Singer-songwriter G’nece Quari defied the pop-culture colloquialism, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink,” when she took the stage in Duling Hall in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, Jan. 11, donned in a bright, metallic pink trench coat and shades. Backup singers and dancers in black trench coats took their positions, the latter sitting in chairs as Quari prepared to kick off the eighth-annual Icon Awards and R&B Showcase that took place during this year’s Jackson Indie Music Week.
“My name is G’nece Quari. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi,” Quari told the audience. “The way we have these chairs set up … oh yes, it’s about to go down.”
Choreography. Vocals. Musicality. A quick costume change. Quari’s ’90s-inspired performance featured songs from her debut album “Element,” which she described as a blend R&B and pop music, two genres that are near and dear to her. Tracks like the titular “Element” incorporate a mix of R&B and a spacey, Neptunes-like pop vibe, juxtaposed with the more base-bumping, traditional R&B feel of “Ride.”
“I’m really alternative R&B,” Quari later told the Mississippi Free Press of her artistry. “I kind of do all of them. I could definitely fall into a genre of country. I can fall into a genre of pop.”
Quari’s showmanship is reminiscent of one of her influences, Beyoncé, who also never fails to put on a big production. Some of her other musical influences include artists like Demi Levato, Mary J. Blige, The Cheetah Girls (the Disney Channel version), Tamar Braxton, Keri Hilson and Ciara.
“As of now, Queen Naija is my top, top artist. I love me some Queen Naija. I would love to work with her. All my inspirations are everywhere,” she said.
Born Tamera G’nece Lofton, the Jackson native grew up singing in church. She comes from a musical family as her mother, who passed away when Quari was 3 years old, was also a singer. “Freestyle,” the third track on her album, is dedicated to her mother.
“When I sing, I feel like she’s singing through me, rather, because I’ve never heard her sing, but every time I sing, people are like, ‘You sound just like your mom.’ So I dedicate that song to her,” Quari said.
During school hours, the singer wrote a lot of poetry and eventually combined her love of music with writing, which helped her evolve into the independent artist she is today. As a student Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., she sang with the school’s gospel choir, which she said kept her grounded and connected with her faith.
As a first-time Jackson Indie Music Week participant, Quari networked with fellow artists and felt emboldened by their energy and drive. When she submitted to performing at the festival, she had no idea where in the lineup she would be placed, but she knew her performance needed to be big.
“In my head, I was like, ‘Lord, I hope they put me on a spacious stage,’ because knowing me as an artist, I always want to go big,” Quari explained. “I always want to do something grand, and I think that just came from me watching a lot of Beyonce.”
The singer’s goals for this year include expanding her sound, leaning more into her R&B roots and releasing a deluxe version of “Element” sometime in mid-March.
“To any artist or anybody having an inspiration to do something, just don’t be afraid to go out and do it,” Quari advised. “I heard an artist say she kind of stopped and drifted away from music, but you’re always gonna find your way back, especially if it’s meant to be.”
‘The State’s Official Resource’
The first Icon Award of the night went to Visit Mississippi, the state’s official resource for tourism, food, history, music and many other aspects of the state. Visit Mississippi Tourism Development Manager Kamel King had the honor of presenting the award to the organization, who is also a sponsor of Jackson Indie Music Week.
“We saw the vision along with Brad Franklin and his whole team of super intelligent, super talented people to bring all the indie music, all of the multi genres, the birthplace of America’s music right to the forefront,” King said at the awards.
King gave a lot of credit to Rochelle Hicks, the new director of Visit Mississippi, whom he said has done a lot of work behind the scenes to cultivate various experiences and events across Mississippi.
“We’re so honored and blessed to be receiving this award, and I just want to say we have an incredible team,” Hicks said. “We have over 22 people, plus all the great people that work in our welcome centers around the state.”
“We truly are the birthplace of America’s music,” she continued. “Every genre that you can think of, maybe besides zydeco, was born in Mississippi … So we are proud and honored to be here and continue to grow our music scene.”
‘Just A Man’
Dressed in to the nines in a maroon suit, Daniel Coleman took the stage as the second performer of the night at the Icon Awards. After some brief words, Coleman launched into ‘Just a Man,’ belting out the song with a strong voice fine tuned from years in church. The energy picked up a bit with Coleman’s second and final song in his set, “New Things,” a gospel anthem with an R&B flair that encourages embracing new things through God’s grace.
