Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.
Jenn Morel’s Caribbean twirls and sways came to a television screen near you in the early 2000s, back when the Dominican talent booked lead dancing and vixen roles in major label music videos for hip-hop greats like Drake, Fabolous and Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she shifted your attention to smartphone screens, where her hilarious quick quips dominated Vine. Now, it’s possible she’ll leave you staring at your laptop for long periods of time, where her own music videos will entice you to listen and watch.
The rapper-dancer is someone you’ll want to pay attention to, and not just because she’s a sexy young thing with a pretty face and stunning figure. The New York-raised, Los Angeles-residing artist also has skills, seesawing between Spanish and English while rapping empowered bars that bounce to every hasty swing of the dembow beat she spits over.
Recently signed to UMLE, a joint venture between Aftercluv and Universal Music Latino, where Morel, whose first track, “Ponteme,” went platinum in Europe before any big deal, the 28-year-old is hype to release new music, even returning to her island of birth to work with local talent and make magia.
We chatted with the up-and-coming rapper about her transition from social media starlet to music, using the mic and starlight to spread a message of self-love and self-expression, her first love — dance — and what she’s excited for in 2019, among so much more.
FIERCE: You’re LA-based now, but you grew up in a Dominican home in New York. What sort of music were you listening to at home with your family or out with your friends and how do you think this has influenced your style today?
Jenn Morel: When I was back in New York, I remember growing up with reggaeton, thanks to my older brother. He was updated with the new music out from DJ Playero, Vico C, Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen and El General, so this was like the foundation of what influences me and my music now. Me and my younger brother were always excited about the CDs he would bring like every two weeks. We only had one radio with a CD player, so we always fought about what we wanted to hear and who would have what CD for the week. That’s the music that has had the biggest influence on me today. But I also had my hip-hop phase, my older brother again putting us on, so that was fun. When I first started Flow Friday, where I’d rap over different beats, a lot of them were old-school hip-hop instrumentals. I wanted to show my versatility, all of the music that influenced me.
FIERCE: Your path to stardom started on social media, cultivating a huge fanbase with hilarious short videos on Vine, and later moving on to Snapchat and Instagram. Was this strategic or was this something that just happened out of you just being you?
Jenn Morel: It was kind of both. When Vine was poppin’, I was like, I can do this. I’m not the funniest person in the world, but I can make people laugh in six seconds. In one week, I collaborated with a huge Vine star, and that was it for me. The video blew up, and I got to collaborate with like everyone. That’s when I got strategic. I had all these followers on Vine, and I wanted to distribute them across platforms, so I started sending people to Instagram and then to Snapchat when that became a thing. I wanted to use these platforms in a way that benefited my fanbase. I didn’t just want to be up there looking pretty. That gets boring. So I started Thirsty Thursday, where I took people behind the scenes in my real life. I kept it real. In social media, you forget so much of what people are posting isn’t real. It looks like they’re living this lavish life, but they’re not. So I wanted to show that. I wanted to show people the real and inspire them to be themselves and take care of themselves. I did that for like a year and six months, and I remember getting to a point where I was like, change is upon me. God or the universe was telling me to move on, to try something else, and I wanted to listen. Thirsty Thursday was great, but it wasn’t it for me, it wasn’t all I had to offer. I’ve always been in love with music, and I told my fanbase that I was going to start focusing on my career in music. Till this day, people ask when I’m going to bring back Thirsty Thursday.
FIERCE: You’re also a dancer. You went to Lehman College, where you studied sociology and dance. You also got your start in the industry, originally, as a dancer, appearing in videos for giants like Drake, Nicki Minaj, Trey Songz, Neyo and LMFAO. Even as a rapper, dance is still a significant part of what you do. What does this art, this form of expression, mean to you?
