Durham's J. Safina is an old soul in a young body

CorrespondentJanuary 7, 2013 

COURTESY OF J SAFINA

  • Want to go? Who: J. Safina, with TJ Walker When: 9 p.m. Thursday Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham Cost: $5 Details: 919-801-0875; motorcomusic.com

When you first see Jazmen Flagler – better known as the vocalist J. Safina – it’s surprising how young and baby-faced she is. Anyone who has listened to “The Pain of Pleasure,” the free EP she dropped online last year, may think Safina (her middle name, by the way) is at least 10 years older than the 20-year-old who shows up for this interview. She certainly sings like a woman who’s been on this earth long enough to have gone through some things.

“It’s just the way I sound, I guess,” Flagler says one Saturday afternoon at Durham’s Northgate Mall, where she has a day job in retail. “I didn’t go out like, ‘Well, I’ma try to sound older.’ That’s just my voice, I guess. I don’t know – it’s just the way it comes out, like old soul.”

Flagler may look too young to have the voice of an oft-scorned drama mama, but she’s certainly had years of experience as a vocalist. The daughter of singer-songwriter parents, the Virginia-born, Durham-based Flagler started singing way back when she was 3, in the church choir.

“It’s something that I love to do,” she says about making a joyful noise. “But I think the thing that kind of, like, pushed me to actually want to become a performer – I say I was, maybe, about 5 or 6. I had a solo in the choir at church, and when I sang, it was just the way that everybody was moved by my performance. It kind of did something to me and made me want to experience that on a bigger level.”

While she modestly doesn’t consider herself a professional singer at this point, she has been pursuing singing since middle school. And although she mostly traffics in that grown-folks music known as R&B, she prefers not to be pigeonholed. “I try not to put myself in a category too much when I make my music,” she says. “I try to just express myself. But when people categorize me, they usually put me into R&B or neo-soul.”

She’s continuing to perform, but she’s working on other plans, just in case the music thing doesn’t pan out. Currently in her junior year at N.C. Central University, she’s majoring in psychology. She’s also on the track team.

Nevertheless, she’s still going for it musically. With help from her management team, All In Marketing and Music, she released her first EP last year and will have another one, “Damaged Goods,” ready for download Jan. 15. (You can find these on All In’s Bandcamp page, allin12.bandcamp.com.)

These tapes are pretty much a one-woman production. “It’s a lot of just doing things on my own,” she says. “People come to me with music – tell me, you know, ‘I have this beat that I want you to sing on. Can you write to it?’ They provide that for me. I write to it, and I have my own equipment.”

She will perform at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall Thursday night, which she considers quite the achievement. “For me, it’s big because it’s actually my own show,” she says. “I’m not opening for anybody else. It’s not just, like, an open-mic. It’s actually, like, about me. So, I’m pretty excited about that.”

In a few weeks, she plans to head to Atlanta to audition for the TV singing competition “The Voice.” But even if she gets on the show and meets new coach Usher, she won’t consider dropping out of college.

“My main focus right now is graduating,” she says. “So, I want to graduate, get my degree and, hopefully, move to Atlanta where I can really, really push my music.”

Even if she does make a new home in “Hotlanta,” she won’t forget the city that made her who she is. “Durham is my home,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that I’m drawn to it, but I’m here, you know. And I try to make the best out of every possibility. This is where I’m from, and I want to, I guess, put Durham on the map for music.”

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