Jensen McRae Names The Five Black Musicians That Most Inspire Her Work

Jensen McRae never expected to go viral by tweeting a “niche” spoof that transformed into a relatable hit song.

“Basically, I tweeted a joke that I assumed Pheobe Bridgers would probably write the vaccination anthem of our times on her next album, which would probably come out in a few years. But then, I decided I would write it instead in the meantime,” she laughs. “This tweet that I thought was very niche ended up blowing up.”

The song, aptly titled “Immune,” opens with the lyrics, “Traffic from the East Side’s got me aggravated / Hotter than the day my brother graduated / Wait four hours in the sun / In line at Dodger Stadium / I’m not scared of dogs or getting vaccinated.” The song resonated with fans and Bridgers herself, who retweeted the clip of the song with the simple comment, “oh my god.”

“When I tweeted the Phoebe Bridgers parody, which then became a real Jensen McRae song, I didn’t expect it to do what it did,” says the 23-year-old singer/songwriter who found herself suddenly famous. “I always thought there was some artifice to it, but in my case, and in a lot of other people’s cases, it really is just an accident. It was very much fortuitous timing, and I think I wrote a pretty good verse that people liked as well.”

Growing up in a bi-racial Black and Jewish family, the Los Angeles native always knew she wanted to be a musician. She took music lessons as a child and when she attended the Grammy Camp at USC at 16 years old, it cemented her desire to pursue music professionally. She returned to USC for her undergraduate degree, this time to study performance with an emphasis on songwriting, and while she was there, her manager found her on Instagram and, as she shares matter of factly, booked her for a show.

She released her first single, “White Boy” in December 2019, following it with “Wolves” in February of 2020. The plan was to continue rolling out music, but the pandemic put those plans on pause. However, the same mixture of inherent talent and social media magic that had brought McRae to her manager was conjured up again. She was awarded the honor of joining 2021’s YouTube Black Voices campaign, where she hopes her music will “[illuminte] one tile in the mosaic of the Black American experience.”

“I feel like the point of my music is to provide another example of Black womanhood and Black female existence in the world,” she shares when asked about the socially and politically conscious nature of her music. “I think even in my music where I talk about things that are not directly related to my demographic identity, it informs the work I do anyway. When I talk about mental health and unrequited love and adolescence, and in addition, political issues, I feel like my perspective as this person who is at the intersection of a few different marginalized identities comes through always.”

McRae has seen success in the same communities her idols have created, though, in her experience, there’s still more work to be done for women of color in alternative music. “When I would play shows, people would always ask me before I played if I made R&B or if I made ‘urban’ music,” she digs. “I don’t even know what that means. That’s kind of a big word in music. Then after I played, they’d be like, ‘oh, you remind me of “insert white artists here”, but with more soul,’ which to me was just like code for ‘you’re Black.’ I think as with many other fields, white women kind of got the exposure first, and now people are opening up their definition of womanhood and rock music and folk music a little bit more to include women of color in that space.”

When McRae reminisces about her favorite artists, her eyes light up, her speech quickens, and fits of laughter punctuate her sentences. Here, she pays homage to the Black artists who have not only inspired her music but, in some ways, have made her music possible.

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys is the reason I am a musician. My mom played me her music, and I was so drawn to it right away. She was a mixed girl with braids and I was a mixed girl with braids and I was like, ‘This is everything to me.’ Really, it was her piano playing more than that I was really drawn to. I don’t even really play piano primarily anymore but the piano was my first instrument. Alicia Keys showed me a model of musical identity that really resonated with me when I was a kid. I just loved everything she did — especially The Diary Of Alicia Keys, Songs In A Minor, and As I Am. Those three albums were really important to me.

Stevie Wonder

Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder were two of the first artists I listened to in childhood. Stevie Wonder [was] just fun and the virtuosity that he had was really inspiring. I just remember being in the car with my older brother and my mom and just begging to hear “Black Man.” We would just scream, “Black Man, Black Man, Black Man!” so she would play that over and over again. My dad is a lawyer, but he has a beautiful singing voice and he used to sing a lot of Stevie Wonder to my mom. That was part of how he courted her, so that’s a very important part of my story.

Tracey Chapman

Tracy Chapman is important in the sense that I get compared to her a lot. I am honestly not as well-versed in her discography, everything that I know I love, but I have to acknowledge the historical lineage that led to me as a musician. She’s a Titan. I’ve seen so many different live performances of her playing “Fast Car” and her silencing arenas with just her and her guitar. That’s really important to me because even though I love playing with a band and that’s something I definitely want to do when shows come back, just the knowledge that it’s possible to silence an arena with just you and your voice and your guitar is something really remarkable. And also alto representation. Higher “feminine-sounding” voices are often favored, and having a super deep voice sets me apart — which is cool but it can also be sort of isolating. There are not a ton of female-identifying artists who have those super deep voices, at least not in the genres I traffic in. So, whenever I do find other artists who have that deep resonant alto, I feel very seen.

Corinne Bailey Rae

One of the other biggest artists in my childhood would be Corinne Bailey Rae. I listened to her self-titled debut constantly when I was a kid. She was another Black woman with a guitar making this interesting fusion of pop and folk and jazz, and she’s British. I’m kind of an Anglophile. I love how delicate and feminine her depiction of Black womanhood is. There [are] a few songs on the album that are so special to me. Obviously, “Put Your Records On” — the big hit — just makes me happy. But “Like A Star” is a song I played at so many school talent shows. That song, “I’d Like To,” I love that song so much. That song to me is like summer. It paints such a vivid picture of growing up in a Black neighborhood. Obviously, for her, it’d been growing up in the UK, but there are a lot of overlaps. When I was little, the neighborhood I grew up in before I moved to the Valley, growing up [with] that sense of community and just being around a large group of Black people, just being fully joyous.

Moses Sumney

A more recent discovery is Moses Sumney. I started listening to him when I was a freshman in college. I don’t remember who originally played me “Plastic,” but I was frozen where I stood when I heard it. Everything I listened to from him is so inspiring. I wrote an essay about his double album græ that I’m going to put on my blog one day. He completely defies all description and, with regard to being someone who’s trying to break out of stereotypical genre boxes myself, to watch the way that he does that is amazing. Everything he does is about bouncing back-and-forth between binaries with regard to not only musical genres, but also gender. He’s so comfortable in himself and makes incredible art that isn’t bound to any social expectation, it’s just really beautiful. His lyrics are so incredible, his voice is its own crazy instrument. He’s so in control of his artistic vision, which is something I aspire to one day. I’m instrumental in all of the decision-making in my art, but I don’t necessarily feel like I am as confident as I one day could and Moses is definitely the model I want to emulate.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.