Unsure of how long he had left on this earth, Geoffrey Edwards was forced to look back on his life and everything that he had accomplished to that point. He didn’t like what he saw.
Over the summer, Edwards had been constantly trekking up and down I-85 between Greensboro and Charlotte, recording music, performing and hosting events in both cities. He had been feeling under the weather for months, but tried his best to push through it. Finally, as July approached, a friend convinced him to check into a hospital. His diagnosis wasn’t good: double pneumonia.
His doctor told him he had been suffering for months and should have been admitted long ago.
“Basically, my body had shut down,” Edwards recalls now, shaking his head.
He remained in the hospital for a month, not sure at first if he would recover.
“I was just down. I was really depressed,” he says. “[I was telling myself,] ‘I’m going to die. What’s life mean? There’s no meaning.’ All this crazy stuff.”
One night, as he lay in his hospital bed wallowing in despair, a nurse told him something that would act as a first step in shaking him from his sorrow.
“It was about 3 o’clock in the morning, I’ll never forget it,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You know, everything has an expiration date … All the bad stuff that’s happening to you right now, it’s going to end, and all the good stuff that’s happened to you, that’s going to end, too. So take every day and enjoy it.”
Edwards was able to find inspiration from that statement, and right there in the hospital room, Jah Freedom took over.
A musician since childhood, Edwards has performed as Jah Freedom for 20 years. He’s a DJ, producer, writer, performing artist and multi-instrumentalist. He’s played in bands, toured the East Coast competing in beat battles, produced music for a slew of major TV shows and worked to connect creatives of all different mediums here in Charlotte.
Even before he got sick, however, Edwards says he had lost his inspiration musically. After his discussion with the nurse, he began to find himself again, and that process was helped along greatly by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Edwards has long been a fan of Basquiat, the Neo-expressionist painter and graffiti artist who rose to fame in the ‘80s as a collaborator and friend to Andy Warhol. Though he died of a speedball overdose in 1988, Basquiat has been one of the highest selling artists of this decade.
His role as true muse for Edwards began in the hospital room, the same morning he spoke with the nurse.
Edwards remembers waking up that morning and studying “Dustheads,” Basquiat’s painting of two frenzied figures apparently high on PCP. He grabbed the keyboard he had in his hospital room and got to work.
“I just started playing in the hospital … Playing the piano with these weird, dissonant chords,” he says, “and it made me feel better. I was looking at the painting while I’m [playing], and you can tell; it’s just really chaotic and there’s angst and anger in it, and it helped me get that out, and so after I did the first one, I’m like…”
He exhales deeply.
That exhale was “Dustheads,” one of seven tracks on Jah Freedom’s new project, Basquiat Vol. 1: SAMO Suite, a mostly instrumental record that explores the binaries of hip-hop and jazz, with each track taking the name of the Basquiat painting that inspired it.
While “Dustheads” is as disjointed and angsty as the painting it pays homage to, a track like “Tuxedo,” for example, is the epitome of chill, emanating Friday night vibes and an untouchable confidence.
The record also includes appearances from Bay Area poet Azeem and Charlotte’s own Bluz. As with Basquiat, Jah Freedom’s work lives in the gray area between binaries — hip-hop and jazz, lyrical and instrumental, rhythmic and abstract.
“I didn’t set in to make hip-hop, I didn’t set in to make jazz, I didn’t set in to make anything, I was just getting something out,” he tells me.
“There’s a freedom in it, because a lot of people just know me from doing hip-hop, some people know me from doing licensing stuff, some people know me from not doing music at all. I just had a freedom in doing this. I just had to start somewhere and where does it end? If the song’s a minute or if the song’s 10 minutes, it doesn’t matter, I stop it when it feels it needs to be stopped.”
While he says he knew when to wrap Basquiat, Jah Freedom is far from answering his own question about where it all ends. He’s already begun similar projects based on the works of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, South Carolina street artist Cedric Umoja, photographer Kat Goduco and illustrator Pedro Bell, who passed away in August.
The rapid pace of his work is a result of a new axiom that he’s lived by ever since his conversation with the nurse, and has turned into a mantra of sorts: Die empty.
