On the Come Up: Jozzy
By Jennifer Wilson Walker, Membership Coordinator, ASCAP Rhythm & Soul • June 17, 2020
In celebration of Black Music Month and Pride Month, we're sharing the stories and voices of our Black and LGBTQ+ members throughout June.
If you have two ears and were alive in 2019, you are well acquainted with the work of Jocelyn “Jozzy” Donald. This Memphis-bred songwriter co-wrote Billy Ray Cyrus’s verse on “Old Town Road,” the history-making Lil Nas X single that set a record for most consecutive weeks (19) at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, netted Jozzy a Grammy nod for Record of the Year, and was named Most Streamed Song of the Year at the 2020 ASCAP Pop Music Awards. While “Old Town Road” may have raised Jozzy’s profile considerably, this killer topliner has been on the grind for over decade. Her story is an inspiring one for any talented songsmith starting from the bottom with dreams of greatness.
Editor's note: this interview was conducted in mid-May, 2020.
So let’s start at the beginning. You’re originally from Memphis. I’m sure you grew up on 8 Ball & MJG, Three Six Mafia, DJ Paul and a lot of Memphis artists. Do you feel like being from Memphis influenced your artistic abilities and sound?
Definitely. It shaped me in a lot of ways, because you know, you got so many types of music in Memphis. You got blues, you got hip-hop, and you got soul music. My momma used to be a singer with Hi-Records with Willie Mitchell, and Ann Peebles and Al Green…so I had both aspects of it—the rap scene, and then I had the soul and gospel. Music is so broad, it’s not just one sound. We had Stax Records, who were competing with Motown at the time. All of that music that was in the city is there for you to find. That’s why it shaped my ears so much.
I’m from a small town, Durham, NC. There were not a lot of people who were interested in music as a career. But I’ll never forget those people who were DJs, and people who invited me to the studio for the first time, who gave me that stamp that I needed to tap into grind mode and to feel like I could really do it. Did you have people in Memphis who did the same thing for you?
Man, yeah. If you know who Lil Larry is…he had a studio called the Trap House in Memphis, and if it wasn’t for Lil Larry, I wouldn’t have found my swag and my name. I found my sound there. I got some money there. It taught me how to be a real songwriter. I was in high school doing it. Also, a lot of producers in town. There’s a producer who’s actually Young Dolph’s producer now. It’s so crazy to see him going crazy. Web was somebody who gave me the confidence, and was telling everybody about me like, “This the girl. She cold.” It was just like a breath of fresh air being the hot new thing…and I was always different, too. So they always showed me love. They all put a battery pack behind my back and took me to get it.
There are so many people who, when you’re trying to do something that a lot of people can’t do or haven’t done, are not supportive. They look at you like, “Oh, you want to be a writer? You want to be an artist? That’s not about to happen.” Do you ever feel like you faced some roadblocks because you were there?
Oh yeah, definitely. I was born in Memphis, [but] I’m from Coral Lake. I’m talkin’ ‘bout off the map. People don’t even talk about Coral Lake. People don’t even talk about Double Tree. N****s don’t even want to come over there. It’s kind of like voodoo village. Everybody be afraid.
My area had a negative connotation just because of what it was. It was definitely like, “How you make it out of there?” Thank God we moved to East Memphis, so I was more surrounded by culture. You move to East Memphis, and you start seeing bigger buildings. More lavish and more polished, more refined… That stuff really does it for you. It starts opening your body up, your idea of what’s out there. Then, you get a taste of artists that come from different cities, you start seeing the Yung Jocs come, and that was at the time when he was poppin,’ and Nicki Minaj [came] to the city. Then you realize “Okay, there’s a bigger picture.” That’s the time I realized you can only go so far in your city. If we had the resources, if we had a label, we should have molded our things like Atlanta.
The thing I love about Atlanta is they have Black leaders that realize music is key. Music is capital, and…Memphis is segregated as f**k. Now, I think you can stay in the city and win, because of social media, but at the time, that was 10 years ago. There’s been a big change. We didn’t have technology. We didn’t have no label. You could only go so far. So yeah, it was a moment where you realize, “Either I’m going to go to Atlanta, or I’m going to LA.” [Then] I went through the back door in Miami. It took me a minute, but I made it.
Before you moved to Miami, did you have the support of your family to go and chase this dream?
Yeah, my parents were very supportive. They knew that this is all I wanted to do as a kid. My pop always treated it like college. He said, “I’m going to give you four or five years…This is your college. Let’s see what you can do in four or five years.” Miami was my college. I didn’t have a lot of money. When I went to Miami I had relationships. Relationships are currency. You find the right people, and they take you under their wing, you got to eat, and other than that, you’re good. You just need a space to lay your head. I was living at my means.
You went to Miami, and you were able to connect with Timbaland.
That’s the reason I went, because my boy Wizzdumb was a protégé of Timbaland at the time. He’s actually from Memphis, but I never met him. He knew me through Web, and he asked me to come down to Miami for a week for writing. He heard about me, because I was poppin’ in the city. He flew me down to work, and I ended up staying there for like five years, and I met Timbaland. Timbaland got us a crib right next to the studio, so we could just get up, drive over there, work, and that was a moment where I was like… ust to be around greatness, I always was an Aaliyah fan and a Missy [Elliott] fan…That was a blessing.
Then I met Missy, and that just put an extra battery pack in my back. I’m getting the best gems from Missy—super gems. It was like artist development. I ain’t have no placements. I had to learn how to be patient. I had to learn how to be a fly on the wall. I had to learn how to wait my turn. I had to learn how to deal with big egos. I had to learn a lot of s**t.
