Jozzy, the Queer Co-Writer Behind the 'Old Town Road' Remix, Is Ready For More Barriers To Fall
Rapper and songwriter Jozzy has always had an ability to attract talented artists — she got her start by writing for Timbaland and Missy Elliott, and has since written for the likes of Fergie and Tinashe, while collaborating with artists like Lil Wayne, G-Eazy and more. But her crowning moment came thanks to a fateful call from her manager earlier this year.
"I got a phone call asking if I wanted to work with Billy Ray Cyrus," she tells Billboard. "I love him and know him through my mom, and I watched Hannah Montana as a kid. So I was like, 'Yeah, cool!'"
Little did she know her new collaboration was not for any Billy Ray Cyrus song — she had been recruited to help write his verse on a remix to Lil Nas X's record-breaking hit "Old Town Road." After a few breezy studio sessions, and a funny exchange involving Fendi sports bras, Jozzy found herself in the middle of a whirlwind where her name was getting out there in a way it never had before, as "Old Town Road" spent a record-breaking 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Now the star is opening up about her wild year. Jozzy spoke with Billboard about co-writing the remix of "Old Town Road," performing at GLAAD's Spirit Day Concert alongside Justin Tranter, being out in hip-hop, and more.
You got your start working under Timbaland and Missy Elliott. How did that relationship first come about? What did that mean for you as an artist?
I learned a lot from being with Timbaland, because when I met him, it was kind of like ... I didn't know what I was getting myself into, I just knew I was a fan of his, and this guy from Memphis was his producer who flew me down to work with him. So we ended up staying for like five years in Miami, and got a lot of knowledge from them.
I just feel like, with Timbaland and Missy, their work ethic just kind of stayed on me. Like, the way they worked, they worked like they were broke, and that's what stuck with me, you know? "Work like you're broke."
"Old Town Road" became a huge moment for you when you got to co-write Billy Ray's verse on the remix. How did that collaboration happen, and what was it like being in the studio with that crew?
I got a phone call [from my manager] asking if I wanted to work with Billy Ray Cyrus. I didn't know what it was about, but I'm from Memphis, so … I love him and know him through my mom, and I watched Hannah Montana as a kid. So I was like, "Yeah, cool!" I didn't know the song was gonna be "Old Town Road." I got in the studio, heard the song, and our juices started flowing, man. I went in there and freestyled a melody, and man, he really wanted me to put my take on it. He was so open to ideas, and he and his wife were just throwing around these rad ideas. We wanted to make him not-so-country, and kind of reverse the roles a little bit. I wanted to make him like a rapper almost. I wanted him to get some rap bars.
That song had its record-breaking moment earlier this year. How has your life changed since then? What differences have you noticed from before and after "Old Town Road"?
I just feel like it's the notoriety. You gotta understand, we treat songwriters like shit. It's time for people to wake up and start giving them the same love they give producers. Like, you hear producers' names everywhere, and the producer is a star. But, man, they treat songwriters like we're supposed to be ghost writers. I'm no ghost writer. You want to know who I am? I'm an artist and a songwriter. I feel like we need the respect we deserve.
I mean, we go in there ... a beat is a blank canvas. Unless you want to put a beat on the radio with no words, then respect us for the work we put in. They're finally starting to respect us, we're finally getting the push, but people still don't wanna say they have a writer, and I really don't like that. Billy Ray was one of the few that really was like, "Yo, it’s Jozzy, you gotta know Jozzy." He's the one, he's the guy, he could change the whole narrative for what a songwriter is, man.
You mentioned that the lack of recognition is changing — what in particular about the current moment in music do you think is turning the tide in favor of songwriters getting the credit they deserve?
It all starts with the word of mouth, man. When people don't know who you are, or who I am, or who someone like Justin Tranter is, or Jesse Saint John is, then you are kind of cancelling us out and focusing on the artist. And that's no big deal, focusing on the artist — but if you're gonna focus on the producer as well, then you need to focus on the writer, too. Thank God with "Old Town Road," you always saw Lil Nas X tag me and [producer/songwriter] YoungKio. Like, it wasn't just Kio getting that, he tagged me and everyone else. Same with Billy Ray Cyrus. This is a big song, so you know ... people see those names. "Okay, who is Kio? Okay, who is Jozzy?" They do their research, they find out she's a writer, and that's when you start to tap into the industry, man. When you put it out there and don't hide it, it's so helpful. But so many people hide songwriters, it's so stupid.
I'm glad you mentioned Justin, because you're performing at the Spirit Day concert with him! Why is an event like this Spirit Day concert so important to you?
Well first off, 'cause it's Justin Tranter! I've been a fan of Justin Tranter for years, and just the fact that he is who he is unapologetically. So I love him. Also, I mean, of course it's about LGBTQ issues, man. I think it goes back to getting acknowledged: the fact that I'm a black songwriter that did "Old Town Road," and the fact that I do happen to like girls, that's another part of it. It's part of the stress in the game — I don't do boxes of any sort, but it's about acknowledgement, and we have to acknowledge LGBT issues for what it is.
That is also another aspect with "Old Town Road" -- while the song was breaking all of these records, Lil Nas X came out as gay. What do you think that meant to other queer artists like yourself navigating the world of hip-hop?
I think it was a dope moment in time! My friends still laugh about it because they were like, "Yo, is he trolling? Is he being honest?" And I was like, "Man, no guy would put that out, especially not a black rapper, if it was just to troll his fans." Like, that would be insane! I respect it so much, and I'm so happy that he did it. For rappers and artists that are in the closet ... I don't know if Lil Nas X is going to be the one to change the whole culture, but he lit that spark in other rappers, where they can say, "If Nas did it, then I can."
The hip-hop game is a tough game to come out like that. Lil Nas did it, and he's flourishing. So I think in 2020, with the new generation — I call them the Indigo Children — there's just like ... I feel as if there is no-holds-barred for this new generation coming in. So I think it's gonna be different from what we saw, from what I saw.
This Spirit Day concert you're performing at is all about raising awareness for bullying in the LGBTQ community. What lessons from something like Spirit Day do you think still need to be learned in the hip-hop community at large?
Bro, what's so crazy is, why do people care who somebody loves? Why do people care what we do in our spare time? It's funny, there was a time when I was in studios with producers, and they would get insecure about bringing their girls around me! For real! They didn't know if their girls might like girls. I was like, "I cannot not be myself! It's who I am! I have to walk in my light!" Honestly, if people would just start being more secure in themselves, that would solve a lot of issues. There's a lot of insecurity in the industry, man — a lot of these dudes act like they're something that they're not, and a lot of girls do, too. I don't look at artists and go, "Ugh, he's straight." That's never a thing! So you shouldn't look at an artist and go, "Ugh, she's gay." That's how I feel — it's like, "Is the music good?"
See, that's why I love Frank Ocean so much, because Frank Ocean did it perfectly. Guy sings, "My eyes don't shed tears, but boy, they pour" — he sings "boy," almost accidentally! I feel as if artists like Frank, and even Sam Smith, that just walk in their light, they didn't try to make it a thing. It's just, "I'm me. I'm not trying to impose my beliefs on you, but you gotta respect my music and respect who I am." And I feel like, once we start doing more of that, we gonna be good.