Welcoming change marks the genesis of one's evolution. And through music, Lyfe Jennings has willingly opened his heart and soul to nurture his personal and artistic growth. As a single father of two, the Ohio native continues to build his brand as owner of an independent label, author of a children's book series as well as a furniture and jewlery collection. His junior effort, Lyfe Change, is an introspective anthology that tackles everything from the dos and don'ts of relationships to the growing AIDS epidemic among America's youth. Essence.com talked with the gritty-voiced soulman to discuss building his empire, living up to the Destiny's Child standard and why he doesn't care how folks remember him.
Essence.com: Not many artists make it to their junior year so congrats on Lyfe Change! How does this album differ from the first two?
L.J.: If I had to say anything was wrong with the first two albums it's that they didn't offer anything different. Yes, I did the heartfelt stuff but there was no diversity.
Essence.com: Understood. And this album introduces Lyfe fans to other musical genres. What is the significance of the album's title?
L.J.: On this album, I really give myself something to shoot for. We're all looking to change our lives at some point and to elevate ourselves.
Essence.com: What has been your most life-altering experience?
L.J.: Becoming a father. I always look at my kids as a big change. Making time with home as well as music, you have to learn when to choose between the kids and your music, and the future and the present to make the right decisions for the right reasons.
Essence.com: Yes parenthood helps you to grow. How old are your kids?
L.J: My eldest son Phoenix is 3 years old and my youngest, Elijah is 1 year old.
Essence.com: Exactly how has fatherhood changed you?
L.J.: I was always responsible, but it has made me pay more attention to what I say. My kids watch my DVDs over and over. Phoenix actually sings my album so much that I'm thinking about making it into ABC songs. Both my sons love books, so I'd like to figure out how to make it encompass their day.
Essence.com: Are they ever star struck when they see daddy on the television?
L.J.: Honestly, they are so used to it. Again, my oldest-all he wants to do is keep rewinding the DVD, take the guitar and jump around.
Essence.com: As long as he doesn't tear the house up. But if he does you can just replace it with a piece from your furniture collection. When do you plan to introduce it?
L.J.: Early next year. I would like to offer affordable contemporary furniture. It can be really expensive to own a nice piece and I want to give customers the quality at an economical price. I want to make unique pieces that would be available online first and then eventually grow and be available at various retailers.
Essence.com: So would you design them yourself?
L.J.: Yes but I'd get help. I can draw well enough to show you what I want but I want it to be even better. But I'd definitely say designing is my strong suit whether it's jewelry or whatever.
Essence.com: So you're into designing some of the finer things in life. Did you design the pendant of Jesus on a swing that you wear?
L.J.: Jesus Swings-that's the name of my label. For me, He's on a swing, which represents the back and forth movement of a pendulum, which is sort of how we deal with life's situations trying to decide what our next move is. It's the goal of my artists and myself to speak honestly about what happened in our lives, but to do it respectfully to help others understand what led us on our paths to get to where we are today.
Essence.com: So you plan to launch a jewelry collection as well?
L.J.: I'll probably design like 15 pieces--two of each piece--so investing in one will make you one of two if not the only wearing that designer piece.
Essence.com: And you're a storyteller as well. Tell me about your children's book series.
L.J.: It's called the Adventures of Life. I wrote these books before I had children while I was incarcerated. Children have so many ideas of what they want to be when they grow up and they struggle to pick one idea that they can stick to. But no one ever takes the time to tell kids that you can try one thing and that they have a lot of times to try something new.
Essence.com: Do you have a publisher?
L.J.: I want to self-publish. I can go the other route, but I think it would be great to tie in a book and concert tour simultaneously so I can team up with an organization to promote it as well.
Essence.com: I'm sure your Tree for Lyfe Foundation, which plants trees at correctional facilities across the country and sponsors various youth outreach and empowerment initiatives, will be one of those organizations involved. Why are planting trees so important in this environment?
L.J.: Definitely. The reason it's important is because the trees symbolize life outside of what's going on in the inside for these dudes. If they can see and talk to someone like myself who has been in their same situation, it gives them hope. It's hard for them to relate to people coming in to kick it to them who have never been in their situation. They take advice a whole lot better from someone like me who left jail and did something positive.
Essence.com: Staying positive is something that is practiced and doesn't always come naturally for most. How difficult is it to juggle family and career?
L.J.: I'm still working on balancing it.
Essence.com: At one point your children's mom, Joy Bounds, was managing you is she still involved with your career?
L.J.: No, I'm with Mathew Knowles full time. Honestly, this is my first time working with him or anyone because I'm used to doing things on my own so that's an adjustment. We don't always see eye-to-eye and we're still just trying to see if it's a good fit.
Essence.com: Considering the success Mathew Knowles has had with Destiny's Child and Beyonce, do you feel pressure to match that success?
L.J.: Truthfully, I think having a big manager it sometimes loses the artist. Because of the success he's had with Destiny's Child it doesn't translate to me so that's one of the weak suits. But the strong suit is he's looking to do something big outside of Destiny's Child and therefore he works a little harder so that he has something else on the line and doesn't become known only as the "Destiny's Child Man."
Essence.com: That's fair and a learning experience for you both. What is the one thing you've discovered about yourself that you impressed you the most?
L.J.: I think I'm a great writer-conceptually and lyrically. I believe I can take anything and write about it and make it funny, sexy, cool or hip-I can do it all.
Essence.com: So have you shared your talent with other artists besides the ones on your label?
L.J.: I plan on doing that next year. I've worked with a lot of artists including Lil Flip, LL Cool J, Alicia Keys, Bun B on production for their projects. I never wanted to confuse people with Lyfe the artist versus Lyfe the producer, but next year I'll step out as a producer.
Essence.com: That's the sign of true business savvy. One wrong career move and the gossip pages have a field day. Speaking of which, what is the craziest rumor you've heard about yourself?
L.J.: That I got some woman pregnant and I didn't even respond to it. I figured I'd let people have their fantasies. I mean you'll definitely see me out with different women because I date.
Essence.com: So you're single and ready to mingle? You and Ms. Miles aren't together anymore?
L.J.: We date.
Essence.com: Well, if it's meant to be it will be.
L.J.: That's what I said.
Essence.com: Many artists say what they hope their musical legacy will be, have you thought about how you'd like to be remembered?
L.J.: Honestly, I really don't care if anyone remembers me because I think a great song will outlive the artist. Think about it: how many young kids sing songs and don't have a clue who is singing? In the end, the mission is always greater than the man. For me, the greatest form of flattery would be for someone wanting to remake one of my songs.
Photo Credit: Tom Corbett