Sebastian Jones rolls up the left sleeve of his red cardigan sweater to unveil the likeness of the planet Saturn — and over it, tattooed in big banner letters, "THINK." It's a nod to the astronomer the East Nashville teen once wanted to be, and the star he's becoming in spoken-word performing circles.
"It's for my motto, 'Think Spacely,' " says Jones, 18, admiring the handiwork of the Smokin' Guns tattoo shop. A round gray hat frames his long, slender face, offset by sparkling ear studs; he looks relaxed, royal. "It's about people who want to be different and accept new ideas. I have an addiction to space. Everything I do has some kind of celestial reference."
Space was one of Jones' fascinations as a kid growing up near Cleveland Street. The other was words. One of 10 brothers and sisters who grew up in separate homes, he wrote his first poem in first grade. "I remember it like it was tomorrow," he says. In third grade, a kid introduced him to the raps of The Hot Boys, a no-no in his Christian home. By fifth grade, he was rapping himself.
It wasn't until age 12, however, that he joined the YMCA's Bridge Program. At 14, he got involved with the spoken-word project Youth Speaks Nashville (now SouthernWord.org), and became passionate about poetry. Starting in 11th grade, Jones spent his lunch hour every Friday at Hunters Lane High School running an open-mic show for budding performance poets.
"That used to be slam-packed," remembers Jones. Videos of his performances started appearing online, charting his development as he began to incorporate movement and shadow play into pieces as wrenching as "Danceless Mother" — a direct address to his mother, recorded just a month after her death in February 2011.
"The last time I seen my mother breathing," Jones recites in the piece, watching his shadow uncoil on the wall behind him, "she was hooked up to a machine keeping her alive."
By the time he appeared last fall at Vanderbilt's State of the Word, in a performance activist/filmmaker Molly Secours describes as "electrifying," Jones had performed in competitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, while keeping a presence at Music City venues such as Jazz & Jokes and the Soul Food Poetry Cafe. Jones is currently taking the semester off from TSU, hoping to spread the word about Nashville's poetry scene.
Asked if he plays a musical instrument, Jones smiles and runs his long, tapered fingers in an imaginary piano glissando.
"I play the tongue," he says.
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