By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
When JM the Poet (a.k.a. Jay Manning) first got into music, it was lyrics that hit him the hardest. Outkast was an early favorite — his mom would play their records around the house — and, later, Tupac, Lil Wayne, “basics that got me into hip hop and really got me into lyricism.”
But it wasn’t just the words that he was interested in. It was the elements of universality in the stories that were being told. “A lot of times [people] are telling the same types of stories over and over,” just expressing things in different ways, he says. “So I picked a lot of that stuff up growing up.”
Given that, it makes sense that JM ended up studying storytelling via a degree in broadcast journalism, or that he now works as a photographer for PublicSource.
And it’s no surprise that he tells his own stories through music. On August 25, he released his first full-length record, Deja Vu, on Pittsburgh-based label Driving While Black. It’s a memoir of sorts, documenting the ups and downs of the four years since JM moved from Columbia, South Carolina to Pittsburgh.
As a teenager, he set up a makeshift garage studio for him and his friends. But around the time of his post-college move, he says, “I was on the verge of quitting music, hip hop, all that.” he says. “The first half of [Deja Vu] deals with how I first moved to Pittsburgh and had a good career, got a job fresh out of college, had my girl, we were engaged, everything was good,” he says. “I was having a lot of fun but I feel like I lost myself. And I was starting to lose that artistry side. I was losing my passion for making music.”
The album’s second track, “Get Up, Get Right,” reflects that time of internal conflict: “I’m splitting in my mind, I need to make a decision,” he raps, his urgent tone tensing against the chill looping beat. “Doubt my vision/Go for that promotion/ Your family needs your attention.”
Then one day he got on stage at an open-mic event put on by hip hop-focused art and activism collective 1Hood. He eventually joined up, and now works with them as a teaching artist.
Working with 1Hood, he says, “really sparked my want for music and hip hop, my passion for it. Being around so many people who are just as passionate, and more passionate about it than me. And not only in the sense of making music, but actually having a message … and really making music as an MC and as an artist.”
Through 1Hood he met Jordan Montogomery, the rapper and entrepreneur behind Driving While Black, who is featured on Deja Vu, along with fellow DWB artist Livefromthecity.
Even as JM became more connected to his art, life got harder: he lost his job and things with his fiance fell apart. Towards the middle of the record, “Insomniac,” the record’s most obvious nod to Andre 3000 and Big Boi, one feels JM hitting a fevered edge, again contrasting the stress of his mental state with a playful groove. That gives way to “Hate,” a raw-nerved spoken-word track that brings to mind elements of Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered, followed by the relationship postmortem “Intentions.”
“Sometimes you can do as good as you can do, and sometimes it’s not meant to be,” JM explains. “That’ a song that represents more than a breakup, it’s like everything, it can happen with anything.”
After that comes “Beautiful,” which the rapper describes as the record’s reset, “where you’re kind of finding self-love again, which is a big thing I had to do. That was a huge process for me.”
These days, JM likes to say that he “deja vus” his dreams, turning his visions into reality. “The concept of [deja vu] is when you experience something in life that feels like it was a dream, or you experience something that reminds you of a dream,” he says. “That concept of having dreams become reality is what [the album] is built on.”
Which all ties back to the cyclical, universal nature of stories. We all have ups and downs, time spent dreaming, time spent achieving, and everything in between.
“Change always happens,” JM continues. “No matter how high you get, all it takes is one change and that high isn’t meant to be any more.
“Again, the concept of deja vu: Things have happened before and they’ll happen again. It’s a repeat, you gain and you lose and you reset yourself, you gain again and you lose again and you reset yourself again. It’s a whole process of growth, loss, and restructuring.”