Jenn Morel: Dancing has been everything to me. I remember going all the way back, in New York, I started dancing when I was 8 years old in school. A teacher noticed my talent and suggested my mom put me in an arts school. I come from a low-income family, so we couldn’t afford that. But my teacher told us about a program at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and I eventually attended for two years, learning the fundamentals of ballet and hip-hop. After that, I was dancing all the time. I was in love with Shakira. My family would get together, and I would perform the choreography for them. I eventually became a dance teacher, then a go-go dancer at big clubs like Webster Hall throughout New York and did some videos with artists. This taught me, at a young age, to not be afraid. I could get on a stage and start dancing. And that’s helped me with my music. I can get up there and rap my ass off and dance my ass off. And knowing how to dance, that rhythm, also made it easy for me to hop on a beat. I know how to ride a beat. Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing team that helps me, because I don’t know everything, but dancing, I think, did make this transition a little easier for me.
FIERCE: You dropped “Ponteme,” your first viral song, in 2017. When and why did your interests shift from just dancing to rapping as well?
Jenn Morel: I’ve always been in love with music. My younger brother is a musician, a rapper and a singer. He’s been making music for 10-plus years, and I have always been his No. 1 fan. Two years ago, I was like, there’s something I’m missing, something I love but am afraid to speak about. Then I just told my manager and my team: “I want to be a rapper.” I know that sounded crazy, but they were like, “OK cool.” So I started writing and doing my first flow for Instagram. I know it was weird for my followers. To them, I was just a model or a dancer. But this was literally eating me up. I needed to do it. The entire time I was rapping over hip-hop beats, but then for Flow Friday No. 7, I switched it up. I told my brother, let’s go back to our motherland, Dominican Republic. Let’s get the urban sound of DR, which is dembow, and let’s do something. I dropped it, and in two hours it went viral. Huge accounts reposted it. Everyone was asking me when I was going to release the song. But it wasn’t a song; it was just a flow. So I told my brother we needed to finish this. I wrote it, I choreographed a whole video and I had a photographer with no video experience shoot it. With my team, I had been working on releasing another song, so I was like, “no, everything has changed. Let’s focus on this.” The next week, for Flow Friday No. 8, I dropped the video for the full song, which was “Ponteme.” From there, it’s been a journey. It’s a platinum record in Italy, I’ve had six tours in Europe and I’ve collaborated with amazing artists and DJs. If it’s yours, it’s yours. Follow it.
FIERCE: But you’re not just a pretty girl with a following who is trying to use her fame to dabble in something she has no business doing. You actually have flow and captivating lyrics. Several dancers have attempted to break into music, some like Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B, finding lots of success, and others not so much, oftentimes not because they lack talent but rather because they’re not taken as seriously. What has this transition been like for you?
Jenn Morel: Absolutely. I lost hella followers, but I knew in the transition of me becoming a rapper a lot of people weren’t going to take me serious. I’m pretty quick when it comes to negativity. It’s rare to see a negative comment on my page. My fans usually attack them first or I block them. I don’t need them. It’s so simple to delete and and keep going. But I lost a lot of fans. Before, my fanbase was 90 percent male. Since starting to rap, it’s now changed to 70 percent male. I have more women following me, which is huge since we are the ones who buy records. Guy are usually there just for pretty pictures, though I will say I’ve had a lot of men tell me they are here for my talent. But I knew I would lose some of my fanbase. I got mentally prepared for that. And I think doing that is important, because if you’re not ready, it’s easy to see that as a failure and then give up.
FIERCE: Last year proved that Latin artists don’t need to incorporate English to make a chart-topper, with “Mia” and “Te Bote,” for instance, dominating the charts, clubs and radio stations, yet there is still an industry call for Latin rappers to do English. While your rhymes and hooks might incorporate some Spanglish slang here and there, you overall resist this. Why?
Jenn Morel: It’s funny you bring this up. In the beginning, I was like, “I’m a Spanish rapper.” And my team was like, “but you speak English, you can touch more people.” A lot of people were hearing my music, saying I was killing it but that they didn’t understand what I was saying. When I got signed, the label said they loved what I do but asked me to incorporate a little English. I don’t think you need English to make a chart-topper. Look at J Balvin collaborating with Beyoncé. Look at Bad Bunny working with Drake. But I was hesitant to rap in English because I wasn’t comfortable. My forte is Spanish. I know I can kill it in this language. In English, I was self-conscious about my accent. I didn’t want to sound too proper. But this is a place where I needed to come to as an artist, not because of someone telling me I need English to sell, because I don’t think that’s true. I made a Spanish record that went platinum in Italy, where they speak Italian. It’s similar, but it’s definitely not the same. Now I’m comfortable. Now I see my accent as beautiful. Sean Paul has an accent and we all love him. I’m embracing it, and I’m doing more Spanglish music these days.
