Almost exactly a year ago, Zalissa Irielle, standing at the front of the House of Blues crowd, was given the mic mid-show by Jessie J. Her singing elevated the entire house’s energy to that of ecstasy, as she improvised over Jessie’s backing band. She went viral after being featured on Jessie’s instagram. Watch the clip HERE.
After the show, Zalissa and her three roommates, Cheyenne Nicole, Nia Ashleigh, and Aliyia Williams decided to create a tribute show. Since then, they have dedicated the year, working with Berklee professor Nedelka Prescod to bring to life their vision, via the Jessie J ensemble.
Show Review by Nadya Kelly
On the night of December 7th, the Berklee Caf was definitely the place to be, proven by the tremendous amount of students restlessly waiting to be let inside. Once the staff removed the barriers blocking the entrance, people rushed all over the venue to claim a prime viewing spot, some students even going so far as to commit to standing on chairs to properly enjoy one of the most anticipated Caf shows of the semester.
Then, there they were. Upon a stage laden with rose petals, the background vocalists confidently strode to their respective microphones. They were followed by the lead vocalists, who took their place on the stage front and center in a calm and confident manner. As the band started to play the triumphant introduction of the first song, the lead vocalists executed choreography that was the physical embodiment of the word “fierce”. The crowd in return erupted into exuberant applause and shouts of excitement.
In those first few moments of the show, everyone in the audience knew that the Jessie J Ensemble planned to put on an unforgettable performance filled with exceptional talent, dynamic choreography, fierce poses galore, and a great amount of heart and passion.
The first half of the show was full of intensity and spirit with a powerful mashup of “Glory” and “Bang Bang,” setting the pace at an energetic high. After their dynamic introduction, the ladies of the Jessie J Ensemble took the opportunity to emphasize how much Jessie J‘s music meant to them. This sentiment was expressed in the following songs, being moving, heartfelt, and sincere. The ensemble’s touching renditions of songs like “Who You Are” and “Queen” resonated deeply with the crowd, causing cries of “Sing!” and marvelling at the vocalists’ stunning runs and strongly emotional performances.
By the end of the night, the ensemble had the crowd hyped up and grooving again with killer arrangements of songs like “Price Tag” and “Domino,” and as the crowd cheered through the ensemble’s final bows, it was clear to see that the show was a direct materialization of all of their hard work and shared creative vision. Seeing a group of women fully realize a concept that they completely and wholly believe in was honestly so inspiring to see, and even though I had danced and sang along with the performers for the entire hour, I left the show feeling even more energized and empowered than when I had first walked in.
Read on to discover more about what motivates and drives the articulate ladies who acted as both the creative minds and the lead vocalists of the Jessie J Ensemble.
So what was the moment that inspired you to do this ensemble?
Nia Ashleigh: It was right after Jessie J’s House of Blue show last year. Aliyia came up to me and said: “What if we did the Jessie J Ensemble?”
Zalissa Irielle: Going to the concert, I really didn't know of Jessie J. I just knew of her because of "Bang, Bang" and "Price Tag," but once I heard her voice, I was in awe and screaming the whole entire time. I really love her.
What stuck with you?
Zalissa: First of all her voice, her tone and then her message behind her songs are very powerful. It speaks volumes.
Nia: A standout moment for me was when she did “Who You Are.” I've always seen her do that song on my computer, but seeing her do it live was a special moment because she's physically telling me all of these personal and inspiring things from one artist to another.
Cheyenne Nicole: It was so special seeing“Big White Room” live. When I was younger, that song was my holy grail. It literally got me through my preteen and early teenage years when everything started to change and become confusing.
How did you make the ensemble happen?
Aliyia Williams: I actually went to Sean Skeete, the ensemble department chair, and I pestered him until he made it happen. We were lucky to get the class and Nedelka Prescot as our teacher. We started really prepping for it in the spring semester, and then over the summer we started doing the arrangements. Our Music Directors helped out a lot, and Marlon Solomon did all the marketing, flyers and promo. Ben Pu did all the photos.
Nia: We strategically handpicked why picked each person.The beauty about our ensemble is that a lot of the people on this stage aren't well known and are slept on - especially in the Black Berklee community.
Cheyenne: I'm even more proud of who we chose because our rehearsals and ensemble ran so smoothly. Obviously there were moments where everyone got a little frustrated simply because the show was approaching, but overall, looking at the whole process from start to finish, everyone has been composed and professional. It was always “Yes, and,” never “No, I'm sorry. but...” I’m so proud of every single person in this ensemble because they’re always asking what they can do better, and that to me really stands out. We’re all still learning even though we’ve ‘made it’ to Berklee: the journey doesn’t stop.
What are the three biggest lessons that you've learned during this process?
Zalissa: Patience - especially when dealing with a lot of personalities. We don't all have the same background, and come from different places. So for me, I learned how to be patient with different people.
Cheyenne: I think mine is learning how to separate the show versus personal life: time management. Especially since we’re roommates and really close friends. We had to find the fine line between not always stressing about the show or always hanging out and chilling.
Aliyia: If it came home, we would have specific meetings. We’d move the couch back, put up mirrors and rehearse!
Nia: None of us had run a show before. I’ve also never seen a woman student run a show. I feel like we did a really great job in terms of being in charge, stepping up to the plate, making things happen and reaching out to certain influential people. I learned how to put a show together, and the ins and outs of what it really takes. I feel like I’ve always been the background singer, and told what to do. Now I had to figure out how to get things done.
What advice would you give to yourself starting again?
Nia: Make sure you have a good team because you can't do it by yourself. When I leave here, I want to be multifaceted and don't want to depend on anybody. I want to be able to produce for myself and know how to direct a show if I want to. All that is great, but it’s also okay to ask for help.
Who has inspired you throughout the process?
Aliyia: Definitely our teacher, Nedelka. She gives life lessons, and I call it ‘blessings from Nedelka’. She applies all her musical advice to life, so I think Nedlka is my number one for this.
Nia: When I first got to Berklee I started working with Dreion. I've never seen an artist know and care so much about the ins and outs of certain things. I’ve been learning from him for a long time. Marcus Prince is also a great person who has taught me things going like praying before we start rehearsal just to get the energy right. It's imperative to Marcus that we start and close rehearsal with prayer. Even if there’s tension at the beginning, we take a breather, pray and then get to it.
Zalissa: Honestly I would say these ladies right here. This is my family away from home.
Cheyenne: We all pushed each other in different aspects. Even when we were frustrated with each other, we knew that it was out of love. We just wanted the person that we call our sister to look just as good or sing just as well as ourselves. There was always that constant push coming from each other, and I think that's what ultimately helped everything grow. That also helped the ensemble because they saw that coming from us. Having this strong foundation helped so much.
What are you trying to bring to your individual performances?
Cheyenne: My heart and my story. Jessie J has a story behind every single song she writes. You'd be surprised at some of the songs that you hear, and what it’s actually about. Being able to get up there and share my story with everyone else is what I'm trying to embody tonight.
Nia: I want to be real. I've done background vocals here for such a long time, and I feel that this is one of those moments where it's not about making another artist look good. I feel like this show is about love: self love, loving someone else, or loving your life. I don't want to have to communicate that behind someone else. I’m stepping into my light and trying to communicate my love to everyone else - and not being nervous and in my head. I want to think about the message and having fun. That’s what connected us to Jessie J.
Cheyenne: She’s such a transparent artist. She gave us her whole personal life story. With this show we tried to embody her fully. Not only with her songs and the way she performs, but also with the messages behind everything. We want everyone else to have the same feeling we had.
Zalissa: *She’s bringing her Memphis soul!* I think I’ve stepped out of the box a little bit. In three whole semesters, I’ve never really branched out. So, just stepping out of the shell, just being me, and just being okay with it.
How do you get in the groove?
Nia: Get out of your head and in your spirit.
Cheyenne: Literally, just do it. That’s such a great slogan. Sometimes you literally just need to do it and not think twice about it. I’ve been learning that especially a lot with this show. I had to really learn to not care what everybody else was thinking and just do it for me.
Zalissa: My phrase that I say all the time is, with God, anything is possible.
Cheyenne: I also follow a phrase that my dad told me growing up. “If your mind can think it, your heart can believe it, then your hands can achieve it.” As long as I can wrap my mind around it and get myself to believe that I can do it, it can happen.
Aliyia: Stepping out of my comfort zone gets me in the groove. Staying over the summer really helped me realize my ‘new truth’. I was on my own because we moved into our first apartment and paying bills and adulting was a good challenge.
Nia: I just finished this book that was talking about getting out of your head and just doing it. The interview isn’t going to just happen. You have to be willing to step out and network. Even if you’re scared, literally just do it. Stop letting your mind tell you things that aren't true, because as the book says, you are wired to win, and you just have to be willing to just do it. For so long, I’ve felt nervous about certain things, but I had to push past that fear and just go after what I wanted, because the fear and doubt is not going to go away. At first, I’m not in the groove when I step out of my comfort zone, but once I've done it, I'm like, okay, if I can do that, I can do this.
One piece of advice for people aspiring to be where you are right now?
Zalissa: Be patient, and do not rush the process. It’s okay if you don't have a song, like me. I don't have a song, an album, an EP, none of that. Just keep pressing, keep moving forward.
Nia: Don't be afraid to meet other people. I wouldn't be where I am today without the people that I've met, especially here at Berklee. Say yes to working with people, but not all the time. I've said yes way too much; however, I don't regret it, because everything has shaped me in some way. I’m thankful for the people that are around me.
Aliyia: Just have fun. Make sure you love what you’re doing.
Cheyenne: In the words of Jessie J, it’s okay if you’re incomplete because you’re still a masterpiece. Nobody can ever be perfect. You have to learn to come to terms with yourself. Especially at Berklee, you need to learn that you can’t be the person standing next to you, and that person could never be you, so you just have to learn to be present with yourself at all times. Everyone is a masterpiece in their own way.
See our instagram post to follow the interviewee HERE