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Cover Story: His Everything

Justin Jeffre's journey from Pop star to media activist

By Gregory Flannery · June 20th, 2007 · Cover Story
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  I Am So Tired of Feeling Powerless
Woodrow J. Hinton

'I Am So Tired of Feeling Powerless'



His favorite color is blue. His favorite foods are pizza, donuts and Skyline chili. Reese Witherspoon is his favorite actress, and Otis Redding recorded his favorite song, "Try a Little Tenderness."

It's not hard to get to know Justin Jeffre. Just look at the various fan Web sites from the days when he was a Pop music sensation. On his band's "official" site, 98degrees.com, is a section called "The Guys," where you will learn that Jeffre's eyes are blue; his birthday is Feb. 25, 1973; his astrological sign is Pisces; and his favorite flower is the rose.

Other fan sites provide a glimpse of the adolescent frenzy that Jeffre and his band mates provoked in the late 1990s.

"Hey, I'm a new member to the club and I just wanted to say hi!" one girl wrote. "I love Justin!!!!!! He's so HOT and SEXY, and I have to defend him every day at school! That's what I'm known for at school! If there's anyone from California, e-mail me!!!"

But who says "boy band" fan sites can't predict the future? Alongside lists of "Vitals" and "Faves," the band's Web page includes quotations from the stars themselves. Looking back nearly 10 years later, one statement by Jeffre now seems prescient.

"My goal is to be big enough where we can really have an impact on certain things," he said. "I always want to make a difference."

It turns out he meant it.

He didn't leave
When Jeffre announced in 2005 that he would run for mayor of Cincinnati, few took his candidacy seriously. As a multi-platinum recording artist, he at least offered relief from the sense of fatigue that marked the final years of Mayor Charlie Luken's tenure. But Jeffre had no political experience and no base of support among people old enough to vote. When he tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get VH-1 to do a reality TV show about his campaign, it confirmed many people's suspicions that the campaign was a lark.

Jeffre complained about difficulty getting news media to cover his campaign, aside from sneering at his transition from celebrity to politician. He managed to participate in a campaign debate only by crashing it and winning the grant of a few minutes of another candidate's speaking time (see "$75 and 500 Signatures," issue of Aug. 24-30, 2005).

In the primary election, he finished in fifth place with just 730 votes -- less than 2 percent of the total.

The electoral defeat was no surprise, but Jeffre's response was. Apparently no one told him after the election that he was supposed to be embarrassed and go back to what he did best: being a Pop star. Instead Jeffre stayed in Cincinnati, where he's spent the past two years in grassroots political work and independent media.

"As the campaign ended, it turned out he was serious," says Jason Haap, the founder of the Cincinnati Beacon Web site. "Everyone expected him to go away, like this was just for a VH-1 reality show."

Armed with a video camera and collaborating with the tech-savvy Haap, Jeffre has become a serious member of the local independent-media movement. His work has included chasing politicians who don't want to answer his questions -- and taping them as they try to walk away from the camera; filming a contentious election in the Cincinnati Chapter of the NAACP, where he was jostled by people who didn't want him there; and spending up to five hours taping an anti-war sit-in at U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot's local office.

"Through the Cincinnati Beacon, we've tried to create a place for divergent views and voices that don't usually make it in corporate and mainstream media," Jeffre says.

He paraphrases Bill Moyers.

"Corporate America no longer owns the copyright to America's story," Jeffre says. "We're going to write it ourselves."

Allusions to Huey Newton of the Black Panthers ("Everything is political") and Moyers often pop up in conversations with Jeffre. It was easy to ridicule his mayoral campaign for presumptuousness, but it is clear that he has given politics a lot of thought. His work in independent media has been hands-on and committed.

Jeffre knows some have found the career change hard to accept at face value, but he says he has been interested in political and social issues since long before he and his classmates from the Cincinnati School for the Creative and Performing Arts formed a band and moved to Los Angeles.

"People sort of ask, 'When did you become political?' " he says. "I think going to Performing Arts with kids from different races and from all over the city and going to school in Over-the-Rhine -- I remember looking out the window and seeing abandoned buildings; then it was like a Third World country for a kid from the suburbs -- those are lessons you don't really know what to think of at the time but, as you grow in the world, they stick with you."

