She took the stage, engaging the crowd immediately, teaching them how to receive her. She jumped and sang and rapped. My eyes widened in awe as I cheered along with the crowd. Poetry in motion epitomized, Rilly Ril is the artist’s name of the lyricist, musician and creative performer Jaleh Williams. She dances to the sound of her own drum and lets her own intuition guide her.
Building a website is a challenge both from a creative and technological standpoint. So while I had always been fascinated by Rilly Ril, scrolling through her freshly launched website instantly filled me with inspiration, and I just had to talk to her about it, hoping to learn about her process.
In a pre-pandemic world, I would have simply met with Ril at a cafe and had a lively discussion. Instead, I had the opportunity to speak to her over Zoom. We greeted each other, and I eagerly jumped right in.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. An audio file of the complete interview is included, HERE.
Let’s talk about history. When did you realize you wanted to do music? Was it always something you’ve been drawn to, or is it something new?
I realized I wanted to do music when I was a kid. I would do shows for my family in the living room. I would do things I saw on Disney Channel, so it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
What is your earliest memory of doing something significantly creative?
Creating my own talent show in the living room during a family reunion — I just curated a talent show. I would run back to my room and put on different outfits and different wigs and come back out as different characters. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to do music, and that I wanted to perform. I just wanted to be a part of anything to do with performances, music, singing, and acting. I would perform in musicals at school. I always had a passion for doing things creatively.
How did it feel the first time you completed a full song, and what song was it?
It just felt very, very euphoric. It felt out of this world, and I felt very lifted, very empowered. I didn’t feel real. The first song that I completed and recorded is a song called “WUT DO U C.” It was probably around one minute and twenty seconds, and it was kind of a snippet. I recorded it with my friend, and I realized — hey, why don’t I start doing music for real? The feedback that I received from releasing that on Soundcloud really pushed me forward to start making music consistently.
Right, so this brings us to the Keepin’ It Ril EP. So you released the Keepin’ It Ril EP in 2019. The EP consists of five songs such as “S.O.S,” which you recently released a music video for, “Gordo,” and “Hey Yung World.” How long was this EP in the works, prior to its release?
I was working on Keeping It Ril for maybe two to three months, about two months of recording, and the total rollout took three. I went through that and just did it. I was just so excited to get it done.
It was a total of eight recording sessions. I would just go in and record, and the last few sessions consisted of cleaning up all of the tracks. I was just on a roll, and I was in tune with my own vibration and just curated that [the EP] at the speed of light.
Is there a general theme or central focus? What are the messages that you’re trying to send with the songs and the EP in general? What was on your mind?
[The EP] was basically just introducing people to me as an artist. My artist’s name being Rilly Ril and the project being called Keepin’ it Ril. Introducing people not just to me, but also the theme of what I represent and also what I want to project. You know, coming out as an artist, with your first project, everyone is paying attention to that, and everyone comes back to that. So I wanted it to be something that represented me well in terms of authenticity and vulnerability.
The themes are of honesty, the themes are of going through struggles and coming out of it, and of guiding yourself and being your own mentor, sticking with yourself for guidance, and trusting your own power. Basically, empowerment — those were the themes of the first project. Basically, they are themes that I’ve been representing my entire life, and I wanted to let go of those songs so that people could hear it and see themselves in it.
Yes, it was certainly very empowering. The Keepin’ It Ril EP is out on all music platforms including Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube and Soundcloud. What was it like shooting the different music videos?
Shooting the different music videos…it was so crazy. I shot one on my phone and shot two professionally. It taught me a lot about patience and using what you have to make it enough. No matter how little you have, you’ll make it work, and it’ll be enough. Shooting the videos was very exciting and very fun.
There were times I was on a rollercoaster (she says in reference to her incredibly colorful Keepin’ It Ril music video that was mostly shot through a fisheye lens and partially took place at an amusement park). There were times when I was at the piers (In reference to her “It’ll B Fine” Music Video shot at the piers in Manhattan). I just shot things locally too, in the Brooklyn and Manhattan area. I didn’t go far to shoot this project, because I wanted to showcase things that were close to my environment and showcase my experiences as much as I could in the project.
