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Jaguar Wright Mentors a Young Philly Talent.

March 9, 2012

Text by Alexis Simmons. Images by G.W. Miller III.

It’s the first night of a brand new monthly event called “Soul Food Cypher.” Deemed a combination of open house, social mixer, family reunion and musical cypher, this event brings together the best elements of musical events, in the home of Philly’s own Jaguar Wright.

Artists are treated like family. Catfish nuggets and salad are served as appetizers, while pasta, collard greens, jasmine rice, turkey, lamb and other delectable dishes are being prepared for the main meal. Amidst the organized commotion in the kitchen, stands Ms. Jaguar. Not only does she help cook the food, she also initiates a cypher in the living room. She encourages the MCs to do their thang as the DJ mixes it up with old-school hip hop and Philly favorites.

In the center of the circle, Ms. Jaguar stands proud. She pulls me in and we freestyle over Sade’s track, “Soldier of Love.”

As she heads back to the kitchen to finish prepping dinner, I watch her in admiration, stunned in the realization that Ms. Jaguar Wright is my mentor.

It all began in February 2011. I was scheduled to open for Ms. Jaguar at the acclaimed venue S.O.B.’s in New York. As I prepared myself in the dressing room, I had a million thoughts in my mind: what would she be like? What songs did she have for her set? Did she give a damn about who I was or was I some random stranger just given an opportunity to be on the same stage as her?

I was pleasantly surprised when she came in. Although a little harried from the train ride, she still managed to make me feel comfortable and less nervous about the show. She welcomed me with a warm hug and some vitamins, as I was feeling under the weather that night. She also encouraged me by saying that I shouldn’t worry about the crowd, to just do what I do and the crowd will feel it.

“A lot of times,” she stated thoughtfully, “I will just close my eyes and feel the music. I don’t have to open my eyes to know that the crowd is following me. But don’t worry baby girl, you got it…”

Still, I thought that I would just warm up the stage for her arrival. After I performed however, I was shocked to hear my name being called while she was on stage. I mean, I’ve sung all over Philly, toured with a rock band and released an album but I couldn’t make the connection between my experiences and this moment.

I must’ve done all right, because she announced to everyone, including me, that she was mentoring me!

Since then, I’ve sat down in her kitchen and discussed the ins and outs of the music business. I’ve learned about her start as a young woman performing alongside The Roots, Jill Scott and Bilal, as the Black Lily became a stepping stone for numerous Philly soul artists.

Ms. Jaguar has released two albums (her debut Denials, Delusions and Decisions and her sophomore effort, Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul), created numerous videos and toured the world as a member of the OkayPlayer collective. One of Ms. Jaguar’s most memorable performances was ripping up the stage as a featured vocalist on Jay-Z’s UnPlugged album. She continues to pack venues whenever she performs.

But she’s quick to warn me of the negativity, confusion and downright shadiness that can surround an artist. There are haters and money issues constantly needing to be dealt with. So she advises me on the steps that I need to take as a burgeoning indie artist: finding the right venues that will hire me to perform, building a relationship with a worthwhile producer as a singer AND a songwriter, singing background for notable artists, and making sure that I stay on top of my business.

The other day, I was looking at a few YouTube videos of Ms. Jaguar and it all clicked. She is an absolute thrill to have as a mentor. There is a deeply felt resonance that I have with her voice, performance style and her connection to the music. She is able to improv or freestyle no matter where she is or what music is playing, because, as one admirer said, “She lives in the moment.”

It’s an intuitive syncopation of mind, heart, word, voice and rhythm.

When she is on stage, she will perform the song as you know it but she will also turn it on its head, remixing and rearranging it on the spot. Most importantly, she allows the music to breathe.

I love experimenting with my voice – freestyling with music and words. Its exciting to me when musicians create on the spot and I’m persuaded to travel with their chord changes or drum patterns. It can be a risk at times, yet under Ms. Jaguar’s tutelage, I know I will learn to live in the moment.

Until that time comes, I patiently wait for the next gathering of artists, the banging soul food and the cypher.

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