Women In Jam, Part II: Tierinii and Tikyra Khamiir Jackson of Southern Avenue – A Conversation About Matters of the Soul
For the second installment of our “Women In Jam” series, we’re featuring two young artists who embody the future of Southern soul, blues and jam – Tierinii and Tikyra Khamiir Jackson with Southern Avenue.
For the most part, jam is a more hospitable place for women than the music industry as a whole, but females still remain underrepresented. This series attempts to shine a light on badass women whose contributions sometimes get overlooked. For you wonks out there interested in statistics, history and stuff, click here for the first of our series on ‘Women In Jam” featuring artist whisperer Annabel Lukins.
The blues are as much a place as they are a type of music, where joy and pain occupy the same space. Its best practitioners live in that space and approach the blues with the sense of honesty that it demands. The blues giants of the past such as Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Janis Joplin, and B.B. King all understood this, as do modern musicians like Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, and Bettye LaVette.
Following in those footsteps is no easy feat, but a crop of talented young artists like Susan Tedeschi, Gary Clark, Jr., Ruthie Foster and Cedric Burnside are carrying the blues into the future and beyond. Right there among them and fairly new to the scene are sisters Tierinii and Tikyra Khamiir Jackson and members of Southern Avenue, a young group out of Memphis who are rewriting the rules for blues with their fiery gospel and rock-infused performances.
Made up of award-winning blues guitarist Ori Naftly, Jeremy Powell (keys), Evan Sarver (bass), Tikyra Khamiir Jackson (drums), and Tierinii Jackson (vocals), the group have been carving out a niche all their own in jam since their founding in 2015. Maintaining a grueling touring schedule that breaks weaker bands, Southern Avenue has been winning accolades and new fans with their no-holds-barred style of soulful blues and a relentless work ethic for nearly five years.
As their front woman and lead vocalist, Tierinii Jackson, 29, is a force to be reckoned with whose fiery stage presence in reminiscent of a young Tina Turner. To say her performances are riveting is an understatement. She delivers soul-shattering vocals coupled with a panther’s physicality that commands complete attention. She’s also a gifted songwriter who, along with Ori Naftly, has penned most of band’s original tunes that appear on the their self-titled 2017 release and on their follow-up album Keep On to be released on May 10.
Tierinii’s younger sister Tikyra Khamiir Jackson, 23, is ferocious on drums, laying down solid beats that form the backbone of Southern Avenue’s rhythm section. Nicknamed T.K., she too is stretching her wings beyond just drumming and has contributed to songs on Keep On, which is a true collaborative effort among all the band’s members, whose prodigious talents push the boundaries of blues, gospel, soul and rock.
Like many skilled practitioners of soulful blues, The Jackson sisters grew up in the church in Memphis along with five siblings and parents who were talented musicians themselves.
“My mother plays organ,” said Tierinii. “My dad plays guitar. They’re musicians and ministers for the church, which was founded by my grandparents. We grew up in the church, so that’s how we developed our love for music.
But unlike most young people who are exposed to all manner of secular music and outside influences, the sisters led a sheltered existence. Secular music was not allowed in the Jackson household, and the sisters were unaware of modern musicians like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Prince until late in their adolescence.
Tierinii was the first in the family to blaze her own path, breaking a long list of rules along the way, including sneaking forbidden music into the their home. “I would always get in trouble, until one day I just couldn’t take it,” said Tierinii. “I just thought it was ridiculous. I was so sheltered as far as music goes.”
Even now, the sisters say they are still learning about music and artists that other musicians take for granted. “I’m almost embarrassed to be like, ‘I don’t know who this is’ when the guys talk or when people ask us our influences,” said Tierinii. “I can give you like two or three people, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to those people.
“I only had my hands on Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey. And then I discovered Marvin Gaye. And then, because of Michael Jackson, I discovered James Brown. So it was a very slow process. I would love to be this music nerd like all the guys, but I’m not. I don’t know who’s who or who came up with what. But coming from Memphis, I didn’t miss out musically, because we still heard the same music. We just didn’t know who it was.”
