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SkinnyJay’s Resilience Shines Amidst Cancer Diagnosis

Fostering collaboration and inspiration in Charlotte's art and music communities

A photo of Skinny Jay, a Charlotte performer and musician, in front of Blk Mrkt's brick exterior in Camp Northend.
SkinnyJay at his August birthday celebration at BLK MRKT, in Camp North End. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Sitting inside Archive CLT in a shopping center at the corner of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street, it would be impossible to tell that Javarian Holley had come directly from chemotherapy.

Nearly a year after he was diagnosed with ocular melanoma following the discovery of 10 small tumors surrounding his right eye socket, chemo had brought the number down to four.

Sitting in the coffee shop and bookstore in Charlotte’s Historic West End that late-August afternoon, just two days after celebrating his 35th birthday party, Holley, known in local arts and music scenes as SkinnyJay, was as interested in talking about his friends as he was himself.

“Just seeing my different friends do things, like we’re in Archive right now to where Cheryse … that was like one of the first creatives who I met here in Charlotte,” he says, referring to Archive owner and founder Cheryse Terry. “I remember when Cheryse told me she was going to do something like this, and to see it over 10 years and to happen to be a part of this is the beautiful part.”

It’s not a surprise that Holley wants to have a conversation about what his friends have accomplished. He’s quite literally built a brand around it.

Holley is perhaps best known for SkinnyJay & Friends, a series of parties he launched through his LLC CreativityxCollaboration that serves as a platform for his fellow creatives in the Charlotte scene — rappers, visual artists, photographers and the like whom Holley has connected with during his time in Charlotte since moving here from Los Angeles about 10 years ago.

“I can be behind the scenes or be in front, but also taking that creativity to help others with a collaboration is what it’s about,” Holley said of his goals with CreativityxCollaboration. “So not just looking at it like, ‘Oh, I win something from it.’ We all win. And it’s just honestly seeing us all develop and grow from the collaboration piece.”

Now after a decade of networking for, collaborating with and connecting creatives in Charlotte’s different scenes, it’s that same community that has come to his side as he battles cancer.

“It’s beautiful,” he said of the support. “Shout out to my friends and just everybody, because they check up on me every day — I get a call from somebody or a message on Instagram.”

Because what would SkinnyJay & Friends be without the friends?

Building a creative community in Charlotte

Describing his journey as a “South Central native by way of Charlotte,” Holley grew up in Los Angeles but regularly traveled cross-country to visit family in the Queen City.

His passion for collaboration was born of a humanitarian tradition that ran through his family. From a young age, he remembered visiting the infamous Skid Row encampment in Los Angeles to deliver meals to folks living there.

“If somebody’s giving back in Skid Row, you can always give back anywhere, through anything, and for me that means to really support and just champion,” he explained. “I’m going to be your cheerleader if you don’t have one, or if you think nobody’s ever supporting you, I’m going to support your music. I’m going to repost. If you have something going on, I’m that person who’s really going to champion you and see the beauty of what you’re doing.”

A photo of Skinny Jay sitting on a stool in front of a teal background wearing a bright green and yellow t-shirt.
SkinnyJay (Photo by Jalen Marlowe)

Alongside his family, he credits late Los Angeles-based rapper Nipsey Hussle with inspiring his love for community. Holley interned with Nipsey before moving permanently to Charlotte and says the rapper was instrumental in shaping his worldview.

“He really embodied community, just from our neighborhood, and that was one of the people who I would say helped me with community, too — to say, ‘Okay, this is your tribe, so stay with your tribe, but then you can go outside of your tribe to really give back.’”

Holley moved to Charlotte sometime after 2010, though he can’t pinpoint the exact time because he had spent so much time going back and forth between cities that he already felt like a resident here.

He began visiting arts and music venues to explore the local scenes, though he had trouble breaking out of his introverted shell.

He met local R&B singer Autumn Rainwater while browsing at the now-closed Buffalo Exchange thrift shop in Plaza Midwood, and from there began regularly visiting events at BLK MRKT and Dupp & Swat, two neighboring venues at Camp North End that platform Black artists and cultivate hip-hop culture in Charlotte.

“I was a loner,” he recalled. “I knew people but just really wouldn’t talk. I’d go to these venues and just scope it out, but that was just me being from LA and having my guard up, but then finally letting that guard down.”

