FLAME KEEPER

The brightly burning spirit of late musician, artist, and activist Jessi Zazu lives on, through a community-building nonprofit formed in her memory

  • When cancer ended Jesse Zazu’s 28-year life in September of 2017, the beloved musician, artist, and activist’s absence did more than initiate the expected wave of grief; because of all that Zazu had created and contributed, her death left a void palpable to many who had received value from her music, her art, her courageous fight against cancer, her mentorship to young (usually female) musicians, and her work in social and racial justice.
          Growing up in rural parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana, Jessi Zazu — born Jessi Zazu Wariner to artistically inclined parents — was raised to be a free thinker, unbound by the limitations of meager finances and small-town mentalities. This is evident to anyone who has viewed her artwork or heard the original music she performed and recorded in the internationally acclaimed band she co-founded, Those Darlins — a band that Cuisinarted deep country, punk-informed performance art, and classic girl-group pop in a manner as bold as Zazu’s non-musical declarations against things she believed were askew.
          Zazu’s unfettered, creative approach to life was, one would presume, greatly influenced by her mother, Kathy Wariner, a visual artist and a single parent to Jessi for much of her childhood. But Wariner, a self-confessed introvert, didn’t consciously set out to raise a front-line feminist and social activist.
          “Jessi was always intense about it, going and getting involved with everything,” Wariner says, “and being my age and everything, I just didn’t really feel the passion that she did, and I didn’t really totally understand it. What difference can we make?” But that was then, long before there was any reason to carry on the work that mattered most to Zazu — the kind of work now beginning to take shape under the banner of a new nonprofit, Jessi Zazu, Inc.
          After Zazu was diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV), Wariner moved from Kentucky to Nashville, along with her adult sons Emmett and Oakley, to lend support and spend precious time together. Here, she began to meet and get better acquainted with her daughter’s friends, who soon made a profound impact on her. “I’m just so impressed with Jessi’s friends ... [they] knew what she wanted and had the same kind of goals and interests,” Wariner says. “They have a passion for what’s right. They’re not going to let it slide. I know exactly what they’re talking about, but I don’t have the nerve they do. Jessi didn’t care what — I mean, she was such a good person, but she wasn’t afraid of what people thought.”
          As Zazu underwent treatment, her position as a widely recognized musician and performer provided a platform to extend her own very public cancer battle into a far-reaching gesture of support for others. Those who benefited, along with members of Zazu’s sizeable fan base, began sending well wishes in quantities that required a post office box. “We would carry bags of letters every day,” Wariner recalls. “I mean, packages, everything, from people saying that they had had cancer, and they had no one, or they had loved ones who had cancer. What she did was open up to people, and that meant so much to them.”
          In turn, their gratitude meant a great deal to the Wariner family, exposing them to community support at a level they’d never imagined possible. It was particularly significant to Zazu, who had poured herself out for fans on countless stages over a decade’s time but had little inkling how much it had mattered to so many of them. Within a very short time after her daughter’s passing, conversation about a nonprofit had begun between Wariner and her sons. “I was like, we have to do something, ’cause she just stood for so much.”
          Soon, she was serendipitously put in contact with retired Murfreesboro attorney Pat Blankenship, now a nonprofit consultant. Blankenship’s adult children traveled in the same circles as Zazu, whom Blankenship knew and admired. She promptly signed on with the Wariners’ plan and got the paperwork under way. In fairly short order, Jessi Zazu, Inc. had become an official entity; in early January of this year, a well-attended multi-artist tribute to Zazu and Those Darlins at Mercy Lounge became its kickoff fundraiser. Wariner, who sits on the board of directors along with her two sons, says that the nonprofit’s 501(c)(3) status is expected to be in place by June.
          An advisory group has also been assembled, Wariner says, comprising friends of Jessi who are assuming various roles according to their areas of expertise. “They loved Jessi and respected her tremendously, and they are all very excited to be able to carry on Jessi’s work,” Blankenship offers. “And that is all in large part, I think, because it’s just a way of filling the vacuum, the hole that’s left in the community without Jessi.”