While Tierinii honed her vocal skills growing up singing in the church, T.K. was busy discovering the drums. “I was nine years old,“ recalled T.K. “Our older brother, he plays drums. He heard me messing around one day, and I guess he heard potential, and he showed me how to do one thing. Ever since then, I couldn’t get enough, and I practiced every day.”
T.K. credits one of her heroes, drummer Nikki Glaspie of the Nth Power, with inspiring her to become a drummer. “Honestly, it started with Nikki Glaspie,” she said. “She played with Beyoncé in 2008. They (T.K’s siblings) went to the Beyoncé concert, bought the DVD, and ever since I watched that DVD, I knew this was what I wanted to do – perform and play drums.”
“I always told my parents I was going to be famous one day. I was going to do music. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I felt like I kept putting that energy there. What ever happened, it went the way it went. Life so far has worked out the way it was supposed to work out.”
Tierinii said she spotted her sister’s talents before T.K. herself had clear memories of them. “When she was like two, maybe, my mom had these plastic floor runners that were hard with the spikes on the bottom because she didn’t want the carpets dirty,” said Tierinii.
“She was like one or two years old, and I heard her beating on them. When I heard her, I was like, ‘Ahhhh. She’s gonna be a drummer. That’s gonna be dope. I bet she’s gonna be a drummer.’ I think that’s cool because I feel like I have that connection to her and we’re here now together.”
Growing up in “Blues City,” where every street corner is a stage for talented musicians, there was no shortage of opportunities for the sisters to learn the ropes. Like many young artists there, they paid their dues, playing in party bands and taking gigs any place that would hire them. That life, however, soon threatened to smother creative spirits that were destined for so much more.
“That’s how I made a living,” said Tierinii. “I was in like ten (party bands) at once. I was like ‘I’m dying. This is killing me. I just want to write. I want to create.'”
“And everybody in Memphis, because Memphis is so spoiled with amazing musicians, everybody does the party bands. They’ve got their gigs, and it’s just easy. There’s no hustle. It’s just there. But I need to create. I need to write. Music is healing, and as an artist we need to go through that process of healing, and I don’t get that with party bands. “
Being young and female in a business that sometimes doesn’t value either, the Jackson sisters shared in the good, the bad, and the ugly early on in their careers. They learned stagecraft and musicianship on the party band circuit, but they also ran up against archaic attitudes toward women in surprising places. Often, it wasn’t the older artists who disrespected them; it was the young ones.
“The older guys are going to be way more professional, because they’ve worked in a professional environment,” said Tierinii. “Working with the younger guys around your age as a woman, you have to deal with a lot of bullshit. And they really only want you because you’re cute – because you’re good too. But they have to have you because you’re cute. But the older people, their loyalty is to the music. So they’re going to respect you as a musician, especially if you respect the music.“
T.K. added, “Fortunately the band that I was with, they played with people like Michael Jackson and Al Green. They really trained me well as far as the way I play and playing songs the way they’re meant to be played and also just being a better musician and listening. They gave me respect, but it’s not always like that.”
It’s an unfortunate fact that sexism and even blatant harassment still remain a stain on the music industry. Promises to help young women further their careers often come with strings attached by male predators with fragile egos and zero morals.
“People befriend you,” said Tierinii. “They call you sis and then they try to f***k you. And you know that you’re out here in this world, and there’s nobody else that you have. People, they don’t want to help you without taking something. That’s one thing that I learned early on. Being a woman in the industry, it gives you tough skin. Because if you don’t have it and you want to stay, you either gotta get tough skin, or you gotta leave.”
Of all the things standing in the way of a young person’s success, family shouldn’t be one them. But for Tierinii and T.K., it was. One of the obstacles they had to overcome were the objections of deeply religious parents who could not square their daughters’ choice of careers with their fundamentalist beliefs. Even though their parents show support in small ways, they remain conflicted and have yet to see their children perform live.
