Brimming with energy and a sense of purpose, 30-year-old guitarist and songwriter Jarekus Singleton is a new breed of bluesman — an artist with one foot in his Mississippi roots and the other in contemporary culture. On his latest album, Refuse to Lose, Singleton's blistering fretwork, funk-seasoned melodies and hip-hop-inspired wordplay packs equal parts poetry, maturity and swagger.
Signed last year to Chicago's Alligator Records, Singleton has been called "the fastest rising young African American bluesman" by the San Francisco Chronicle, which also praised his streetwise, soulful songwriting.
Yet less than five years ago, he was at the lowest ebb of his life, laid up on his mother's couch in his childhood home, staring at the ceiling.
Singleton had started playing bass at his grandfather's church in Jackson, Mississippi, at age 9. Switching to guitar at 14, he learned to accompany each gospel service by ear. "We had church five times a week," Singleton says, "so I had plenty of time to practice."
In his late teens, Singleton switched tracks and pursued NBA dreams. He spent three years as starting point guard at the University of Southern Mississippi before leading the nation in scoring at William Carey University. While playing professional ball in Lebanon, an ankle injury sidelined his career, reducing his expectations to ashes.
"When I had [that ankle] surgery and I went home, I was laying there with my leg up in the air to drain the blood — so I didn't get blood clots," Singleton says. "That's when I picked up my guitar and I started playing."
As if guided by fate, Singleton's fingers picked out the melody of Albert King's "I'll Play the Blues for You," the first blues song he had ever heard when his uncle had taken him to a club many years before. "I said to myself, 'Damn, this has been my calling all along.'"
Singleton, who had been a high school rapper prior to his basketball career, fused hip-hop with his love of the blues and a facility for language. "Growing up I always loved word play," Singleton says. "When I started my band, my mom encouraged me to apply my writing ability to the blues."
That ability infuses the street-smart grit of Singleton's words with a universal immediacy. While many songs on Refuse to Lose draw on Singleton's life experiences, their message transcends autobiography.
"On 'Keep Pushin,' I'm talking about how I used my injury as motivation to keep pushing on my musical journey. Something unfortunate turned into something fortunate," Singleton says. "On 'I Refuse to Lose,' I talk about being a janitor. I worked as a janitor when basketball was no longer working for me. I talk about nights in my mama's house, doing a lot of soul searching.
"It was important to me to write these particular songs, so people can relate and say, 'Hey, I might not have played basketball but I wanted to be a welder and it didn't work out for me. What I should do is refuse to lose. I should keep pushing and find a way forward.'"
While drawing on relatable experiences, Singleton also acknowledges the blues masters who came before him, citing "the three Kings — Albert, Freddie and B.B." — as inspirations.
"All I ever wanted to do as an artist is to be an innovator and not an imitator," says Singleton. "But I still show respect to the blues masters. They built the foundation. I'm just taking who I am and building on that foundation."