Stronger For It

Janiva Magness transformed by rhythm and blues

By Tim Anderl
Photo: Janiva Magness will perform on June 14 at Canal Street Tavern; photo credit: Peter Wochniak

With more than three decades in the music business, American blues and soul singer/songwriter Janiva Magness is a stellar and studied entertainer who has emerged as one of the premier rhythm and blues artists in the world today. With nine albums, B.B. King Entertainer of the Year honors, Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year awards and countless similar nominations under her belt, there is no doubt that Magness carries a bright and blazing torch for rhythm and blues, or that her heartfelt work invigorates the genre with intense and honest ways.

Magness’ story also shines light on the transformative and rehabilitative nature of blues music. Suffering unspeakable tragedy in her mid-teens, Magness lost both parents to suicide. Shuffling in and out of foster homes, she became pregnant at 17 and chose adoption for her own baby daughter. Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, Magness transformed the inspiration she found in music into resolve. Whether it was desperation or divine intervention that put these hardships – and later opportunities – in her path, Magness ultimately emerged a powerhouse songstress whose personal passions play out on stage, as well as in outreach activities. She is a national spokesperson for Foster Care organizations.

Dayton City Paper had the pleasure of speaking with Magness as she prepared for her upcomign appearance at Canal Street Tavern. This is what she shared about her life experiences and love for the game.

Was seeing Otis Rush for the first time your primary introduction to blues music? If so, how has that shaped the performer you’ve become today?

My introduction to blues happened much younger through my father’s record collection. He didn’t have a huge blues collection, but he had a decent collection of old country music and some blues. The clearest memory I have of that is with Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, and all of Hank and Patsy’s material was deeply steeped in blues, as you know if you’ve studied those artists at all. I experienced Otis Rush for the first time when I was 14. I was so moved, I was literally taken hostage by his performance that night. How glorious for a young girl to have that experience. When I say it connected with me, I can’t fully express the significance of what that means. -Janiva Magness

Can you recognize that kind of spark or connection in people that are watching you perform?

What I sometimes see, which I’m wildly grateful for, is the light go on in somebody’s eye. I seek that connection with the audience. And there is nothing like seeing the light come on in people when I am singing and they are recognizing the depth of the joy or sorrow or rage that I’m expressing. -JM

In the title of your latest album, Stronger For It, there seems to be an indicator there that music has been an opportunity for you to experience a catharsis or to use it as a platform for coping or change. Would you say that is accurate?

I would say that it is 300 percent. That is spot on. There are moments of clarity; moments where it feels like a door opens that I didn’t even know was there, or the clouds go away and something is sometimes excruciatingly clear. I consider those moments a gift. –JM

You have also had the opportunity to reinterpret other artist’s songs and output. Do you choose those songs or do they choose you? How do you make them yours?

Most of my career I’ve been an interpreter of other people’s songs. I look for material that resonates for me. I’m interested in trying to articulate the songs that resonate with me. I finally figured out what my job really is, and it is about connection. It is about human connection. The vehicle for that is the music or song. I know when I hear Freddy King sing, “What are you going to do when the welfare turns its back on you?” that he isn’t bullshitting. I know what he feels like. I know that level of dejection. Hearing Freddy King say that, I thought, “Man, he knows how I feel. I’m not the only one.” In that moment, or the next day, or the next week, it is a little bit better for me. That’s what the job is and it is a privilege to do that. -JM

One of the other things it seems that impassions you in your life is being an ambassador and advocate for foster care organizations. Do you get feedback from people who say that you’ve provided them with hope or inspiration by sharing your experiences? 

I cannot tell you how profound that has been for me. It has been wild in the best way to get to a place in my life where I was willing to talk about some of my early experiences because maybe it might help someone else who was in the journey. I’ve been graced with many experiences of watching that light go on in someone else and to watch the ice melt in a kid who has been damaged, or who is extremely well defended emotionally, is beautiful. –JM

Dialogue is a change agent…

Exactly. –JM

Janiva Magness will perform on Friday, June 14 at Canal Street Tavern, 308 E. First St. Doors at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 the day of the show. For more information, visit, janivamagness.com.


Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@daytoncitypaper.com.


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