For Jhené Aiko, a Grammy nominee in three categories, songwriting and healing are cosmically connected. No, really: For her album of the year contender “Chilombo,” the 32-year-old singer-songwriter incorporated crystal sound bowls or “singing bowls” — a Tibetan tradition in which the round vessels, when played, vibrate at a certain frequency connected to a chakra — into each of its 20 tracks.
Buddhist monks have used sound bowls for centuries to aid in relaxation and meditation. Aiko discovered them when she was a teenager. “I was really using them for myself — like therapy — an alternative to self-medicating and not dealing with how I’m feeling,” she recalls. “I just found them very relaxing and soothing, and even addictive to play, like literally the motion of playing the sound bowls felt good to me.”
For the project, a soul-comforting, stripped-down manifesto of her personal growth, Aiko invested in crystal alchemy sound bowls, which are made of quartz but infused with precious gemstones and metals that give the bowls different healing properties, she explains. She says the bowls felt natural with the evolution of her sound, which has become much more acoustic and reliant on instrumentals since 2017’s “Trip,” as opposed to the digitized beats that can be found on her 2014 debut album, “Souled Out.”
To employ the bowls correctly, Aiko researched the individual chakras they represent, making sure that they aligned with the “Chilombo” track list. Sentimental songs like “Pray for You” spoke to the heart chakra in the key of F sharp, while more sensual tracks, like “B.S.” with H.E.R. or “PU$$Y Fairy (OTW),” wrap around a sustained D note, which serves to activate the sex organs, she says.
Aiko’s longtime partner, rapper Big Sean — who features on the album’s track “None of Your Concern” — surely isn’t opposed when work bleeds into their home life. But in using the sound bowls as a spiritual guide, she is equally looking to connect with her fans — and help them to heal as well.
A Los Angeles native, Aiko grew up surrounded by music. Her father, Karamo, dreamed of becoming a musician as a young adult, and passed his passion for music on to his five children. As the youngest, Aiko may not have had a say in what was played in the house, but she loved it nonetheless — Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Brandy, TLC, Alanis Morrissette, Fiona Apple and the Spice Girls were among the artists in heavy rotation.
When Aiko was 5, her sisters, Mila J and Miyoko, formed the R&B group Gyrl with Paulette Maxwell, giving Aiko a firsthand look at the music industry. Karamo built a home studio in their garage, and Aiko would listen to them harmonize in awe. Gyrl soon caught the attention of Chris Stokes, founder of label The Ultimate Group, who would eventually become Aiko’s manager as well. Though Aiko was due to release her debut album in 2003 via Ultimate, she decided to focus on her education instead, and the album never came to fruition.
Aiko says her sisters’ singing helped her establish her priorities.
“I learned to keep my family close from watching them navigate the music industry,” she says. “I also learned that things take time, in this industry especially. … I learned to always take my time and to always stay true to myself and make the kind of music I want to make.”
Aiko remembers writing her first song at age 6, moved by Raven-Symoné’s 1993 single “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of,” which was released when Raven-Symoné was 7. “I was inspired by her because she was young and small, and I always had been really small,” Aiko says. “I remember looking up to her and wanting to write a rap of my own.”
She delivers the rap without flinching: “It’s the J, uh, the really funky one / I could rap you up in every single way / Can I play / If I can, you could see me like every single day / C’mon, don’t you want to play / If you be like me / You a G, uh.”
“I pretty much think in rhyme,” Aiko says. “Thoughts just come to me, either one-liners or a whole concept. So I got into the habit of just always writing things down. I have notebooks and lots of notes in my phone, so that when I’m in the studio — whether I’m working on my music or a feature — I just open up my notebook.”
For “Chilombo,” released in March 2020 and up for album of the year, progressive R&B album and R&B performance, for “Lightning and Thunder,” her duet with John Legend, Aiko has come into her own as both an artist and a songwriter. Presenting a raw portrait of a woman who has loved, lost and learned from the experience, the collection takes the listener on an emotional ride: from anger (“Triggered”) to sorrow (“Mourning Doves”) to reflection (“Pray for You”).
In addition to her three nominations, Aiko will have another personal Grammy first: host. She’ll be the face of the Grammys’ Premiere Ceremony that begins at noon on the day of the awards, and is set to include performances by Burna Boy, Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and Rufus Wainwright as well as a tribute to Marvin Gaye.
Aiko aimed for “Chilombo” to show “all sides” of her, which is part of the reason she chose her actual surname as its title.
“A lot of people don’t know that that’s my last name,” Aiko says with a laugh. “Aiko is one of my middle names. I’m a big fan of Mary-Kate and Ashley, so I was like, Mary-Kate, Jhené Aiko — OK.”
Aiko has chosen not to go by her full name, Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo, because for a long time, she didn’t feel it was truly hers. When her father was a young adult, he changed his last name to Chilombo (she declines to reveal his original surname). His shift of identity led to a sense of loss and confusion for young Aiko.
“Growing up, I felt a little disconnected from it because I knew that it wasn’t a name that if I typed it up, I could find family,” Aiko says. “I felt like I didn’t have any roots in it.”
But as she got older, Aiko researched the etymology of the word and found that “chilombo” means “wild beast” in the Bantu language Chichewa. “I just loved that,” Aiko says. More important, she and her father came up with their own definition of the word: “We broke it down and said, ‘chi’ is life, ‘l’ is for love, ‘om’ is om, ‘b’ is the foundation — because ‘b’ comes from ‘foot’ in Egyptian hieroglyphics, which means ‘foundation’ — and ‘o’ is everything and nothing, infinity, wholeness.”
Deciding to name her third album “Chilombo” represents just that to Aiko — finally being whole and contented within herself. “I felt like it was introducing people to me in my completeness,” she says. “Because as I’m getting older, I’m embracing all sides of myself, even the parts that seem scary or that I have tried in the past to suppress.”
Within the order of the tracks on “Chilombo,” Aiko also wants to reflect a circular journey of growth and healing — emerging from a certain moment in life as a better person. Much of the album was recorded on the Big Island of Hawaii, and Aiko came to view herself and the story of the album as a volcano.
“In life, nothing is linear,” she says. “It’s not like a perfect starting point and then you reach the mountaintop. There’s a bunch of ups and downs, times that are more dramatic than others. The volcano was something that I was really inspired by. As a person, I can be as fiery as a volcano, but when it settles, I can be as beautiful as the new land that creates new life.”