What were you up to in 2004? Our jeans were all a little bit baggier then, for sure, and hair straightening was revolutionised by the GHD; an item that would help men and women shape the fringe that placed them in the emo or preppy category. The O.C. had just begun and Ashlee Simpson was just about to face great shame over a lip-syncing mishap on SNL.
In 2004, we were also introduced to JoJo. We were used to teen sensations being rolled out to us on the conveyor belt of pop, aided by the penmanship of Max Martin and the flash of a tanned and toned midriff, but at 13 years of age, JoJo was something entirely different.
Her debut single ‘Leave (Get Out)’, with its big pop chorus and mild rock sensibilities, appealed to the those of us reared on Mickey Mouse Club members as well as those about to be swept up in the new wave of indie music. Not unlike Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’, that borrows from Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘Maps’ and Interpol’s ‘Evil’, [pullquote] it was a crossover hit for those of us who love pop, and those who reluctantly love pop. [/pullquote]
At the age of 12, Joanna Levesque was signed by Blackground Records, home to R&B legends like Timbaland, Toni Braxton and Static Major. Blackground Records, of course, was also home to Aaliyah and it was founded by her uncle and manager Barry Hankerson. JoJo was signed two years after Aaliyah’s tragic death in 2001 and according to Complex, Hankerson never recovered from her death or his role in her relationship with alleged pedophile R. Kelly, something that would inevitably affect his mindset and later his business.
Album number two rolled around in 2006 and, again, JoJo had massive worldwide success with ‘Too Little Too Late’ but then… she vanished. But, again, we were used to vanishing pop stars. Where were Puff Daddy’s girl band Dream? What happened to O-Town? Were LFO alright? It was assumed that if the pop star gig didn’t work out, they could pick up where they left off before low-level fame came along. That is if they don’t make an appearance on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew or, like JoJo, were caught in limbo with a rigid recording contract. There was nowhere for her to pick up from because she couldn’t go anywhere.
When JoJo was ready to roll with her third album, her label and Hankerson went silent. Even though her team had everything organised; the tracks, the album cover, the inlay, Blackground Records and Hankerson were unresponsive. And as long as she was contracted with Blackground – a contract she signed when she was 12 years old – she could not officially release music anywhere else. Like Sky Ferreira, who had to fight tooth and nail for five years for her incredible debut album Night Time, My Time to be released, JoJo was extremely honest and vocal about her situation and she started releasing mixtapes off her own bat.
Can’t Take That Away From Me (2010) and Agáp? (2012) displayed a moodier side to the singer, which suited her voice more than the PG-content of her previous material. Agáp? in particular saw the singer delving deeper into R&B sounds and it didn’t hurt that Stephen Bruner aka Thundercat was one of the producers involved and that she got the seal of approval from Outkast’s Andre 3000 for Andre, her tribute to the man. All the while, she was still unable to make money from her music.
Blackground lost their distribution deal and as music moved towards mp3s and streaming, its artists stayed put. And that’s when the lawsuits began. The ‘Free JoJo’ campaign was in full swing online and finally, in 2014, after seven years of being held hostage, she was freed from her contract.
Jump to 2017 and she’s on a European tour that kicked off in Dublin on Sunday night. The show sold out within days and it was evident from the get go that this wasn’t a nostalgia or novelty gig. The crowd knew the words to every song, from her debut album to the mixtapes to Mad Love, her third album released last year. I’ve only ever experienced this level of devotion at a Kylie Minogue concert or second-hand from watching Mariah Carey’s fanbase, her Lambily, interact with her online.
At the age of 26, JoJo has been in the music business for 14 years and as she strutted around the stage of The Academy, it was like she never left. Like Kylie, she is tongue-in-cheek and fun when she performs, knowing exactly who her audience is, and she holds a similar stance to Jennifer Lopez; confident and smoking, smoking hot. She was deeply appreciative of everyone there and she was sincere, the way only someone who almost lost everything can be. Her career was put on hold and my gig buddy and I could only fantasise what levels of world domination she would have now if she didn’t lose those eight years.
But those eight years weren’t lost.
She saw the darkest side of the music business, which has undoubtedly hardened her, but she never lost hope and kept making music, not knowing if it would ever see the light of day. While it may not be the biggest stage JoJo has ever performed on, she fought to be there and she won. She’s playing by her own rules now and the freedom she has is something that some of the biggest stars on the biggest stages in the world can only dream of.