In his own words, Jermaine Nakia Lee embraces the following roles: Songwriter. Actor. Director. Playwright. Producer. Community Activist. His professional Facebook page, TheArtistJNL, adds Master Teaching Artist to that list. In a personal profile he professes himself an “iconoclast.” He does his best to live up to them all.
A campaigner for social justice, as well as a passionate creator, the Miami native founded and remains artistic director of Carolinas Pride Theater Ensemble, while owning and operating the multi-function studio community NoDa@28th. Among his own works are musicals celebrating groundbreaking African-American artists of decades past (“For the Love of Harlem”) and exploring the continued disproportionate, devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on African-American, Latinx, queer, and low-income populations (“A Walk in My Shoes”).
Lee previously held a post with the non-profit PowerHouse Project, which provides HIV-related support services including free rapid testing, co-founded Charlotte Black Gay Pride and Carolinas Gay Pride Movement, and in 2015 was awarded Charlotte’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Medallion.
The renaissance man shares with qnotes some words of wisdom, favorite relaxation techniques, and what he still aspires to achieve.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
My greatest achievement thus far is fatherhood. My oldest son Josiah and baby boy Jediah bring more meaning and purpose to my life than I could have ever imagined. I am so in love with them.
What is your greatest passion?
I have many intense passions. Those passions shape and frame my life. But I am super passionate about the performing arts: theater, dance, vocal performance and songwriting. I’m a published playwright who is primarily inspired to pen musicals. I have been fortunate to write the book and songs for three published works. My productions so far address homophobia, substance abuse, depression, sex workers, white supremacy, abandonment, the HIV crisis, and equality. I believe that the performing arts are a universal language that can be used to bridge gaps and help us see our likeness.
What helps you relax when you’re feeling stressed?
Listening to R&B songstress Anita Baker or 1920-1930s jazz sends me into a state of euphoria…passionate lovemaking as well. That’s just not an activity I can engage in while at the workplace. Well I guess I could, but that wouldn’t be professional.
What cheers you up when you’re feeling down?
One wouldn’t be able to tell by my stature but I love to eat, especially to dine out. I am definitely a “foodie.”
I enjoy experiencing foods from different regions of our country or other cultures. It truly makes me happy. Good meals, especially those made with love, have pulled me out of some dark places
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When pursuing a long-term relationship, it’s important to become the kind of partner you want. So often we feel that having expectations for a partner that we ourselves don’t possess or even have a desire to possess. I am currently in a new and sweet love relationship. I met my boyfriend as we both were marching at the city’s MLK parade. We met while engaged in community which is a passion for both of us. Take careful consideration as to the kind of partner you want and then consider what circles that person would find themselves. If you aren’t already connected to those environments, make it your new way of being. It works. Best device I was recently given.
How do you spend your free time?
My boyfriend, my family and I love to travel. For me, experiencing how other people live and breathe is the spice of life. I always return from vacations with a deeper sense of my humanity and the world around me.
We’ve all heard that smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory. What scents do you find most evocative?
I am moved by masculine scents. Other than the natural scent of my man, I love sandalwood. It’s bold and smooth all at once…how I aspire to present myself.
If you won a multi-million-dollar jackpot, what would you do with the money?
Set up 501c3 and foundation to support affordable housing in Charlotte. Establish an exemplary charter school for the underprivileged. Open a performing arts epicenter where kids and adults can rehearse or/and attend workshops for artistic development.
Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Night Owl for life.
What household chore do you avoid at all costs?
I loathe cleaning the bathtub. It seems the only way to efficiently clean a bathtub is to get inside of it while you clean which leaves me completely soaked afterward. It’s so annoying. Last year I discovered this commercial-grade foam cleaner. I spray it on after my morning shower. When I get home in the evening, I use the adjustable showerhead to spray down the bath. No intense scrubbing or disrobing required. I love it!
What possessions do you cherish most?
In 2015, I was honored with the city’s MLK Medallion Award for my contributions to community and the performing arts. Dr. King is truly one of my heroes. I’ve tried to model my life and my point of view after his. So it was a glorious honor for me and my family to receive that recognition. Recently I was reminded that I am the first openly LGBT recipient and the first professional artist to receive the award.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I have always known that I wanted a career in the performing arts. I was raised in Miami, Fla., where I attended schools for the performing arts in elementary, middle and high school. Then [I] went on to study Music Education at UNC – Charlotte.
If you could live in any time, past or future, anywhere in the world, what would you choose?
Although it was the era of Jim Crow, my soul connects with the 1920s-1930s Harlem Renaissance period. I know I would’ve been contemporaries with Harlem standouts Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, Counter Cullen, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, most of whom were LGBT. The music, the fashion and the elevation of Black culture would have been a delight to experience.
What do you like most about yourself?
I like that I have the ability to empathize, to feel other people’s joy and pain. That empathy motivates my hunger for justice and equity. I like that I truly get a high from watching my love ones in my community succeed. I guess it’s because I truly understand that the prosperity of any one marginalized person subsequently benefits the whole marginalized people.
What aspect of yourself would you like to change?
I am really challenged with time. Time just escapes me. It says if I get sucked up into some kind of time continuum and before I know it I’m two hours late. I am really working hard to eliminate that foible this year.
For the rest of your life, you can read one book; listen to one album; watch one movie; see, produce, or perform in one work of theater; and sing one song. Which do you choose?
“I know why the caged bird sings” by Maya Angelou; the soundtrack to “DreamGirls the Musical;” watch “Philadelphia” with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington; perform with the Alvin Ailey dance theater company; this is a tossup: Sing “A Song for You” by Donnie Hathaway or “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt.
Imagine traveling somewhere incredibly remote, with no way of contacting the outside world. Are you more thrilled or petrified?
Petrified and will find an excuse not to go or probably just be extremely late and missed my flight.
If you met yourself, do you think you’d be your friend?
If I met me on an un-moody day, definitely. Otherwise, hell no!
What have you always wanted to do, be, or learn, but never gotten around to?
More television. I’ve done commercials and some cameo television work. But there is a talk show/variety show host in me yet to manifest itself.
And finally, how would you like to be remembered?
When I transition, I want people to remember that I love my family, I loved my friends and I love my community with all my being. I want them to have a rich body of work that will include theater productions and songs that are an extension of me. I want the virtues that I strove for to be evident in my sons. I love for them to continue some of this work in the arts in and community.