Shooting the music videos were very challenging too, in the sense that I didn’t have the resources of other artists whom I follow or other artists whom I’m surrounded by. Some people are signed to labels, and some people aren’t, but they have the money. Some people have grants. I’m just fueling this out of my job and savings and funds that I got from selling merchandise.
Then I’m putting that all back into paying a videographer, and paying for the clothing and the makeup. It ended up working out…I just had to be patient and really work with myself in order to be present throughout the process. For example, “S.O.S” took a year and a half to fully complete, and that really showed me that patience is very needed. Even with COVID-19, we still used Zoom in order to complete the editing and bring it to completion.
The hard-work and effort really shines through! How do you think this EP has affected not just your career but also your life and others in general? How did your audience receive it?
I didn’t even think it would go crazy the way that it did. I definitely think that for my life, it allowed me to really see myself and my strengths outside of myself. It allowed me to see that I can actually do this. This isn’t just a dream, this isn’t just some fantasy that some people pass away and wish that it had happened. It’s something that is real, and it can happen right now.
The project also showed me that I can really complete something. For my whole life, I never really did complete things. I would start something and not really finish it. I would procrastinate, which is also a product of not really believing in your potential. So I was very proud of myself that I actually completed the project in the time that I did, and that I released it, and that I got such good feedback.
That told me to keep releasing and keep going, because not only is it good for you, but the way that other people reacted to the project [is liberating as well]. They actually got the message, they actually felt it, they understood m,e and they understood themselves. It was exactly what I wanted it to be.
You do a lot for your community. You’ve done clothing drives and neighborhood cleanup projects. What is something that you have learned about people and the world through these events?
I think what I’ve learned is that at first people may seem like they are “lazy” or like they don’t care. The first thing I hear when I say what I want to do for the community is that “people are lazy and don’t care enough…..it doesn’t matter that much to people,” but that’s not true.
What I realized through creating events for the community is that they do care,but there’s a lot of stuff in front of their hearts, and it takes time to chip that stuff away, in order to get to who that person really is. You just have to have that energy, and you just need one person to look at you for who you are, and not for whom the world has taught you to be, and you’ll show up. That’s what I’ve really learned, especially in doing stuff like the neighborhood cleanup. People tell me they don’t want to pull up; “why doesn’t the government do it? Or the white folk.”
And I said at the end of the day, you can’t wait for other people to care about you. You have to care about you, and you have to care about your family, and your community, first. And they never really think about it like that, because we’re old, and we feel other people have to do it for us, and that can be attributed to history.
Doing things for the community, especially the Black community, was very beautiful. It was very empowering, and I feel like we get to really reflect and really see that what we want to do for ourselves, and what we get to do is not a product of other people. It’s literally just our choice.
I learned a lot about people in general. I’ve learned so much, especially with releasing the project, too. Even shy people, people who would say they’re not extroverted — I’ve seen someone that’s so quiet come to my event and not really talk with anybody. And people would think they’re non-social, but then you talk to them, and you really see them for who they are, and by the end of the night, they’re dancing. That really showed me that judgments are just not needed. Just see people for who they are, at least try, and you’ll really see people. People are actually really beautiful.
What’s your motivation? What makes you get up and say, okay, today I am going to do this?
My motivation is my younger self, just knowing all the dreams she had. I’m basically holding her hand and reminding her that it’s all gonna happen. And my future self. That’s what really keeps me going.
As well as my family, my grandparents and my mom get to have that place that they’ve always wanted, that space in nature in the Dominican Republic with the big houses. In general, it’s just about peace and joy. What really inspires me is my past and future self combined into this present moment, guiding me to where I’m going.
What do you believe is the importance of being intrinsically involved with your community?
I think it’s important because it keeps you humble. Being selfish doesn’t get you very far in life, so if you’re just all about me, me, me, I, I, I. When you think you’re alone, or when you move like you’re alone, you’re going to get to where you want to go in a way longer time, versus if you lean on the people around you.
That’s what I really want to practice with myself and also inspire my friends to do. And people in general, anyone that’s been looking up to me. I definitely do say, if you want to get somewhere, you can’t get there alone, so tap into your community and give back. You can’t expect to receive, receive, receive, and you haven’t given back. That’s just how things manifest. I think it’s very important to give. In general when you give, you receive.
