University student by day, R3FRENCE by night: Justin Winley talks career beginnings, podcasts and city life


Samantha Unger, Editor-in-Chief

You may have seen University junior Justin Winley on campus—maybe hanging out in the offices of multicultural clubs, wearing his signature fleece-lined jacket. What we haven’t yet gotten to see in-person, however, is his flourishing musical alter ego: R3FRENCE.

Born and raised in Harlem, (“well, technically born on the Upper West Side, but I’ve lived in Harlem my whole life,” he clarified) Winley’s interest in poetry and song-writing was reignited at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School.

“As I got older and moved away from the creative aspect of writing (though I was still writing fanfiction on the side—don’t tell anyone) I realized I had forgotten about poetry, until Ms. Healy’s class my senior year,” Winley said.

He continued, “Soon after, I started performing spoken word at places like the Nuyorican Poets Café. By that point, I was constantly surrounded by friends of mine who were songwriters and rappers so it started to inspire me to lyricize some of my poetry.”

Presented with the question of whether growing up in Harlem affected or influenced his music, Winley answered a firm yes and no.

Although he grew up in Harlem, Winley never actually attended school there, noting the unfortunate reality that quality of education and financing given to schools decreases in urban neighborhoods.

“It was at LaGuardia that I met my two best friends—we were all actors in the drama department, but they also wrote music, so I used them as an inspiration and a guide for how I wanted to start creating the idea of R3FRENCE.”

He continued, “On the other hand, I became aware early on of the history that Harlem has in the arts like the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Ella Fitzgerald. Just by virtue of being what is it and where it is, Harlem has inspired me, but the direct impact came from my friends.”

Before coming up with the stage name R3FRENCE, Winley sorted through many different ideas for names.

“I didn’t want Justin Winley to be known as a musician, or a recording artist, so I immediately I knew I wanted this to be an alter ego situation.”

Winley decided on R3FRENCE after watching a documentary on the rapper Logic— “I wanted a name like Logic that hinted to something cerebral. Since I’m such a nexus of different pop culture phenomena and media, I thought I could lead with that as being my identity.”

“I guess you could say it’s a bit arrogant, because all rappers reference things in their music. We’re in such a referential culture, with some of the biggest blockbusters of the past few years having been reboots or continuations. That was essentially the logic (ha!) behind the name,” he added.

When asked to describe his “sound,” Winley answered that because he is Black, most listeners would characterize his music as R&B.

However, Winley tends to describe his sound as alternative, in large part due to his musical influences, including Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino and SZA.

“They sometimes write about the experiences of being Black in America, but their art is also universal and philosophical in a way that intrigues me,” he said.

“Another one of my friends recently told me that when they describe me, they say I’m a gospel artist because of my vocals and arrangement. Having grown up in church, that’s inevitably going to bleed through. I identify with Alternative R&B the most, though,” he continued.

When Winley performed for the first time at The Paper Box in Brooklyn, he told the audience that he likes to think of every song R3FRENCE writes as a story.

“I wouldn’t necessarily describe every song I write as something that has happened to me, but as something I’m thinking about, and then finding a way to convey it through lyrics,” he said.

Out of the fast-growing collection of songs R3FRENCE has written and performed, “MayBe So” is his most personal.

“I wrote ‘MayBe So’ about observations I made about myself and our generation. Not to sound like a boomer, but people our age are very gun shy about commitment and it’s much easier to have a physical interaction than building up to intimacy” he said.

He continued, “The song is about a space we find ourselves in a lot—you meet someone and you think this person is the one who all of those other people were leading up to, never really knowing if that’s the case without going for it. You’re in this paralytic state, and it reflects in the song.”

R3FRENCE is currently working to release new music as soon as possible, having just finished recording a single called “Apocalove.”

Winley describes the song as his attempt to create a Daniel Caesar “Best Part” and Lauryn Hill/D’Angelo “Nothing Even Matters” type of love song—an encapsulation of devotion and passion to your partner.

“It’s another personal one and I just wanted to make something that people felt nice listening to,” he said.

Aside from music, Winley also co-hosts a podcast with his friend Jude Wilson, whom he met through martial arts training.

“My podcast is called ‘Harlem’s Very Own,’ a name I thought of almost immediately, playing off HBO and OVO,” Winley said.


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Wilson approached Winley about starting the show in 2018, but it took the pair a year to start planning and getting proper equipment.

“I thought the name was appropriate not only to honor where we’re from, but as we are coming back to recognizing Harlem as a center of culture and history, I thought it would be smart to capitalize on that.”

Winley describes the podcast as a “conversation-based culture podcast,” covering current events and topics in the media.

“We talked about Kayne West’s album, ‘Jesus is King,’ in our first episode. I’m Christian and Jude is Atheist, so we discussed it from those perspectives and experiences. We also talked about the MetroCard fare going up, Bernie Sanders wanting to decriminalize marijuana, and UFC.”

Their most recent episode to kick off their second season is called “Back in Black,” about Black celebrity representation and what it means for the two hosts.

“Working on ‘Harlem’s Very Own’ has been extremely enjoyable, but it’s definitely a lot of work,” he said.

When it comes to supporting Winley’s tedious but rewarding work, he wants to remark on the importance of stepping out of your comfort zones—both in your listening activities and elsewhere.

“You see a lot of hashtags on the internet about supporting Black artists or Black businesses, but you don’t want to just arbitrarily support something that doesn’t mean anything to you. I think it’s important to broaden your horizons, as you might find that an artist of any color or background speaks to you in a way that you may not have expected,” Winley said.

“I ultimately hope that “MayBe So’ is something you can absorb and see a multitude of things reflected in it, not just the fact that it’s a young Black artist, but that there is something universal about what it’s representing.”

You can find R3FRENCE on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud, Tidal and YouTube. “Harlem’s Very Own” podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.