Jabee is a rap/hip hop artist who has not only gained attention and popularity within his home state of Oklahoma, but has branched out from the local music scene into the national. He has filmed a Nike commercial for Kevin Durant and won a Grammy…and despite his growing fame, he insisted on making time for the new local blogger on the block. This was my first glimpse into the character of Jabee, and it was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to his genuine demeanor. Within our first few conversations, it was clear to me that he is someone who invests time in people and building relationships. He keeps his humility in the midst of big opportunities, and he treats everyone with a deep human respect. Jabee's interview reflected all of that and more—it was lined with an emotional candidacy and sincere responses.
When I initially walked into Elemental, Jabee was tucked into a back bench, sitting next to the window with his laptop. A few moments after I joined him, he explained that he was releasing his new single that day, “Hot Sauce.” I let him know I wouldn’t keep him long, as I could imagine he had some work to do on the release, and he brushed the idea aside as if he had endless time for me. He even thanked me several times for meeting with him and appreciated that I gave artists a voice. Stories like his are ones I wish I could shout from the rooftops, if anyone should have a voice--it should be him.
Jabee is extremely mindful about what he projects in his music, he has a history in mentoring kids and writes his material with youth in mind. He explained to me that he doesn’t write lyrics he wouldn’t want to hear come from a kid’s mouth. He has overcome some tough circumstances in life and focuses on passing his learning experiences down to kids who also come from hard places.
We sat for over almost an hour ½visiting about the highs and lows of Jabee’s life and music career up-to-date. He was willing to talk about everything, even the tougher subjects: the loss of his brother to gang violence, homelessness as a child, and the hardships of growing up on the East side of Oklahoma City. Through his transparency, it was clear to me that Jabee is one of those people who gets it. He understands the world from a larger perspective, and his music and work reflect that understanding. He focuses on honesty within his music, and being authentic—and he encourages other artists to do the same.
I could only imagine what it feels like to be one of the kids he mentors. As a thirty-something professional, I walked away from the interview feeling enlightened and even uplifted. He has that affect on people, he imparts goodness on those who cross his path. I was just happy to be one of those people and felt privileged to get a glimpse into his story.
Jabee: It was about listening to other rap music--my mom and dad listened to it all the time, and I wrote my first rap when I was seven. So back then, whatever my parents played, I listened to. My dad loved old school hip-hop, like Whodini, Rakim, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5. But he would also play Geto Boys, Too Short…those are the first rappers I ever heard. I also had an uncle who rapped and he would freestyle with us, it was all I knew. It was me just lovin’ music and being a fan.
Jenn: How have those influences grown? What artists inspire you these days?
Jabee: As you get older you figure out what you like, so artists that inspire me are those who push the limit…I listen to them and think “Man, why didn’t I think of that?” There’s a rapper from North Carolina named Phonte--I like him a lot. LP is one of the first people that opened the door to another dimension of hip hop music for me, the indie, underground side. I still listen heavily to Tupac, Neptune, Brother Ali. For me they are people who I’m a fan of, and I understand what they do and why they do it.
Jenn: So many of your fans and listeners admire your for not only your talent, but for your candidacy in sharing your life story through your music. It takes courage to express personal aspects of your life—what main messages do you hope people will take from your songs?
Jabee: I think my biggest message is truth in life—every life is precious, every life is important. I’ve lost a lot people growing up, and that’s one thing that money can never give you back, is life. So I want to be honest and tell my story in the sense that I’m transparent, I want it to be relatable. I think rap music kind of gets a stigma because for the average listener, they think it’s all about women, money…stuff like that. I do think there’s room for that, because I like a lot of that music too. But for me, I’m here for something different. I’m here because there’s somebody out there that needs to hear what I’m saying—just like the people I listened to, I needed to hear what they were saying.
I always want to be honest and hold myself accountable. If I’m going to say one thing, my music needs to say the same thing.
