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Afro Kitty Jones Embodies The Hero In Her Own Story

Written by on June 27, 2022

Afro Kitty Jones’s 2022 new-release streak continues with energetic single “IOU.”

Originally from Cincinnati, Afro Kitty Jones initially came to Chicago in 2012 in pursuit of a doctorate in clinical neuropsychology. She quickly became wrapped up in the city’s musical network, now walking in several different worlds as a doctor, professor and singer/songwriter. She shares that being “Dr. Afro Kitty” is very much a leading double life, but, recently, her professional and artistic halves have found overlap as she begins to find community with other musicians at the university where she teaches.

Courtesy of Afro Kitty Jones.

Most of Afro Kitty Jones’s songs have an R&B-pop canvas, painted over with any number of influences from rock to salsa music. Afro Kitty has released two singles this year: January’s “It Girl,” and a new single, “IOU,” released Monday. “IOU” features her expressive vocals and a steady, infectious groove courtesy of legendary drummer Thomas Pridgen. Afro Kitty said she has recently had a bit of a punk phase, and “IOU’s” energy stems partially from this.

The last time Vocalo heard from Afro Kitty Jones was in March 2020. Over the span of the past two years, she has undergone a period of massive change — including a move to Texas and a reframing of her musical goals. We caught up with her on mental health, the origin of her name and becoming a full-blown cat lady…

It’s been two years since we last interviewed you, in March 2020. In what ways have you seen yourself grow over the last two years? Do you still have the same goals and dreams you had back then, or have they changed over time?

Wow, has it only been two years? I don’t know why it feels like I’ve aged about four since then, but it does! So much has happened since 2020. I don’t just mean for me personally, but nationally, globally, we have all been through so much change. I don’t think I would have grown as much or in the ways I have without these sort of larger shifts we have all been experiencing. For example, the pandemic forced a move from Chicago to Texas. Texas was never a place I thought I would be, and it has been a total adjustment. Living someplace so far away from home and familiar faces and culture has been challenging, but this same adjustment has helped me grow and flourish.

I am way more patient and even more independent than I was in 2020.  And there was so much loss in the last two years — for all of us — that it has forced us to all clarify what and who  is important in our lives. In fact, my perspective on music and artistry has gone from, “What can I obtain from making music?” to, “What  do I get personally out of making and sharing music?”

So, for me, it has been simplified. If I get a form of release, then I have achieved what I seek in music. If my self expression reaches at least one person, and that person finds meaning, escape, relatability or whatever it is, then my goals are met. Life is precious, so these moments of meaning-making are really what I think is most important.

You got pretty in-depth about your inspiration and creative process in our last interview. Looking back to spring 2020, have there been any major changes in the way you write and compose? If so, elaborate on them.

I would say that my approach to composition isn’t so different as my approach to the process has changed. Like I said before, I am way more patient as a person. So when I start composing or writing, it’s like I respect the process a lot more now; I know the formula. Being more patient allows me to slow down and allow my creativity to get to the point where it feels “complete” and ready to release. Like “IOU” actually was written over three years, and I don’t think it would have taken that long if it weren’t forced a bit but also because I was a lot more willing to wait and compose the sound that I was aiming for.

Courtesy of Afro Kitty Jones

The production on your newest single “IOU” features live instrumentation instead of a beat. Was there any reason you wanted to switch to instruments for this track? Do you prefer using one style over the other?

So, yeah, my last release, “It Girl,” was an instrumental, and produced by Linus (Thomas Bender Fagan) and Kai Hightower.  When I do tracks that are electronically produced, my job, especially if I’m not also contributing to production, gets way easier! I say that because I get to focus on writing lyrics and melodies, which is really the most fun part for me. It’s fun because it comes with this flow feeling that’s hard to describe and you just get to write poetry and then chant it, so to speak.

I love it, but really, for me, I typically need a bit more control in my music. By control I mean, use of real instruments to compose my sounds. Like “Rearview Love” and “Worm A** N*****,” “Bye Bye Black” from my 2018 EP Supa X features my trumpet playing, drumming and drum arrangement, as well as Linus’ drumming, cello, guitar, bass guitar and production. So, I typically involve a big band feel, but with “IOU,” you get more of those beautiful rock drums coming through, which I think makes me sound different. Even in Supa X and in “IOU” I use produced sounds with acoustic sounds, but “IOU” is different because you can clearly hear myself on piano and Linus on the guitars. Then you have [Thomas] Pridgen on the drums adding something invaluable to the whole thing. Linus adds so much to the production value and then the lyrics and cadence, you know, all sort of dance together to give my total sound a different feel. Really though, “IOU” is just a different side of my sound. I totally had a punk rock phase, and I think in “IOU,” I draw on some of that influence.

What was it like working with drummer Thomas Pridgen on this recording? How did you guys meet?

Working with Thomas Pridgen was awesome! We met because Ron Avant, the pianist for Free Nationals, and I are friends. When the Free Nationals had a show out in Chicago with Mother Nature, I went and then we all hung out afterwards at the hotel where I met everyone. Pridgen was actually filling in on drums. Thomas is real chill and laid back, so we clicked instantly.

I actually prefer to call him Pigeon, because when I first met him, I thought that’s what everyone was referring to him as, and I’m like, “Why a pigeon, tho?” Then he started calling me Space Kitty, so it all worked out. I honestly feel very grateful that he agreed to play on the song and that he’ll be part of the video. It’s not every day that an underground artist gets the opportunity to work with a Grammy-winning musician. I am glad he found something in my sound worth putting his name by. 

Your other 2022 single “It Girl” dropped near the end of January. Who designed the cover art for “It Girl,” and why did you decide to use it as the cover for the single?

Yay. I am so glad I get a chance to talk about this amazing, dope artist! So, the cover of “It Girl” features the talent of Daquan Robinson, who is a cartoonist. I actually met him though Bianca Shaw, on the set of her video for “Seat Back.” Her set was basically just a bunch of creatives, you know, dancers, artists, other songwriters, singers, and it was a great networking event. So with Quan, I wanted to collaborate with him because artists, as a collective, have to support one another. Besides, he’s super good, and I am a big fan of anime, and he and I really vibed from the jump after talking about comics and anime together. That’s why on the cover of “It Girl” my character is portrayed as a superhero. The song is supposed to embody this idea that we are all “It Girl,” and no one and nothing can take away. We all can be heroes in our own stories. 

You mentioned in your 2020 interview you felt being “Dr. Afro Kitty” is like living a double life. Do you still feel that way, or has there been any overlap between these two passions? Elaborate.

Yes, still very much so a double life, and it has not been until recently that I’ve considered merging the two, or at least letting some people from both worlds meet. I started by first removing some nudes from the internet! Lol, no, but really my original artwork of Supa X is a picture of my behind, so I had to first scrub the internet of that! Next, I’ve been meeting other musicians at the university where I work, and am realizing more of us than I thought have this double life. I think it’s like how when in elementary school if you saw a teacher outside the classroom it was this weird existential and confusing thing, as if math teachers were not real people with real lives. That’s how this music and professor thing is going.

I guess you learn that you really cannot tell a book by its cover and that people will surprise you. Also, there are so many talented musicians in academia. I think I would have to better understand and make sure my AKJ persona wouldn’t disrupt my clinical professor persona, and create this conflict where I have to choose one or experience a negative consequence because of some clash. It’s hard, because academia can be very strict with its rules for behavior and professionalism. It is hard to tease apart artistry from professionalism.

Has your passion for clinical neuropsychology affect your music or your creative process at all? If so, in what ways?

Well I would say that music is an equal passion to my passion in the sciences, but also does allow me to escape my sort of more logical self. With that said, writing music is highly cognitive for me. It involves structure and theory, creativity, math and strong verbal skills. In my work as a neuropsychologist, I often am analyzing and discussing these very things with my patients and colleagues. So I would say my passion for neuropsychology allows me to approach music with an analytical mind as I create, which helps with the editing process.

It’s a double-edged sword, though, because sometimes I can be overly-analytic, which can make me feel frustrated when I don’t get what I want on the first try. Another thing is that music shapes my research interests as well. So the effect is bi-directional, where music can also impact how I practice as a neuropsychologist or researcher.

In many ways, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of mental health services. What would you say to anyone who feels they may need therapy or psychological treatment? Are there any Chicago organizations or foundations you know of which benefit those without easy access to mental health resources?

Well the first thing I would say is, if you’re Black or Brown, yes, it is okay for us to go talk to someone. Black mental health matters, and even though stigma exists that might make you feel like the therapy room is not a place for you, it certainly can be.

With that said, if you think you may need therapy, just talk to your primary care doctor about it. Tell them that you would like to discuss options, and if you have any questions about it they should be able to point you in the right direction. Sometimes medication is an option for people, so they may see a psychiatrist or have their family doctor prescribe them. Others may prefer to treat their mental health behaviorally, by seeing a psychologist or licensed counselor or social worker. Others may need some combination of the two.

I would say the best place to start is always by identifying the need and then discussing it with someone who can help connect you to the resources you need. Having gone to school in Chicago, I know a lot of the psychologists and groups practicing in the area. There are foundations such as the Center on Halsted which offers mental health services specific to LGBTQIA, and other places like places like Chicago Women’s Health Center, Community Counseling Centers of Chicago are also a great option. The University of Illinois’ African American cultural center also offers a list of resources for Black mental health, such as Sista Afya Community Mental Health center, which focuses on Black women’s mental health. I will drop some links just in case anyone reading this might find it useful. [Chicago and Illinois Mental Health Agencies and Organizations] [UIC African American Cultural Center: Chicago/ Community Resources].

For those who don’t know, what’s the story behind your name? 

My name actually is from my college days at The Ohio State University. I used to be in this band, “Fingers,” playing trumpet, and that was my stage name then. Originally the idea behind the name came from a history lecture, where we were talking about Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love. I liked her whole vibe and feminine power. I loved the name Aphrodite, so I was like, “Okay, how can I make this name Black, tho?” Then I thought, “Afro.” And then when you say “Aphrodite” it sort of sounds like “Afro Kitty,” so that’s how “Kitty” got added. Then I just added a “Jones” to give the whole name a characterization as this funk-sorta, sexy, hippie vibe thing.

It’s been a long time since college, and since then, the name has taken on some changes with its meaning for me. It’s much less sexy for me. Now, for example, I am a total cat lady. So I actually will go by Kitty to most people, and find myself loving all things “cat” and just really playing up whatever my interests are in how I portray myself as an artist on social media. So if you see my socials, you’ll see a lot of cat references, and anime and comic things, with also this AKJ “hot girl” vibe that still plays into the original sexy image of “Aphrodite” as Afro Kitty Jones.

Courtesy of Afro Kitty Jones

We saw on your Instagram you went to Morocco recently. What made you want to go? What was your favorite part of visiting?

They say everyone has to go to Africa at least once before you die. And now that I’ve been, I would agree, there’s not any other place quite like it. I went to Morocco for my birthday, and Morocco was perfect because it has so many combinations of cultures in it which helps create this highly cultural experience when visiting. Also as a Muslim woman, visiting an Islamic state and visiting where the first University was created, is pretty meaningful to me. The trip was a way for me to explore parts of my identity and gain perspective. It’s kind of hard to pick the “best part”, and I would say the best part of visiting any new place is always the food. So that is definitely part of my answer, but I would also say the nature was amazing. I visited the Sahara desert, Atlas mountains, Dades Gorge and other places that were just breathtaking!

Listen to Afro Kitty Jones on Spotify and follow her on Instagram

Interview and introduction George Chiligiris

Edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca & Ayana Contreras

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