His voice is sultry and smooth, and although Jermaine Crawford is just 21 years old, when he sings, he sounds decades older. “When people ask me, ‘You know, you sound like an old person’,” Crawford says. “Hey. That’s all I grew up listening to.”
When he sings that he “don’t want no sunshine on a cloudy day,” you can’t help but agree with him. Sunshine would be a horrible idea, and grey is much better. Clouds and rain, because that’s what your heart feels.
When we speak over Skype, he tells me that he wants to let the world hear his voice now. “I’ve done a great body of work in acting,” he says, “and I’m ready for people to see me as a musician.” He’s wearing a red Maryland Terrapins t-shirt for the state he has grown up in (i.e. he’s from D.C.). “The home team,” he says. He’s home. Behind him, on the wall, is a record. “Which record is that one? -Oh, that? This is the Motown Jackson 5 Christmas Album.”
Jermaine is a singer preparing for his first major release, anticipated in 2014. It doesn’t have a release date yet, nor a name but he likes Basic Instinct for the latter. “I want to get back to everything that I know,” he says, of what he wants to do. “True RnB.” Because that’s what he makes, true rhythm and blues music. It’s the kind that’s reminiscent of 112, Boyz II Men and K-Ci and JoJo more so than The-Dream and Chris Brown. He has an EP, Underdog—a short four-song opus that his older brother Demetrius produced. Chances are that you might have seen Crawford act, too, but he says that right now he’s a singer.
So let’s start with the singing. “Rap was never my calling,” he says. He didn’t need it, as he was successful at a precocious age and won singing competitions in Maryland and Washington, D.C. His voice is soft-spoken and delicate, but it has range and, through tales of love, he showcases it on the EP. It was always there, he’ll say, as he grew up in D.C. and attended Ernest Everett Just Middle School. “My dad is also a singer and that’s where I get my voice (from),” he says. “Growing up, I listened to a lot of newer artists, but I primarily listened to what my father was playing.” Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, to name only those two.
We speak on Dec. 13, only four days after Beyoncé broke the Internet and released her visual album. “It’s mission accomplished to Beyoncé. She said that her goal was to give back that feeling that Michael Jackson gave us with Thriller, and that’s all I could think about,” he says. “It was like a moment in time.”
It’s telling that an artist of Beyoncé’s stature and notoriety still finds it important to take risks, major ones at that, and release an album like this one where she bares all of herself for all to see. That’s the lesson that Crawford takes. And his three favourite songs tell me that he loves a good love story as much as the next man. ‘XO’ is the beginning of something new, ‘Haunted’ is a visual experience of the inner struggle for love and companionship and ‘Blow’ is, well, about the love-making prowess of a couple in love. The one song that he would make? ‘Rocket’.
But in his own love story, Beyoncé isn’t the girl. Crawford loves her as an artist, but she’s not Janet. It’s not a coincidence that ‘Janet’ is the name he gave to his first single, released on video on Feb. 24. Janet who, you ask? Janet Jackson. “The love of my life,” he calls her. “That’s why I called that particular song ‘Janet’. It’s because that was my take on her song ‘Anytime Anyplace‘.”
In 2005, Crawford started working on the set of the original HBO series The Wire. He played Duquan “Dukie” Weems, a delicate young man with a big, big heart. Dukie loved life, but life wasn’t kind to him. He was, essentially, The Wire in a sentence—life will find a way to fuck you over. Crawford was 12 years old at the time and was one of four cast to play middle-school kids on the greatest show of all time. Others who had a role, say Wendell Pierce (“Bunk Moreland”) or Dominic West (“Jimmy McNulty”), were adults—grown men and established actors. And in the years since, they have mostly continued their acting careers.
But Crawford, his second cousin Tristan “Mack” Wilds (“Michael Lee”), Julito McCullum (“Naymond Brice”) and Maestro Harrell (“Randy Wagstaff”) were teenagers on The Wire. They acted, but would they remain actors as they grew up? That was the pitch for this feature, actually—to document the start of a successful music career for four young men who grew up as teenage actors.
McCullum recently shared on his Instagram profile a picture of the four at the season 4 premiere. Six years later, how many of them are still acting? In 2014, each still has his IMDB page but acting isn’t necessarily what they’re most focused on. They all still act, but I’m not sure that all four would describe themselves as actors first. They now all have a music career to complement their acting chops. “We were always doing music on the set,” Crawford tells me. “We’ve all been doing music since the beginning.”
