“How are they all here for me?” Junglepussy asks herself for the third time in a row. She sits propped up on a turquoise wooden bench waiting for the answer to magically appear out of thin air. As a rattled silence fills the vacant outdoor space at Brooklyn’s cozy Cafe Erzulie, she uncrosses her legs and fidgets with the tongue of her crisp, black Nike Cortez, rehashing the moment that has her speechless: a performance at the Art Gallery of Toronto in celebration of Black queer and trans lives, art, and activism. “It was so many people there,” she continues in disbelief. “I was like, ‘Why all these people if I’m the only performer?”
While nothing about the 25 year old East New York native’s polarizing rap pseudonym screams wallflower upon first utter, there’s more to her than meets the eye, most notably, an ever-evolving journey rooted in self-empowerment. But long before Junglepussy, there was—and still is in moments like today when Erzulie’s owner greets her—Shayna McHayle. Or as she herself puts it, “shy Shayna.” “Everybody knew me as that,” she laughs before offering a lackadaisical shoulder shrug. “But I wasn’t shy with my close friends and family obviously, I don’t know.”
Before cutting her teeth as a saucy MC, the once-aspiring designer’s bashful nature bloomed into unblemished confidence thanks to the help of a four-year-long internship during high school with fashion designer and entrepreneur, Marc Ecko. The program, SEE, or Sweat Equity Enterprises, was an education reform that gifted students the opportunity to experience the inner workings of a corporate business from the design side of things. “It forced me not to be shy because we had to present our ideas to old a** people that worked for him,” she explains. “With that, I learned how to be comfortable with not only public speaking, but sharing myself, just literally standing there and expressing myself.” Still fidgeting with her shoes, she perks up, saying, “My mom always gave me this tip of curling your toes if you feel nervous. Nobody knows if you’re curling your toes unless your shoes are mad tight.”
But the toe curling trick couldn’t help her beat her nerves when her high school rap group Primp was made to perform at the school’s talent show after getting caught skipping chemistry lab to have a freestyle session in the bathroom. While everyone obliged, Shayna showed up to school the day of the show with a different mindset than her peers. “I came in regular, as a spectator, and just sat in the crowd and cheered them on.”
Graduating high school at 16, she followed the course of higher learning and majored in merchandising at The Fashion Institute of Technology. But by her sophomore year, she admits to “falling out of love” with it, summing up her time at one of the top fashion schools in the world as boring.
“That was my time to find myself since I didn’t go away to college. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, let me just work retail and be free and do whatever,” she says. Low wages, poor benefits, and schedules that change with little—if any—notice are just a few of the downsides of working in retail, but for JP, the trade-off would pay off later down the road. Clocking in at a slew of retailers like H&M, Diesel, Patricia Fields, Torrid and Girl Props, her network of friends grew immensely. And before she knew it, she was mixing and mingling amongst musicians and individuals who dabbled in the industry. The unique rawness of her honeyed yet raspy vocal tone grabbed the attention of many, prompting them to ask her to “talk shit on their mixtape.” Happy to help friends and not so shy anymore, this time around she agreed.
Junglepussy was born on the internet. Originally a bold screen name expressing her affinity for animal print, Shayna used it on various social media platforms, including her very own YouTube channel that hosted miscellaneous, laughter-inducing videos. “I don’t remember the year I started it, but it all started with a video that I left on somebody’s [Facebook] wall, maybe on my wall,” she reminisces. “I had just found this popping sweater [while] thrifting. It was mad furry and covered in patches and leopard print. And I had this furry leopard hat, too. I think I had a blond Mohawk at the time. And I just did this video, and was like, ‘I’m Junglepussy. I feel like Junglepussy.’ It just came out of nowhere, literally. And then I decided to keep it.” Between unconsciously building a social media following and building a buzz on the underground music scene with random guest appearances, she decided to try her hand at putting a song out herself. “I guess people liked my personality so they wanted to hear more from me,” she says. But before delving into full rapper mode, she went back to FIT. While she had hopes of graduating, she only ended up completing another year due to the way her budding career was unfolding.
Junglepussy’s first song, 2013’s “Cream Team,” a freaky ode to the under-appreciated hustle of strippers, garnered much attention. Amongst the admirers of her brazen, slow-churning bars was Erykah Badu, who reposted it on Facebook and Twitter. With an overwhelming amount of positive reception of her artistry that seamlessly combines a heaping of self-love and sexuality, and a gleam of humor, she continued to put out music. “I was like alright, I’m going to give you guys a project. Then I put out a full mixtape, Satisfaction Guaranteed. People liked it, and it was like, I guess I’ll do another one.”
For the past four years, Junglepussy has maintained that same mindset but with more confidence than ever. She’s a beacon of hope and willpower. Steadily chipping away at the industry as an independent artist, her most recent work and debut album, Pregnant with Success, was released in 2015 and landed a spot on Rolling Stone’s 40 Best Rap Albums of the year. Although she admits she didn’t see the accolade until a month after it was published, it’s one that she’ll never forget. “I really felt good about it because being an independent and not really having a big team behind me, sometimes I feel like damn, I wonder if my thing, my music is getting the reach that it deserves.”