Holley’s career in modeling began as a way to connect his passion for streetwear fashion with his devotion to touting his friends’ accomplishments.

“I wear a lot of stuff owned by my friends who make clothing or different things,” he said. “So I was like, ‘How can I give them exposure just to give them their flowers?’ So it was just me modeling their clothes and just taking streetwear pictures out and about. And then when somebody asks me, ‘Oh, what you got on?’ I just give them their information and it spreads throughout.”

He has dabbled in music management, first working as manager for local lyricist Tecoby Hines and now with rapper Cozzy, who moved to Charlotte from Pensacola, Florida.

Holley hosted his first SkinnyJay & Friends party in 2019, but was made to put it on hiatus rather quickly due to the pandemic. As restrictions began to peel back, he decided to host them more regularly, inviting friends in the music scene to perform while friends in the visual arts scene were given the chance to showcase their work.

“I feel like it’s bridging in that gap,” he said. “SkinnyJay isn’t music versus the creativity, but it’s bringing it all together.”

His work does not go unnoticed in the Charlotte scene.

“SkinnyJay is the true definition of a supporter,” rapper Cuzo Key told Queen City Nerve. “He speaks highly of people. He’s helped link some folks together. He’s well-connected. A down-to-earth type of guy. And he wants to see the people win in all aspects of their lives.”

Overcoming challenges and finding new passions

Holley learned of his cancer diagnosis following a routine eye appointment in fall 2022. The vision in his right eye had been suffering, but the eye doctor couldn’t find the problem so they sent him to a specialist at an ear, nose and throat office to take X-rays.

After receiving the news, his mind went in search of silver linings, as its wont to do.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, but then at the same time, it’s just me taking it into, ‘Okay, what’s the proper steps to what we have to do?’ They explained it to me and made me feel super welcome, and that’s what made me think, ‘You know what? I can really get through this.’

“It’s just something I got to fight through as a person that’s going to champion me to inspire others who are going through this or have somebody going through this just to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been through this experience.”

In the time since his diagnosis, Holley has tried to slow down his lifestyle a bit, pulling back from his normal work ethic, which he described as “I had to be everywhere.” He still works his full-time job in retail, but on doctor’s orders has slowed down on some of the side hustles while he fights cancer and recovers.

“It kind of grounded me to like, hey, sometimes you can sit at home and just relax, read a book, just study up on your craft,” he said.

Not only has he studied up on his craft, he’s picked up a new one. Holley’s Aug. 26 birthday edition of Skinnyjay & Friends was his first time DJing in public, a new trade he’s picked up during his post-chemo relaxation time.

A photo of Skinny Jay happily speaking with a friend at his birthday celebration in a room illuminated by bright pink neon lights.
SkinnyJay talks to local producer CJ Chat at his birthday celebration. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“I ended up buying me a [sound]board and I just started playing around with it,” he said. “It just keeps me busy on the days that I’m done with chemo. It just keeps me jazzed. Because they say you get sluggish and stuff, but it just really keeps me up. I listen to music all day … and I like sounds a lot, so I like beats, so it was just one of the things I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to be a DJ. That could be something.’”

He remains inspired by friends, whether it’s through messages sent directly to him or through music made by folks like Cuzo Key, Elevator Jay, Makeda Iroquois and Yung Citizen.

He has tried to stay transparent about his battle, often making update posts with headings like “Skinny Jay vs. Cancer,” not only to remain an inspiration for others who may have similar struggles but to thank the friends that have helped him through the fight thus far.

SkinnyJay’s Chemo Playlist

He said he has no plans to launch a GoFundMe or ask for any help in his battle beyond the support he’s already received.

“I just to want say, ‘Hey, thank you for being there,’ because on good or bad days when I’m in chemo, I’m listening to my friend’s music or I’m just twiddling on my phone, just thinking of creative things,” he said. “But the creative aspect of CreativityxCollaboration helps me keep going.

“So it’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m in here with cancer.’ Yeah, I’m hooked up to an IV, but at the same time, I’m in there on my phone jotting down notes on what I want to do next or what artists I want to work with or I’m reaching out to different people to plan collaborations.”

Because what would a community be without collaboration?

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