“When I think about myself and the message that I want to convey, I want to be relatable to all people, and having the opportunity to share my faith through that is the greatest thing I want to do,” Coleman told the Mississippi Free Press. The artist released “New Things” on streaming platforms that same night at midnight.
Daniel Coleman described his childhood in Richton, Miss., as nourishing. At the age of 3, his father passed away from natural causes. The tragedy put a constraint on the family, but not for too long as Coleman still had a strong nuclear family with his mother and sister, he said.
“My dad was a pastor. My grandpa was a pastor. Several of my family members are in ministry. My gift for music, I say it’s genetic because everyone in my family sings or plays an instrument,” he said.
Coleman grew up listening to traditional gospel music, with some of his influences being Fred Hammond, the Clark Sisters and the Mississippi Mass Choir. Outside of gospel, he is a fan of PJ Morton and Stevie Wonder, whom he discovered through his stepfather and his CD collection.
Talent shows from elementary school to high school provided Coleman with opportunities to practice his craft. The artist, who both sings and plays instruments, started to take the idea of becoming a musician more seriously after graduating from Millsaps College in 2019.
“Just from observing myself, my journey and then observing the world around me, I started to hone in on, ‘How can I communicate what I’m feeling through song?’ That kind of led to me putting together and producing ‘Just a Man’ as a response to police brutality and everything that was going on during the pandemic,” the Richton native explained.
This year was the gospel singer’s first time attending Jackson Indie Music Week, and he was unsure how he would fit in among the hip-hop and R&B acts. Nevertheless, he said he was thankful for the experience, especially with being given the opportunity to perform at one of the festival’s biggest showcases.
In addition to his Jan. 11 performance, Coleman attended other events and panels during the festival and participated in some interview sessions like the “Elevate Your Craft” talk with Miranda Joiner. “It challenged me to look more inwardly and determine, ‘What does Daniel need?’” the singer reflected.
His biggest goal for the year is releasing his debut project, “Never Left Me,” though he is still pondering whether he wants to drop the entire project at once or release one song per month.
“It took me a year to finish this project, so it’s been a lot of work, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears—a lot of time and a lot of patience to put it together,” Coleman said. “… From there, (I aim to) establish myself in the state as an artist, whether that be in the gospel realm or just period.”
The second honoree of the night was the Central Mississippi Blues Society, a nonprofit stationed in the Jackson metro area that has been promoting blues music and culture for more than 30 years.
The organization’s Talent Coordinator Peggy Brown, a founding member of the society, highlighted one of the organization’s main projects, Blue Mondays, a weekly open-mic night at Hal & Mal’s for blues acts that various publications have mentioned and that have attracted the attention of tourists from across the world, Brown said.
“This Monday, we’re having a really big Blue Monday at Hal & Mal’s. We’ve got tourists coming from France and tourists coming from Norway and a band coming from France,” Brown told the Mississippi Free Press in January. “Literally, we are known all over the world, and so I’m happy to be part of this group.”.
President Malcolm Shepherd of the society said that planning a regular event of this magnitude for the 17 years it’s been ongoing has not always been easy, but the organization is committed to its mission, he said.
“We promote artists. We promote the culture of the blues. We partner with neighborhood associations to do summertime festivals in local parks,” Shepherd said. “We have blues in the school, which we have not done for a long time since COVID, but we look forward to getting back to that.”
‘The Loss and the Love’
Without wasting any time, Maleah Dawn entered the stage dressed in jeans and a brown T-shirt emblazoned with her name, and she immediately began singing “Play Yourself,” an reflective track where Dawn fluctuates between singing and performing spoken word over piano keys and drums. The production itself feels contemplative, pairing well with the introspective lyrics.
Transitioning into her second song, “Can’t Keep,” Dawn flexed her spoken-word skills again as she rapped about the refusal to wait for things to come to her versus making things happen for herself. The way Dawn floated over the melodic track was reminiscent of Lauryn Hill or Jill Scott, two of Dawn’s musical influences. The singer then went into her third and final song, “Falling Off,” which enlisted help from the crowd with a call-and-response.