“It’s that there’s no reason for me to hold on to anything that I have,” Edwards says of the expression. “If you have an idea or if you have a thought or if you have something you want to share with the world, do it. You may not be here tomorrow, because I wasn’t going to be here tomorrow.”
Edwards was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. The son of a minister, he was inspired by the many traveling gospel groups that would visit, but also the Ohio Valley funk bands that rose to prominence in that area — bands like The Ohio Players, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Dayton and Zapp.
“We could sneak in and see those bands at these little chitlin circuit places when we were kids, so that music has always been an influence,” he says.
As he grew, he would also be heavily influenced by the advent of hip-hop and music videos.
“I’m old enough to remember when MTV played videos, and that influenced me a lot, just seeing different types of music all at one time,” he says. “I grew up in that era when on the radio you’d hear Genesis and burgeoning hip-hop, and all these things on the same radio station at the same time. You’d hear Huey Lewis and the News and then you’d hear Afrika Bambaataa right next to it.”
Following the breakup of one of his bands, Edwards moved to Charlotte on a whim in 2008 and befriended local DJ That Guy Smitty. He got his first DJ gig at the now-closed Club Myxx, then picked up a monthly night at the also-now-closed Tutto Mondo, where he eventually became musical director.
His style quickly gained recognition around the city. Bluz met Jah Freedom at a Sounds N Sixteens, a regular hip-hop jam session the poet hosted for rappers, producers, poets and whoever had something to share.
Jah produced some music for the event, and Bluz was enraptured by the “soulfulness” of his work.
“He knows music to a point where it affects emotion, affects politics, affects your line of thinking about how you think, about how you take in the perspective of a city, the perspective of an era, the perspective of a lot of things; he can attach a sound to that,” Bluz says. “The dude is deep in what he does.”
Jah stepped back from the local nightlife gigs upon getting married, but continued to produce licensed music for VH1, MTV, EA Sports and the Winter Olympics, among others.
He’s no longer married, and in recent years has returned to Charlotte nightlife, hosting regular events like the dance party ONDA do Brasil at Petra’s and Blow Your Head with Scott Scagle at Snug Harbor.
Perhaps his most notable addition to the arts scene is Freaquency360, a monthly session at Tip Top Daily Market that brings creatives of all ilks together to learn from one another through longform discussions.
Featured guests include locals like Bunny Gregory and Perry Fowler, with nationally known guests like De La Soul’s Maseo sometimes dropping by.
While passing on wisdom is one of the goals at Freaquency, the idea was born of Edwards’ observations of Charlotte’s creative scenes, which he says tend to form silos rather than encourage networking with one another.
He longs to see artists not only crossing musical genres, but creative mediums.
Musicians, visual artists, chefs and business owners have all been featured Freaquency guests.
“There’s a ton of talent here in Charlotte, I think one of the things that they lack is cohesion amongst themselves,” he says in his raspy cadence. “People say, ‘Well, it’s the venues and it’s the city,’ but sometimes you have to take accountability for yourself. We like to point fingers at everything else besides ourselves, and people don’t network with each other.”
There is perhaps no one better than Jah Freedom to lead the charge in bringing people together, as he moves effortlessly between scenes.
For example, when we meet with him on the patio of Petra’s, he’s preparing his Basquiat listening party, at which he places blank papers and markers on the table for listeners to express themselves while local artist Josh Henderson live paints in the corner.
The vibe is completely different than can be expected at his Dec. 26 listening party for Self Medicated, an album he’s finishing with hardcore Charlotte/Brooklyn rapper Kil Ripkin at which Charlotte rapper Jah-Monte will perform.
“I’ll be at a super-hood hip-hop show one day and then I’ll be somewhere listening to house music, or I might be listening to jazz or go to the opera,” he says. “I don’t see a differentiation, because for me, music is an expression, so I don’t limit myself. I saw a lot of people being really niche-y and really cliquey, so I said, ‘Well, I’m going to start putting all these disparate groups into a room and see what happens.’”
Because a room only dies when it’s empty, but for a creative mind, that’s not an option.
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