Yusra Jara isn’t aspiring to fit your idea of a pop artist. Known by the stage name Yusra J, she plans to carve a path into the music industry on her own terms: as a young Somali-Oromo woman with a scarf on her head and sneakers on her feet.
Jara, 21, first dove into music as a student at New Visions School in Minneapolis. She was given the opportunity to pick two after-school activities. Basketball had been an early passion for Jara, so the choice there was easy. For the second activity, she picked a less familiar program: choir.
The choir group was asked to sing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” in their first session. Hearing the other kids with a lackluster performance, Jara felt the need to step in. “I heard the song and was like, ‘Nah, we got to do this song justice,’” she said. Jara’s voice immediately stood out to her instructors. She has since developed a hypnotic singing voice that pierces the soul.
Afterward, Jara was recruited to perform in the school’s talent shows. Her time spent on stage helped build her confidence and love for singing. “At first, it’s nerve-racking, but when you catch the adrenaline, it goes away,” she said. “Even though it was a middle-school talent show, it was a big deal to me back then.”
Though she found her passion for singing at a young age, Jara wouldn’t pursue it seriously until her first year of college, when she moved from Minneapolis to Saint Cloud. According to Jara, that time outside the Twin Cities gave her some time to think.
To pass the time, she’d freestyle over beats and upload videos of herself singing covers to Instagram. In the fall of 2018, Jara covered Suldaan Seeraar’s “Xamar Bile,” a popular Somali song, and posted it on her profile. The video quickly took off.
Jara was surprised by the strong support. “At first I was like, why would anybody listen to me? But when I got the attention of the person who sang it, and he tipped his hat to me, I was like, ‘Ok, I got this on lock,’” she said.
Ayub Ahmed is an artist and executive at Hills and Wells, the St. Paul-based record label that counts Jara among its signees. Ahmed was impressed with her “Xamar Bile” cover. “When I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh, she can sing,’” Ahmed said. Ahmed messaged Jara a week later with words of support. He said, “I feel like Yusra’s got a really unique combo of talent, likability, and relatability at a young age.”
Ahmed mentioned Jara to Hills and Wells’ founder A.Zim, and they decided to invite her to the studio. In their first session together, they recorded a song titled “They Be Mad,” which features Ahmed under the stage name Yubii. He appreciated that she had the ability to write songs. “It’s a blessing,” he said. “She’ll have four or five songs written down, and all we’ll have to do is coordinate the production with that.” With everything going well, they agreed to pursue making an EP.
Ahmed sees Jara as a modern-day Lauryn Hill because she can rap and sing on the same record. “There’s no one who can sing at her level and drop those bars. She’s able to stand toe-to-toe with other rappers,” he said.
The main pieces of advice that Ahmed has given to Jara have been to step outside of the box and write more from the heart. As far as upcoming plans for Jara, Ahmed would like to see her perform on stage as they work on an album set for the top of 2022.
Jara’s EP Testimony was released in March of 2020. She describes the EP as a series of realizations about her life. Her lead single, also titled “Testimony,” captures some of the vulnerabilities she felt at that time. “Everyone can tell you, ‘Testimony’ is my baby,” she said. “It’s about who I was at that time. I thought about the people that I was around and the situations that I was putting myself into.”
One of Jara’s earliest and most steadfast supporters has been her mother, Halima Mohamed, who left her home country, Somalia, following its civil war. Mohamed is an enthusiastic, hope-filled parent who sees a bright future for her six children. One day, Mohamed was invited to one of her daughter’s talent shows without Jara’s knowledge. It was her first time hearing her daughter sing, and she was surprised at what she heard. “I said to myself, ‘She’s really amazing,’” she said. “I’m the kind of mother who will support what my children like.”
Mohamed advises more Somali parents to support their children’s passions, so long as they’re promoting something positive. During Jara’s time in youth basketball, her mother would wake up at 6 a.m. on the weekends to take her to games. When it comes to her daughter’s music career, she’s confident that her daughter knows what’s best for herself. “She’s a grown woman, and she knows what she’s doing,” Mohamed said.
While Jara continues to garner support for her career, she still receives unsolicited advice about her appearance. People have suggested she take off her qamaar (scarf) and dress differently to better fit others’ expectations of a female artist’s image. But being anyone other than herself was never an option for Jara. “Who has time to fake it?” she asked. “These are people who don’t even know me making these statements.”
Though Jara doesn’t aim to fit anyone’s standards, she’s empowered by the times her fans have praised her for paving the way. One supporter shared that she was living her dream while seeing Jara pursue music. “That gave me more fuel,” Jara said. “People dream of this, and they see that it’s possible.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ayub Ahmed founded Hills and Wells. The label was actually founded by A.Zim, and Ahmed is now a Hills and Wells executive.