doubt fueling her growing fame in Europe and Russia. As recently as 2014, she was posting homemade videos of herself, in civvies, covering Destiny’s Child and Amy Winehouse (the videos are very sweet, and still on YouTube).
Then there’s the fact that she is busting her ass: Her EP Hope came out last June, followed by Zanaka (Malagasy for “preteen”) in November, with a U.S. release date set for later in 2016. Zanaka just went gold in France, and her spring tour is sold out; she’ll be playing festivals all summer in Europe. Next year, the U.S., possibly SXSW and Coachella.
“My soul is in Africa,” she sings on “Come.” Back off, cultural appropriation police. The Paris-based artist lived in Toulouse until age 9, and then her father’s work took the family to Dubai, the Congo and Abu Dhabi. In Dubai, Jain learned percussion on the darbuka and listened to Pakistani and Arabic music; as a teenager in the Congo’s Pointe Noire, she learned beat-making and made her first songs. The third-culture kid identifies as white (her mother is half-Malagasy) and considers herself and her music Parisian.
Sure, the influences of her travels are unmistakable, particularly on reggae-inflected tracks like “City.” But singing bouncy, rhythm-based dance-pop in heavily accented English, Jain delivers a sound that, by and large, is fresh. “I want people to dance,” she says. She likes performing “Makeba,” her tribute to South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, for just that reason: It gets audiences moving.
As for the dress, Jain says she wanted something sober and classic, to contrast with her music. But there’s a fun factor too. “I really like to surprise people, for example, at festivals, when they see me show up in this nunlike dress,” she says. “They wonder what I’m doing, and then they see me rapping. It’s funny to see their reaction.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jain wears Stan Smiths.
- Kate Crane, A Baltimore native and a New Yorker, Kate is OZY's longform editor. She lives for music, books made of paper, and dogs 75 pounds and larger.Contact Kate Crane