“What are you?” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot when you’re of mixed descent. There are times when those three words can be coated in venom, as if someone is placing the weight of suspicion on your entire family tree. Other times, though, that question comes from a place of pure—albeit clumsy—curiosity. It’s someone asking you about your past, your community, who you love.
Sisters Jhené and Jamila Chilombo—better known by their chart topping stage names, Jhené Aiko and Mila J—know a little something about that loaded question. They grew up with mixed African American and Japanese heritage in the Los Angeles enclave that both of them call Slauson Hills, a small neighborhood nestled between Baldwin Hills and Inglewood. (And even that genetic summary sells the sisters’ experience short as their tapestry of ethnic heritages has even more detail.)
Like so many mixed kids, they didn’t recognize their blended heritages made them different until that inevitable question came up. “You would have the occasional ‘What are you guys?’ And I would just say I’m mixed or I’m a human. I don’t know if I knew the concept of being mixed then,’” Jhené said during a sit-down interview with Billboard and Facebook, where she and her sister explored their AAPI heritage through some of their favorite childhood foods.
Billboard served up five dishes for Jhené and Jamila: a special dry ramen that was inspired by their grandfather’s recipe; salmon teriyaki that reminded them both of the big batches of teriyaki sauce their family would make and put on everything; inari, the rice-stuffed tofu skins that they grew up calling “footballs”; and fluffy, oblong clouds of Japanese cheesecake that MIla J calls “a little piece of heaven.”
Every plate elicited different memories from the sisters: How their grandfather would bring back treats from the Japanese grocery stores, their “melting pot” family in Los Angeles, celebrating Japanese New Year with their friends. Being mixed “made us open-minded at such an elementary age,” Mila J says in the video. “We never grew up judging things… we were just open.”
Their willingness to explore cultures and influences has served both sisters well in life and as they navigated their careers as musicians and artists. They both refuse to be boxed in when it comes to the kind of music they create, a fierce and shared independence that mirrors how they reject being identified as solely one ethnicity. Instead, Jhené and Jamila focus on the commonalities between themselves and the wider music community. “We’re more alike than we are different,” says Mila J. “Music off top is the universal language.”
Finding those common threads has been part of both women’s lives since they were kids and heard those funny questions asking them who they were. Jhené and Jamila know curiosity can quickly metastasize unless it’s pointed in the right direction. For them, that’s about encouraging people to talk about their experiences without hesitation. “I think it’s important for people to share their stories in general and that we should share them in order to learn about each other and not judge,” says Jhené. “We love ourselves, we love our family, we love our roots and everything that makes us who we are.”