Jabee: I honor him through my music and through my life. The funny thing is, my brother got shot in 2001, and it’s now 2015. I’ve had people say to me, “That was so long ago, why are you still rapping about it? Rap about something new.” But for me, it was like yesterday…my brother should be 28 right now. I think one of the best ways I can honor him is keep his name alive. There are people who have passed away the same way, and that’s it--they don’t have a story. But I feel like for those who have passed away around me, I’m somebody who can tell their story. No matter good or bad--family is family, right or wrong. It’s important I honor the life my brother lived because he never got a chance to grow up, see what see and do what I’ve done. It’s helped mold me, and push me, to not ever want to be around that kind of violence—or have anyone that’s around me, deal with anything like that again.
Jenn: At one point, you faced the challenges of homelessness. What role did music play in that part of your life?
Jabee: We were homeless as kids, so I feel the person who overcame the homelessness is my mom. I was there, but the triumph story is hers. She had her kids, and she did it. I think for me, with music, I can share her story and tell what it was like for me. I can help people see that you might look at a family across from you, and not even realize that they’re homeless, that they don’t have a place to go. I was fortunate enough to have a mom who didn’t give up.
I do remember during that period, there was an album by a Christian group called the Winans, Heart and Soul. The album was really popular back then, and I remember everyone in that car—my mom, my sisters--we felt like the album was for all of us. There was a song called, “Count It All Joy,” and I distinctly remember my mom telling us that even if we weren't where we wanted to be—count it all joy, even when it’s hard. We could be somewhere worse, she helped us see blessings where normal people wouldn’t see them. I just appreciate that because she could have given up, and given up on us. There were so many times we were really close to going to the shelter, and she persevered. She counted it all joy.
Jenn: There are programs (such as the Homeless Alliance OKC) that facilitate arts programs for those who are currently homeless--how do you think the arts can be helpful to people who may be displaced or live on the street?
Jabee: I think for me they were helpful because I got to express myself—get out my pain, my anger, hurt and fear. I got to deal with that when I was writing a rap or writing a poem. I used to draw super heroes as a kid. I think the arts can be therapeutic in helping people get out aggression vs. other ways--drugs, or behaviors that can be harmful.
It’s our duty as humans to take care of each other. It’s our duty as humans to love each other.
Jabee: When Casey Twenter brought What If to me, he already had the idea. He had already written it--he, I and Steve Jones got together and re-wrote it to sound more poetic and lyrical. I was working a day job at Hertz then, and I would get to the studio at 7:30a and then have to be at work by 10:00a. We just wrote and recorded until we got it right. The experimental part was that it was new, and something I’ve never done before. In a sense, it changed my life.
Jenn: You, along with John Fullbright, were the focus of a short film called Skywriters. Your styles of music are very different, but tell us about the film and how you and John parallel each other as artists.
Jabee: The film was done by Danny Marroquin, and when I was on the cover of the Gazette for the very first time, he was the one who wrote the story. He had stayed in touch with me and eventually brought me the idea. He loved both my and John’s music--the way we wrote, and the stories we told. We’re so different, and the average listener may not find a connection, but there’s something about stories that relate to people, and I believe good music always transcends.
John and I have different stories and lifestyles, but I can relate to the emotion and the soul of his music. He’s huge, he’s one of the best musicians in the state. I can’t even compare to him musically and the talent that he has, but the fact that Danny thought I was worth it and good enough, I’m grateful he saw something in me that he saw in John as well.
Jabee: Well, first I doubt I have any female admirers…but I like when women are happy and fun to be around, when they make the best of situations. Growing up, I wasn’t really a people person, my freshman year in high school I would walk through the halls with my head down. I didn’t want to look anybody in the face. But I grew into a people person through what I do, so I like a woman who is fun to be around, can enjoy herself and be happy. Many women may hear of me, or see me somewhere, and think everything’s exciting…like if they hang out with me, we’ll do all of this amazing, cool stuff. But none of that happens, so it’s over really quick. I just enjoy when people can have fun, no matter where they are.
Jenn: You also starred in a Nike ad for Kevin Durant. What was your favorite part about filming that ad?
Jabee: I got treated like a star, I felt like I was Denzel or something--we had a trailer and everything. The cool thing is I shot two scenes, and the first one was a small group with the film crew and Nike people. They got to know me, and I got to know them. The second scene, there were a lot of extras, and some of the extras were my friends. But by then, the staff knew me and knew I was a lead role. They would say things like, “Jabee, you go sit down and take a break…" or, "Jabee, do you need anything?” They treated me like a star and took care of me. My friends looked at them like, “Man, that’s just Jabee, he doesn't need anything.”
