Jhené Aiko is transforming her pain into poetry.
On Tuesday, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter released her first book, 2Fish, which is the final installment of her project MAP (an acronym for “movie, album, and poetry book”) that Aiko started in September as a way to process her grief after her older brother’s death. Her sibling, Miyagi, was 26 when he died due to an inoperable brain tumor in 2012.
“Expressing yourself is really important when you’re dealing with emotions that are not easy to deal with,” Aiko says in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE. “For me, writing has always been my way of expressing myself and not feeling judged, just getting through difficult times… I feel like when anyone holds anything in, that creates stress and the pain disables you.”
Aiko reveals how her grief almost did, in fact, disable her after the loss of her brother. She also reflects on her relationship with rapper Big Sean, 29, her long-time battle with depression (she was once told she was bipolar by a doctor), and the writing that gives her relief on a daily basis.
“I definitely have been in really dark moments. I’m an emotional person and very, very sensitive,” she explains, “Sometimes it feels like I can’t even go outside because I’ll literally feel every passing person’s emotions or [I’ll watch] the news [and] I’ll be like, ‘Ok, s—.’ I’ll really feel it to the point where I feel like I can’t move. And that’s why I write. That’s why I make music. I try to turn it into art.”
The artist’s book 2Fish is a collection of poems, short stories, diary-like entries, and sketches that she’s been writing from the age of 16 until now. It’s the third part in MAP, a project that began with her short film and 22-song album, both titled Trip. When describing her mission for the project, Aiko explains that when her brother died she was lost — he had been an “extension of [herself].”
Miyagi was the one who introduced Aiko to new artists, books, and “new ways of thinking,” she explains. The close siblings were raised by their parents in Los Angeles with their two sisters, Miyoko and Jamila. According to Aiko’s website, when Miyagi learned about the brain tumor he turned to Buddhism. He fought the cancer for two years and was “always in good spirits.” After her older brother’s passing, Aiko started “taking trips, trying to escape any person, place or thing that is too familiar.”
“Physical trips by car, by plane; mental trips with controlled substances; trips in solitude in hopes that the quiet will bring me and my brother back together,” she says in the recording. “This MAP has been helping me navigate through my suffering, uncovering the righteous path that has been carved out before and for me.”
While Aiko sought to distance herself from anything “too familiar” after her brother’s death — including her family — MAP has helped her reconnect as she’s processed her grief. For the Trip album, she collaborated with major artists, including Big Sean. In her interview, Aiko explains how she and her man maintain their relationship while working on big projects.
“I think that it’s all about communication. I also have a daughter who just turned 9 and she knows that I have a lot going on.. [and] he does as well,” she says, “We’re just supportive of each other in that way. We trust each other, we communicate with each other, and we’re friends.”
Aiko explains that their friendship is the foundation of their relationship.
“When you’re really friends there’s no petty arguments. It’s definitely something that we always remind each other [about]. We’re friends [first],” she says.
While Big Sean did give her some feedback during the writing process (she read bits out loud to him), he doesn’t appear in the book. For Aiko, 2Fish is a deeply personal body of work that she shares with the hope of helping others who have similar struggles.
“I’m a moody person. There are highs and lows and I’ve been told I was bipolar by a doctor, [but] everyone is something if you talk to a doctor… I just feel [that] being sensitive, then my brother’s passing, and just every day’s ups and downs, it’s a different day every day,” she explains, “But I am getting older and super thankful for being able to wake up every day, even if the day before was completely not wanting to wake up. I’m happy when I do wake up.”
Aiko explains that when she was younger she was “a lot more dramatic.”
“I didn’t have as many responsibilities and people depending on me, so I was a lot more reckless in my ways, in my self-harm and feeling like I was depressed because of something a boy did,” she says, “[But] then life got a lot more real and I feel like I deal with depression all the time. It’s not something that can be cured, it’s just something you have to try to deal with and get through.”
The singer-songwriter explains that she published the book because she understands how important it is to not feel isolated.
“If I’m feeling like I don’t think I can make it, if I write that down, that thought disappears because now it’s on paper. I’ve expressed it and let it out. Just thinking that all day? Who knows. But I have to express it.”
Aiko says she writes and creates music to help “others realize that they can also deal with their grief, their pain, even their joy.”
But, before it was public, 2Fish was (in part) a private ode to her brother.
Aiko ends one poem:
i held my breath waiting to see you take another
but you did not
where did you go?
do i really have to grow up without you?
am I really alive without you?
are you in the stars?
is there a God?
do you walk with him?
is he a she?
is she in me?
will we ever talk again?
is it strange that I cant wait to meet my fate,
just to see your face
Miyagi Ayo Hasani Chilombo
i love you to infinity
-your baby sister
2Fish is on sale now.