"I can't get a normal job, if this doesn't work then it's over for me"
Words: Tommy Dennis | Photography: Bantu Khotso
Can a home-schooled 19-year-old from the suburbs of Pretoria make it in the cutthroat world of hip-hop? Even if he's white and until last year nobody had heard of him? Somehow the teenager born Jesse Mollett has consistently grown his audience by utilising social media, with numbers that are impressive in our local context. Soundcloud has him at just over 6000 followers, which is more than Anathii, Frank Casino, Gemini Major and many other more established names. And his Instagram numbers are nothing to sneeze at either, especially for someone who has only been rapping for a little over a year.
Oh, and let's not forget that he is fiercely independent, with no record company behind him and no PR company managing his image or sending out advance copies of his singles. If you want J Molley you find him on the internet. His career so far has included hits with the biggest names in local hip-hop, from featuring on a DJ Speedsta track to being included on lists with rising names in the game like Shane Eagle. There was also a campaign with Steers.
J Molley is unflinchingly sincere and a little bit guarded, which could be put down to his shyness. It's his natural inclination to observe that has equipped him with the ability to go his own way.
Fashion aside, what is it about J Molley that has caught the attention of so many young South Africans? To the casual observer he's visually arresting, because how many teenagers do you know with face tattoos? J Molley agrees that appearance has something to do with his quick rise.
Has an ethnically ambiguous nature aided in his success? It's something J Molley acknowledges, but he doesn't place any special significance on it. "People dig me because I'm different, they like my style and my music." One can't help but wonder that if he presented himself as a white dude, more on the lines of a G-Eazy then perhaps the reaction would be different? "I'm not trying to act or steal black culture, it's just a really natural thing to me. I'm sure If I didn't have dreads or dress the way I do then I'd get trolled a lot and it'd get really weird, but this is just me."
In between shots, his manager shows us the rough copy of his soon to be released music video. Beaming with pride J tells us how they do everything in-house: conceptualising the videos, styling, art direction and shoots. It's testament to their DIY, still on the come-up philosophy. Still paying off his own camera equipment, it's worth noting how J was an enthusiastic collaborator on the Superbalist shoot, talking to the photographer about angles and lighting and not in a "this is my best side" way, but as someone wanting to learn and understand every step of the process.
It's a confidence thing and you don't have to look further than his face to see where this comes from. How many job interviews can you walk into with the word "slave" tattooed under your eye and expect your CV to end up on top of the pile?
This relentless drive to be successful is why J and his small group of collaborators always push for the unexpected and why there's a short film coming out to accompany his latest release. Again, where does he find the belief to try such extra moves?
"I'm not really sure, I think it's just a lot of practice. Endless nights just staring at the computer. Watching YouTube tutorials on Photoshop. Doing endless photo shoots. Learning from my mistakes."
J Molley says he was 17 when he started taking things more seriously.
"I started this group called Treehouse, I was the photographer and they started rapping. They wanted me to rap but I never felt it. I come from a musical background, I can play the guitar and I always knew I could sing, but I never took it seriously. I recorded a few tracks to test out and everyone reacted positively to them. I then had to think about a name, my surname is Mollett but everyone pronounces it as Molley..."
The sad boy life aesthetic is very now and his biggest influences both sonically and stylistically are Lil Uzi Vert, A$AP Mob and Lil Yachty. It's a difficult thing to pin down because, like many other trends in our current age it's defined by both a deep sense of irony and earnestness. Not concerned with being sad or depressed, but rather the aesthetics of melancholy, it goes hand in hand with ugly fashion, which itself is a by-product of our postmodern internet directed lives.
The internet has transformed our lives into a cacophony of seemingly endless cultural signs, that both serves to connect people but also reinforce sub-cultures. Little wonder then that J Molley describes himself as "Internet Boy".