When you see people for who they are, you give to them, and you don’t judge them, the same thing will happen to you, naturally. Of course the Golden Rule says to do unto others how you want others to do unto you. Rilly Ril emphasizes the importance of this, beyond just a saying, as when applied in real life, one can have a considerable impact on those around you.
Also you never know when you’ll be in a position like someone else. Half of the time, people in the community, people living in the street, people in sticky situations, they never assumed they would be there. They didn’t say, “Oh I wanna be here,” so it’s important to help others, because you really never know.
What kind of changes do you hope to see in your community?
Just more love, more connection, more unity. I definitely want to see housing for people without homes. There have been some beautiful changes that I want to acknowledge. The community fridges are so beautiful, the cleanups, people giving food. There’s this guy named Paperboy the Prince, and he has a storefront not too far from me. He’s really dope. He gives food to anybody, and he has community fridges in front of his store. He does events for the community. It’s really beautiful.
Paperboy the Prince is a non-binary artist, web developer and New York City Mayoral Candidate who exists in a queer and colorful world aimed towards spreading love, helping others, and enriching the community.
In general, I think it’s energy. I learned through doing community work, it’s not about the product, it’s about the energy to get to the product. So if we want to eliminate racism, if we want to eliminate violence, what energy has to be there for us to get there. We can’t just eliminate, we need energy in the form of healing, love, and unity. People seeing and uplifting each other. Once that happens, I think the products will naturally just shift.
On June 19 2020, Rilly Ril alongside Cherish Patton, organized an outdoor Juneteenth celebration in Harlem. It was a socially-distant picnic that brought not just those invited together but also the surrounding community in that neighborhood. Sponsored by Jaden Smith’s Just Water and others, it was a time of performances, art, culture, and sharing food and water with those in the park and nearby.
You were born and raised in Brooklyn. In New York City. How do you reflect that? And how is that reflected in your work? In your art?
Brooklyn is definitely in me and will always be in me. Brooklyn is so expressive and so expansive. It has a little bit of every borough. People from The Bronx, people from different boroughs move to Brooklyn, too. I see so much of life here. Hispanic, Asian, African. I see so many different backgrounds. Also on my block and in my community, there’s music, there’s good food. It’s so well rounded.
Anything I want, I can just go and find it! I’ve seen how my environment and the resources around my environment have definitely influenced who I am. In the sense of creativity, ever since I was younger, I would see people walking around with dope style. I would see graffiti, and different things that show culture. So even from a young age, I was like, I want to grow one day, and I can’t wait until I have the control to express myself the way that I want.
When you’re younger, there’s not really any room to express yourself and be your own being. You really have to listen to your elders and follow certain tradition,s so I didn’t really have that full creative control over my expression, until I got to high school. That’s when I went off and started rebelling.
Definitely Brooklyn is where it’s at for me. I completely love, I love, everything that I see here, and I definitely see how it’s inspired me to be so comfortable with my style. I can walk out and feel like I’m in my own space because I see other people in their own space, expressing themselves the way they do.
Who would you say has had the most consistent and greatest impact of your ongoing journey as an artist?
My mom. My mom has been there since I was younger. She’s made almost every single one of my shows. Not just Rilly Ril shows. Since I was a kid, even if she was running late for work….because she was always working…she would still make it to every single one of my shows. My mom is definitely my biggest supporter, my first fan, if anything.
The Rilly Ril website is live! It went live on March 1st, 2021. The website is absolutely stunning. I’m aware that you built it yourself. This is so amazing to me. Can you walk us through the process of building the website?
“Building the website took some time,” Rilly Ril says with a triumphant sigh. “That was something I started right before COVID-19, and I finished it a month ago. That was probably a year. I didn’t rush it. At first, I was rushing it. Then, I was like ‘yeah, let me just chill.’ I just went to it every now and then. It wasn’t a specific rhythm. I just would come to it, and fix it up. Fix some things. I’m very colorful, so I tried my best to use a lot of different colors there. I like primary colors a lot, so I used blues and reds. In general, I just wanted people to come on and get a feel of my energy. When you come on, [the website] has different layers of things that I’m occupied in. Community involvement, the shows I have. I’m really excited that it’s organized now, because I feel like I really needed that. So now, when I do events and other stuff, people can just come to one place. It’s not a different link in my bio everyday. You can just come to my website and find everything in the little hub.”
What were some challenges you faced while building the website, and how did you overcome them?
There was a point where I just looked at it and went, ‘I don’t even want to do this. I don’t even have money, but I’m about to pay somebody really quick to help me do this.’ It was just the layouts of things. I was having issues with coding for a long time. I had to research and go on YouTube, and I kept calling people up to help me figure it out. That was really the only challenge, the layout, and wanting to make things move, but not knowing how to do it, so I really had to research coding to learn that.
Personally, I took coding, and I can confirm it was quite frustrating at times. To persevere through that to build your own website successfully and from scratch is a noteworthy feat.
Everything has a solution; it’s just a matter of being patient.
How do you think computer science and technology intersect with art and creativity in this digital age?
Honestly, I think they are hand in hand right now. Everything right now is digital. Especially with COVID-19, things got more digital. You can’t go physically to see a concert, so it’s so important to know how to mesh digital and reality into one, kind of creating an experience that people can try to grasp from their T.V. or from the computer. I think it’s powerful, too, in a way.
In areas like journalism, a lot of news and things that wouldn’t have gotten out in the past when things were only in the newspaper or written down….now it’s so public. If you do things right, your music, your news, your content, can get out to so many people all over the world, because literally we are in a digital era.
At times, it’s also scary. I’ve been feeling it right now. I want to do an event physicall,y because I really miss that physical interaction. Not just seeing someone on a screen. Going to a concert for real, and not just a livestream. I think that’s so important for humanity, too. We can’t get so comfortable with screens. We have to be able to branch out. But I think this is also allowing us to miss that physical interaction. It’s kind of a restart. We would all be at events and picnics, and I would see people on their phones. So I’m hoping now, things would be different. You’ve been on your phone for a whole year and a half. Now let’s actually talk and connect.
Right! I say in agreement with her. Human beings are physical creatures. While it is good to have multiple options to connect with each other, nothing quite beats the magic of coming together in a space to hug and greet each other and to partake in an activity with everyone physically present.
Throughout your journey as a creative and an artist, what are some setbacks you’ve faced?
I don’t think I’ve experienced setbacks, because everything that got in my way has helped me. So I’d call that a set forward. I’ve noticed that all challenges that come into my life are to help you grow. Nothing has really set me back, not even COVID-19. It’s allowed me to do so many things that I never thought I would have done before.
At first I would’ve said, when COVID-19 first started, I was so angry, and it took me a moment to accept that we were in this situation. Once I realized that, ‘Okay, wait, I’m in my crib. Wasn’t I just saying that I wanted more time to be home, and to relax, and to create, and to not be so rushed around, and to go to work?”
So, it actually happened. The biggest challenge was finding where the growth was, in that. In my own mind, sometimes negative thoughts and anxieties do come up, so it’s just really grounding myself and reminding myself who I am and what I can do. Also, just knowing I create who I am, so if I ever feel like I’m stuck, I understand that all this stuff is actually an illusion, and I always create who I am, every day.
You often speak about gender-fluidity, and you’re expressive about not wanting to be confined in a box. What does gender fluidity mean to you?
To me, it’s just one day you wake up a cat. One day you wake up a dog. Honestly, I’m learning what it means, more and more every day. It’s very interesting, and kind of challenging to describe. For me, it’s just allowing myself to express the way I want to express. I relate more to the terms of feminine and masculine, versus men and women. I’ll be more feminine, and I’ll be more masculine, but I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a man or a woman.
I’m in this space of having my own power and having my own definition, then redefining what that means for me, every day. So it’s an ever-evolving definition. Yeah, for me, it really is. It’s like art. I’m just following what my spirit feels, and my spirit doesn’t really have a gender. That’s really why I chose to express as gender fluid, because I don’t think my spirit has a gender. I think it just is, and it flows in different ways, so I want to allow my spirit to have enough room to do what they want to do.
Art is defined as self expression. Define art, as it pertains to you.
