Fans of Sam Cooke will love Jac Ross. He has mad gospel pipes and uses his R&B chops to tackle huge topics like racism, mortality and evil. His 2020 release “It’s OK To Be Black” is a bona fide protest song – as joyous as it is defiant.
Ross opened the Lakeshore stage to kick off Lollapalooza’z third day. Accompanied onstage by a lone modern dancer and his keyboard, Ross wowed the audience with his vocal gymnastics and impassioned stage presence.
After his set, Redacted Magazine caught up with the singer backstage. Read the conversation below, edited for length and clarity.
So first question – how did you get into music?
I got into music at age 5, I started singing. My first instrument, at probably 3 or 4 years of age, was playing the drums. I’m the son of a minister, so I played in church a lot. Those skills, over time, just developed. The church is, what I would say, got me into music.
Was there a moment that you decided you wanted to make music your life?
Most definitely. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 12 years old, and my father took me to a concert in Jasper, Florida, a very small town like my town of Live Oak. That night was a gospel group by the name of Lee Williams & the Spiritual QC’s. After I went to that concert, there was just something euphoric in the air to me, and I decided that night, at age 12, I was going to be a singer, for the rest of my life. That was the defining moment for me.
Where did you play some of your first gigs?
I wouldn’t really call them gigs. Again, being the son of a minister, I played in hundreds of, maybe even thousands of churches all around the world, in the states of Florida and Georgia, of course. I treated those church services, so to speak, as my personal gigs and my learning.
I remember reading that you gave yourself seven years to become a musician.
Yeah, after high school, all my friends went to college, but I knew college wasn’t for me. I really felt like I could make it in the music industry. The way I looked at it is, it takes between five and seven years to get yourself a P.h.D. So I was like, I’m gonna give myself seven years to get my musical P.h.D, or doctorate of music. Ironically, on the seventh year is when I finally got my big break and I signed with Darkchild [Records] and later partnered with Island Records over at Universal. So the plan worked. It’s amazing, but it worked.
How long ago did you make that promise to yourself?
Probably nine years ago.
I also read that you and [Rodney “Darkchild”] Jerkins recorded 88 songs at Darkchild Records. How did you do that?
I guess growing up in the church, it made me a different kind of machine, so to speak, the speed of it all. And the energy that you capture in those services. When you go into a small space, like a studio, it’s easy to replicate that. And at this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if we have upwards 200 songs recorded.
What are you going to do with all of them?
Well, hopefully release them all. We got so many songs that when I’m old and even dead, my children can release them and they can make some bread as well.
Are they all originals?
I would say 98% are original songs.
So obviously, your music is very gospel-inspired. How do you think growing up in the church affects your sound?
You know, this is always a very interesting question. Because growing up in the church, as a kid, I really did not like the sound of gospel music. I didn’t. In my area, they played a lot of what I call just slowful gospel music. I didn’t really care for that sound. But some of the influences of gospel – I think it’s just the passion that you would hear in the music, the deep soul, that cry that you may feel, that pain that you may get. When I sing, I wanna credit that. But again, it’s kind of this weird thing where I just didn’t always care for the sound of gospel, but it has definitely had a slight influence – or a pretty strong influence on the way my sound is, I would agree.
Are there any artists that you look up to or find inspiring when you make your own music?
I always loved Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, Otis Redding, those are people that I really grew up just loving to hear and I would say that they’ve influenced my music. But you have to be able to infuse some of the influences today. I’m a big fan of H.E.R. I’m a big fan of Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak. I think you have to try to infuse some of what they do into that old soul to keep up and give everyone a taste of everything, so to speak.
You really distorted your voice on your recording of “Saved” and I’m curious what led to that decision.
That’s a great question. My voice is naturally a little raspy anyway, but we added that extra distortion because we wanted to give people that vinyl feel. That record is so painful and so moving. The way I envision it is someone going literally to their record player, putting that record on and sitting down, grabbing a cigar, probably a leg up and just listening to that vinyl turn. So that was the feel, because we don’t really get a lot of that in this day and age. And I think it’s important to be true to who you are. And that was a moment when I was like, you know, this is who I am. And I want to share that with people. We also offered a clean version. When I say clean, I mean an undistorted version for people who maybe didn’t like the distortions.
So, you were featured in the NBA PSA, can you talk a little bit about how that felt? And just how that happened?