“I’ll have an idea and I’ll go into my voice notes, and I’ll sing the melody into my phone, or I’ll start typing it out in my notes,” Dawn told the Mississippi Free Press of her writing process. “The other way (I write songs) is (by) listening to the beats and trying to create something. I start with whatever emotions are at the top of my mind, and I start to freestyle from there.”
When Maleah Dawn was not participating in youth choir at church or a holiday program at school, she was at home flipping back and forth between the Disney Channel and BET. She enjoyed watching countdown programs like “106 & Park” or behind-the-scenes shows like “Access Granted.”
She spent her last two years of high school at the Mississippi School of Arts for vocal performance. It was there that she realized that she wanted to pursue a career in music, so she started signing up and performing at open-mic nights.
Before attending Jackson State University, she had plans to get involved in the creative scene in Jackson. Fortunately, she found the Outspoken Arts Collective and joined it during the first semester of her freshman year. She believed the organization was a good way to connect with the community and to share her art.
“All of my middle-school and early high-school days, I did not perform my music publicly, so most of it was just journaling, writing songs and making voice notes to myself,” Dawn said.
Some of her inspirations are artists like Lauryn HIll, Missy Elliot, Jill Scott, India Arie and newer artists like SZA, Alex Isley, H.E.R., Smino, Noname and Victoria Monet. Some of her favorite artists also double as songwriters, a skillset that Dawn helped to hone herself by being a member of a poetry collective.
“‘Introspective’ is definitely the word I use a lot when describing my music. Like it’s reflective, and it’s like pulling from my experiences or just from the dynamics that I have like with friends, family, with relationships and kind of exploring the loss and the love,” she said.
This year was Dawn’s second as a Jackson Indie Music Week participant. Last year, she performed at the “Many Moons” panel, but she had no idea that she would be placed to perform for the 2024 R&B Showcase until shortly before the event.
Since last year’s performance, Dawn has noticed that she is more comfortable on stage, especially in a venue like Duling Hall where she had just seen Moonchild perform in April 2023. “It was just like wow. Look at the lights and how the lights are set up,” she described. “Performing with the full band and just the atmosphere of the venue felt heightened.”
This year, Maleah Dawn plans to put out a more traditional project, establishing a visual component to her artistry and pushing herself visually and sonically as a performer.
‘Protectors and Projectors’
Visit Jackson, known as the “protectors and projectors of all things Jackson,” earned the third Icon Award of the evening. The speaker described the organization as the first line of defense for the city, dedicated to highlighting all the best qualities of the capital city. The state Legislature established Visit Jackson, then known as Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau, in 1983. The organization’s goal is to promote the city as a destination for tourists, group tours, trade shows, conventions and others.
Director of External Affairs, Partnerships & Alliances Yolanda Clay-Moore said the organization has had the privilege of touting the rich tastery that exists in the city for the last 41 years.
“We are funded by a 1% tax on hotels and restaurants, so when you eat in Jackson, when you stay at a hotel in Jackson, it affords us the opportunity to give back to programs and platforms like this,” Clay-Moore said.
Clay-Moore continued to say that the organization is honored to receive an Icon Award, an honor she said recognizes not only her organization but also every venue that has defined and defied the odds to keep music playing for every listener who supports the city’s artists.
“Jackson’s music scene is more than just notes and rhythm. It’s a conversation, a shared heartbeat, something that will stir your soul. It’s the soul of a city rising strong, singing its own soundtrack,” Clay-Moore said. “And Visit Jackson, we’re just its children, the one shouting from the rooftops about the talent, the passion, the grit that makes Jackson music iconic.”
President and CEO Rickey Thigpen did not stay on the microphone long, but he expressed his gratitude and left the audience with one final message from Visit Jackson.
“Don’t let anyone say anything negative about our city. We’re gonna get there. We’re gonna get better than we were today. Tomorrow’s gonna look better than yesterday,” he said. “Don’t let anyone say anything negative about your capital city. This is just fuel for use to continue to do what we’ve been doing and to try and do it even better.”
‘Find the Niche’
Deontae Payne, aka Tae, and his band served as the closing act of the night.
“I am so grateful that y’all allowed us to come in here and be a part of this indie music festival and the Icon Awards,” Payne told the audience as his keyboardist played softly in the background and his shirtless drummer prepared for the first full-length song. “I think it’s beautiful what y’all are doing for yall city and for your community here in music.”
Tae, also the name of the artist’s band, was a newcomer to Mississippi, hailing from Birmingham, Ala. As the group performed, Payne playing electric guitar as he sang, their sound transitioned from traditional R&B tunes to mellow, acoustic rock. Tae’s set also included covers like Elle Varner’s “Refill” and Usher’s “Nice & Slow.”
Though he was born in Birmingham, Payne grew up in Locust Fork, a small, rural town more than 30 miles away. He began getting into music around the age of 15 after he was forced to take a guitar class in high school. Singing became a necessity for him, he said, because he wanted to make music and network with other artists.
“People would be shy or not necessarily know what it is they wanted to say with their own voice. So I was like, ‘Oh, well, I’ll give it a go. If that means we can stay longer and make more music, I’ll give it a go,’” Payne told the Mississippi Free Press.
Payne has been songwriting since he was in third grade, though back then he did not realize that was what he was doing. He wrote lyrics out of boredom, but as he grew, his abilities grew. Some of his favorite songwriters are Leon Thomas III, SZA, Rod Temperton, October London, Marvin Gaye and Eric Bellinger.
“It’s become a learning curve of how I can make the thoughts in my head relate to people’s lives,” he said of his songwriting.
Payne formed his band, Tae, through a series of other failed bands. He and his cousin, Will Marshall, who plays bass guitar, were in a cover band before Marshall introduced their piano player, Desmond. The band broke up after some time, and Payne began playing for an artist named Dion Racy, where he met his drummer, Otto, or the man who “doesn’t wear a shirt.” True to form, Otto was shirtless for the band’s performance at Duling Hall.
“We were working together for a minute, and then earlier, at the beginning of last year, we started another cover band, and Will introduced me to Nila, who was the wonderful background singer,” Payne listed.
While the band does write and play original music, the group also did covers due to Birmingham’s culture whereupon many people are privy to more notable, mainstream music and artists. Playing strictly original music does not always take an artist very far or very long, Payne said of his own observations, so his band chooses to be as versatile as he believes his state to be.
“I think Alabama is kind of diverse, but a little segregated—and what I mean by that is you get independent shine in different genres and different places,” the guitarist described. “If you are an R&B artist or a hip-hop artist, you’re probably going to do really well in Huntsville.”
“If you’re a rock artist or an indie rock artist or something like that, you’re going to do well in Birmingham,” he continued. “If you’re a blues artist or a jazz artist, you’re going to do well in Montgomery. So it’s really just like you have to find the niche that works really well for you for your original music and for you to grow.”
Payne described the band’s sound as a mix of alternative R&B and pop, offering something for everybody. Some of his musical influences include Stevie Wonder, whom he names as the greatest artist of all time, as well as Lucky Daye, Musiq Soulchild, H.E.R., Jazmine Sullivan, Prince and the Foo Fighters.
Tae found out about Jackson Indie Music Week through the festival’s marketing on apps like Instagram and Facebook. He had also spoken with a local publication called Birmingham Stans, who had worked with Jackson Indie Music Week.
“I submitted, and I was surprised that they even accepted me because everyone there was from Jackson or lived in Mississippi. So we drove, and I was like, ‘Let’s make an impression. Let’s see if we can meet some new people,’” Payne said.
The band was able to network with the Central Mississippi Blues Society, who invited Tae back to perform. And while he and the band did not get the full experience of Jackson Indie Music Week, Payne said he would love to return next year.
This year, Tae plans to drop singles, to continue writing for other artists and to make cool music so that the band can have opportunities for more interviews.
‘Queen of Urban Radio’
The final Icon honoree of the night was none other than 99 Jams radio host “Big Baby” Alice Marie. Her daughter Allison Marie presented her with the award. One of 13 children to sharecroppers, Alice Marie always dreamed of being on the radio. She used an old wire hanger to be an antenna for her personal radio, and she would often interview her brothers and sisters with her microphone made with a stick and a rubber-band ball as they picked peas in the field.
“In 1981, she began her career on a country radio station. It is iconic that over the span of her 43-year career, she reached heights in talk radio, jazz, gospel, contemporary, R&B and hip-hop. It is iconic that she made television appearances, music-video cameos, earned a host of broadcasting awards, and still offers her DJ services for parties, events and concert shows,” Allison Marie summarized of her mother.
Alice Marie is notable for her catchphrases like, “It’s leather. It’s leather. It’s leather for the weather,” and the weekend party check. The Crystal Springs, Miss., native has worked in cities like New York City, Atlanta, and Dallas, but she found her way back home.
“It is my sincere pleasure to represent and present my mom, my mom, my mom,” Allison Marie proudly proclaimed before her mother took the stage to accept her award.
“Thank God for this moment. This is my season,” Alice Marie said. “I want to thank the Indy Awards committee for doing what they do best for me.”
Marie said she had many times she wanted to give up because she worked in and traveled from state to state to see how people have done things and she has felt forgotten for her hard work. But her friends and colleagues like Miranda Joiner, Lil DJ I-55, Chris DeLeon, Kamikaze and the people of Jackson thought of her.
“Coming from the farm, picking beans in the field with my dad, he said, ‘Hey, I hope you make something of your life one day, all that talking you do,’” Marie recounted. “Before he rested, he heard me do a commercial (for) Jitney Jungle. He said, ‘Hey Alice, you sound like a white woman.’ I said yeah, that’s me. I done made it.”
Jackson Indie Music Week organizer and founder Brad Franklin’s mother taught him that instead of complaining about things and talking about things that you want to happen, you have to do it yourself. And that’s what Jackson Indie Music Week is for him.
“When I traveled as an artist, I saw all of these other places that were having events, particularly South by Southwest,” Franklin told the audience. “I said to myself, ‘These people are not any smarter—they’re not any more talented—than we are.’”
“Mississippi is the birthplace of America’s music. Why is it that we don’t have a music festival like all of these other places? … So I got some people in the room, and we created it, and nine years later, we are in here today honoring some icons.”
The festival is in its ninth year, and Franklin said it’s best one to date, having seen the most volunteers out of any year and the most out-of-state performers, with even a band from Minnesota traveling to Mississippi to participate.
Franklin recognized each Icon Award winner starting with the Central Mississippi Blues Society, whom he praised and credited for curating Blue Mondays and being a support system for blues artists here.
“I’m going to start first with Malcolm and Peggy. … The two of them, I’ve watched what they have done with the Central Mississippi Blues Society, and I watched what they have done with blues music, and they’re very, very deserving of this award and their team and their board,” the organizer said.
Franklin said he watched Kamel King with Visit Mississippi grow up around the corner from him, and King’s dad has been a mentor to him. Franklin said he is proud to see the work that King and Hicks are doing with Visit Mississippi and is appreciative of their sponsorship for the festival.
“Visit Jackson—they are the protectors and they are the projectors of all things Jackson. They are the first line of defense for our city. And anytime something good happens to our city, this staff is the people responsible for putting out the good things about what Jackson, Mississippi, does,” Franklin highlighted.
Alice Marie helped Brad Franklin make a lot of money, he said, by playing his records at the radio station. She also allowed him to come to the station and do some interviews sometimes. The “U Ain’t Hard” video, in which Marie made a cameo, was shot inside Franklin’s home.
“The significant thing about that is because my mother, God rest her soul, would never let anyone come past the living room of our house if she did not know who they were. And she allowed Alice Marie to come into my room,” he remembered.
“I appreciate her for being in that video, and like I said, we’ve had conversations off air about how she felt she wasn’t getting what she served. How she felt she wasn’t getting the flowers she deserved, and that’s a good thing that she got her flowers tonight.”
Visit jxnindiemusic.com to learn more about the annual festival.
To learn more about G’nece Quari, follow her on Instagram, and listen to her music on Apple Music, Spotify and other music-streaming platforms. Support Maleah Dawn by following her on Instagram, and stream her music on Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms. To keep up with Daniel Coleman’s musical journey, follow him on Instagram, and find his music on Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms. To learn more about Tae, follow him on Instagram and find the band’s music on Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms.
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