“My biggest roadblock was my parents and my loyalty to the church, because they didn’t really support anything that was outside the church or singing in the choir,” said Tierinii. “So when I graduated high school, all my theater friends were getting booking agents and moving to New York. I’m looking at everybody doing what they love and people supporting them, buying them plane tickets or taking them to college. My parents didn’t support going to college. I missed an audition in New York. I wanted to do The New York Film Academy. I also wanted to go to Full Sail (University) for production.”
“So it’s funny that my actual parents were my biggest roadblock because I love them so much, and I’m thinking my parents wouldn’t steer me wrong. But I had to accept that everything they were saying at the time was wrong, because they didn’t really know who I was. So, my biggest roadblock was letting go of people that I loved and learning to be myself. I was the good kid. I was very obedient. So, I was thinking: I have their support. I have love. And I realized everything I had, I didn’t have. So, I at that point I had nothing to lose. I just like, “F**k it!” I’m going to do what I want to do.”
For four or five years after leaving her family, things got even tougher for Tierinii. During that time, she was in a relationship with someone she thought was a friend but who turned abusive. Ultimately, it ended when she had her son and daughter (now five and six), who gave her the strength to break away.
But those hard times left her with an ironclad resolve to do better by her own kids. “As a mom, I do so many things wrong,” she said. “I’m hard on myself. But I tell myself, no matter what you do wrong, you have to make sure that they know you support them, that you are here for them. I’m not here to tell them what to be. I’m here to steer them in the right direction and love them and support them. And I wouldn’t have learned that had I not gone through what I’d gone through. “
Today, the Jackson sisters’ parents are more accepting of their daughters’ choices. While they still haven’t been to a Southern Avenue show, they show their support in other ways.
“We still don’t talk about it much,” said Tierinii. “But they show their support in a way. Even if they don’t tell me that they’re proud of me or come to a show, they watch my kids every week when I’m gone. So that’s enough to let me know that they’re rooting for me. They want to see me win, because when I win, my kids win.”
Making her own way in the world was only slightly easier for T.K. than for her sister, who is six years older. “She basically took all the heat,” said T.K. “I basically had to make the same decision to decide for myself and what I wanted. When I was 19, at the time we all started working together, I told my parents, ‘Well, I’m taking a trip to North Carolina.’ That was our first gig. Up until that point I’d only been touring when I was in marching bands. And I did the party bands, but we only went as far as Mississippi. I told my mom, ‘I joined this band, and I’m going. So, you know. At that point she couldn’t really do anything or say anything.”
That was back in 2015 when Ori Naftly, founder and incendiary lead guitarist for Southern Avenue, hired Tierinii to sing and write songs for his solo project. A native of Israel, where he learned to play the blues, Ori shared a passion for Southern soul with Tierinii, who soon brought in T.K. to form the nascent core of the band. Tierinii and Ori remain writing partners as well as partners in life. They’re engaged to married sometime this fall.
T.K. credits her older sister with instilling confidence in her skills as a musician and performer. “Touring with her helped me grow up a bit but also overcome a lot of things that I had no reason to worry about,” she said. “I always feel like she pushes me in the band. We have hard days on the road. But I’m like if my big sister can do it, then I can do it. It’s nice to come for the same place and then be able to experience new things together. I’m also super competitive, so if that spotlight is only big enough for one, then you better move!” she laughed.
Looking back, the Jackson sisters marvel at how far they’ve come with a young band whose upward trajectory seems unstoppable, and they have a couple of pieces of sage advice for women trying to break into the music industry.
“When people become negative toward you, it’s because they’re intimidated,” said Tierinii. “That’s a good thing. Just be your best you. Be your strongest you.”
“I think the advice I would give anybody getting into the industry is to know what you want before you get in it,” added T.K. “And if you don’t know what you want, don’t let people tell you what you should want.”
Southern Avenue is currently on tour and scheduled to play countless shows this festival season. Click here to see the complete list including shows playing support for The Tedeschi Trucks Band this fall.