That’s incredible that you were able to go down there and make such great connections with Timbaland. He’s the GOAT, and of course Missy is incredible. Tell me how you were able to parlay everything you learned in that situation into working with Chris Brown, Dreezy and the queen, Beyoncé, and some of the other amazing artists you’ve worked with.
I don’t know if I can say how I’ve taken things from them to bring it to who I work with. It’s almost like it’s second nature. It’s three things that I learned. Two from Missy: get to the hook, and keep it simple. I used to be too wordy…Like with Monica, the record [“Just Right for Me”] she did with Lil Wayne. I was like, “Yo, I got to do something catchy…something like ‘So Gone.’” That kind of stayed with me.
I love that advice. Then there was your big breakout record, “Old Town Road.” So you came in, and you did the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus…Who hit you up? How did all of this happen?
The record had super legs. Now we have the new normal going on in the world. You got to switch it up. But at that time, I feel like they was trying to do Lil Nas X dirty. Folks wasn’t fuckin’ with the switch up—a black boy doing country—country trap. I was sick as hell. It was like March, I was in the bed and Andy, my manager, called me, and was like, “You want to work with Billy Ray Cyrus?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m from Memphis. I used to watch Hannah Montana, so I definitely know who [he] is. I’m with it.” I never turn down odd sessions that don’t sound like I should be with them.
We went to Record Plant—the same room that Kanye did Graduation in. It was special. It was like a breath of fresh air. He was so relaxed. Him and his wife—you could just tell they were excited. You could just tell that they knew they were about to be a part of something, because Billy Ray never caught a #1 [on the Hot 100]. (Ed. Note – Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” did reach #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart) It was a beautiful moment to see him and to get that opportunity to give him my swag and my interpretation of what I heard on the song. I’m so thankful.
It just seems like everything aligned for you for that moment.
Yeah, that was God. People forget that it’s not anything you’re doing. The inspiration comes from our Lord and Savior. I don’t even know how I even…I never even heard of “Old Town Road.” I went in there, and it was my first time hearing it in the studio, and…I didn’t know what I was going to write about. I don’t know where the melodies came from. It was magical. It was a supernatural moment. It wasn’t really nothing that I did. I was just there. You know what I’m sayin’? God was just like, “This is your moment. You’re not going to be afraid of it. You’re not going to bomb it. It’s meant for you.” And I just feel like it was meant for me, because anybody could have done it. Anybody could have written a dope verse. That was my blessing.
That’s amazing. It’s when preparation and opportunity meet. You were prepared, you were ready, and you were blessed with that opportunity, and you killed it.
Facts. You don’t be scared either. Like normally I be nervous in sessions like, man I don’t know how I’m going to do. My guard was down. I was really like a soldier…it was beautiful. It took me 15 or 20 minutes to write that verse. It took me no time. I kid you not. I took us a few hours to record him and get it right.
But even a few hours isn’t bad. Think about sessions that go on for eight, 10 or 12 hours, and nothing happens. For all of this to happen as fast as it did, that’s dope.
Yeah, it wasn’t a long block of studio time, ‘cause I was sick, so I wanted to be there, but I was still kind of under the weather.
Wow, well that’s incredible. And shout out to all the black girl magic on HBO’s Insecure.
Shout out to the black girl magic on “Old Town Road!”
Insecure comes, and it’s like, you know what it is. It’s FUBU, man. “For Us, By Us.” Yeah, it’s a breath of fresh air for that.
I literally can’t get through an episode of Insecure without saying, “Hold on. Rewind that. Siri, what song is this?” The whole soundtrack is amazing. Tell me about your involvement with the show.
We got “Never Lonely,” with Yung Baby Tate. She just signed to Issa Rae. Shout out to Issa. She’s a genius. For her to start a label, that’s different. She found a dope ass artist with Baby Tate. It was a whole camp, so we did a lot of songs for Insecure. So I can’t wait to see the episodes and all of them drop. But I’m only on one song as an artist. That’s “Never Lonely.”
It’s dope to watch a show like Insecure and hear your voice in it. I did the show, Euphoria, Drake’s show on HBO. That was my first taste of hearing my voice on a show. That song was so big, it’s still going crazy now—“I’m Gone.” To feel that on a show that people grow with, I want people to do that with me as an artist, and when they hear my music on TV shows, I feel like that’s a part of growing with me and finding me. Like, “Who is this?” From Euphoria to Insecure, those two shows really opened doors for the music to get its shine.
You’ve been doing your thing as an artist. Tell me what we can expect from you as Jozzy the artist.
“Soul Therapy.” That’s what I’m working on right now, my new sound called “Soul Therapy.” I feel like right now we just need some therapeutic music with some swag with it, and we need to go back to the roots for the soul. Like, I was listening to a lot of Jay-Z’s “Song Cry,” in my head… “Ain’t No Love,” The Blueprint sound. We kind of missin’ that soul vibe. That’s what I’m feeling right now. That’s what I’m bringing to the world. It’s like speaking to all the things we’re thinking about during this quarantine.
Has that been your therapy during this quarantine?
Definitely. I finished my whole project. I did six songs in the crib with my boy. I’m so proud of these songs, and I just really can’t wait to give it to the world and let the people decide what they feel. It just needs the opportunity to get heard. It’s a nice little six piece… I don’t want to call it an EP. It’s a six-piece album. I really feel like this is like my debut album.