For most of her career, Junglepussy has navigated the musical landscape, both creatively and logistically, as a lone star aside from her booking agent. “It’s been so wild. I love every part of it because I can’t imagine how it would feel just knowing that it’s not me who’s pushing everything forward,” she says, rummaging through her purse. “It’s a lot of work and some days, I’m just like, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m not supposed to be doing this; I’m supposed to be focusing on my art. But I have to be a businesswoman,” she continues, swatching a coat of gloss on her lips. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
In an era where independent artistry is highly glamorized, Junglepussy isn’t blind to the smoke and mirrors or facades. She knows the free-wheeling term means being just as self-sufficient as you are unaided. While she has dreamt of a “huge team and manager and stuff,” she’s chucked that idea far into the distance. Why? Apparently, it has everything to do with who she is, what she represents, and how individuals may construe both. “People are probably scared, like, ‘Junglepussy, I don’t want to work with her. She’s probably a diva, or she’s this back girl, blah, blah, blah.’ They love our independence, but they are really always threatened by it,” she says in a flippant tone. But she doesn’t dwell on it too long, massaging out the kinks of the last words that flew from her mouth, “I at least hope it’s inspiring to someone.”
While Junglepussy has faith that her hustle might morph into some sort of motivational gem for the next aspiring artist, she herself still longs for guidance. “I’ve always wanted a mentor so badly. Like, please, somebody just school me a little bit,” she says. “I don’t want to be that young girl just acting like she knows everything. I really love to learn and listen to other people’s stories and stuff.” Erykah Badu’s steady support has been one that’s positively fueled her. After meeting the godmother of soul at last year’s Pyer Moss show during New York Fashion Week, the two exchanged numbers. When she speaks of their most recent connection, a glittering ear-to-ear smile presents itself. “She recently texted me and was just like, ‘I hit you up to tell you, you’re so creative and you can’t keep us waiting long. You got to share some stuff with the world.’ I was like, oh my God! I’m coming, I’m coming. I swear! I’m getting my shit together.”
Junglepussy’s past projects have been merciless when it comes to the male species. There was that time she rapped, “I’m screamin, “fuck these dudes, no appetite for the D!” and “God damned if I’m gon’ let any dude screw me over. I’mma key ya car, bleach ya kicks before the night is over.” While she recognizes the need for anger in art, her main focus for the music she intends to make going forward is emotive of the power of self-worth. “I was like I’m not going to keep dedicating my music to y’all.”
Today, she isn’t in the mood to talk about her past projects though. “Obviously, the old stuff is still a part of me, but I’ve just grown so much since then,” she says. “[On the new stuff] I’m not closing myself off to love because these guys don’t want to give it to me. It’s still [me] loving love songs, still loving love, but not giving them that power to make it seem like something I can’t have because they don’t want to give it to me.” But this is no pity party, this is just “how she always wanted her music to be.”
“It’s all really inspired by my journey from going through all that stuff and feeling like I had to keep expressing myself in this one way, and just like ‘fuck guys, fuck guys, fuck guys.’ It also remembers my awesomeness and all the other awesome women I know, and how deserving we are of love, nice connections, and togetherness.” As a black woman, being strong is a given, but the opportunity to be free, let alone multidimensional, is quite rare. It’s the kind of primitive, straightforward meat and potatoes insincerity that’s birthed layered acts from Abra to SZA. Junglepussy is also amongst those ladies, spearheading a new generational voice of young, black, and rebellious women musicians.
In addition to the experiencing the ebbs and flows of life, the rapper’s attitude toward making music has changed largely due to live performances. Tired of expressing the same old feelings, Junglepussy felt like her songs were actually was suffocating her. “Now I’m like if I put this song out, I’m going to have to perform it for the rest of my life. I’m always thinking about what are songs that I could perform that I would genuinely enjoy to perform, and what are songs that people would genuinely like feel good about and not always remind them of a dumb ex.”
Junglepussy can’t recall exactly how many songs she’s recorded in the past year for her forthcoming undertaking, but she assures there’s plenty of refreshing sonics to sift through for the final cut. Working with Sporting Life, Shy Guy, whose beats are littered throughout her entire discography, and Fools Gold producer Nick Hook, who has worked with the likes of 21 Savage and Novelist, she assures that fans will be able to sample some ear candy from her sooner than later.
Massaging the two perfectly parted, miniature afro puffs on her mane, she takes a deep breath, inhaling the gritty essence of New York City she’s been missing for the past month. While most know her for music, she’s been hard at work diversifying her portfolio. She’s already spoken at Columbia and Yale, and just wrapped up her acting debut in a film featuring Regina Hall. “It’s real exciting. I’m the second female lead. I worked with some amazing people like Regina,” she says. “I’ve never had to memorize any lyrics… I said lyrics, but I mean words that just aren’t my own. Once I got the hang of it though, it was just like performing. Once the cameras are rolling, it’s like that moment you hit the stage.”
But what still strikes a particular chord for Junglepussy is how her creativity can unify people. “[When] I was performing, I was really like damn, ‘I guess it’s out of my hands now.’ I’m for the world. I’m here to just share my messages and my stories with people” she says, reflecting back on her Toronto performance. “And then it really sank in because before, I was just a regular girl, which I still do believe. My mother hates when I say that, but I really am. I still have to wipe my butt. I still have to take out my own contacts. But I don’t get wrapped up in it because before it, I felt really popping anyway. So now it’s just like, people now finding out that I’m popping.”
For more of our interviews, check out our Q&A with Tyler, The Creator collaborator Anna Of The North right here.
- Text: Ashley Monaé
- Photography: Juan Veloz
- Hair: Shauna Witten
- Makeup: Sage White
- Stylist: Christopher Pearson
- Styling Assistant: Quadean Taylor
- Brands: OFF-WHITE, Topshop, Kendall Miles shoes, Drome Boots