First of all, it felt amazing. It was a high compliment and accomplishment for me, because I played basketball in high school. I had a few small opportunities to play in college, but I didn’t go to college. But I love basketball. So being in that campaign – from a fan perspective, it almost was like me being drafted to the NBA. Like, wow, this is my moment, this is crazy. But also, in the spirit of social justice, it felt really good to be able to strengthen Black people at such a desperate time in America. I believe, and I pray, that my song “It’s OK To Be Black” helped in some way to heal, and not to divide.
It was released at a time that Black people were under serious, series oppression, due to maybe law enforcement and other different situations that occurred. But I say that song is for all mankind. It’s okay for anybody to be who they are, and you should not have to be mistreated just for being who you are. It’s a universal song.
It’s also a song that was a letter to my daughter. She was born with beautiful, Ebony skin and I want her to know that in this world, you can be okay walking in the skin that you’re in. It’s absolutely, perfectly unblemished. It’s beautiful. And I just want her to have that peace of mind. When she grows up, she can look back and know that her father wrote that for her as well.
How old is your daughter?
She just turned six a week ago.
Did she get to watch your set?
No. She didn’t watch me here, but speaking of that song “It’s OK To Be Black,” she watches it every night on YouTube.
She watches it on YouTube? You could just sing it to her!
I could just sing it to her but she’s like, get out of here, dad.
You released that song before summer 2020, and it seems like it almost predicted what was going to happen. Do last summer’s protests change the way you think about that song?
I think, in writing that song, it was definitely prophetic. I believe that if anybody was paying attention to the world, just because something is not heavily televised at that moment, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. And it was happening all along. Unfortunately, it took the right – and I say this very sensitively – it took the right moment, or the right person to capture that moment, for it to be picked up. And again, I say that with extreme sensitivity. It’s nothing to be proud of – what happened. You know, I’m speaking of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. That’s horrible. But it took those situations for the world to be able to see. And I must say, I’m extremely proud of my fellow white brothers and sisters, Asian, Mexican people who came together for the betterment of Black people. Enough is enough, and I think that people really stood together.
And there’s still work to do, but it was a moment in time where we saw people of every race and background come together. And at that moment, I knew that my songs served the purpose of healing and bonding and unifying all people to know that it is okay to be Black. And also, to that white woman holding my hand, it’s okay for her to be white as well. You know, it’s just a moment that we came together, so beautifully and so powerfully. And I hope that we can move forward in a progressive manner to keep this energy going.
What are some other themes you address in your music?
Sure. So, one thing about me is I always try to address just love. My theory is, I write music through the lens of life. I think that everything we do is a song. And I feel like people are so in touch with my music because it’s just them, in the form of a song. It’s not anything that is too fluffy or too weird. It’s just like, man, I really go through these situations. Love, happiness, healing, and life give us so many different views, right? So, because of that, you’re going to get every background and walk of life in my music.
So you just played Lollapalooza, which is a really is a big deal. What are some challenges that you faced to get to where you are?
Well, to be very honest with you, there were many hard days. I was a school teacher and I was a music director as well. And everybody knows that our school system don’t make a lot of money. A lot of times my life did not say that my dream could come true. I had many days having to borrow money just to get food on the table. Talking about my oldest daughter, she was born with a paralyzed arm due to medical malpractice. Insurance companies denied us for surgery, so we choose to be evicted so that we could pay for the surgery. I think that those things made me who I am. And they got me to the moment of where I am. One of the hardest things to do is to wake up every day believing and knowing, emphatically knowing, that you are one of the best people in the world at what you do, and to do your job consistently. So, the days were hard, but I’m proud because I made it.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Oh, that’s a great question, one that I’m always prepared for. That is very simple. The advice that I’d give to my younger self is what I’ve done, follow the long road. Take your time. You’re not going to run out of time. Even when things are bad, get up. The road ahead is still long, but keep on walking, keep on going. And eventually, you’re going to make it to your destination.
Featured image: Jac Ross by Michael Watson II
Kira Leadholm is the co-editor-in-chief of Redacted Magazine. Kira recently returned from a year living in Kazakhstan where she reported on the climate crisis, LGBT+ rights, labor issues and the arts. Currently, she studies social justice and investigative reporting at Medill School of Journalism, and she holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago.