meet jordan raf, the rising l.a. star crafting experimental r&b out of personal darkness
As he readies his debut record ‘Double Negative,’ we talk ‘Sopranos’ style icons and mental health advocacy with the rising R&B auteur.
Three years ago, the Writers Guild of America named The Sopranos the best-written television show of all time. The iconic American crime drama is often held in less high regard when it comes to fashion, despite its host of stylish characters. Edie Falco's blow-dried, blinged-out matriarch Carmela comes to mind; as do the Gosha-esque tracksuits sported by mobsters Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie Walnuts. Even Anthony Jr.'s Marilyn Manson t-shirts seem sort of chic in the glow of Vetements' limelight. Singer Jordan Raf, however, counts Furio Giunta— an Italian import mobster with a serious taste for baroque button-ups — as his chief sartorial influence.
"Between the ponytail, Speedos, and silk shirts, he has that gorgeous Eurotrash femme look down. It's so beautiful and ahead of his time," 22-year-old Raf enthuses over the phone from Los Angeles. He lives in a converted warehouse between the Arts District and Boyle Heights, next to "gigantic strip clubs" that don't seem so different from Bada Bing, the fictional New Jersey gentleman's club in which Tony's associates often congregate. (Raf says he's not a patron of the neighborhood establishment, though Uber drivers often mistake him for one.) "People say The Sopranos is the greatest TV show of all time; I think it's one of the greatest pieces of art of the modern era," he says.
Raf's fondness for the magnificently rich, fearless series makes sense. Double Negative — his debut full-length record, due on September 2 via POW Recordings — revisits some of the darkest periods in his own life with similar courage and creativity. His vocals oscillate between high octave lilts and syrupy slurs that ride the textured, melodic waves crafted mostly by his longtime collaborator, producer John War. War's layers of deconstructed trap have netted comparisons to Shlohmo; Raf sees his at-times cloudy lyrical diction as something of a cousin to Young Thug's. What words the enigmatic young ATLien uses are not always discernable — it's how he uses them that's pushing the genre in evocative, experimental new directions. "Even if [my songs] are sort of minimalistic in the lyrics, they're always telling a story, always stemming from a specific idea that happened within my life," Raf explains.
His father is a painter and architect who was born and raised in Iran; "He loves to kiss, he loves Big Bang Theory even though I don't think he has any idea what's going on. He just loves 'Bazinga!'" says Raf. During the installation of the Ayatollah in the late 70s, Raf's father became the first of his seven siblings to emigrate to America, fearing the family's Persian Jewish descent would make them unsafe under Islamic rule. He met Raf's mother in the 80s, on a blind date in Dallas, later becoming "the only one in his family to marry a white woman." Jordan spent the first seven years of his life in Texas, before his family moved to San Diego, where he grew up in a house his father designed. "Even though he wanted me to do the classic Persian Jew thing — become a doctor, lawyer — from being an artist, he always sort of understood the career path I had to take," Raf explains.
His musical career — inspired equally by "my dad's weird Persian ballads and disco"; the first CD he ever bought with his own allowance money, Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below; and his Led Zeppelin-themed bar mitzvah — took a slight detour by way of his enrollment at UCLA's art school. This decision was driven mostly by Raf's acute fascination with L.A.'s entertainment industry, a world he felt innately drawn to from San Diego's Rocket Power beach bubble. "I've always had this exhibitionist, weirdly hedonistic part inside of me that was infatuated with it. Anyone who really desires to be in such a bizarre industry is obsessive, and I tried to do everything I could — I was an extra, a stunt double, went to comedy clubs — to really dip my feet in and just be around it," he says. During his final years at art school, Raf realized his soul belonged to music, and explains his relationship to it through the multi-faceted Japanese concept of ikigai, or "reason for being." These years were also the most challenging in Raf's life.
He went through a tumultuous breakup with a girl he'd been dating for over a year ("It was probably the first time I think I felt true love, real love, like first-15-minutes-of-Up! love") and decided to spend a semester abroad studying in Tokyo. Though he learned to speak Japanese, Raf still felt painfully isolated in the mega-city, and developed dark tendencies. "I was stealing a lot of things, I was very violent, I was drinking a lot. It was a very complex, lonely, and difficult period." When he returned Stateside to find his ex dating one of his friends, his downward spiral of masochism and substance abuse persisted. Raf ventured to Tijuana in search of pharmaceuticals, threw all of his material possessions into the pool of his childhood home, and ultimately attempted to take his own life in his UCLA apartment. "Someone called an ambulance or I did. I don't remember how it happened, but I didn't want to die in the moment," Raf says. "I woke up in a mental institution in Pasadena."
Under the California Welfare and Institutions Code, Raf's admission was a 5150, or involuntary psychiatric hold typically in effect for 72 hours. He describes these three days as terrifying, but ones that brought him sharp clarity. After being released, Raf sat in his room and funneled his experiences into creating "Roses," the first song he wrote for Double Negative. "The lyrics are really simple, but fantasize a place to escape. It's about being gone for a while, but coming back and having to deal with the realities of being a human in life, suffering all these emotions, and going on with it." About a week after he wrote the song, POW contacted him about releasing a record.
Apart from cementing Raf's musical focus, his stay in Pasadena made him "super passionate about how our country looks at the stigma of mental illness. It's being talked about like it's something to romanticize — a touching Gus Van Sant or Wes Anderson movie. There's nothing to romanticize about people going to jail or becoming homeless because of mental health issues," says Raf. Our conversation again turns to the genius of The Sopranos, and how the series realistically interwove mental health issues throughout the extended crime family. "This album encapsulates a crazy part of my life and if it can help anyone — if anyone can get anything out of it — that's the most beautiful thing to me," says Raf. "I've never had a therapist like Jennifer Melfi, though."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Grace Pickering