Jean Grae and Quelle Chris on “Goodnight Courtney” and Making Art in Dark Times

Jean Grae and Quelle Chris
Photo by Frankie Turiano
“I always expect the mistreatment of black people. It’s what this country was based on.” —Quelle Chris

“Have you ever ordered a turkey sandwich?” Jean Grae asks me. We’re speaking on the phone about her new project with Quelle Chris, Goodnight Courtney, a multimedia release that follows the isolated life of a downtrodden cartoon character. I follow Grae and Chris on Twitter, so I assumed the interview would be fun and a little random. I wasn’t, however, quite prepared for this.

“Turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise. You’d expect that would be a cold sandwich, right? New York delis have a thing—and I kinda blame black people for it, ‘cause for some reason, they ask for a lot of hot sandwiches. But I just ordered a turkey club and they deliver it, and I’m like, ‘Why is this hot?!’ So yeah, I guess we’re starting the interview with that.”

It sounds like a joke, but Grae was pretty pissed about it.

Those sorts of observations are common for Grae and Chris, both of whom make intriguing alternative rap both together and separately. Goodnight Courtney is a short video that features production and narration from Grae. Chris provided the animation (which, according to the artists, was no easy task to complete) and wrote a full-length book to accompany the project. Goodnight Courtney was released the same week two more black men were killed by police, and five police officers were shot and killed during protests in Dallas, Texas.

In an interview with Bandcamp, Grae and Chris discuss the creation of Goodnight Courtney, how social injustice affects black artists, and how their new project can help the world smile a little bit more.

How did you all arrive at the concept for this project? Where did the idea come from?

Chris: We were dog-sitting for our homie. We stayed overnight at her place. You know how sometimes you have a dream, and you wake up like, “What the hell did I just dream about?” And you can’t remember it, or you wake up and something crazy happens and you can’t remember what the dream was? But I woke up laughing my ass off, because I completely remembered the dream. I was reading this book called Goodnight Courtney. Pretty much the first few pages of the book were what I was reading in the dream. I picked up my phone and wrote what I remembered from the dream. I turned to Jean when she woke up, said, “Hey, I thought about this silly book,” and immediately grabbed some paper and a pen, and wrote the book.

Grae: I was having an incredibly unproductive week, and in about 40 minutes, Chris had finished a book—which made me feel really shitty about myself. [laughs] Wherever we would go, whenever we were doing shows or anything, I would take the actual physical copy of the book and just let people read it. There’s only one copy.

Jean Grae and Quelle Chris
Photo by Frankie Turiano

Did you come up with this idea right away? Or has this been in the works for a while?

Grae: No, this was, like, summer?

Chris: Yeah, this was like a year ago, when I originally wrote the book. The actual, physical copy of the book has deteriorated. [laughs]

Grae: It’s been to a lot of bars.

Chris: It’s been on a cruise.

Grae: Goodnight Courtney is definitely living its best life.

Chris: Jean had this genius idea of putting the story out in a digital form and also an animation—which wasn’t as easy as I thought it was gonna be. But it was awesome to do.

Grae: I realize that I put a lot of ideas out there, and when I did, I was like, ‘Let’s put this out now, ‘cause I don’t feel like putting out any more music right now.’ I’m not working on an entire album, so we have to put out something that can have some income. Then I was like, ‘Let’s get someone who can turn the animation around in four days,’ which was a stupid thing to ask, but I did [laughs]. We’re both people who could find someone to handle it, but Quelle thought, ‘I can also just go teach myself how to do this.’ So he went in and learned how to do it, and I felt pretty bad about the first night in. His eyes were bleeding a little bit at the computer.

Chris: Really, the worst part was listening to all the terrible music on tutorials. Because people who make tutorials choose the worst music in the world. All the EDM that I listened to was taxing.

Jean Grae and Quelle Chris
Photo by Frankie Turiano

What went into the creation of the music?

Grae: The idea was to make this a physical book that you can have in your room, on your coffee table or wherever. But we realized that we have to do cross-media things, which is also great. In a Peanuts kinda way, I remember I would watch the cartoon, but I’d also have the record that I would sit and listen to, probably way more because the music was awesome. I think I did those first three songs really fast, just because I felt it sounded like her.