Indeed his period of stardom deepened his political sensibilities, Jeffre says.

Performing in Indonesia and Philippines, when he got past the mobs of fans, he couldn't avoid seeing the desperate poverty in which so many of them lived.

"Southeast Asia was one of our best markets," he says. "Indonesia was one of those places that, walking out of the airport, we couldn't even get out. But then to see the poverty there was really a lesson."

Jeffre says he has found being on the working side of the camera ultimately more fulfilling than being the object of the lens.

"I was a celebrity," he says. "I was quoted by Rolling Stone. But the questions were never, 'What do you think about poverty in America?' It was always, 'What's your favorite food?' and about the music. I wanted to use this platform I've been given to do something more than sell more records and be a celebrity.

"I am so tired of feeling powerless. Even being in a group and being pictured in magazines, I still felt powerless about things that really matter."

'Break the chains'
Local reporters' treatment of his mayoral campaign only sharpened Jeffre's understanding of what's wrong with contemporary media. It's no accident that he has concentrated his efforts on what he and Haap call "media activism." They believe the dominant media ill serve the country's political health.

"We don't get real reporting on the diversity of opinion on critical issues," Jeffre says. "If we did, people wouldn't have this helpless, powerless feeling that enables them to rationalize their apathy."

Do-it-yourself journalism is the best antidote to a media industry corrupted by corporate profit making, according to Jeffre.

"Somebody can take a video camera and change the world," he says. "We need to see more citizens getting engaged like that, and the only way it's going to happen is if they see others doing it."

That's where Jeffre comes in: videotaping a variety of political events, writing articles for the Cincinnati Beacon's Web site and its new monthly newspaper, he has become a fixture at committee meetings, press conferences and protests throughout the city.

Jeffre marveled at the disparity between the news coverage given to two recent local political events: a West Virginia neo-Nazi group's threatened march through Over-the-Rhine and a large rally by the Justice for Janitors union campaign.

"We looked at just six rednecks from West Virginia who say they're going to come to town -- and they get all kinds of ink," Jeffre says. "But then you have hundreds of people in our own community who are standing up for themselves and they do it in a very powerful, creative way, with drums and a guy in a big eagle costume -- I was shocked to see how little coverage that got.

"I'd love to debate whoever makes this charge of liberal media bias, because there's no evidence of it."

Haap, who calls himself the Dean of Cincinnati, compares Jeffre to both Joseph Campbell, a renowned philosopher, and Avtar Gill, a familiar gadabout at local political events, best known for hand-decorating blank baseball caps with slogans and giving them to political figures of almost any stripe.

"I once watched Joseph Campbell's series on myths," Haap says. "He said he could probably never have the experience of a saint but he probably knew more about all the world's religions than anyone else. I think that's true of Justin. He will never know what it's like to stick with one thing for years and years but he has been at more political events than anybody but Avtar Gill.

"What he brings to the conversation is firsthand experience with a broad range of grassroots activity. What he's trying to do is make more people aware of what others are doing."

He's trying to do more than improve media and access to it; he wants to do the same with the political system. Just as he criticizes news media for being concentrated in the hands of too few corporations, he is contemptuous of the two largest political parties.

"People are tired of lip service and this three-shells-and-no-pea game," he says. "Now that the Democrats are in the majority, people are saying they're full of crap, too. I think it's good. I hope people wake up to the fact that you can't reform these two corporate parties. I want to help people break the chains of the two-party corporate dictatorship."

In politics and in media, independence seems to be the operative word for Jeffre.

"The biggest problem I see is that there are not enough voices represented, especially the voices of the under-served and overlooked," he says. "We have a political system that's dominated by big money and special interests, and we need to change it. I think people actually can change it."

Cool to care
Jeffre, who grew up in Finneytown, lives in Clifton Heights. He reads books on social science, political science and history.

"I don't really read fiction," he says. "I've never been interested in it."

He declined to be photographed at his home for this story and doesn't go into detail about his personal life. He dated someone for five years and still feels the sting of the breakup.

