How Coco Jones Went From Teen Disney Star to Grammy-Nominated R&B Singer-Songwriter


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When 9-year-old Coco Jones was first trying to break into the entertainment world — auditioning and sitting in business meetings with strange executives — her mother would sometimes give her a secret signal.

“If my mom grabbed her earring, that meant, ‘You need to sing.’ And I’d sing,” Jones recalls with a laugh. “I spent a lot of time perfecting the a cappella.”

That early confidence-building lesson has served Jones well. At 12, she embarked on the path to tween stardom with roles on Disney Channel shows and films like So Random! and Let It Shine; more recently, she won the role of Hilary Banks on Peacock’s Fresh Prince reboot, Bel-Air. And now, it has helped her become one of R&B’s most promising rising stars, signed to High Standardz/Def Jam Recordings. “She’s one of the hardest-working artists that I’ve ever worked with,” Def Jam chairman/CEO Tunji Balogun says. “Coco is an artist with the confidence of a veteran but the energy of a newcomer.”


As Jones explains with characteristic conviction on the eve of her 26th birthday, she’s not simply an actress trying out a new side career. “I’m actually a singer who pursued acting at the same time,” she says. “But the acting caught on before the music did. Music has always been my comfort, my purpose — the driving force that has kept me in this industry.”

Powered by her compellingly soulful voice and self-assured moxie, the singer-songwriter had a major breakthrough in 2023. Her RIAA platinum-certified single, “ICU,” has now netted her Grammy Award nominations for best R&B song and best R&B performance — just two of five that Jones will vie for at this year’s event, along with best new artist, best R&B album for What I Didn’t Tell You (Deluxe) and best traditional R&B performance for her collaboration with Babyface, “Simple.”

“It feels surreal,” Jones says of her first-ever nominations. “And to see these other amazing women like [fellow nominees] Victoria Monét, SZA and Janelle Monáe who are paving different lanes for a modern R&B that can be so flexible and genreless … I commend us. But in another way, this feels like confirmation of my journey; that there can’t always be a storm. The weather has to change.”

Coco Jones photographed on January 5, 2024 in New York.

Jones began that journey 17 years ago in Lebanon, Tenn., as a kid auditioning and entering talent competitions, singing songs of raw emotion way beyond her years that her mother, Javonda — who, Jones says, studied music in school and did some background singing as well — introduced her to, like Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.”

In 2011, Jones landed a recurring role on Disney’s musical sketch-comedy series So Random! and the next year, she co-starred in the Disney film Let It Shine. Five Let It Shine tracks she sang on — “What I Said,” “Whodunit” (with Adam Hicks), “Me and You,” “Let It Shine” and “Guardian Angel” (the latter three collaborations with actor-rapper Tyler James Williams) — launched her onto the Billboard charts for the first time in 2012, as all made the Kids Digital Song Sales list.

But Jones wanted to be a singer-songwriter in her own right. And though Hollywood Records released her 2013 EP, Made Of (which reached No. 10 on the Heatseekers Albums chart), the label dropped her the following year. Two more independent EPs followed (2017’s Let Me Check It and 2019’s H.D.W.Y.); in between, Jones continued acting, including in the 2016 film Grandma’s House, the 2018 TV series Five Points and the 2020 film Vampires vs. The Bronx.

By the time she landed those projects, Jones had forgone college, moving to Los Angeles at 17 to further pursue her dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. “That was a key sacrifice: comfort,” Jones says of making the decision. “I didn’t choose the route that was expected and thought things would happen immediately. But it didn’t work out that way. Without a continuous source of income, I was living off my savings as a Disney kid. So [as a young adult] it was getting real. I could only be a young girl following her dreams for so long. But I got to live, make friends, fall in and out of love … be normal — which helped me find my own voice, my sound.”

In 2020, a major turning point occurred when a fan from her Disney days asked on social media what was up with her career. Jones responded to the query on YouTube, sharing the struggles and second-guessing she had faced as a Black female artist while “opening doors for people to see me as an adult.”

“Instead of internalizing that comment, Coco made a video to give fans and others information and context [about her industry experiences],” Def Jam’s Balogun says. “Then she started doing covers of popular R&B records [Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” Brandy’s “Full Moon”] that she posted on TikTok and YouTube that started to reframe conversations about her as an artist. And when she got on Bel-Air, that gave her a new audience who may not have known she does music.”

Jones’ work ethic, focus and determination are what initially impressed Jeremy “J Dot” Jones (no relation) — the founder and CEO of High Standardz, a joint venture with Def Jam — who signed her in summer 2021, before her audition for Bel-Air.

“Before I even got to the music, I saw how professional and on point she was about her vision for what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it,” J Dot recalls of first meeting Jones. “And then there was the voice, which blew me away. So I felt that with the right plan, the right producers and time to grow in the marketplace, she would have a strong opportunity to stake her claim in the game. Between the loyal Disney fan base, the R&B covers, Bel-Air and seeing how much she has grown artistically from being a child star, I definitely think fans who felt like Coco didn’t get a fair shot early on were ready to see her win.”

With the breakout success of “ICU” from her What I Didn’t Tell You EP, Jones has finally graduated from Disney star to adult singer-songwriter on the rise. “This is who I am offscreen, without a script,” Jones says of the EP’s songs about relationships, love and heartbreak. “These are my own secrets, my own life.”

Coco Jones photographed on January 5, 2024 in New York.

The pureness and clarity of Jones’ full-bodied vocals call to mind R&B’s traditional soul roots and its 1990s heyday, but she puts a modern spin of her own on the proceedings. “ICU,” her aching examination of the painful withdrawal and residual feelings after a romantic split, spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart; it also reached No. 6 on Hot R&B Songs and has earned 175.6 million official U.S. streams (through Jan. 4), according to Luminate.

Follow-up single “Double Back,” which samples the SWV hit “Rain,” reached No. 21 on Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay. And Jones is on the road to becoming an in-demand collaborator as well: She guested on Brent Faiyaz’s summer 2023 top 10 R&B hit, “Moment of Your Life,” and more recently paired up with ascendant pop singer and fellow actress Reneé Rapp on the remix of Rapp’s “Tummy Hurts.”

“Def Jam and High Standardz wanted to make sure the R&B audience understood, accepted and championed Coco,” says Balogun, whose roster also includes rising R&B stars Muni Long and Fridayy. “We also focused on making sure people saw her perform live [either] on her tour, the Soul Train Awards [or] other shows. The report card in R&B is live performance and what matters to the core base is, ‘Does it sound and feel as good as the album?’ She has been able to live up to that.”

With filming of season three of Bel-Air starting at the end of January, Jones is also working on her debut album, due later this year. But she says fans shouldn’t simply assume it will be part two of the EP.

“That story has been told,” Jones says. “Between this taste of success and being on tour, I’ve learned so much that I can’t be anything that I was. The most raw and authentic version of whatever you’re doing is going to win. You just have to be willing to bare your spirit.”

This story will appear in the Jan. 27, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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