A Deeper Look Within

Starting Tuesday, Mar. 24  

Instagram: @dreamsthatprosper

A.yoni Jeffries: “Respect the Hussle”

Tuesday, Mar. 31

Instagram: @ayonijeffries

We often pay lip service to art’s power to heal, uplift, and inspire, but the coronavirus crisis has forced us to test those clichés and see if they hold true.

For me, the definitive proof came when I put on the video for Durham musician A.yoni Jeffries’s song “Searchin 4” on Friday, while she, along with all other gigging artists, was trying to figure out how to bring people together in a world without gatherings.

“Searchin 4,” a beautiful piano ballad with lyrics open to all kinds of healing interpretation, was set to appear on her first full-length album on May 2. For me, it turned a moment of stressful isolation into one of soothing connection that I hadn’t realized I needed that badly. I don’t mind telling you it made me cry. 

YouTube video

Thus soothed and uplifted, I was then inspired by Jeffries’s optimism and can-do spirit in our interview, which was particularly striking coming from someone who’d just lost all her freelance income and postponed her album, Potential Gon Pay, indefinitely. 

Instead of caving to the crisis, Jeffries is not only continuing to work on the album with engineer Chaka Harley at Durham’s Playground Studios, but she’s also starting a new web series called A Deeper Look Within. It will give bite-size looks into the lives of North Carolina artists and small-business owners three times per week—Tuesday through Thursday—starting March 24.

The series was conceived as a way to connect people and support artists at a time of crisis, but it’s also just a lemons-to-lemonade good idea.  

“Day in, day out, people are doing their gigs, but we don’t know anything about them, and we wait until they get access to bigger platforms to share their story,” Jeffries says. “We want to tap into what it means to be human, have people really talk about their challenging times that may not be the happiest but define who we are as artists.”

You can watch the introductory video to learn more about who Jeffries is, though it’s hard to imagine how it will fit in five minutes. In addition to a singer, songwriter, and musician, she’s an arts curator, a community organizer, and the project manager at Handèwa Farms, an Afro-Indigenous-led hemp-farming co-op in Rougemont. Handèwa means “generational” in Tutelo, the native tongue of Jeffries’s Occaneechi-Saponi tribe; the pandemic is also disrupting the spring planting season.

Potential Gon Pay features production by Feelo, Dexter “Strizzy” Jeffries, Kevin Patterson, and others; the collaborators come from as far away as Nigeria and Germany and from as nearby as Jeffries’s family (Strizzy is her cousin).  

“I’m really excited to have this be a project representative of myself but also have a global feel,” Jeffries says. “I’m Native American and Jamaican, which are very different cultures, but I was blessed to have them both. To highlight them feels very necessary to provide people with the spiritual part of it, but I also pride myself in being very down-to-earth, very urban, and I’m very excited for people to experience a body of work I think is representative of so many Americans today.”

Though the album’s release is indefinitely delayed—at least until Jeffries feels it’s possible to have a live event,  a crucial component—a new Potential Gon Pay single will join “Searchin 4” and the guitar-flecked R&B of “Our Terms” on March 31. “Respect the Hussle” pays tribute to the contemporary rap legend Nipsey Hussle on the first anniversary of his death, with a video by Christian Wilson expected to follow soon. 

“The budget that was going to support the project has been cut in less than half because of the pandemic, and it seems very paradoxical because you look outside and it’s just beautiful, spring is here, things are growing,” Jeffries says. “I can sense a time of rebirth. Music is one of the only things that can really heal without any invasion. You don’t have to ingest it, it doesn’t have to be applied topically, you don’t have to do surgery. People can connect to it and share it with their friends when they can’t be together. A virtual hug, if you will.”

As Jeffries turns her energy toward A Deeper Look Within, which this week will feature Chaka Harley, the musician Darion Alexander, and the photographer Kennedi Carter, she has a realistic yet encouragingly sanguine perspective on an anxious time.

“A freelancing artist is my livelihood,” Jeffries says. “It’s not an easy one, but it’s the one I chose to be able to live out my dreams. So I’m in a bind, but I’m keeping myself encouraged and motivated, and of course, there are so many people in this same boat. Something about that unifying factor makes me feel that it’s not me, it’s outside of my control, and anything that’s outside of my control, I can’t let get to me right now.”

If you’re looking for signs of energy, hope, new music, and raised voices right now, Jeffries’s light is one to follow. Check @ayonijeffries on Instagram for the new music and @dreamsthatprosper on Instagram for the web series. 

This story was updated after publication to reflect a change in the web series production plans. 

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com. 

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