ImJessHu has been a hip-hop dancer for almost 20 years, but her first love has always been music. When she was young, she played instruments like the piano, clarinet, and saxophone. Throughout her teenage and adult years, the 31-year-old Los Angeles-based artist added other creative disciplines like modeling, creative direction, and acting, continuing to explore her artistic capabilities Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jessica Hu sees her multifaceted artistry as adding more outlets to express who she really is.
And who is that exactly? Well, she’s finding out through her personal growth. Hu admits rejection—from family, relationships, and career—has been a consistent thing in her life. The silver lining is that it’s led to her strength and a thicker skin. “I think all the rejection had taught me to be ready for this moment,” Hu says. “I think music is so sensitive and making original art by far is the biggest accomplishment I could ever make. Outside of just being able to contribute and be of service to people. Those are the two things: I want to make original art and I want to help people.” She embodies someone who can choose pieces of their identity and fit them together.
It was during the pandemic in 2020 that Hu found music as her calling and safe space again, after years of prioritizing her hip-hop dance career. She reconnected with longtime friend and mentor Pauli The PSM, a drummer, musician, and music director, who has worked with FKA Twigs, Jamie xx, and Gorillaz. Together, they built her debut single “ATP” (Apply the Pressure) around a French sample and a single refrain.
“[Pauli] was always so supportive of sharing and imparting knowledge to me,” Hu says. “I was so genuinely grateful to see his growth and his trajectory that it inspired me. He was always like, ‘Yo, I see you as an equal. I see your potential.’ And that felt so real.”
“I think part of your job as a producer is to bring out the best in people around you and to help them tell their story and to navigate telling their story on the canvas being music,” Pauli says. “It was quite easy to try and tap into who she really is. I knew from what she was doing before that it was dance based, I was like, ‘We just gotta make people dance. How do we make people dance?’”
“ATP” is a deep house record that was created through a mutual respect and admiration between producer and artist. After Hu moved from New York City to Los Angeles, it gave them time to catch up in LA and work on music, locking in about a week of sessions that an EP started to take shape. The video for the song finds her character wearing pieces from her favorite brands, paying homage to the fashion shows she is inspired by.
“To say she’s a quick learner is an understatement,” Pauli says. “She’s just a natural artist, super understanding and fluent in how to communicate very complex ideas in a very simple way, which is what I think good art is.”
Hu’s former alter ego and dance name, Jess2Sick, was a “safety shield” that kept her from utilizing her voice and speaking up, limiting her scope. As ImJessHu, she is a phoenix who rises from the ashes, burning that version of herself so another can emerge.
During a Zoom call from New York, she talks about getting her parents’ approval early on in her career, changing the narrative about dancers as background performers, and the meaning behind “ATP:”
JoySauce: Who is Jessica Hu?
ImJessHu: I've always been very fascinated with art in general. And I guess you can say my journey is typical in a certain way, where I was the black sheep in the family, the only creative in the family really, trying to make it in this industry. And I've always continued to just try different colors of art because it really intrigues me to continue to see myself exist in those different facets. So that's always been kind of my mission is how much space can I take, how much can I impact within these different art forms, what different perspective can I provide, what narrative, and what storytelling. And I've always been very fascinated by it.
JoySauce: I want to go back to what you said about being a black sheep. It used to be that parents in our culture would frown upon their kids pursuing artistic careers. But now it’s different. What kind of support did you get in the beginning when you told them you wanted to be a dancer or creative?
IJH: I think it always comes with ulterior motives. Our family is like, ‘Oh if you do this, you get to do this for us!’ I’ve always struggled a lot because it’s conflicting. I would do the schoolwork, I’ll do what they want me to do, and then they’ll take me to class. There was one point where my parents made me quit because they were just like, ‘Alright, you’re too old now, get a real job.’
Even during the pandemic, my family tried to have an intervention with me and said that they’ll pay me to quit. And it was shocking because that was literally less than two years ago. That I’ve been pursuing art for so long that I still had to keep fighting for it. But my parents started to slowly support me more when they saw results—when I started to be more vocal instead of being dismissive—because I think culturally, we just are taught not to talk about our feelings. But I had a very strong breaking point moment with my family when I told them, ‘I don’t like the way you don’t believe in me.’ I told them, ‘Your daughter aspires to be an artist just like these people that you’re reading tabloids about or whatever.’
It struck some chords with my family that I think they are so much more aware that I am not going to change. Even my dad is very optimistic now. He was like, ‘If it doesn’t work out, try something else. Keep going.’ Mom is finally more reassuring in her commentary; when a campaign for modeling comes out, she’ll text me, ‘I’m proud of you.’ That looks fake ‘cause I never seen or heard that for so long in my entire life. I screen-shotted that. That’s like an Asian version of a Grammy right there [laughs].
JoySauce: You've talked about wanting to represent movement in a world that doesn't box dancers in as entertainers or people in the background. Is that something you still believe in now that you’re putting out music?
IJH: I think dance has always been a foundational part of my identity and how I can aspire to step into different worlds and be recognized. If it wasn't for dance, modeling would not have been even a career path. I’m efficient when it comes to movement. Now, I can break the clichés that dance must live in just entertainment. You can be in the forefront: be a dancer or performance artist and be the headliner.
[I also believe in creating] an alternate world of dance and movement that is not as intimidating. Everyone can dance, everyone can move. Movement is just another skill that people can learn, a language.
JoySauce: Tell me about “Apply the Pressure.”
IJH: I’ve heard people say ‘apply pressure’ or ‘apply the pressure.’ It was something that rang true to me during the pandemic. Everything was at a standstill, everything felt isolating but at the end of the day, I still had dance. I still had creativity. I’m still applying the pressure. I’m still creating art. I’m still representing myself and doing what I am capable of regardless of the world coming to a halt or feeling depressed or feeling broken inside. I have this innate resilience that I also want to push and inspire people through the song. It’s about setting an intention and it’s also about unlocking the best version of yourself. I was obsessed with this movie where …what was it called? The one where it had the guy that took the pill and he could unlock 100 percent of his brain.
IJH: “Apply the Pressure” is essentially Limitless in a song. I am always so curious; how can I unlock my higher version of myself? My highest potential? How can I also inspire within sonic frequencies to unlock everyone’s ability to feel a boost of confidence and energy to apply the pressure. To feel supported. I think that’s another thing in connection to my story of growing up as “American Asian,” we have lacked the support for so long. It’s also about being seen and being heard. I'm not trying to say I'm collecting all the Infinity Stones when it comes to artistry. [laughs] But the one thing that I really struggled with, and I aspire to get better at is speaking, writing, and singing—anything to do with my voice—I struggled so hard to hear myself. Like telling people how I feel, telling people my point of view and standing confidently in it.
ImJessHu's EP, titled A Feeling, is slated for 2023.
Published on September 9, 2022