It’s said that life is often a battle between what one wants and what one perceives to be the expectations of others. For Tierinii Jackson, frontwoman for the Memphis-born Grammy-nominated band, Southern Avenue, growing up, this was absolutely the case. For Jackson, who was raised in a musical but religious household and who spent many hours in church, life early on was a struggle to find and fight for her identity—even in the places where she should have been accepted the most.
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In a world where Jackson was taught more what she couldn’t do than what she could, finding her voice and her place wasn’t gifted to her by her parents or the church. Yet, she pushed ahead. Now, she and her band are set to release their latest LP, Be The Love You Want, a positive, advice-laden record that reads as much like a blueprint for self-worth as it does entertainment.
“When I realized I didn’t have any support,” Jackson says, “that I had to become my own support system and had to get over a lot of fear—that’s what this record is about. It’s the way I speak to myself in my head when I’m going through life. It’s my practice. I have to coach myself to be positive, I have to be the love that I want.”
To go against the church is one thing, to go against one’s parents is another. Yet, Jackson realized that she had to teach the world how to treat her, starting with her mother and father. No one was going to do it for her. She wanted to sing—badly—and not just gospel tunes in service of a big religious institution. As Jackson says, you can’t expect people to treat you a certain way if you don’t first set the example. So, painstakingly, that’s exactly what she did, over and over, even through public humiliation from early musical success.
“I had a few viral videos out at some point,” Jackson says. “But I became this embarrassment to the church. I was openly reprimanded in front of the church. So, I just walked out and never went back. That drove a rift through me and my parents for a while. But we grew through it and we’re still growing.”
One of the ways in which Jackson fortified herself was by working with her sister, Tikyra, who is the drummer for Southern Avenue. Originally, it was another drummer who introduced the singing Jackson to Southern Avenue’s co-founder and lead guitarist, Ori Naftaly, who had come to Memphis from Israel to participate in the city’s International Blues Challenge. While some of Naftaly’s then-band mates eventually went back across the Atlantic Ocean, he stayed. And while he and Jackson were introduced by a drumming mutual friend, Jackson was able to bring Tikyra into the fold to bolster the group. Since then, the band, founded formally in 2015, has grown, both in numbers, output, and trust with one another.
“When I met Ori,” Jackson says, “he was very passionate, emotional, and transparent. I wasn’t used to being around men so transparent—I saw his passion, which made me trust him. At first, I trusted him more than I believed in the music. He was a fighter; I saw myself in him.”
At the time, Jackson was in about 10 other bands, she says. But she quickly dropped those and, with her sister on the drum kit behind her, she began to take Southern Avenue more seriously as the most significant sonic priority.
“This band felt safe,” Jackson says. “In the beginning, I was just work for hire. So, I wrote whatever I felt would make him happy. If he was happy, I got the job done. But as we grew as friends, Southern Avenue became ours, and the more I cared about it and the creative process. We grew as a family.”
Jackson, who grew up humming before she could even talk, has become a student of Memphis. For so many years, there was so much she wasn’t allowed to investigate. Since leaving the church, she dove into Stax Records history and the history of her hometown. As a result, she’s become stronger and she’s learned to dismiss anyone who doesn’t show her, her sister, or the band respect or love. In this way, Southern Avenue, which is named after a Memphis street, is carrying on the pride of the city.
“There’s still so much great music being made in Memphis,” Jackson says. “And we’re the poster children.”
To land on the band’s soulful, funky, distinct, and popular sound—as displayed on the new album in songs like “Move Into The Light” and “Push Now”—Jackson says the players leaned into what makes them unique. While Naftaly is compared to Carlos Santana and Jackson is compared to Beyoncé or Tina Turner, they shy from comparisons. Instead, wanting to focus on their personal strengths. And as Jackson and the group look to the future, she says, there is much to learn, more room to grow, more music to make, and lots of life to explore—no matter what anyone else says.
“I love the freedom of expression [in music],” she says. “Because I grew up so restricted, all I had my whole life was what I wasn’t allowed to do, what I couldn’t do. But with music, there’s no limitations. You can say what you want, scream as loud as you can. It’s therapeutic; it’s like mediation for me. It’s a spiritual experience.”