Newly single and starting over in Albany, N.Y., Jessica Rosario is more motivated than ever to take her music career to the next level.
The Puerto Rican rapper who grew up in New York says she is street smart but knows how to make a campfire like the back of her hand, she was burned by love, but it’s okay: She funnels it all into her lyrics.
“It’s mostly street and love, that’s it,” she says.
She goes by Jess, but some know her by her stage name, Royelle. The name comes from trips to Medieval Times with her father when she was little. “I always think I’m the boss of things,” she says. “Like royalty: Royelle. It kind of just came with my personality.”
Rosario also liked that Royelle sounds feminine. Because, despite the sporty clothes she often buys from the men’s section and what some in her family say — “You look like a boy” — she is definitely a woman.
“I’m just not that type of girl,” Rosario says.
Once, a few years ago, she wore a dress for her friends’ wedding, but that was a one-time event.
“I don’t want to be a man in any kind of way,” she says. “I think that’s why I’m a lesbian, because I love me, so I love women.”
Rosario has moved around often, mostly up and down the East Coast, but her Queens accent betrays her roots. Her parents were teenagers there when she was born and split up soon after. According to her mother, Wilberlyn Feria, who goes by Hazel, Rosario sounds like her dad when she laughs but looks like her mom when she smiles.
“She likes to speak her mind — she gets that from both of us, because I’m like that and her dad’s side of the family — they’re all like that,” Feria says. “But the conscientiousness she gets from me.”
Rosario spent most of elementary school in Queens but moved to Florida after her father relocated there. “He was a good dad to her,” Feria says. “Even though we were separated, he was always involved in her life — take her for the weekends, buy her clothes — she never needed anything with him. He always took care of her.”
They lived in Florida for two years, but after Feria was involved in an abusive relationship with another man, she and Rosario moved to Upstate New York.
Rosario says she vividly remembers the time that man kicked her mother while Feria was pregnant.
“I pulled a knife on him,” Rosario says. “I think that’s what woke my mother up.”
Rosario was about 13 at the time.
She’s seen him since becoming an adult, she adds, but she’s not afraid of him. “He’s a coward because he beats on women.”
Rosario’s father, now deceased, was part of the Latin Kings street gang, but he kept that part of his life away from his daughter. Her mother, meanwhile, aspired to be a singer, and Rosario’s earliest memory of performing was at a talent show rehearsal when she was 4 years old. Her mother’s performing partner, a rapper, hadn’t shown up, and she recruited Rosario to replace him.
“I went up there and I did his rapper’s part,” she says. “I remember the whole crowd going, ‘Go shorty! Go shorty!’ And right then, I knew I just loved the stage.”
Soon after, her mother bought a karaoke machine to record homemade demos. “Once Jessica grabbed that microphone, she started singing Mary J. Blige songs. She couldn’t hardly talk, but she could sing ‘Real Love’ really good. That’s when I knew she had rhythm and soul,” says Feria.
Rosario wrote her first rap when she was 12 years old. But once they moved to Upstate New York, she found there was less opportunity there than in Queens, where Jennifer Lopez once visited her school. In Queens, she was part of a large community of people of color. Upstate, she says, she is often the only nonwhite person in the room.
Since President Trump was elected, she’s seen an uptick in people in her community being openly racist. “People are more proud and open about it out here,” she says, adding that someone recently called her brother the n-word.
Although she often commutes down to New York City for gigs and recording sessions, Rosario has spent the past five years in a small town near Saratoga, N.Y. That’s where she lived with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s two children before they broke up.
Now that they’ve split, she’s moving so she can more easily make regular trips to the city. In the meantime, she works as a driver for Lyft, runs a hookah-delivery business and does construction on the side.
Jessica Rosario, in the dining room of an Airbnb in Albany, N.Y., is a rapper who goes by the stage name Royelle. (Maya Sugarman/The Lily )
She’s hoping to get her songs onto TV, in commercials and movies, as well as on the big streaming services.
“I hope that the right person discovers her,” her mother says. “She’s different. She looks different, so she stands out. My biggest thing for her is to keep making the right choices as she has for most of her life, because that’s what is going to make you a star. Use that conscience that you have always been using.”
But being in the music business is an expensive career choice. “I’m sure if I had more of a dedicated team backing me up, it would be way easier, but I’m a one-man team,” Rosario says. “I think it has to do with — pardon my French — I don’t have big t--s and a big a--, so it’s harder to attract the men to follow me and worship me.”
Still, Rosario gets respect for her lyrics when people do hear her rhyme.
The labels, she says, “are picking all these guys that sound the same, look the same, but there’s a girl out here that y’all haven’t seen before, and I don’t look like Cardi B. I don’t look like Nicki Minaj. I’m different.”
Meanwhile, she’s working the social media angle, which doesn’t come naturally for her. “I would say that’s my weakness,” she says. “People always tell me, ‘You need to promote more on social media, that’s where it’s at.’ But it’s just that I hate bragging. I’m just a humble person. … I feel like I don’t have anything to prove to anyone but myself, and that’s what social media is.”
Social media is one of the aspects of her generation she says she likes least. But as she looks toward turning 30, she is taking it all in stride, doing whatever it takes to help her career.
Rosario recalls when her producer, now 33, turned 30 years old. “He was like, I got to start taking this music seriously. So I thought, yeah, a lot of people think, if anything, they want to take things more seriously.”
Still, Rosario says she’s not afraid to get older. “I see how people act at 56, 60 years old, and I think, wow, I got nothing to worry about.”
By the time she’s in her 50s, Rosario wants to have traveled the world.
“I believe you only live once, and there’s only going to be one me, and I’d like to have the best life. … The older I get, the more I learn and the greater the experiences come. I’m starting to make the right choices, and the right choices lead to great opportunity, and when I have opportunities, I feel great.”
For now, the track she’s on is a solo journey.
In November, Rosario’s girlfriend, while out drinking with her friends, broke up with her over the phone. That betrayal prompted Rosario’s latest decision to move, she says, and to renew her focus on her career.
“Honestly, it’s hard for me to trust somebody right now. I’m just completely focused on my music,” she says.
Maybe if someone comes along who shares her goals, she’ll give them a chance, but she’s not concentrating on love right now.
“I’m going to take advantage of this and just work all the time,” she says. “Because I spent a lot of time playing a family woman and, you know — I don’t think I was really ready for that.”
Update: Rosario recently started a new relationship with a woman she says is supportive of her music career.
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