R&B duo VanJess feels at home at debut NYC show

The Nigerian-American sisters pleased adoring fans at New York's Bowery Ballroom on Monday.

Artists have long utilized the internet to build an audience, hone their craft and gain the attention of big-name companies. We also live in an era when we can hear how 1990’s R&B and soul music have influenced newer singers, songwriters and producers. Enter VanJess — two sisters who embody both of those things.

The melding of those ideals happened at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom Monday as VanJess made their New York City concert debut.

Their moniker comes from their names, Ivana and Jessica Nwokike. They are first-generation Nigerian-Americans who hail from the Igbo ethnic group, but have spent most of their lives in California. Like other now-successful artists The Weeknd and Andra Day, VanJess built their audience on YouTube. After years of doing a capella covers of popular songs in the early 2010s, the two were able to craft their own material, which led fans to their Monday night showcase.

Fans wrapped around the corner of Lower Manhattan’s Delancey Street on a slightly brisk but bearable November evening, patiently awaiting access as security screened everyone for IDs and vaccination cards. The scene of 20- to 35-year-olds milling about the ballroom’s basement bar as Silk Sonic, Snoh Aalegra and WizKid played through the speakers was casual and inviting. Everyone was dressed to impress, be it brothers with cashmere sweaters, sleek blue slacks and dress shoes, or ladies with crop-tops and septum piercings.

After an hour of cocktails and small talk, the audience made their way upstairs to the ballroom to catch the opening act, singer/songwriter Elaine. Like Ivana and Jessica, Elaine is also African (South Africa, specifically) and was singing in New York for the first time. Adorned with a pink snake skin outfit, Elaine serenaded the crowd with soft-spoken, midtempo contemporary R&B balladry. While only on stage for 20 minutes, she effectively set the tone for what was to come.

All but gone are the days when singers were influenced by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle. Now, the OGs for the 20-somethings are Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. VanJess and their collaborating producers IAMNOBODI, lophiile, Masego and Kaytranada are also drawing inspiration from all-girl groups from the 1990s like TLC, En Vogue and SWV, but they’re making music in a time when girl groups are basically obsolete.

Jessica Nwokike (L) and Ivana Nwokike of the musical group VanJess perform on stage during BET music showcase Grammy Awards weekend at NeueHouse Hollywood on February 08, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for BET Networks)

Their set list was comprised of their self-released 2018 debut album Silk Canvas as well as their RCA debut EP from this year, Homegrown. As the curtain opened and the house lights faded, the three-man band of drums, bass and keyboards played a slick, aggressive overture as Ivana entered from the stage left and Jessica from stage right. They slowly sauntered towards the middle and turned to back-to-back formation, not unlike Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women/Charlie’s Angels” pose.

Much of the crowd was holding up their cell phones to record their favorite group of the night as the incandescent hues of crimson and yellow encapsulated the air when the two girls began to sing.

With each in a shiny outfit, they teased the crowd with a 60-second taste of their Homegrown breakout single “Come Over,” before kicking off their 55 minute set with “High & Dry.” Although the verses followed the current practice of conversational short note singing, the hook pulled inspiration from Virginia Beach style sensuous note stretching.

While VanJess’ sound was similar to that of SWV and Xscape, their movement and hairstyles appeared to pay homage to 1960’s girl groups like The Supremes and The Ronettes. Their movement straddled the line between coyness and nervousness.

As the night progressed, the fuel they received from the crowd’s ovations saw them increase their confidence, exemplified in their vocals. During songs like “Feels Right” and “Filters,” the two-part harmonies of Ivana and Jessica blended well with the band’s bombastic snare drum and bass plucks.

The best parts of the evening were when the girls got into their electro-funk bag. Songs like “Though Enough,” “Touch The Floor” and the night’s closer “Come Over” prompted the audience to put their phones away and commence moving. Whether it was someone doing a small two-step in the corner, or a loving couple swaying back in forth to the beat while locking lips, or some all out getting down, it was a refreshing sight for the crowd to be paying less attention to the girls and more attention to the dance floor.

VanJess makes feel-good music, and you don’t have to be young or old to appreciate it.

Have you subscribed to theGrio podcasts “Dear Culture” or “Acting Up?” Download our newest episodes now!

TheGrio is now on Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku. Download theGrio.com today!