          The organization’s website, jessizazu.org, clearly outlines its three areas of focus, all of which were issues of importance in Jessi Zazu’s life and work: arts and humanities, social justice, and women’s health. “Jessi, she wanted to help people,” Wariner says. “She didn’t think a lot of things were fair, and when she didn’t think they were fair, she wanted to make them right, you know? But that wasn’t her only mission in life... She was a singer, songwriter, a visual artist, and she knew that those things really help people in so many ways.”
          In honor of its namesake’s legacy of caring and creativity, Jessi Zazu, Inc. will promote and support artistic self-expression and accessible arts training, as well as events geared toward bringing awareness to issues of social importance.
          The nonprofit’s emphasis on women’s health emerged as a latter-day priority for Jessi and her family after it became evident that HPV, commonly transmitted through sexual contact but often harmless and easily prevented, can nonetheless be fatal. “It was such an eye-opening experience — her having the cancer, and so many people helping her,” Wariner says. “We just felt like that needed to be addressed.”
          “Jessi didn’t get medical checkups and treatments and things as regularly as she should,” Blankenship says, “so that’s one of the things that we want to impress upon young women — that you need to be at the doctor every year, getting your checkups.” Wariner adds that her daughter “was all about women anyhow — empowerment. And it’s not just about women. Part of our women’s health thing is awareness [but] boys need to be aware, too.”
          Emmett Wariner, the older of Jessi’s two younger brothers, is the president of the nonprofit. His younger brother Oakley is handling social media, while Emmett focuses on fundraising and event planning. His vision for the nonprofit’s health initiative is “to fund HPV screenings and vaccines. I would also love to educate more people about the virus and its connection to cervical cancer.”
          Future activities for raising funds and awareness will likely include bike rides and concerts — events that he hopes “will attract people [not only] because of the great cause, but also just be fun events that everyone can enjoy while also educating people about what we do and will be doing. We will at some point probably have some sort of stuffy black tie-esque benefit dinner for people who like to show up to those sorts of things,” Wariner allows dryly, “but I will fight it tooth and nail until I have to give up. I just want to build a community of people as relatable and warm as Jessi was, and the only way I know to do that is to hold events that Jessi herself would have wanted to be a part of.”
          Blankenship adds that fundraising will also involve the sale of merchandise, including the “Ain’t Afraid” T-shirts based on the Those Darlins song whose title later became a rallying cry for both the cancer-resisting Zazu and fans standing alongside her. Zazu’s artwork will also be available for purchase once her estate is settled and finalized. Beyond that, Blankenship foresees the use of “all the traditional prongs of fundraising” such as writing grants, asking foundations for financial support, and reaching out to the community with information about the nonprofit’s goals and accomplishments in hopes of attracting individual donations.
          She notes that the organization’s planned outreach is starting locally but will be broad in scope. “Jessi has fans all over the country and all over the world. And so those far-flung fans we expect to be a part of our financial base for sure. And hopefully if they get motivated to bring programming into their community, we would love to work with them to help make that happen. [Such expansion] is our expectation and our hope.”
          In March, the nonprofit launched a free, short-term weekly workshop series, Arts & Activism, in collaboration with Oasis Center and the Murfreesboro-based YEAH! (Youth Empowerment through Arts and Humanities, the organization whose Southern Girls Rock Camps crucially sparked Zazu’s musical career, as well as her interest in mentoring others). The project was initially a plan of Zazu’s, scuttled by her cancer diagnosis but closely guarded by friend and creative comrade Ariel Bui, who reached out to Oasis Center. There, she found a willing supporter in Abby Whisenant, program coordinator at the Center’s Underground Art Studio. Grant funding was provided by both Oasis and YEAH!, with studio space offered by Whisenant, a proponent of the arts-and-activism concept who says Oasis had been looking into offering similar programming.
          She calls the collaboration a “beautiful thing ... to come together in honor of Jessi. We definitely wanted to contribute to celebrating her life and honoring her memory, especially for her family and friends, many of whom I know as well,” Whisenant says. “Jessi taught my niece how to play bass guitar at one of the camps, and she loved Jessi and was really sad to hear about her passing.”
