"I would describe my music as timeless. It comes at a time when there's a lapse in the voice of everyday people. I think I'm kind of their voice right now."
Somewhere, there are members of Arrested Development smiling at the way this 26-year-old describes his music. The musician named Lyfe Jennings ("I chose the name 'Lyfe' because that explains what my music is about.") is influenced by all that has gone on in his young life. From church pews to prison blues, you hear it all in his debut release, Lyfe 286-192.
The singer, songwriter, and producer's music has been dubbed everything from folk to r&b and hip-hop to ghetto gospel. He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, which "hasn't really blown up yet," he says. "There's just a lot of grinding going on right now, a lot of rap." With that influence on the one side, the church helped round out his voice.
But a young start in the church choir did not keep Jennings out of trouble. He got caught up with the law and smacked with a 10-year prison sentence. While paying his debt to society, he decided to spend his time constructively --- and creatively. "I needed something to be doing. So, I found the music again." He went back into it 100 percent, teaching himself how to play guitar and writing songs.
"I delved into that," he says. "I just used it as an outlet. I spent a lot of time doing it, a lot of time praying on it."
Prayer: one thingJennings learned young that was reinforced in prison. Though he's not heavily religious ("I think everything should be done in moderation"), Jennings used to sing a lot of church songs at the prison's religious functions. But it was when he was sharing some of his r&b work with fellow inmate performers at a secular function that he was inspired to write one of the most controversial and impactive songs on the album.
"One of the ladies from the church service got up in front of everyone, being real hard on me," he says. "She said, 'You're singing for the devil!' and all that stuff to me. So, I went back that night and wrote that song."
"Made Up My Mind" speaks directly to the churchgoers he has a problem with: "If you speak about it, you should be about it. Not just preach about it all day / Cause if you do, you run the risk of chasing some of the most beautiful people away." He also speaks candidly to God, asking: "Did they really think that they could pull the wool over your eyes, Lord / Did they really think that by faking they were saved that they would get the same reward?"
Jennings began to look at the future while he was still in prison. "I started seeing a lot of people doing a lot of time and going home to nothing," he says. So he took his destiny into his own hands, celebrating his December 2002 release with a studio recording session two days later and a club gig the following day.
He won over one of the toughest crowds, Amateur Night at Harlem's World Famous Apollo Theater. And then he won four more times in a row. After selling thousands of copies of the work he recorded shortly after his release and getting regular airplay for two singles, he was signed to Sony Urban Music, who released his album last year.
Jennings looks forward to a long career, but his goals for his music are more than melodic.
"I think that my career is going to lead me to speak at different functions for kids, adults, or whatever," he says. "I think it's also going to help a lot of other artists coming out who tend to shy away from talking about real situations."
Maybe practicing what he preaches is what got Lyfe Jennings where he is today and directs where he's headed. So what is the bottom-line message of his sermon? "Basically, everybody goes through the same things on one level or another. And, you can definitely come back from any problem that you've ever had in your life."
True words spoken by the voice of everyday people.
Lyfe Jennings | Sunday, July 17 | 4 p.m.