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The Eyes Have It in janee raxanna’s Progressive R&B

Show scheduled for Snug Harbor on Jan. 19

janee raxanna poses against a wall of tropical plants
Janee Caulton AKA janee raxanna (Photo by Quincy Woodard)

Pulsing squelchy beats radiate like a warning beacon as Janee Caulton seems to struggle to exhale, her feathered jazzy vocal releasing a wave of watchfulness and anxiety:

“Is the air I lack when I see them flashing in my mirror rear mirror/ It’s the good old boys, it’s the good old boys, it’s the good old boys in blue/ … I recognize the look that’s in your eyes/Better keep my hands in your line of sight.”

It’s a regrettably familiar scenario related by Caulton, who composes and performs her jazz-inflected progressive R&B songs as janee raxanna, on her single “Eyes on You,” released in December 2021. The eerie yet soulful tune, she says, was sparked by a traffic stop in South Carolina in 2021.

 

“The police officer was driving some kind of muscle car … and had on army green attire — it wasn’t blue,” raxanna says. She and her companion, both Black, remained completely silent throughout the ordeal, until the white officer allowed them to drive away. 

Though informed by this personal experience, “Eyes on You” gradually cascades into a universal statement, accompanied by a spare yet spacious soundscape that recalls the dub and hip-hop-informed final work of R&B poet and polemicist Gil Scott-Heron. Raxanna’s lyrical concerns also seem to echo Scott-Heron’s.

“’Eyes on You’ is about the police eyes being on you, but it’s also about the summer [of 2020] when things changed,” raxanna says. 

People have turned eyes on the police to make them more accountable, she offers, recording officers on their phones to document their infractions against public safety. 

“Y’all expect me to be subject to / Rules that you presume / Ain’t got no reins on you /Ain’t got no chains on you…”

“Eyes on You,” is both a culmination and a continuation of raxanna’s ongoing musical exploration. It draws from music across the African diaspora: jazz, soul and Motown, as well as the sounds of alternative rock, Celia Cruz and Bob Marley. 

Across an EP and a string of singles, raxanna has filtered her thoughts, emotions and experiences through a panoply of races, languages and perspectives. With a band comprised of herself, Charlotte activist and alternative R&B/pop artist Joseph (Jae) Quisol and drummer Nik Maldonado, janee raxanna will perform her new and old material at Snug Harbor on Jan. 19.

janee raxanna wears a flower crown in a swamp
Janee Caulton AKA janee raxanna (Photo by Quincy Woodard)

A musical awakening

Raxanna remembers singing as a “self-soothing practice” at an early age. Attending UNC Charlotte in 2009, she recalls being enthralled with the city’s burgeoning poetry/spoken-word scene, exemplified by artists like Carlos Robson and Boris “Bluz” Rogers. 

It wasn’t till raxanna turned 18, however, and transferred to The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, that she considered music and performing as her path. In L.A., she performed covers and her first original tunes at open mics and jam sessions. From early influences like Amy Winehouse, raxanna turned to the sources for her inspirations — Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Sara Vaughn. This musical wellspring was augmented with experimental rock like The Kooks and Modest Mouse.

After graduating in 2013, raxanna returned to Charlotte. In 2016 she dropped her first recorded project, the 6-song EP One, on Soundcloud. The collection, recorded and mixed with Scott Slagle, marks raxanna’s first collaboration with producer Dayton Collins, who would go on to produce all of raxanna’s subsequent projects.

Valentines’ Day 2020 saw the release of The Awakening, comprised of two songs. In “Miel Negra,” haunting hazy synthesizers dovetail into raxanna’s Spanish language vocal. Halfway though the elemental shuffling tune, she switches to English lyrics.

 

The idea to make “Miel Negra” a bilingual song was not a conscious decision, says raxanna. It’s simply that growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts and later in Charlotte, she was frequently around a Spanish-speaking population. 

“There’s a different cultural influence or emotionality that you can connect to by taking inspiration from [Spanish language] artists,” raxanna says. “[They] allow us to see outside of concepts that were not designed for our benefit, and allow us to see a broader sense of community.”

After an intro of plangent strummed guitar and pensive coiling bass, The Awakening’s second song, “Bloom,” introduces a recurring theme for raxanna: processing and navigating relationships.

“[The song is about] when you’re in situations that shake you to the core and you must figure out your way,” raxanna says. 

In that regard, the song’s recurring couplet, “I’m back on the run/ Rebel with a gun…” refers to being on a mission, says raxanna.

“Both of those lines are about stepping away from distractions and getting back into your purpose,” she says.

janee raxanna poses in a black outfit
Janee Caulton AKA janee raxanna (Photo by Quincy Woodard)

Sleepless and numb

janee raxanna continued to shape her sound through increasingly sophisticated releases, which stripped down backing instruments to accentuate the musicality of her voice.

Amid syncopated percussion and the purposeful prowl of guttural bass, the theme of relationships arises again in the sensuous and intimate “Losing Feeling,” this time joined by notions of sleeplessness and numbness;

“I think I’m losing feeling for the subtleties / And wishing I could wake up with your hands on me…”

“[The song is about] wanting to express the vulnerability that … Black women, feel where you have to be so strong, and no one is comforting you,” raxanna says. “[Hence] that line, ‘Who’s going to take care of me when I can’t sleep?’”

 

In January 2022, raxanna returned to UNC Charlotte to study psychology. She also continued to develop a strong friendship with Gates Millennium Scholar, Harvard University graduate and proudly queer advocate Quisol.

“We had a quick connection,” raxanna says, recalling the pair’s first meeting in 2017.

Sharing a love for Miles Davis, raxanna and Quisol cowrote the song “Something About You,” which appears on Quisol’s most recent album Dreamworld. The pair’s strategy of writing and trading verses back and forth gives the song a classic jazz feel, says raxanna, likening the tune to an Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duet.

Raxanna has played shows with Quisol, including gigs in Charlotte and Asheville. Although she plays guitar and piano, raxanna focuses on her primary instrument — her voice — for sets with Quisol, and on Jan. 19, her first show devoted to her own music.

“It’s mostly my original content,” she says.

In many ways, the set will be an affirmation of janee raxanna’s commitment to the music spanning the African diaspora and beyond.

“I want the [show’s] takeaway to be a connection to African people both on the continent and the African Diaspora, through languages, rhythms and singing styles,” raxanna says, “specifically [music] inspired by some of the jazz artists from the United States, as well as some of the incredible artists from the Spanish and English-speaking Caribbean.”


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