FIERCE: In September of last year, you signed with UMLE, a joint venture between Aftercluv and Universal Music Latino. Congratulations! How have things changed for you since then?
Jenn Morel: A lot of people feel like when you get signed, it’s over, you got to the top. And some do, but, for me, this is when you have to really put in the work. I’m entering a system with a lot of talent, so that’s where you get to the Major Leagues and really have to show off. You do get access to things you didn’t have when you were independent, but there is really nothing you can do while you’re signed that you can’t do when independent, especially now with social media. But signing to UMLE has helped me expand my music and land great collabs. These artists cost a lot of money, unless you know them personally, so it’s hard. It helps you with your connections and exploring options you never thought of.
FIERCE: One of the first songs you dropped since then was the fun, dembow joint “Kumbara,” a song and video, I feel, that really shows who you are: a colorful, in-your-face Dominican mujer from New York with flow and dance that you refuse to abandon even while you take on a new chapter in your career. Even more than that, though, is the message. In an interview with Remezcla, you said that, to you, “Kumbara” is “an act of freedom of expression and inspiration.” On your social media, you are also constantly using your platform to encourage your followers to “be yourself.” Why is self-ownership and expression of that self so critical to you?
Jenn Morel: It’s so critical for me because, like I said earlier, people are losing themselves in social media. Like wow, they really don’t accept themselves. They think, I’m ugly, too skinny, too fat, too white, too brown. Social media shows this perfect image and I don’t think that really exists, because cuando nos levantamos por la mañana, it’s a different story. So it’s important for me that my platform touches on that and lets them know. When it comes to “Kumbara,” the message is to love yourself. I’m human like you. I wake up like, OMG, I have a pimple, so I’m going to die. And then there are Instagram apps that take it away, that blur out the pimple. But that’s not a solution. The reality is I’m human and ate popcorn with mad butter last night and now have a pimple, and it’s going to go away. I want people to know they are beautiful. I want to help bring their confidence back. “Kumbara” is freedom of expression. It’s telling you to dance to your own rhythm. You don’t have to move slower or faster to get to where someone else is at. Stay on your own lane. Embrace where you’re at, love it and love yourself.
FIERCE: It’s January, the start of a new year with endless possibilities. What can we expect from Jenn Morel in the coming months?
Jenn Morel: In the coming months, I’ll be going on tour back to Europe. I have a couple amazing releases with some dope DJs, but I can’t say their names. I also have my second single with Universal Music coming soon. I will be shooting the video for it this week, and I’m excited for that. I have a remix with a big Dominican artist, Musicologo, coming. I’m also going back to my country, which I’m excited about. Just because you are from somewhere doesn’t mean they are going to support you. You have to show face in your motherland. So I’m going there and going to be working with local talent. I’m hoping a lot of amazing music will come out of that. I’m also working with a dope producer and will be in creative mode in Miami soon. So there’s a lot that’s going to happen soon, and I can’t wait.
FIERCE: You are 28 years old, at the start of your music career. In five to 10 years, what do you hope people can say about Jenn Morel?
Jenn Morel: Omg, that Jennifer cultivated this, her stardom, organically. She had a dream and now she is here with five Grammys and three Latin Grammys. I want to be recognized at an iconic level. I always think of Beyoncé. She started at a young age, but I think age is nothing but a number, honey. I put in a lot of work, and definitely see myself in five to 10 years having five albums at least, with them going platinum, triple platinum. I need diamonds, honey. I want to do something for the Latin community that you haven’t seen before. There’s Ivy Queen, one of my idols, but we don’t have someone at that Beyoncé level. I want to be that. I want to be an icon, but one who stays grounded and humble and gives back to her people. I think I can achieve that.