Jay-Marie Is Holy Melds Art and Activism

Mar 30, 2022 at 11:26 am
click to enlarge For Jay-Marie Is Holy, the creation of art is a sacred act. - Via Artist Bandcamp
For Jay-Marie Is Holy, the creation of art is a sacred act.

Turning on Jay-Marie Is Holy's new music video for their song "I Wanna Love," we arrive in a summer scene: a park in south city, where a group of people in pastel pinks and crop tops dance on a grassy hill, while DJs spin and smile. A magnetic voice smoothes the words "I wanna love I can get lost in" over a soulful bass line. There is laughter, there is carefree saxophone, and there are silk picnic blankets. The video embodies the queer paradise energy of Jay-Marie Is Holy, somewhere between spontaneity and choreography, archiving joy.

Jay-Marie Is Holy is fronted by Jay-Marie Hill, a multifaceted musician and local activist whose compositions celebrate transcendence.

"Since I already break the mold on the gender front, I tend to approach creating and making music in that same way," Hill explains. "With my primary instruments being bass, tenor sax and voice, the songs I write and perform span genres that tell stories using those instruments: R&B, funk, acoustic soul and sometimes Black house music."

Hill reclaimed the "Holy" for their name from their work with Rev. Sekou & the Holy Ghost — a funk, soul and blues project on the celebrated St. Louis label FarFetched. Rev. Sekou & the Holy Ghost's 2016 album The Revolution Has Come, written with Hill, came at a post-Ferguson time when St. Louis welcomed spiritual rejuvenation. The group's protest anthem "We Comin'," featuring the Saint Boogie Brass Band, is perhaps the best encapsulation of its soulful and buoyant approach to its music and activism.

Meeting Rev. Sekou in 2015 was what brought Hill to St. Louis. Before that, they were running a Black-owned dance company and playing in bands in the Bay Area, where they are from. In a cover band of women and nonbinary folks called Bones of a Feather, Hill swiftly gravitated toward the bass guitar in 2013, though they've been playing instruments for almost their whole life.

"Alto sax was my first instrument. I played tenor, baritone and soprano in jazz and concert bands from elementary to high school," Hill remembers. "My siblings and I all grew up singing Psalms together and having devotional time as a family."

For the new single "I Wanna Love," Jay-Marie Is Holy expresses a devotion to the self. Hill's bass brilliantly bumps the song, with the verses and chorus bouncing to a final bridge, buzzing with the repetitive motion of the saxophone. As a vocalist, Hill grounds the bop with their serene tones. Tim Kvasnosky of Los Angeles created the keys and production, balancing Hill's instrumentals with an energizing house-music beat. The R&B pop jam breezes with the dance-party vibes of the "I Wanna Love" music video, which was creatively directed and filmed by Nyara Williams and Datiana Guerrero of Dreamland, an up-and-coming St. Louis production company that also worked on Smino's latest video.

The track defies the typical love song. By using the refrain "I wanna love" instead of "I want a love," the lyrics bend the action of loving inward instead of toward a specific one-love.

"The real work and intention inside the phrasing is that I wanna love myself in general that way, and therefore anyone else I meet will come through that love portal, too," Hill elaborates. "For me, the song is a sort of magic spell I've cast — hat tip for this language to mentor/homie Adrienne Maree Brown — to always show up to the difficult work of loving myself and others."

Throughout a conversation with RFT, Hill generously makes shout-outs to mentors, fellow musicians and St. Louis collaborators. In our current American landscape of capitalistic individualism and pandemic loneliness, it's refreshing to hear an artist identify so keenly with community. Hill dedicates their art as a sharing of ideas and vulnerabilities, in conversation with others, unable to exist without the inspiration and work of the people around them. Their list of people to thank is endless: from the folks at FarFetched to local artists appearing in the video and everyone who planned and filled up the "I Wanna Love" weekend in February.

That's right: The release of the "I Wanna Love" video warranted a whole weekend of celebration. Right before Valentine's Day, Jay-Marie Is Holy and their creative production group Black Transcendence planned "I Wanna Love Weekend," which included special events from Thursday through Saturday: a virtual Black Trans Artist Talk along with the music- video premiere, a live recording of a new Jay-Marie Is Holy EP Love Is No Fool, and a speed-dating event for Black trans and queer people dubbed "Love At Your Speed" at Sophie's Lounge.

"It can be a difficult thing to find people who love you not in spite of, but rather inclusively of and expansively beyond any tokenization of your body as a queer and/or gender-expansive person," Hill says. "I wanted to explicitly create a space where we would not have to search high and low for folks unafraid to love us and each other."

Just as their music brings a freedom of genre and healing grooves, Hill's organizing and advocacy work in St. Louis is powered by connection. In 2019, they founded two organizations: MO Ho Justice Coalition, protecting sex workers in Missouri, and Black Trans Bike Experience, a bike community project. All the while, they were running the Trans Justice Program at ACLU Missouri. The musical project of Jay-Marie Is Holy doesn't feel totally separate from their other work — all of these acts help people in the community feel loved and supported, whether they are inspired to pick up a bike or a bass.

What can we look forward to sonically from Jay-Marie Is Holy and their crew of collaborators? According to Hill, 2022 will be a year of twos: The Love Is No Fool EP recorded during I Wanna Love Weekend will be out in the warmer months, and another album will be coming in the fall. In the meantime, a collaboration with Seaux Chill called "Someth!n Bout the Way" was released on streaming services last month, also featuring a composition from Action St. Louis founder Kayla Reed. On Jay-Marie Is Holy's instagram (@jay.marie.is.holy), they have been posting one bass riff a day throughout the month of March, which has been a daily creative lift well worth listeners' time and attention.

Of their activism, love-filled music and community events, Hill closes out with a statement which encapsulates it all: "Most of my work is presented as a prayer, and offering portals to encourage folks to show up and love Black folks, Black trans folks and ultimately themselves better. This work can be hard to do in any city, but doing so in Missouri especially has its challenges, where there are no statewide gender and sexuality protections.

"I can only hope these events and joy portals cut against that, and leave us with the energy and relationships needed to live a new way."