WORDS: ATONG ATEM
In January 2014, Eykah Badu tweeted “Oooh .. JUNGLEPUSSY - Cream Team..” with a link to a song with the irresistibly catchy hook, “Hustle that pussy muscle”. For a lot of people, this was their first introduction to rapper, actor, and model, Shayna McHayle. A creative chameleon, Shayna describes herself as someone who’s “always changing”. The 27-year-old’s career trajectory, Junglepussy moniker, and personal style have all come about organically, propelled by the confidence and innate understanding of personal branding that only someone who came of age on Myspace could possess.
Junglepussy’s evolution from early releases like ‘Stitches’, a searing song explaining how she’ll leave you if you take her man, to writing and acting in all parts of the nine minute dating show parody ‘I’m In Love’ speaks to the freedom that being an independent artist can allow when the foundation of your artistry is all you.
Leaving highschool at 16, Shayna studied merchandising at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) before deciding to pursue music after friends asked her to contribute to their tracks. She’s always had drive and always been goal orientated, and it’s obvious that this steely focus has played a significant role in her success. Creatively, she keeps herself busy—as a rapper, a represented model with Elite NYC, and an actress starring alongside Regina Hall in the feature film Support the Girls. Then there’s her two studio albums, Pregnant with Success and JP3, bodies of work that actualise the limitless potential fans saw in her early mixtape Satisfaction Guaranteed.
I met Shayna in Collingwood on one of the days between her first stint at Dark Mofo and her debut Melbourne show. She was huddled in the corner of the studio next to a heater, her hair and makeup freshly styled from the shoot we had just wrapped. She warmly thanked the team as they left before telling me how difficult it’s been for her to adjust to Australia so far, mainly because “It’s so cold!”
That’s not what I thought you’d say! It must’ve been colder in Tasmania for Dark Mofo. What was your experience of the festival? I didn’t know that it was a celebration of darkness, not just the solstice! The burning up of animals and things—it was very white. I was like, “This is a very white-ass, like, be dark for no reason thing.” I didn’t know that!
What a way to experience Australia for the first time. You were booked to come here back in 2017, but that fell through. After all the anticipation, what are your thoughts on Australia so far? It’s been brief and it’s all happening in real time so I haven’t been able to digest it yet. Travelling is so exhausting, and I’m so tall so being on planes is hard for my body; I’m too long to be folded up like a pretzel. It’s been interesting. When we first got here, we went to Hobart and I saw no black people. I knew y’all was here, it just took a while to feel it.
Hopefully at the show in Melbourne tomorrow I’ll feel that. I wanna connect with people like me. Not even just like me, but people out here who are the marginalised people. I know it’s really crazy out here and they’re doing a great job of making it look white and chill. But I know it’s not like that here at all.
What do you mean by feeling it? Just in terms of being in a brand new place and time zone—I want to grasp it all. I haven’t felt it yet having just been to Hobart and the feeling was like being in some European country. But now, after coming to Melbourne and meeting with you and people out here that I would want to work with, I know there are people like me or [people] who see reflections of themselves in me and that’s why I was brought here.
A lot of young black people here connect with your music, is that connection an intentional part of your creative process? No it’s a byproduct of what I do. When I first started making music, I felt like nobody’s gonna connect with me. After I started and people were liking it, I didn’t feel like people were really “getting it”. I blamed myself, I thought, If they’re not getting it, then I’m not being as authentic, I’m not really revealing parts of myself that I should—parts of myself that are extremely definitive—that I can’t put words to. I need to make sure that I’m always [being authentic] so that other people are able to see that in themselves too.
“I wanna connect with people like me. Not even just like me, but people out here who are the marginalised people.”
Your music seems to be rooted in authenticity, self-love and self-care, even throughout your various iterations as an artist. How would you describe your creative journey? I don't know. There are things I realise everyday, even out here. Whenever I travel I reassess how far I’ve come. When I first did ‘Stitches’, or better yet when I was first doing music in general I had just gotten out of a relationship and I just wanted everybody to know that niggas ain't shit. I did that for maybe two albums and on JP3 I was like, “I’m not dedicating my music to these guys anymore.”
I like to play with “MY man” or “MY nigga”, that possessiveness that we feel when you like or love someone. I hate that and I’m always trying to dismantle that like I did in my latest video [for] ‘I’m In Love’, the game show. I played me, I played everyone, because it’s like, who is your man, who is it really? Why do we feel that to be connected to something we must own it. Why don’t we do like that quote says, “When you see a flower you love don’t pick it, just admire it”.
