Jea Street Jr. can handle anything you throw at him. Opera – check. A romantic ballad, in English or in Italian – check. Hip-hop and R&B – check. A piano-backed nursery rhyme – check.
With a new album, The Sit Down, and videos, his debut performance with a full band, and a host of singer-songwriter showcases, his name will be on the lips of music scenesters for a long time to come.
It was only at the age of 20 that Street began pursuing his musical education. During his undergraduate years at the HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) Morehouse College he participated in the school’s prestigious Glee Club, where he says that the caliber of musicians involved in the program opened his eyes to music.
He started taking voice lessons at that time, and it is typical for a student to be exposed to a great deal of classical music. He continued his education at the University of Delaware, under the tutelage of Dr. Marie Hadley Robinson, a lauded opera singer and recording artist.
At Dr. Robinson’s urging, Street successfully auditioned for OperaDelaware’s Porgy & Bess, which was performed, as traditionally intended by George Gershwin, by a cast almost entirely made up of people of color. He was in his early twenties at the time, and he was hooked.
Now thirteen years later, Street has leveraged his performance experience into a career as a full-time musician, a goal that many artists never accomplish.
This is not to say he spends all his days behind his piano keyboard. Street is a teaching artist with DiAE, Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education, a decades-old non-profit that integrates multicultural arts experiences into schools. Most of the time, he visits Head Start classrooms where he spends his six-week residencies demonstrating to teachers how to use music as a tool for teaching. Students in the program range in age from three to five.
Street says it’s about not just giving commands to students. Instead of, “…‘everybody sit down,’ you sing a little song and use a rhyme or rhythm to make it fun. You can teach a student how to count using percussive things in the classroom. There is a 21 Savage song [called Bank Account] and you can teach kids how to count with it. I show them how powerful music is as a teaching tool so they can integrate it in everything that they do.”
Street’s musical take on Clifford the Big Red Dog was captured on video and it shows how well the kids take to his lessons.
He also commits himself to children at other stages of life. Through a formal program, he mentors and advocates for an adjudicated youth that is reentering the community after time inside Ferris School for Boys. Concentrating on one teenager at a time, he spends up to ten hours a week finding out what the young man’s interests are and helping him to get connected to those interests and stay on track.
His connection to young people is an important key to this stage of his life. Street got married right about the same time he walked away from his non-musical employment security and finally decided that Wilmington was where he would settle. He followed those decisions fairly soon after with a baby girl, and later a baby boy.
And about two years ago, Street says he “found [his] voice.”
A young woman named Amy Joyner-Francis lost her life to senseless violence right in Street’s hometown. And around the same time, a young man shot up a church in Charleston South Carolina. These events struck him as a father and as a black man and as a human.
“It made me think a lot about what’s going on in my community day-to-day, such powerful things that happen. I started putting those thoughts directly into my music. It shaped my creativity significantly in the past few years.”
Street teamed up with local hip-hop artists, and, “…did some singer-songwriter stuff along the way. Love songs, not too serious, but nothing particularly interesting.”
He admits that although he was strongly inspired to write by the violence in his local and greater communities, his work is “…not blatant political revolutionary stuff. I still write love songs.” He has since “…refocused on trying to be a voice for people who don’t have a voice, speaking on issues that are important to me, socially.”
This led to his involvement with 302GunsDown, which has organized successful peace rallies in Wilmington, where he has been able to share some of his music.
Street also balances his social tendencies with his passions. He’s a jokester on social media, is a passionate motorcyclist, a Muay Thai and general fitness enthusiast, and is not afraid to trot out locker room humor (although he is passionately in love with his wife, Lisa, a successful educator and excellent female foil for his wisecracks).
He says, “I tend to come off unemotional, like a robot.” It’s a contrast with his true nature, which is to want to get involved with a cause.
“Like, what do you mean? Of course I’m going to help out. To not want to change that dynamic, just shouldn’t be the case.”
Listening to his music, it’s obvious that the American blues movement has been a heavy influence. Online searches lead to video of the wedding band he’s a part of, CTO Midtown Express, where you can witness his near-perfect Italian diction on the song, Il Pescatore. And his long-time love of R&B music has carried over from his teen years at Tower Hill. He even cites Bruce Springsteen as a songwriting influence.
“All I want to be is Otis Redding.”
You can catch Street at a number of local appearances leading up to a June 8 event at Bootless Stageworks where he and a full band will present the full album live for the first time. Guest performers include violinist Alice Marie, choreographed dancers from Pieces of a Dream and rapper Splitface.
This Friday, May 4, he will perform as part of Songwriter in the Round at Kelly’s Logan House.