Saturday, November 28, 2015

Jean in the Front Row: An Interview with Jean Powe

Jean in the Front Row

    Without actually having performed at the Good Life and without being a rapper or producer, Jean Powe has still had a great enough influence on the Good Life movement that she is known worldwide by fans of the west coast underground, most recently through Ava DuVernay's This is the Life documentary, but, largely due to a classic CVE tape being named after her, Tray Loc's solo debut, Jean in the Front Row. Jean gained a reputation for always being present at the Good Life, front and center, showing her support. She clearly saw something special in a movement that has finally gained some of the recognition it deserved in the early to mid-90s. 

    Jean's story took a tragic turn, when she was misprescribed medication which lead to her developing Steven-Johnson Syndrome, a skin condition which can cause facial and tongue swelling, rashes and shedding of the skin. Jean remains positive, however, and she and Imperator are in the process of wrapping up a documentary about her and her journey, giving viewers some insights into her condition and how it has impacted her life. I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her experiences at the Life as well as her struggles with SJS.

What was your earliest experience with hip-hop and what was some of the first stuff you really got into?

    In the 80s, Alex, my whole world was dance, the club scene. Wherever the DJ and the dance floor was, I was there. I was into rap, but just the music, not the lyrics. Hip-hop didn't come into play until the Good Life. I'm glad I was introduced to it! Prior to that, I was groovin' to Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, The O'Jays, Prince, Barry White, Luther Vandross, N.W.A., Heavy D, Debarge, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Too $hort, KRS-One and Shalamar, just to name a few. I love all music, really. I go from R&B to rap and The Wave, all in the same day [laughs]. It really started at the Good Life though, in 1990, '91, then ended up at the Project Blowed. That's where I met all the artists I know now. There's so many of 'em. I guess it's all the ones that you know too. Imperator, Ellay Khule, J-Smoov, Freestyle Fellowship, Hip Hop Kclan, Riddlore?, P.E.A.C.E., Myka 9, there's so many of 'em. I can't wait to get back to the Good Life to chill with everybody one more time.

How did you first get introduced to the Good Life?

    The owner, Janie, and one of my classmates, which is her sister, Deborah Scott Moore. I used to come there to see her and she told me about Thursday nights with Bea Hall and her son, R Kane Blaze, and I just started coming and I was just going ever since. I want to give props to the owners of the Good Life, Ifa (Janie) and her husband, Phillip Walker, and thank Deborah for inviting me!

Were you blown away by what you saw?

   Yes, yeah, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was really good that all these young people were really coming together like that. It gave them a chance to get out of the street life and come together with the positivity like they were.

What was the vibe at the Life and can you describe the experience of being in the front row?

    The vibe was always cool. Once or twice there was a chill in the air, but it didn't stop the show. Being in the front row I was able to be up close and personal with folks. Seeing everyone perform and feeling the music, that was it for me. Thursday at the Good Life couldn't come quick enough. I lived for it! I don't know who gave me the name Jean in the Front Row. Maybe J-Smoov or Tray Loc. If I'm wrong, correct me! If I came in and someone was in my seat, they respected me enough to get up and let me have it. I was thankful! For one, what they didn't know, I needed total reconstructive knee surgery and it would be screaming [laughs]. J-Smoov took me to the hospital, had it done and the rest is history. I really miss those times, hanging out there with Shaydi, Q Storm (where you at?) and Rosetta.

Were there any artists in particular you'd get really hyped about if they were performing?

     No, I liked everybody. I don't like to single people out. I enjoyed everybody. The most memorable was meeting Biz Markie and Fat Joe.

What do you think were some of the reasons the Good Life became this hub for creativity?

    I guess all the different artists all being able to come together like they were. Bea Hall really made it possible for everybody to come together like they did.

When you first saw the Jean in the Front Row tape, were you surprised, or did you know Tray was going to be naming his album after you?

    That was a surprise [laughs]. It was funny, especially the caricature of me [laughs]. The caricature was funny to me, but I didn't mind though.

[laughs] It was a very flattering picture.

    It was [laugh] but it really fit Tray Loc's style of music. I liked it.

Did you attend the Project Blowed at all?

    Yes, I went to Project Blowed also. We left the Good Life and went to Project Blowed. My Project Blowed experience, as opposed to the Good Life, was cool. Both clubs were cool. Project Blowed was more loose and no limits. You could curse on the mic whereas at the Good Life you couldn't. Nothing wrong with that. And if you wasn't good, you'd get booed! I really didn't like that 'cause everyone deserves a chance on the mic. You never know what that does to a person! Blowed drew a much bigger crowd and it was a great joint. Big ups to Ben Caldwell for doing that for the youth.

