Jay “Jaewar” King listened to a lot of reggae while growing up in Virginia Beach. His Jamaican-born father always had the stereo on, with good vibes floating through the speakers and into the home.
But it was hip-hop that took hold of him. Captivated by the imagery of the lyrics and by artists like LL Cool J who were “cool and powerful” and socially conscious all at once, a young Jaewar started filling books with lyrics of his own.
So it’s no surprise that this soft-spoken industrial engineer who fronts local hip-hop/reggae/rock/go-go band Vibe Riot has a certain hope for what his music might accomplish: “If I could have my wish…I would be the Bob Marley of hip-hop…have this music be a force that has political influence and be able to [use that] for good,” says Jaewar with a hint of shyness.
But when he’s on the mic, he’s not so quiet, and he’s supported by a full backing band that includes Tim Burnett on bass, Pierrick Houziaux on drums and Larry Johnson on percussion, along with a rotating lineup of supporting players that have joined the band for various live sets and in-studio sessions.
The band released True! Raw Honey last year, a six-song EP that includes new versions of songs that Jaewar’s kicked around for years. He says the EP “is kind of like my thesis,” touting his theory that everything that’s important can be traced back to one of two things. “Good art is going to be about love or politics. Otherwise, you’re just making noise,” he says.
The artist bases his lyrics in reality, on real stories and real emotions, both of which he says are felt most intensely on “Waddup,” which he was inspired to write around the time Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman. When fatal shootings of young black men by police officers “kept happening and happening and happening,” the stories splashed all over newspapers and television screens, an overwhelmed Jaewar put the song away for a while. He picked it back up again when he saw himself in one of these men. “That would have been me,” he thought. “I’ve always felt like I’m well-spoken, I’m educated. I could talk my way out of these incidents, so this would never happen to me. But after reading his story, I cried. That would have been me, and I probably would have died, too.” With that in mind, he finished the song:
“They want us crucified / Mad ’cause we’re still alive / Sometimes a killer higher / Just to feel alive. / Elevated minds / It’s ’bout damn time / Black lives matter / I advise, don’t trivialize,” the song begins.
Throughout the course of the song, the lyrics transcend Jaewar’s own feelings and ask the listener, no matter his race, religion, gender, nationality, political affiliation or life experience, to stop and ask themselves, “Waddup?” What’s going on in the song? In the world? In his heart, his mind? This sort of unification is what Jaewar is going for with Vibe Riot’s music.
During live performances, he’s even willing to alter his lyrics for the sake of unification.
The song “Babylon Falls” uses one verse to tell a politician’s story, then examines the feelings that story provokes. And while Jaewar doesn’t usually freestyle, he’ll change up the line about “Trump supporters” to something like “blind supporters” if he feels like the Trump line wouldn’t work in the room in that particular time and place. He’ll do it partly for the safety of the band, and partly because he hates to lose listeners who might eventually come around to what he’s saying.
“You can say things, and depending on your delivery, you can…either shut people off, or, you can have them listen to you; you can piss people off, or you can challenge them with a thought,” he says, and perhaps forge a link of understanding between seemingly different people.
So even when Jaewar’s talking about politics…he’s really talking about love.
“I’m passionate and driven to create art and a better world,” he says, and that’s his motivation for both Vibe Riot and the Vibe Fest event taking place at IX Art Park on Friday night. Vibe Riot will perform alongside other local artists with the intent to “harness the joy of an artful experience to help strengthen a community we love,” Jaewar says, adding that he’s making a particular effort “not to leave Charlottesville’s underrepresented underrepresented again.”
Music “is a language that we all use,” he says. “We might not speak the same language, but we can still rock to the same beat.”