Jabee: I started off doing an after school program for middle school, and I also did a faith-based program where I was going to the schools and mentoring kids there. I did that for about 10 years, and the past 2 or 3 years, I’ve been substitute teaching. I’m traveling way more than I used to, so I can’t do an after school program full time. But what I’ll do is find kids that I feel a connection with and try to mentor them outside of school. I’ll go to their soccer games, football or basket ball games--or if I have a video shoot, I’ll pick them up and bring them to the shoot.
I used to do a program at the Berry House where there would be about 15 kids in the classroom, and I would go to Walmart and get a big bag of chips. I would pass out chips, hang out, and just talk to the kids. I’d figure out how they got there and how to make sure they didn’t come back. For me, I feel like this is important because I was there at one point. I know what it’s like, and I was fortunate enough to have a mom who checked on me and people who mentored me. They helped keep me out of trouble and showed me there was more.
When I was younger, it was hard for me to see life outside of my block I grew up on. I remember being in my room thinking that everyone goes to jail at some point. That was more real than going to college. You maybe went to college, but you for sure went to jail. I feel like because I’ve seen another side, I want to share it and show kids who are like me--or even have it worse than I did--that there’s so much more.
Jenn: What are some main messages you aim to share with the kids you work with?
Jabee: Hope. That no matter what, it’s never too bad and there’s hope for tomorrow. And love…just things that show kids it’s our duty as humans to take care of each other. It’s our duty as humans to love each other. People always say, “Well, they don’t do this, or they don’t do that,” but who is they? We are they. There is no they, it’s us. And sometimes you have to do it by yourself. But don't use excuses, take responsibility for yourself and for your actions.
I think my music has matured, and I think I’ve figured out how to do it. Before, with writing, I was really cautious about a lot of stuff. I think now I’ve learned not only how to write music--but how to promote and market, how to push music.
Jabee: A difference now is that I add my daughter in my raps. Having her helped me better understand the route I have taken. I don’t use profanity…I don’t disrespect women in my music. Before it was because I didn’t want for another kid to hear it. Rappers do it all of the time--they might say to love others or stay in school, but their raps say different. I always want to be honest and hold myself accountable. If I’m going to say one thing, my music needs to say the same thing. Having my daughter made me realize that I did that. I would hate for her to grow up and be rapping to a song of mine, and have to sensor herself because I won’t let her say those words. I have a song on the radio right now, she knows when it comes on, and she sings the whole thing. I’m just glad I took the route I took and stuck to it.
Jenn: Name 5 things you can’t live without?
Jabee: 1. music 2. steak 3. women 4. my phone 5. shoes
Jenn: You just released a new single “Shoulda Sold (Dope)” in February. How do you think your music has evolved since your release of “Blood” in 2009?
Jabee: I think my music has matured, and I think I’ve figured out how to do it. Before, with writing, I was really cautious about a lot of stuff. I think now I’ve learned not only how to write music--but how to promote and market, how to push music.
Jenn: From a mentoring standpoint, can you give other artists (who are trying to do their music professionally) words of wisdom or advice?
Jabee: A couple of things I always try to tell new artists—first, you’re not a star yet. There’s a million rappers out there but people automatically think that they’re a star or that people care already. It’s hard work and sacrifice, people go crazy doing music.
The second thing is to be original. Don’t try to do what you hear on the radio, or see on T.V. When you do that, you sound counterfeit. Just be honest. I have artists who send me songs about flying in jets, and they might work at the mall. I tell them that’s not their story yet. Be honest, people don’t want to hear about your jets, your $500 watches, and your mansions—they can hear that anywhere. That stuff is played on the radio all the time. That’s not you, that’s somebody else.
Jenn: 2014 was a great year for you, can you give us any hints about what’s next to come, or what you’re looking forward to in the year to come?
Jabee: The only thing I know for 2016 is touring overseas—going over to Europe and doing music there. Other than that, I really don’t know. I’m just taking things one day at a time.