"It was really serious," he says. "Unfortunately it was kind of long distance and didn't work out. But I have fond memories and great admiration for this person."

The couple broke up in the middle of his mayoral campaign, got back together for a few years and recently ended the relationship.

"It's devastating," Jeffre says. "But when I feel that, I try to focus my energy on activism and social justice."

He doesn't seem to pine for what some would consider his glory days.

"Being a celebrity would be nice if you could turn it on and off," he says. "I like being out of the spotlight. There are days when you just want to cut the grass and not worry about what you're wearing and who might be watching."

He occasionally sits in with friends' bands and plays Blues harmonica. He and the rest of 98 Degrees might get together again but Jeffre is nonchalant about the prospect.

"Two of the guys have kids now, and one of them recently got divorced," he says. "At some point we're going to do some music. I'm really passionate about it but right now it's not my main focus. To a large extent, I feel like I've already lived that dream, and there are other dreams I want to pay attention to."

Unfazed by his performance in the 2005 election, Jeffre believes he could win election to city council -- if he wanted to.

"I think I could win a council race with a lot less money than most candidates," he says. "I think I could win on $60,000. But the idea of raising that money to have signs saying, 'Justin Jeffre' -- I'm not really comfortable with that. The money could be spent on things much more important.

"We can't continue to allow our elections to be about who's raising the most money and is therefore ahead in the polls. We want elections to be about real issues. We want candidates to give us real answers to the tough questions: How are you going to vote on the new marijuana ordinance? What is your position on the Collaborative Agreement? Do you think it's OK for big money to decide who the candidates are?"

Jeffre is so wary of the two major parties and of the role of money in politics that he starts to worry when someone who shares many of his views starts to make headway in the system. Jeffre says Brian Garry, who made his reputation as a dissident, is now "hanging out with jail pushers like Portune and Pepper, playing the game to get the Democratic endorsement, raising $100,000 to be a serious candidate -- I have some concerns."

Jeffre doesn't rule out another bid for office someday but he doesn't plan to enter the council race this year.

Haap says he believes Jeffre is enjoying his nearly full-time volunteer work in independent media.

"The point of a vibrant media is to have arguments played out in print," Haap says. "What better way to do that than to take bold positions and get the arguments going? Justin gets that. He's really helped me bring a clearer vision politically to what we do.

"He's helped me focus a little bit. He's got an amazing patience. In the years that we've been working together, he'll talk about, 'We need to get this to happen.' It doesn't happen in a month, and I figure it's pointless because nobody's going to get it. But he says, 'No, we just have to wait a bit.' "

The key to making change in our politics and our media is to simply become active, according to Jeffre.

"For me, running for mayor was -- sometimes you have to jump in the fire," he says. "That's how it was with 98 Degrees. Sometimes you have to jump in the fire and say, 'Hey, we're going to go out to L.A. and stay a year.'

"I hope people find a way to express their view in whatever medium they can. If people ask, 'What can I do?' I say, 'That's for you to decide. But just know that you can do something. We are good at making excuses for why we're not doing anything. It's easy to say, 'I'm just one person. I can't do anything.' But as Ralph Nader says, 'Half of democracy is just showing up.' "

Say what you will about the quality of Jeffre's music, his mayoral campaign, his videography. But he's definitely shown up -- and people are noticing, according to Haap.

"There have been a couple of phases of being out with Justin when he's being recognized," Haap says. "At first, we'd be in a bar and someone would say, 'Hey, aren't you the guy from 98 Degrees?' Then there was this awkward little Pop music celebrity moment.

"Then a few months ago a girl said, 'Hey, you look familiar,' and I thought it was going to be more of that. But then she said, 'I think I saw you at a protest.' Now he's being recognized not because he was in a multi-platinum band. Now he's being recognized as someone involved in political movements."

If Jeffre can transfer to independent media or third-party politics -- he belongs to the Green Party of Southwest Ohio and the Cincinnati Charter Committee -- some measure of the excitement he once brought to Pop music, he might make a real difference in Cincinnati.

"It should become fashionable and cool to care about your community and try to make it better," he says. "If we can envision another world and are willing to work for it and sacrifice for it, another world is possible." ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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