Jermaine Crawford sings, Mack is a Grammy Award-nominated artist, Maestro Harrell is an electro house producer/DJ (his remix of ‘Hurricane’ still haunts me) and Julito McCullum raps as J.Brice (his heartfelt eulogy to a fallen friend is touching). In fact, the story of how this interview came about tells us a lot about who Jermaine Crawford is.
It starts in October 2013 when I tweeted out that the four kids of season 4 of The Wire were now making music. Crawford answered that in a direct tweet to me, because it’s important for him to be approachable. He says that, “It’s definitely a blessing because there could not be any fans. And I could be an actor who has not had an opportunity as such, still auditioning.”
When it aired on HBO, The Wire was never was the hit or cultural phenomenon that a comparable piece of drama, say, Breaking Bad, was in its final season, but it’s gained a loyal and passionate following in the six years since 2008. I count myself among the most dedicated, having given a name to my website that’s a direct quote from the show and applied to Journalism School with a short essay about season 5. My love for the show runs deep, and so does Crawford’s. “Now watching it, when people talk about The Wire, I want to talk about it with them,” he says. ”Everything about that show was just perfect.” (That includes you, Jermaine!)
He says that because he’s finally watched it, last summer. He calls it an honour to have been part of such art and says that he still feels linked to others from the show. A family, he calls the cast. When Robert Chew (“Proposition Joe”) died last January, Crawford said the experience felt “surreal.” What many don’t know is that Chew was the acting coach. He says that, “Every time we got a script, he would sit with us and train us for each episode.” And now he’s dead. Not a special death either, just death.
At 21, Crawford is still young. He’s young enough to believe that he can change the world. “I feel like my generation is flat-lining,” he says. “The more that I’m blessed with, the more that I can do for others.” You know what they say, right? The people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones who just might do it? That’s him.
The thing is, he’s already changing the world. He created the Code Blue: Reviving a Generation campaign in 2008. That’s the type of things that older folk do, no? Code blue, at the hospital, is signaled for any patient requiring immediate assistance, for any patient that’s flat-lined. He founded the campaign after his turn on HBO as Dukie in The Wire—the character was many things, among them a homeless youth. And that’s who Blue Code helps, homeless youth in D.C. The aim, according to the website, is “to bring awareness of – and to fight against those issues that threaten youth.” Currently, Code Blue has one shelter, Promise Place in Prince George’s County, MD. Crawford says Code Blue is what he’s most proud of, even more than being named the Youth Ambassador of Colin Powell’s America’s Promise in 2009. “I started it from scratch and I really have had the opportunity to help people change their lives,” he says, “and that’s what’s most important.”
He wants more, too. More shelters to help more people. “Always, there is more,” Vondas says in season 2 of The Wire. The need is dire—a recent report published by the National Center for Homeless Education found an increase of 72 per cent in the number of homeless youth, and that every year as many as 1.6 or 1.7 million new young people live on the street. They don’t know what The Wire is and have never listened to Underdog, but they’re America’s next doctors, presidents, lawyers, firefighters, musicians, actors and dentists, he says. Except that they’re not, and that’s the problem Code Blue that wants to curb.
I ask Jermaine what he thinks happened to Dukie after the final episode, and his answer surprises me. “What my hope is,” he says, “is that I’m Stringer Bell and Michael is Avon (Barksdale).” The consensus is that Dukie is the next Bubbles, since that’s basically our last image of him—he’s homeless and shooting heroin. But Jermaine sees beyond that. Bubbles, after all, did go back to being Reginald Cousins one day. Stringer and Avon were the kids from the block who grew up together, and Michael and Dukie were definitely that. “Stringer was always the smart one. Avon was always the muscle who would beat people up and see red. Stringer saw green, money. He was smart,” he says. “If there were a cycle, it would start with another Avon and Stringer. Wouldn’t that make sense?”
Then I ask him where he’ll be in 10 years, and he says that he’ll be one of the most influential in the industry. Then, he’ll still be just 31. Plenty young. “I’m just as good of a musician as I am an actor,” he says. “And I’m just as good of a businessman as I am an actor.” Yep, definitely spoken like Stringer.