Photography by Moey Jedz
There are a plethora of Cleveland musical artists throughout the city covering a far range of genres, but not all can say they are homegrown talent. These artists grew up on sweltering summer nights in red brick homes with Indians on the television or have frozen orange and brown limbs off down by the lake.
Coming up in these surroundings builds courage and a work ethic far unseen in many corners of the world. This is where we find Jalen “J-Work” Chesney, who works for a non-profit in Greater Cleveland and builds a veritable I-X center of bars in the evenings at a quaint spot just outside the city.
J-Work, who first started his musical career at a family reunion at 13 years old, has begun to make his way in the music industry by remaining core to those Cleveland roots. He has made the jump into the musical world with no looking back after almost 10 years down the road.
One thing that stands out about J-Work, ironically, but perhaps designed, is his work ethic. Notebooks and sound equipment abound in his home just outside Cleveland. Like most of us growing up in Cleveland, it was not a fairytale story and there was struggle throughout his youth.
“I moved so many times [around Cleveland] that I couldn’t count it on my hands and feet by the time I was 20,” J-Work says.
This lead to him realize from a young age that he would have to find his own path to success. After demonstrating natural talent in a lyrical dynamic put to backyard beats, J-Work started to hone his craft using Cleveland and his family as his inspiration. On the back of his new album, Influence, he reflects on the competitions he’s won, first tours, and where the future of musical work goes from here based in Cleveland.
“The Coast 2 Coast live competition in Cleveland sent me to Miami, that was my first experience with ‘the jump,’” J-Work explains. “None of us were ready for that trip. Just a group of seven packed into my grandmother’s van, ready to make music.”
In the world of hip-hop, there are a number of factors to determine success, but according to J-Work, “the people that make it are consistent. You have to really center in, travel, and put yourself out there in order to be successful in this industry.” He adds, “You gotta have a team too.”
While the consistency of a work ethic is critically important to the craft, as he states, he also tells me that the ability to self-promote, believe in yourself, and dream big is almost as important.
“If you ain’t the shit to yourself, how can you be seen as the shit to others,” J-Work asks.
As a testament to this, his new album is now available on just about every platform you can imagine, but J-Work warns that the proliferation of the online utility is a bit of a double-edged sword. He mentions how some artists can find success through this online promotion, but you have to be consistent with your brand and skills.
“You have to get your social media presence moving, especially now, because if your social media isn’t moving, you’re not moving,” he says.
J-Work is a breath of fresh air in the content of his music. Too often in today’s music scene, catchy, simplistic lyrics or beats pander to the lowest common denominator. However, J-Work and his producer Tre Smith understand that creating a whole song to last past the next Twitter cycle requires depth and variation. As he puts it, “I got a song for everybody.”
If you are a Cleveland native, J-Work’s lyrics find a sentimental tone that celebrates the upward trend of the CLE on a national scene. The new album is truly the result of hard work by a product from “The Land.”