To me, art is life. Art is creation, any form of creation, any form of life. Living things are art. Science to me is art. Math is art. I think art surrounds us. When people say someone is not an artist, it’s nonsense. Art is a form of creation. This computer behind me is art. My phone is art. Art is really life.
Are Rilly Ril and Jaleh Williams separate identities or personas? Or do you feel they intersect and are intertwined? If so in what ways?
I think I’m learning how to intertwine them more now. Before they were more so different personas. They’re both me. It’s not like I come up on stage and turn into a different person. They’re both me. I just think Jaleh is more introverted than Rilly Ril.
I think Rilly Ril will step on that stage and tell Jaleh’s story for her…but…with her.
I feel like Rilly Ril is what younger me needed. Rilly Ril is an embodiment of the confidence, the empowerment, and the honesty, kind of the guardian that Jaleh needed, but they’re still both me. My close friends call me Jaleh, and people I meet for the first time call me Ril. It’s definitely two different things. They’re definitely together at the same time.
Your life is so busy and can appear incredibly exciting to the outsider. How do you take care of your mental health?
I ground myself daily, and I do some Reiki.
At this point Rilly Ril turns the tables and asks me if I know what Reiki is. Caught off guard, my first thought is a beaded necklace. Then I recall a yoga chart that I saw in a Physical Education class about the body’s chakras. “Centering our chakra?” I ask.
Reiki is when you use your hands to heal your energetic body, so your aura, your chakras. You release blocks. Sometimes, I do it longer, sometimes shorter. Whenever I get a chance. Sometimes, I do it on the train. Sometimes, I dance. I put on some Afro-beats and start dancing. I do some yoga. I go biking. Biking is so, so good for my mental health. I just love it. And I journal.
Do you have anything upcoming? Are there any new projects that you would like to share?
I’m working on so much stuff. I wanna just explode! And when I say that, I mean that I have so many ideas, and I know where they’re at. I have it all planned up five years for now. I have some dope things coming up for this summer. It just keeps getting crazier and crazier. I can’t really say things. It’s definitely about being patient.
I’m just working towards everything, little by little, so that when I get to the position where things are being released, I already have something else coming and waiting to be released. I do that, because I like to stay in constant motion, and that’s just who I am as a person. My mom always taught me, ‘Don’t just let one thing be one thing; fuel everything simultaneously.’ So I’m fueling all of my passions right now.
What do you think is in store for the Future of Rilly Ril?
I would say maybe eight years from now, I’m definitely going to be opening my own space, my own hub for other creatives to create, to record, and to throw events. To have fun, play some games, chill out, and get off the streets.
I’m definitely going to have my own factory for that before I’m thirty, while I’m doing my thing, touring, hitting different cities, and traveling the world. Once I create that first space, it’s just going to keep going from there. My goal is to have different spaces in different parts of the world that people can come to and create, and feel safe, and be themselves.
Finally, what do you have to say to creatives who might see this, and to aspiring artists and talents out there?
What if nobody existed to see your art? Would you still create? Then write that down, journal from there, and see where your mind takes you. And wherever it takes you, accept that. Explore that and keep going. That hit me for a while.
It’s definitely important to know why you’re creating and what’s the purpose around it. If you don’t have a purpose, you lose the meaning of it. Your purpose could just be for your own joy, your own fulfillment. But if your purpose is something outside of yourself, or the need for attention or the need to be seen, you’re always going to feel like your art isn’t enough.
There’s so many people in the world, so you’re always going to want more. So definitely explore that…if no one existed, would you still create? Because I know a lot of people are going through that right now, where they’re feeling unappreciated, and that their art isn’t being seen, and they feel like they’re not being seen. We can’t do things for attention…. and that’s really challenging, too, especially with the digital age.
Like on Tiktok, people blow up just for lip syncing, and other creators are like ‘What?!’ How are you blowing up for that, and I’m putting all this work into stuff for nothing? We can’t really think about it like that.
We have to look at our art and realize this is timeless and just keep creating, and not for other people. Just keep creating, because you never know who’s going to pick it up, or who you might impact. I may not be in the range of a lot of the artists I see right now, but I do know that I’m impacting people, and that’s where I think my purpose lies.
“Everything has a solution; it’s just a matter of being patient,” said Rilly Ril.