JJ, 32, never took music lessons a single day in his life and now writes his own songs and performs all around the world. His goal as he puts it, is to “move your soul”. A two time cancer survivor, JJ has not been afraid to readjust his dreams based on how his health treats him. He tells his life story almost as if in one single breath. He spoke these words to me two weeks ago in a café in Duluth, Georgia.
JJ: So, yeah, about the life story. Basically, my heart is supposed to give out in my 30’s. I’m going to be 33 this year, that’s in two months.
I was diagnosed with a terminal illness at age 17. They gave me 2 months to live. And I did an experimental chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. I was in-patient, like in the hospital for 4 and half months. Its a long time, you know, to be in complete isolation. And then, it was a miracle when it worked, because, I actually walked out of the hospital.
All my dreams, up until that time in my life, was West Point. (Wiki: The United States Military Academy Preparatory School, sometimes referred to as West Point Prep, is a preparatory school for the United States Military Academy.) That was my dream. And I had my conditional nomination for the United States Military Academy in New York. But, I got disqualified when I got out of the hospital for health reasons.
So, I had to adjust my dream. The age when I first got sick was 17, which is the cut off for pediatric oncology. So, I actually got to see a lot of kids come through the same unit but most of them were in pretty bad shape. You know, if you’ve come to Johns Hopkins, its already pretty bad. So, a lot of them ended up dying. So, I thought, “Maybe I’ll go from being a Hopkins patient to being a Hopkins doctor. Maybe this is my calling.” So, I followed that route and ended up going to Johns Hopkins university to get my undergraduate degree. But, even going in, I was actually a writing major. I love writing. I love doing it now, as a musician and a song writer.
But, I ended up doing pre-Med in Hopkins and in my third year of under grad, I relapsed and got sick again. And, so at that time, I underwent the same exact chemotherapy as the first patient in history to try that treatment twice. And I did it, it worked a second time. It was crazy, because going in the first time, the odds were 7% and the second time, its even lower. You know what I mean?
So, when I got out, ABC did a story on me, it was all crazy. Basically, first time when you’re young, its like, “Fix me, so I can go out and play.” Its like you have a kid’s mentality. But, when you’re a little bit older, even though I was still young at 22, you’ve known failure a little bit. You weren’t able to do some of the things you wanted to do, you understand that life is very different for you.
But, through my faith, I believe that God has designed everything like this intentionally to not satisfy you, so that we try to seek satisfaction in him. So, something to that affect, I came to the understanding that this was all for some purpose. But, even then, I’m human. So, coming out of the hospital for a second time, I started looking for jobs. I worked in health care in the Johns Hopkins university, for their medical institute. I had an amazing job, did that for a while, like for 5 years. And then I applied for Med school / Business school. But throughout that whole time, it was always about comfort and security.
Like, why Hopkins? Because it had the best health insurance in the world. That was comfort and security for me. But, as I turned 30, I thought, “You know what, no amount of money in the world will make me happy and fulfilled. No amount of letters after my name would do that.” And life is short. And for me its not about when I leave this earth, coz, God knows when I came to this earth, God knows when I’ll leave. And if it is in my 30’s then I better hurry up and start living, other than waiting to slowly die.
And so, I just got to a place where I told myself that I’ll just go all in. So, I pretty much did that. I put in my notice at work. Cleaned up everything, got rid of all my possessions, packed the rest in two suitcases and moved to New York city at the beginning of 2015 and I’ve been couch surfing and floor surfing (sleeping on the floor), and have been homeless for two and half years now. I’ve been able to travel all over the world, you can see my tour schedule on my website and you can see all the past retroactively. (Shows me his website on his laptop.)
I’ve been to all these places, speaking at schools, speaking at the White House, and this is all going back all the way to the beginning of 2015. I’ve been able to play many, many concerts all over the world. I put out my first album last year. I had three songs that were considered for the Grammys from my debut album, which is unheard of. And even before that, other opportunities like the Atlanta Symphony Hall, art galleries, it doesn’t matter, I was everywhere. Because if you just focus and let music limit you, then you’ll have limited opportunities. But, if you are just like, “I’m going to do whatever, I’ll let the world come to me.”
That’s what happened to me with acting. I actually got really lucky when Kevin Spacey found a video of me singing and he brought me on, I didn’t have to audition as a principal actor in one of the episodes for House of Cards. And that opened up more doors. I’m officially a Screen Actors and Guild member. (I ask him to show me his SAG card and he laughs as he shows it.)
Its actually funny, because people ask me and I say, “Yeah, I actually have a SAG card,” and show it to them. I also have my Film Institute card with my picture on it. I just wrapped up a lead role in a short film this summer. But, that’s the crazy thing. I don’t deserve this. I didn’t work to get any of this. All I did was, just let my world open up to possibilities.
“You really should have nothing to lose before you’re able to do something great.”
And that’s why you do what you do with your interviews. You’ve come to realize that everyone has a story and I’m not the only one. The reason why I do this is also to tell my story. Its not just about the music, I want it to inspire people and give them an opportunity to take a leap of faith and go pursue their dreams. I’ve three friends in the past one year who have quit their jobs, they were doctors, pharmacists. One of them now is a wedding photographer making 200,000$ a year, and traveling all over the world and just got put on Martha Stewart’s magazine on the page cover.
Honestly, you know what, they were going to wait all their life for the right time. But, there’s no right time. You just have to make the first leap and adjust your dreams accordingly. You really should have nothing to lose before you’re able to do something great.
Note: Before you rate this episode, please consider if you would’ve been so open and authentic about your own life. Earlier episodes available at The Anonymous Manifesto.