When were you diagnosed with SJS and can you explain to people who may not be familiar what it is exactly?

    Ok, for the people who don't know, Steven-Johnson Syndrome is a major allergic reaction to any antiviral medication and the reaction, your hair falls out, your skin blisters, because it burns you from the inside of your body to the outside of your body. Your face swells, your eyes swell, your throat. It affects your mucus membranes. Some people are blinded and left with cornea damage. A lot of people I know have these eye problems. Some people die because it damages your organs. I was lucky. For me, I had the swelling of the face and eyes. My throat was so swollen, I couldn't eat for three years. I ended up with a G-tube in my stomach because my stomach was toxic. I went from 136 pounds to 89 pounds! I was dying.

    First of all, I was bit by a spider in 2007, but it had nothing to do with the spider bite. An intern, I found out later, misdiagnosed my spider bite as shingles and gave me Acyclovir, 800 mg to take five times a day. Had I known better, I wouldn't have took it but at the time, you go to the doctor, you think they know what they're giving you, so you take it. And as I took it, instead of feeling better, I started feeling worse, like I was dying, which I was, but I didn't know until I got to the hospital. If I didn't get to the hospital when I did, I would be dead today.

I did some research before this call and saw some pictures of people with pretty awful blisters and rashes. Is your condition not quite as bad as that?

    Well, your skin, it's chronic. It doesn't go away. You don't look like those pictures anymore, I did look like those pictures, but not as bad because I got to the hospital in time. It was very painful for years. I had the G-tube in for three years. I couldn't eat solid foods for three years. I had to be fed through a tube. Oh, it was awful! And you're left with chronic itching. You skin itches and still falls off, just not as bad as it was. One thing about it, all my burns have healed. My skin is back to brown. From laying up now for eight years, my body has atrophied. My hands are completely closed and my toes are folded over. I have to have assistance turning, sitting up, I have to be dressed. I used to have to be fed but a cousin of mine had an idea: he took a spoon and a fork and taped them to chop sticks so now I'm able to feed myself. And I can go out, but I have to have a village to get me out and get me ready.

Can you talk about the documentary Imperator is putting together about your struggles?

    Well, basically what I just told you. I told him the same thing I'm tellin' you. We've done three shoots already. I have two more to go, I think starting next week. We were supposed to meet a couple weeks ago to shoot at the beach but I didn't have a village to get me there, so we had to cancel. He just gave me a benefit September 24th, which was really nice.


    To get some additional info about the upcoming documentary, I spoke with Imperator, who is the mastermind behind the project, and he was able to give some good insights into the motivation and concept for the documentary.

    At first, I just knew Jean as "Jean in the Front Row" from being at the Good Life. We spoke in passing a little bit. We didn't hang out or anything like that, but I knew her, and I knew Tray had songs and CVE and others would mention her a lot in there. For years, I had heard she was bitten by a spider and something had happened to her and she wasn't doing too well. So for years, I thought about doing a documentary because I felt [the reality of what had happened to her] was an injustice, and maybe it could get her some exposure so someone could help her out.

    So time passed, and it was just a thought I had, but I reconnected with Jean about three months ago. I went to her house and saw her situation, that she was bed ridden, so I said to her, "Why don't we go ahead and do the documentary?" I told her what it would consist of. I went out and got a camera and a friend and I sat and came up with about thirty questions and we just asked her, "When did it happen? How did it happen?" How does she feel? What makes her happy and sad? So we recorded that but it still needs to get edited. It's currently on hold because we want to get a professional, someone in the industry, who's willing to speak on it to give it some more credibility. Due to some personal turmoil in my life, I haven't done anything for about three weeks, but we're planning to pick it back up. One issue is it may be hard to get some medical professionals to speak on this condition because it could harm their reputation. I'm trying to do some real research so we can do it properly, and I'd really like a real medical professional to speak on it.

For those who have enjoyed the Jean in the Front Row tape, and since it's currently available as a free download, please consider donating the money you would have spent on a copy to Jean's Gofundme account and stay tuned for updates regarding Imp's upcoming documentary about Jean's struggles.

[Update: here is "Jean Powe: Stevens Johnson Syndrome Survivor", directed by Imperator.]




  2. this was a great story and wow this is deep I can't wait to see this Documentary and the world needs to know what happen

  3. You are always on point with your pieces!!!

  4. You are always on point with your pieces!!!