I try to approach everything like that, like my work. I realised last summer that this is a service industry job—I didn’t know that! I mean, I can do whatever I want but I still have a responsibility. You can do whatever you want but “To whom much is given, much is required”. I’ve been feeling the responsibility to dive deeper into whatever I am. I’m letting shit go, I’m not letting things hold me back.
I know that I really don’t care about these guys. I know that I’m lovable and awesome and I just be so shocked and gagged when they act like I’m not. I’m like, “What?! You don’t see all this?!” But I can’t live my life trying to prove to people that I’m worthy of decency. My new music, I’m just more so having fun with myself and the awesomeness of me. Y’all know what it is, y’all know I can’t stand infidelity, this and that, but most people who like monogamy don’t, so I’m like, “Alright, moving on.”
And are you one of those people who likes monogamy? Oh yes, of course. It’s so beautiful and dreamy. It’s intense. I’ve been fed visions of monogamy all my life so I’m like, “Ooh, that’s so cute.”
Is your music an avenue for you to process these things you’ve been fed that you’re learning and unlearning about yourself? Yes, definitely. And not only the music, just everything. Being independent, not having a manager taught me so much. I really have nobody telling me what to do so I really have to be mindful of what I wanna say and how I wanna portray myself. I want to do that in the most authentic way. I need to be vulnerable and open so people can see whatever the fuck—see what they need to see. I think, How can I describe myself? I really don’t know, it’s always changing. But I do know for sure that I’m… like it’s not even that deep for me! I’ve always been super creative, super funny, just whatever. Now that the world is watching, it’s just like… hmm.
With your holistic outlook, it makes sense that you’ve now gone into acting, modeling, and so many things outside of music. Speaking of that, with ‘I’m In Love’, what was the thought process behind you playing all the characters? The thought process behind it was being honest about not being sure. Being honest about not know[ing] exactly how you feel or what you wanna do. The show I’m in Love...With YOUR Nigga was about representing that possessivness. We think we own people—okay I’m gonna play everyone, so now who am I owning? The idea of taking someone’s man, but I’m playing myself so who am I taking? Playing every character is like taking literal responsibility. That video was crazy to do, period, but I want people to see that I know most of y’all are many parts of these people in one—don’t be afraid to explore that. Don’t be afraid to not know.
How is that mindset different from when you first started out? When I first started with ‘Cream Team’ and ‘Stitches’, I didn’t know [how to be] but I thought that I should. Like this is how I should do it, this is what I should talk about, this is what the people want. But it’s like, “Bitch, you don’t know that!”
The more I did music and shared with the world, I realised that I didn’t know, so I started to commit to not knowing and just being and exploring. That’s enough. Let’s not even talk about America. America’s winging it! Everybody’s winging it! So I’m not gonna beat up on myself anymore. I’m gonna push myself and try hard but I think it’s okay to get up and show up. Just show up. Show up and be yourself. It’s being and showing that matters.
We’re glad that it’s led you all the way here. I was supposed to come here once or twice before but I didn’t know people here connected with me. My friend was like, “No girl you need to go!” I was like, “Just go, people go over the pacific ocean all the time.” I was like, “You think they gonna let this plane go down with all these white people? You’re good, just go!” When I first toured Europe it was such a shocker so I was getting nervous thinking Australia’s gonna be just like that.
Has Europe remained a shocker for you? No, after the first time no it wasn’t. I was like, I’ll just bring my own wash cloth, because they don’t have them in the hotels! And that was it, after that I loved it. I love Europe. It was really the Pacific Ocean! Because for everything else we just take the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean [Sea]. Y’all don’t, but that’s why I was like, “The Pacific?!” I would look at my globe after I said yes to coming here. I would just look at the globe thinking, That’s so much water. After June I ticked off so many things off my bucket list, so I just did it.
“ Being independent, not having a manager taught me so much. I really have nobody telling me what to do so I really have to be mindful of what I wanna say and how I wanna portray myself. I want to do that in the most authentic way. ”
What other things have you ticked off your bucket list? Well, I went to a nude beach in Barcelona, I went topless at the beach which was something I thought I’d do way older—did that when I was 27. I’m starting to build relationships with farm animals too.
