JessB’s professional netball career came ‘crashing down around’ her, but focussing on her passion for hip hop saw her reinvent herself as a bold role model for thousands of fans with her 2018 single ‘Set It Off’.
Part-Kenyan and part-Pākehā, Jess Bourke (JessB) found hip hop while trying to find her place in Aotearoa as a Black woman.
While she spent time writing her own raps through high school, she never thought she could become a rapper when she had a shot at something completely different.
“Growing up, my dream was always to be a Silver Fern,” she says.
Playing for the Northern Mystics and then the Central Pulse, netball was one of the biggest parts of JessB’s identity into her twenties. But when it came time for contract renewals, Jess was unceremoniously dropped from her professional netball team.
While for a period she ‘genuinely thought [her] life was over’, she also took it as a catalyst to finally pursue her SoundCloud side-hustle. One might call it fate, says JessB.
One year later, in 2018, she released her debut album Bloom with ‘Set It Off’, a headlining track that spoke to different parts of her identity.
Set It Off’s music video, directed by Half Queen, drew on Jess’ netballing career with scenes set on the tournament bus, the changing room and the courts.
“It felt very full circle, so we had this netball game between the Mystics and the Misfits, my team. It was really awesome for me because it really felt like the coming together of these two worlds I had been part of“, says JessB.
While the music video was focussed on her career, the rapper’s lyrics were about her identity. Specifically about ‘being from two bloodlines and being confused and lost [her] whole life about where [she] fit’; referring to her mixed lineage.
Race, identity and representation have always been part of JessB’s life and creating visibility around her own experiences are connecting the rapper with her fans in a way that’s different to anyone before her.
“By being herself and standing for the things she stands up for, naturally she is a role model and people look up to her,” says artist Who Shot Scott.
“Anytime JessB is on a line-up, you can guarantee that she’s gonna draw out a lot of women, a lot of woman of colour, lots of the queer community,” Half Queen adds.
While she doesn’t know exactly what the future will hold for her, JessB has already contributed ‘something that has never been seen before’ to the hip hop scene.
“As long as I am loving it and enjoying it, and people around me are too, then no need to fix what’s not broke. We just gotta keep going,“ she says.
This episode draws on JessB’s past life and looks at the unique and pioneering impact she’s made on Aotearoa hip hop. It highlights her championing of inclusivity and action through her music that is visible, empowering and bold.
About the artist
Jess Bourke grew up in Auckland in the 90s and had her heart set on professional netball even though she could quickly pick up a beat.
In 2016, she decided to take on rapping full time and within two years, her debut EP, ‘Bloom’, led her to win as Best Hip Hop Artist at the 2018 New Zealand Music Awards.
Her second critically-acclaimed EP, ‘New Views’, capped off a meteoric two-year rise for the artist alongside winning Best New Zealand Act at the MTV European Music Awards.
JessB’s latest project is her '3 Nights In Amsterdam' mixtape which was released in August 2020.