Thursday, November 18, 2010

Interview with Jabari Gray, Renaissance Man and he's Jamaican too

Odilia Rivera Santos

I rarely go to parties, so when I was invited to a networking event, I agreed to go with no intention of going. The person who invited me insisted via text, email and phone calls that I go, so I showed up.
Because I don't watch TV, I could not say if I was air-kissing a celebrity or a struggling actor moonlighting as a pernil salesman at the local cuchifrito joint in Spanish Harlem.
Then I saw Jabari Gray and he caught my eye because he looked like a movie star in the Gary Cooper/ Denzel Washington kind of way. I would say that he is an upgrade.
He glanced over at me and smiled, which I interpreted as a signal to go interview him, which I did. I thought I might hire him for one of my plays and proceeded to ask if he had an agent and other stupid questions that made it obvious I had no idea that his career was doing just fine without me.
Gray appeared on season 11 of Law and Order Special Victims Unit.
He was kind enough to sit down with me on two occasions to discuss his career aspirations and current projects.
Gray has a very interesting background; he was born in Michigan but is of Jamaican descent and has strong ties to his parents' homeland, having lived there from 1977 to 1980. In 1980, after the violent General Election in Jamaica, Gray's parents decided to relocate the family to the U.S. From 1983 to the present, Mr. Gray has returned to Jamaica over a dozen times thereby preserving a strong connection to his family's roots.
Gray's father was a tenured professor at Vassar, and prior to his departure in 2005 to teach at the University of Wisconsin, the elder Gray was chair of the Political Science Department at Vassar College; his mother, Folami Harris, who held a B.A. from City College, chose to be a stay-at-home mom and bake organic bread to sell to the local health food store. She later returned to college to receive a Master's Degree in Public Health. Ms. Harris was an entrepreneur who spent thirteen years in Lusaka, Zambia and Johannesburg, South Africa before returning to the U.S. in 2009. Jabari Gray enjoyed some of the most culturally-enriching experiences of his life while visiting his mom in Harare, Zimbabwe, Cairo, Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, U.A.E., Capetown and Durban, South Africa, Milan, Italy and Cape Verde. Gray hastens to add that his mother was also a visionary, freedom fighter and educator. His is a family that values an adventurous spirit and education. The family remains close to this day: his brother and sister live in his neighborhood.
He spent his childhood in a stable peaceful environment in upstate New York where he fantasized about either being a comic book artist or professional skateboarder.
His parents were supportive and offered the following advice: do what you would do for free. Their support and sound advice should have allowed him the freedom to choose any career, but Gray was a bit unfocused at the time. He also mentioned that although he was interested in studying art, he wanted a more practical path, as he was not keen on the idea of being a poor artist.
At the age of eighteen, his parents separated, which was a tremendous emotional blow. Mr. Gray saw other kids going through this experience but admits he never expected his parents to go that route; it was a difficult time made slightly easier by his going away to college.
At college, Gray was concerned about being able to earn a living and changed majors three times. After exploring a major in pre-med and psychology, he decided on majoring in Political Science and Sociology.
While an undergrad, Gray studied music from a sociological perspective, wrote a proposal and received a grant to study music and film Fed Up, a documentary on dancehall music and culture in Jamaica. It was a highly enriching experience, as he felt that for the first time, he had a personal connection to the Jamaican music scene and met musicians who accepted and respected him for his genuine interest in Jamaican dancehall culture and music. In making the documentary, one of his main goals was to create a venue to allow musicians to share their experiences. Gray speaks proudly of this experience, establishing rapport with musicians in Jamaica and how helpful they were in connecting him with different studios, singers, and recording engineers.
For Fed Up, Gray interviewed Merciless, Junior Reed, Paul Elliot, Black Mice, Godfather Fresh, Fire Fox, Durango Kid, and African. He also had the assistance of Brian Meeks, and Carolyn Cooper, professors from the University of the West Indies, as well as his father Obika Gray.

After viewing the documentary, I consider it a valuable record of a culture that is little understood outside of Jamaica. The musicians speak of their experience without being censored or analyzed by a so-called expert. It is a project to which Gray intends to return.
Gray makes a valuable contribution to the history of Jamaican dancehall music by providing a forum for the artist/scholar and Jamaican university scholars to speak on the significance of music and culture in the life of Jamaica.
After receiving his B.A. in Political Science and Sociology, Gray again chose the practical path; he chose to go to law school with the idea that he would use his earnings to finance artistic projects. And he chose entertainment law in order to remain in contact with artists.
Things did not go as planned and Gray ended up practicing insurance law, doing contract attorney document review and defense-side corporate litigation. The tedium of his day job was counterbalanced by recording music and he continued to mature as a performer and writer. He also booked print model and TV commercial work.
In 2008, things changed; after a work slowdown, Gray finally let go of what had seemed practical.
Gray let go of his lawyer life to finally pursue what had seemed impractical. Although he hated law school, he credits the experience with giving him the organizational skills and tenacity needed to pursue a music and acting career.
He has found life outside law a lot more in tune with his original aspirations. He is now a full-time artist. He has appeared in seven episodes in season 11 of Law and Order Special Victims Unit, and has continued to get commercials and modeling work.
Gray just completed his first speaking part in a major motion picture, Man on a Ledge, starring Sam Worthington, which will be released in 2012. Fans can also catch Gray in an independent comedy, NYC XY, in which he has a starring role, due for release in the Spring of 2011.

And we return to the beginning and Jabari Gray's first love: music. Mr. Gray speaks in the sedate tones of a highly-educated professional but slips seamlessly into his homegrown Jamaican dialect in his dancehall music recordings. He incorporates the two worlds of intellectualism and street culture with the same grace and ease with which he saunters across the room. He is a musician at heart with the voice, instincts and musicianship to succeed; his music is danceable, fun and most importantly, as authentic as Jabari Gray himself.

Gray will be an M.C. and host for DJ Rekka at a New Year's party in New Delhi, India.

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