Watching JaKeith Hairston dash down a runway and leap into a sandpit was poetry in motion.
Some days it’s hard to find rhyme or reason in New York City, but Hairston’s athletic career at Science Hill was good preparation for the fast-paced Big Apple, where he moved 31â„2 years ago in a leap of faith to become a successful musician.
Hairston, who will be inducted into the Science Hill Athletics Hall of Fame on Feb. 11, won the state championship in the long jump and triple jump at Chattanooga as a senior in 2002. He finished second in the nation in the triple jump at Raleigh, N.C., that summer to earn high school All-American status. He set Science Hill records in both events.
He’s still recording records, but on a different quest.
In September, Hairston attended a premiere of Michael Rapaport’s documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.” It was a fluke that he ended up at the final show of the night, which allowed him to approach A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
Hairston was excited, but it was a full bladder insisting he pee. But he ignored the urge
and approached Muhammad with Hairston’s CD. Hairston told him he appreciated what Muhammad’s band had done for hip-hop culture with its mix of jazz and rap, and handed him the CD.
“He said ‘I’ll definitely give it a listen,’” said Hairston, whose stage name is JaPoet. “Four days later he emailed me. He said, ‘I’ve got to admit to you, your music got me emotional.’”
As far as initial listens, Muhammad put Hairston on a short list that included Raphael Saadiq, perhaps best known for his work with “Tony! Toni! Toné!” Before long, Hairston was recording with Muhammad in a gated, beachfront home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Never mind the hammocks, kayaks and going to sleep and waking to the sound of the ocean, Hairston’s haven included a yoga instructor and maids or cooks climbing trees each day to get coconuts.
“He (Muhammad) has basically taken me under his wing,” Hairston said. “I’ve lived with him, prayed with him, laughed and cried with him. He’ll say, ‘Meet my new artist. This is JaPoet.’
“We’ve been working together seven months. I feel like I’ve known him forever.”
The documentary has received a Grammy nomination. The album Hairston’s working on is “What if God was a DJ?” He said it’s 90 percent finished.
Hairston’s first public performance was a poetry reading at Middle Tennessee State.
“My girlfriend and I were walking across campus and saw this flyer,” he said. “She said, ‘You should do this.’ It was my first open mic.
“She got me up on stage and I was shaking like a leaf. It was a huge auditorium with so many people. But after I did my first poem I got a standing ovation.”
Poetry has opened as many heavyweights’ doors as music. Hairston went to New Orleans to hang out with Sunni Patterson, who he describes as a “100-pound force.” He’s met Jessica Care Moore, has been welcomed to mingle with The Last Poets and will tell you Gil Scott-Heron “made poetry tangible.” He reads poetry at high schools.
Hairston said he began writing poetry for church in the 10th grade. By then, Hairston says, he’d already been writing love letters in junior high.
“All my friends wanted me to write love letters to their girlfriends,” Hairston said.
Hairston, who says jumps coach Ernest Hill was invaluable in high school, was inspired at Science Hill by such teachers as Jim Estep and Leslie McInturff. He said Estep would begin class with a quote on the board that would always spur conversations, some of which took up the majority of the class time.
“Those quotes started some of the coolest discussions,” Hairston said. “He helped us learn to think critically and analytically. How he taught – he didn’t speak down to you; he talked to you like a friend.
“Mr. Estep was super-duper influential. We always pick up where we left off when I was in ninth grade. He always tells the story of how my dad (Chucky) pulled up and said ‘This is my son. If he acts up you have my permission to whoop him in front of the class.’”
Family is why things can still get “heavy” for Hairston despite being at the edge of his dreams. It’s difficult being far away from so many loved ones.
There are numerous family references in his songs. “The Tender Years” ( HYPERLINK “http://soundcloud.com/japoet” http://soundcloud.com/japoet) mentions a father telling his children how wearing hand-me-down clothes in middle school builds character.
Chucky was a good athlete at Science Hill, and Hairston said his mother, Marshal, was an outstanding sprinter at David Crockett. His older brother, B.J., was the point guard on Science Hill’s Arby’s Classic championship team in 1999 that included Demetric Stevens, Jermaine Love and Rob Love.
“I stay grounded,” JaKeith said. “I talk to my mom almost every day, talk to my dad. Mom still tries to race me to this day.
“It’s funny, but finally beating my brother in the high jump was one of the highlights (at Science Hill). My brother was the man, and I was like, ‘Yes, I’m finally out of his shadow.’”
B.J. and JaKeith played basketball for Mike Poe. JaKeith started on Science Hill’s state runner-up team as a senior in 2002. The team included Rob Love, Jerome Odem and Bryson Bowling.
Hairston remembers being sick at the time of the first walk-through at the state, and said the late Shirley Ann Chinouth was the first to notice he didn’t look right. Hairston says Poe and assistant coach Randy Ferrell were soon out purchasing Pedialyte.
“Mrs. Chinouth was a sweetheart … always had a huge Ziplock bag of gum for us at games,” Hairston said. “That team (had issues). I think Rob had shin splints and something was going on with Bryson. But we held it together and made it to the championship game.”
Hairston remembers scoring 11 TDs as a senior at Science Hill. He recalls Bowling, who played football at East Carolina, scoring 13 that season.
Hairston was recruited by Memphis, Middle Tennessee State and Chattanooga, among others, but elected to go to Milligan College. He said most larger schools wanted him to play two sports – football and track and field. Instead, Hairston began as a two-sport athlete at Milligan, playing basketball for the intensely prepared Tony Wallingford and competing in track and field for the energetic, organized Chris Lane.
Hairston made the All-Freshman team in basketball and was an NAIA All-American in track and field. But Milligan never felt like home, although it was practically in the backyard of his home off South Roan Street.
So after two years he transferred to MTSU, which is coincidentally Lane’s alma mater. The Blue Raiders had a quality track and field program led by Hall of Fame coach Dean Hayes, and Hairston had his moments.
He won the University of Kentucky Invite’s long jump and jumped a personal best 24-101â„4 as a junior to get an NCAA provisional. But Hairston was more intrigued by MTSU’s music and liberal arts curriculum.
“I ended up a few inches from being able to compete for the Olympic Trials my last year,” Hairston said, “but my passion was somewhere else – music, poetry, art.”
Propelled by passion and compelled by compassion, the New York City rat race evokes a picturesque mess of mixed emotions for Hairston.
“Everything’s always moving here, chaos, 24-7,” Hairston said. “People ask ‘What’s New York like?’ I say, ‘It’s a beautiful ugly.’”
Presently, it’s as if Hairston has left the runway and seemingly on course to land far out in the sand.
“I just appreciate everything that’s happening,” he said. “I thank God for it. I’m at peace. … It’s a beautiful anxiety.”