Missy Elliott:“Sharaya J is like neon colours in a dark room; she glows in the dark. Her music gives you that feeling when everyone wanted to dance at the neighbourhood house party. No standing allowed, just dancing! What she will bring to hip hop is boldness, creativity and entertainment. That’s #banji.”
Missy Elliott’s newest protégée is breaking out of east Jersey with a cerulean flat-top and bamboo hoops. “Missy does things old school,” says rapper Sharaya J, who’s been working on the down low at the hitmaker’s crib for five-and-a-half years. “I would be rehearsing when there were no shows, writing every day – Missy would come into my room at four in the morning when I was asleep! Like, ‘You gotta get up, let me see what you got.’ It was the most intense but also the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Sharaya has been schooled well: her debut single, “BANJI”, is a hip hop/ballroom fusion named after the ball-culture term for “ghetto”, which she learned as a part of the legendary House of LaBeija from the age of 12. When Dazed meets her in a midtown Manhattan high-rise, the 29-year-old has the eye-sparkle of an ingénue but the poise of a pro.
She originally trained as a dancer under “boom-kack” choreographer Laurieann Gibson, and became Beyoncé and Diddy’s first choice of face-giver. “Beyoncé was a real fan of the voguing scene, and she got me in to do a silhouette piece,” she grins. But she was plucked from the shade when Missy Elliott spotted her dance-battling with friends at a New York party. “Missy stopped the tape, saying, ‘Are you an artist? Because you say superstar to me.’”
With white-hot rhymes and razor-sharp footwork, Sharaya J is a banjee girl to make Pepper LaBeija proud, and retains the community ethos of her old house mother. “I wanted to create a movement of girls because there hadn’t been a good crew like Salt-N-Pepa for a long time.” In the track’s video, she dips and clicks with the BANJI Babes, who go hard in identikit plaid and baggies. There’s someone in a gimp suit too.
Early on, a label exec told Sharaya she needed to “show more skin, get a weave,” which only strengthened her resolve. “In that moment I came up with an acronym for ‘banji’ – Be Authentic Never Jeopardise Individuality. I called Missy in there and she was like, ‘Let’s roll with it.’ It’s good to tell my story. I’ve been locked up for so long!”