Jessi Zazu used to be very good at telling her body what not to feel.
Zazu spent the majority of her time between the ages of 17 and 27 touring with Those Darlins, a country-fried rock band that helped define the distorted twang of East Nashville cool. From their self-titled LP in 2009 to the dissolution of the band in early 2016, Those Darlins followed a physically demanding daily routine: Anytime they weren't onstage, they were crashing on a floor somewhere, bruising limbs while wedging amps and guitar cases into the back of the van, and generally functioning on laughably insufficient amounts of sleep. If Zazu wasn't feeling well, which happened more and more in the last year of the band, she had to push past it. Sick days are luxuries few can afford on a rock and roll schedule.
In between tour dates, she struggled to find a doctor who could explain her worsening symptoms. “No one could get me in,” Zazu recalls. “Everyone was full. They weren’t taking any new patients, or they weren’t taking my insurance — or they could get me in, but it’d be months... It was really hard to navigate the medical system. It was like trying to find your way through this really difficult labyrinth."
It wasn’t until Those Darlins came off the road for good that she found out just how sick she was. When she got home to Nashville after the band's final tour in March 2016, she went to Planned Parenthood, who sent her to an emergency room; soon afterward, a gynecologist diagnosed her with cervical cancer, which has since metastasized. “In some ways, growing up on the road taught me to ignore my body in order to keep going,” Zazu says. “I knew something was not right, but I never would’ve guessed it was this serious."
Zazu had signed up for Obamacare months earlier, and she credits the Affordable Care Act for saving her life. “I reached my deductible on the first day of cancer treatment, basically,” she says. “I almost didn’t even sign up for it. I was just thanking my lucky stars that I did. … I went all those years on the road, really wearing on my body. I couldn’t even count the amount of times I was really sick [on tour] and how many times I played when I probably should’ve been at the hospital. It was so relieving to know I had that safety net.”
She still had staggering costs associated with her treatment even after Obamacare lessened her financial burden, so she launched a YouCaring campaign. Zazu broke the news of her cancer in a video for the fundraiser in December 2016, which featured her staring down the camera as her head was shaved. She wore a plain white tee with “AIN’T AFRAID” scrawled across the front in her own handwriting, and friends of hers hanging around the video shoot suggested she sell the shirts to further chip away at the cost of her care. (Full disclosure: I bought one, and you should, too.)
She says she's floored by the compassion of her fans, who have given nearly $50,000 so far to Jessi’s Cancer Fighting Fund. “It wasn’t just that people were giving money or buying the shirts," she says. "People were writing me and telling me about where they had met me and had a meaningful experience, or writing about what my music meant to them. All those years that I had been touring — you drive all day, you’re exhausted, you might’ve had a sold-out show in New York, but now you’re in Pittsburgh, and there’s 20 people. You feel like maybe nobody cares. All those times I was sick on the road and I pushed through ... it suddenly made me feel like it was worth it, you know? Not because people gave me money; it was worth it because it meant something to people."
A passionate activist for social justice, Zazu was out in the streets for Nashville’s Women’s March in January, hoisting a “WE DESERVE BETTER” sign and later posting printable flyers for followers to fax to their Congresspeople of choice. "These issues that weren’t very personal to me have become extremely personal,” she says. “Especially the attacks on Planned Parenthood — they’re really disheartening. I have that moment in my head when I could not get in to see another doctor, and there’s something really scary and wrong happening with me, and the only place that I could get in was Planned Parenthood. If I hadn’t been able to walk in there and count on there being excellent care and people that I could trust to help me, then I don’t know where I’d be."
The help from the YouCaring campaign has also made it possible for Zazu to keep making music in between regular hospital visits. She and former bandmate Linwood Regensburg continued to write together following the group’s split, and they’re in the process of recording their first album. “Honestly — if I couldn’t make music, and do art, and write, that’s what keeps me upright, you know what I mean?” she says. “When things get terrible like they are…” She laughs. “Taking the terrible, and making it into some sort of art, that’s the only thing that gives me hope. I don’t have any answers to any of these problems, really. All I know is that’s what makes me feel better.”