That really fits in with your identity of intensely projected positivity. I’m thinking about your love of Trader Joe’s and your all caps “JUST FUCKING LOVE YOURSELF” tweets. I just like the way the caps look! There are so many voices on Twitter, I’m like, “Nah, I need caps.” It’s not like I’m really yelling—the volume is just turned up! Y’all have Trader Joe’s here?
No, but we get the concept. You don’t need it. But even so it’s the concept of trying to make healthier decisions for yourself. Because if we leave it up to society, they want us to run ourselves down to the ground, eat what we wanna eat. The Trader Joe’s thing came from taking the time to think about our options. And trying to make healthier decisions when we can. Sometimes I don’t wanna eat at Trader Joe’s, sometimes I wanna eat high fructose corn syrup but I know I can’t function off of that everyday so I try to cut it down!
How does this healthier options ethos translate in your career? I don't know, damn if I was eating crazy shit and taking drugs I might’ve been a bigger star! Because all the stars love Pepsi and Mcdonalds—I feel like there’s something in that food I’m missing that’s holding me back—nah I’m kidding! Sometimes I think about that because it matters—but sometimes it doesn’t.
How did you create this super authentic, super cool brand and identity? I think it’s because I’ve been on the internet forever, I’ve been around since Myspace days. I wasn’t JP but my Myspace was amazing. I’ve always been taking pictures because my best friend in school, her dad was a photographer and she’d bring his camera to school. This was before Instagram, before even phones could take good pictures. We just liked to take pictures for fun. I was always super stylish, embellishing something, wearing makeup, doing crazy eyeliner, hot pink lipstick.
Me and my hairdresser would plan out my weave—my hair fell out because I bleached it hot pink one week then blue. Now I know to just buy wigs. But back then the wig technology was just not that good. So I was like, “Fuck my hair up, I don’t care.” I was always just styling myself just to put it up on Myspace, then Facebook came out and I was doing the same thing. Then Instagram came out and everyone’s life changed forever but nothing really changed for me because I was always doing this anyway. I’ve always been super stylish, always been taking pictures, always been super funny, now it’s just on a way larger platform.
Is that how Junglepussy came about? Even with Junglepussy it’s never been, “This is how I want to look or this is what I want people to call me.” Junglepussy came to me randomly. It’s a two second Facebook video, and I just have on a leopard sweater and I say, “This is jungle pussy.” That’s it! I found it the other day and I was like “That was it?!” When Twitter came out I was like, I want a name nobody’s gonna take. That was a big thing back in the day, so I was like let me pick Junglepussy for Twitter [so] nobody’s gonna take my name. Life went on, I was studying at FIT in New York, working in retail.
Then I met some friends who were working in music and they’d be like, “Hey girl, can you do a song for my mixtape, can you do a verse?” I’d do it, it would come out and people would be like, “Can you do more?” So I thought, Alright, let me do one song. I did ‘Cream Team’, they liked it, [I] did ‘Stitches’, they loved it and that’s when Erykah Badu found me and I was like, “Shit, I can’t stop now.” And that’s what lead to where we are now across the earth!
Is this where you imagined ‘Cream Team’ would take you? No, I thought I could stop! I thought I could do one video and a song and be done. If I’d known, I would have done [it] so much differently. But I’ve always been like that.
For high school I applied to one and got in. For college I only applied to [the] FIT and got in. I worked in retail and just wanted to make $1000 and I made more than that. My goals have always been big but I don’t care for the excess—unless I’m serving a look.
Even growing up in New York I always thought, I just need a metrocard and I can have fun. Even when I’m on tour, I’m like, “I just need ramen, that’s it.” Then bigger and better things be coming and I’m like, “Damn, I just wanted a little something.” I’m trying not to let imposter syndrome come in. All of these are things I’ve never planned for. I can’t dishonour my gifts and my accomplishments. Most of the time I need to be conscious of my existence. Like, damn, I just want to be an art teacher or a meteorologist or something.
I feel like now I just need to be my best self. I wanna use my voice for things that are important to me. Space in New York is such a big thing, I didn't have my own space until recently. Yes you can create amazing things under harsh circumstances but when I travel and see how much space others have—literal square feet space—I’d love to give artists access to that. I wanna open up an artist residency or home for people to just create. That’s a big deal, that’s a luxury and a privilege. I need to leave a place behind for people to continue to do what I do.