          Whisenant’s had a hands-on role in the workshop, as have instructors Marlos E’van and Courtney Adair Johnson, social practice artists-in-residence at North Nashville’s nearby McGruder Family Resource Center. She explains that the 10 participants, aged 13 through 17 and representing a diverse social cross-section, worked on creating zines, using digital graphics, hand-drawn art, and techniques such as scanning and collage-making. “It’s a different platform for getting a message out,” she says. “They’re creating art around specific messages that are important to them. In this creative way you’re spreading a message, maybe creating awareness about a topic that others haven’t thought about or seen in that way.”
          The zines, Whisenant says, “can show people how to see a topic differently, from the perspective of young people, which is really valuable.” In addition to an art show held at Oasis Center on April 26, there will also be a show at Nashville makerspace Fort Houston on the first Saturday of August, where the students’ work — possibly from hoped-for summer sessions still unconfirmed at press time, as well as from this spring’s A&A workshop — can be seen.
          The relationship between arts and activism itself isn’t automatically understood by all, a fact that highlights the importance of educating the community. For Kathy Wariner, in fact, the concept initially suggested a simplistic and predictable outcome in which “people would get together and make signs for a march, you know?” In early planning stages for the workshops, she and E’van determined that introspection was the best way to begin with the teenaged participants. “Marlos and me, we both agreed that if you want kids to become strong and be leaders, or just be sure of themselves, the best way is for them to go inward and get to know who they are.
          “It’s not an aggressive ... [attitude of ], ‘I’m trying to prove something,’ although it sometimes comes across that way,” Wariner observes. “It’s more about developing strong adults. It’s about compassion and love, too; it’s not about aggressiveness.” Whisenant seconds that notion. “Young people,” she says, “are actually teaching us how to have a more civil conversation.”
          Emmett Wariner recalls having lengthy talks with his sister “about how awesome it would be if social justice and equality was just treated as the norm and not gawked at like some foreign and preposterous concepts. We’d always talk about how we would love to make these things as commonplace as anything else, about normalizing things that should be normal. I think most people assume that changing the world has to be forceful and aggressive, but I think if you silently build the world you want, sly force of will can be the most effective method.”
          To that end, he says, his family’s nonprofit will keep “continuing to work on the world we live in and work on building the world we want to live in — the world that Jessi wanted to live in.”
          External change typically happens gradually, though an internal shift can sometimes take place like the flipping of a switch. For Kathy Wariner, it happened implausibly, in January of this year. “I went to the Women’s March this year in Nashville, and I’m normally not one of those people, OK? I don’t do extrovert-type things,” says Wariner, who attended a workshop on activism and the arts on the day of the March, at the urging of Pat Blankenship. “[Pat] said, ‘You need to do this, because you’re involved. You need to know what arts and activism is — this is what the nonprofit’s about.’
          “I just assumed that they would be making posters and it would be, ‘Look, this is how we feel.’ But it wasn’t. It was so inspiring.” Women who conducted the workshops shared their stories, Wariner says. “They’d been through serious life trials, and they all worked with people and gave back to the communities. It was emotional, and it was so inspiring. I wanted to be one of those people.”
          “That was her first March ever,” Blankenship says. “And she attended a workshop that was devoted to artists getting involved in social justice and using their art to help bring about change in the social justice arena. And she was amazed at how many people were there, how much she had in common with those people, how many of those people she already knew, just through Jessi. So, yeah, she’s gotten quite an eyeful and an earful, and has learned a lot. And she loves it. It keeps her focused, even when the grief is bad, and she can turn to this and get things done that make her feel that she’s really doing something for Jessi. And it means a lot to her as her mom.”
          Blankenship affirms that Wariner has had to travel a fast track in the process of learning how a nonprofit is run, but she clearly recognizes the essential ingredient Wariner brings to the organization. “Kathy is the keeper of the flame, I would say. She holds the total essence of who Jessi was. So many of the people that we are working with knew her through their music endeavors together, or through their social justice endeavors together. But Kathy holds her soul. And as she holds her soul, she keeps the organization grounded and stable. She insists on protecting and safeguarding the soul of the organization and making sure that we are always accurately representing what Jessi would have been doing were she here.”
          “Jessi wanted to make a difference and help bring people together,” says her mother. As the primary flame-keeper of Jessi Zazu, Inc., she holds not only her daughter’s soul but, now, also carries her heart for building community.