Chris: Yeah, I remember a lot of the books I read as a kid. What I remember more was the Big Bird, where you’d put the tape in his back. The Teddy Ruxpin and those types of things. I also liked Reading Rainbow. It reminded me of that. I feel like those are experiences that kids don’t really get anymore. It’s kinda cool and awesome to get that full book experience. Just simplistic, cute and heartfelt. Also, Jean kinda taped into her inner Jon Brion—very, very heartfelt chords [laughs]. It was very perfect.

Goodnight Courtney came out at the end of a shitty news week. Did you drop it then on purpose?

Grae: Nooooo.

Chris: This is a terrible thing to say, but I always expect the mistreatment and killing of black people. It’s what this country was based on. As crappy as it is, it just happens. It’s just gonna happen right now. It’s been happening since the dawn of this country. But no, we thought we just gonna release the book and everyone was gonna be happy and enjoy it, and then…yeah.

Grae: What’s always weird about putting a lot of releases out, especially in the past three years, is that every morning, I can’t just say anything and I can’t just release anything without going online first and checking if anyone’s dead. It’s not OK.

Chris: It’s fucked up.

Grae: As an artist, and as a black artist, at this point there’s so much trauma behind it. We were supposed to release it on Tuesday. It ended up getting pushed back to Wednesday, but I thought there was no way we could put it this out. We can’t—physically, spiritually, socially responsibly—we just can’t do it today. So we had to wait, which is a terrible fucking feeling to have all the time. People need art and fucking laughter, but it’s not just looking from the outside in and being like, ‘Aw, I can be considerate with this, and then after a few days, I won’t be concerned with it anymore.’ Like, We’re gonna be in these bodies, it’s just gonna be what it is forever. Just writing an email saying, ‘Hi, there’s a project out’—we still have to work, we still have to pay rent, this is our job. How are we supposed to do this? So no, we didn’t plan it. But we figured that everything has to be planned that way now, which is some bullshit.

Chris: It’s some bullshit, primarily for people of color, and especially so for black people. We make such a contribution to the artistic world and everything that is art in American culture. But at the same time, we’re constrained in so many ways. On just the artistic side, we’re told if we do this, this is a white thing to do. Or, ‘You can’t make cartoons, that’s not a black thing to do.’ But then when we wanna do things, the social situation is so fucked up. Everything that’s going on is so fucked up that we can’t even release things to try to be funny, ‘cause then it’s like, ‘Why you tryin’ to be funny right now?’ We’re always in a situation where we can’t do anything.  It’s bad all the damn time.

Grae: I think, especially last week, with everyone feeling that way, it’s hard enough doing this shit without that happening. Then you feel like nothing ever is good enough, and it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s taken a few days for us to get back on our feet and continue as people. Then to be like, ‘Here’s this cartoon about a lady who’s feeling bad.’ It’s a hard thing to sell right now, but we can’t not do it. And we can’t not keep furthering the narrative that we’re not supposed to be doing. Because fuck that.

Is there gonna be a Part Two and Part Three and so on?

Grae: Uh, Quelle actually wrote 39 parts, making me feel very unproductive. I would love for there to be more.

Chris: The next one is gonna be Courtney’s ‘Girls Day Out’.

And when is that coming out?

Chris: Ugh [indiscernible sound]

Grae: [laughs] Within the next three months.

Jean Grae and Quelle Chris
Photo by Frankie Turiano

Aside from this project, how have recent current events affected how you make music going forward?

Grae: It doesn’t affect anything for me. I think this is the first time where I’ve allowed myself to be really broken for a little bit. I realize it’s really hard to do that when we have to work, pay bills and do things. But I kinda don’t have it together in a way to make anything right now. I can’t make anything beautiful today, and I don’t wanna make anything terrible today. Having someone here who’ll be like, ‘Just sit down.’ I haven’t had a lot of people be successful at telling me to not do anything that day. I think that’s different for me.

Chris: I don’t think recent events have affected my approach to music. I’ll say it hasn’t recently affected my approach to music. When I was a kid, I went to a school where all the white kids called me ‘nigger.’ When I was a teen, I had guns pulled on me by the cops for traffic pullovers. I was a young adult and almost got arrested just for leaving my crib, because they thought I was robbing my own crib. This isn’t anything new to us. It might be new to the younger generation. These things form my approach to music anyway. So this hasn’t changed anything, because this is how I’ve always approached the world. This isn’t a new idea; it’s just something being publicized now for whatever reason. I think for anyone black, our music—whether destructive or constructive—isn’t being inspired by these situations. Because we all go through them.

—Marcus J. Moore

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