On September 12, Jessi Wariner — known to many as Jessi Zazu, the Nashville-based rocker, artist, and activist who came to prominence as a singer and guitarist with Those Darlins — died at the age of 28. She was surrounded by friends and family at Nashville’s Centennial Hospital when her heart stopped beating and her vocal cords lay still. After 16 months of fighting the cancer that took over her cervix before metastasizing and leaving its lethal imprints on her lymph nodes and her brain, her body, small and stubborn, stopped.
In her final year of life, Jessi threw herself into her passions with just as dedicated a fervor as she did before her diagnosis. She wrote music, painted and drew, used her voice and her platform to advocate for change, and encouraged everyone in her orbit to do the same. Anyone who knew Jessi — from the kids she met and mentored at Nashville’s Southern Girls Rock Camp, to the crowds across the world who came out to see Those Darlins perform, to the musicians she joined onstage, to the organizers she worked alongside — felt lucky to know that warm, kinetic force, a woman whose mind never turned off and required multiple mediums to shape her brilliant whims.
When I met her in 2010, in the backyard of a barbecue joint in Austin during South By Southwest, I was struck by that wild-eyed gal, a vessel for songs so much bigger than herself whose pealing laughter and sincerity were felt in every verse. Those Darlins put out three full-length albums on their own label, Oh Wow Dang, between 2009 and 2013, with a smattering of 7-inches and EPs in between. All offered unapologetic mission statements that snarled and squinted without fucking up their eyeliner, from the side-eyed dare of “Wild One” off their self-titled debut to “Mystic Mind,” which Jessi treated as a psychedelic meditation. I hit the road with Those Darlins for a run of shows in 2014, and looked forward to the spell she’d cast with “Mystic Mind” each night, staring down the audience while conjuring that din of chords before giving in to her own hypnosis. If eyes are the windows to the soul, Jessi’s were flung open with abandon, inviting all who dared to climb over the sill and lose themselves in their searching gaze that ignited upon resting on a phrase or form with potential. I never did catch her blink.
One of these anthems, “Ain’t Afraid,” off 2013’s Blur the Line, found a new life as Jessi’s cancer fight song at the tail end of 2016. A screamer that gave her the motto for the crowdfunding that would offset her staggering medical bills, “Ain’t Afraid” was tragically psychic, in that Jessi sang of tumors and the threat of oblivion long before cancer came into the picture. Jessi, ever the optimist, knew that the verdict was bleak, but the refuge she sought in her work buoyed her spirits. In an interview with MTV News last spring, she earnestly spoke of her projects and the spiritual fuel they provided.
“Honestly — if I couldn’t make music, and do art, and write, that’s what keeps me upright, you know what I mean?” she told me. “Taking the terrible, and making it into some sort of art, that’s the only thing that gives me hope.
“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,” she continued. The impact of the Ain’t Afraid campaign went far beyond financial for her, and offered an unexpected affirmation that her art gave plenty to people who were eager to return the favor.
“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. I guess I was really lucky in the sense that I got to see that it meant something.”
It’s for this reason that writing that Jessi Zazu lost her battle with cancer feels like a betrayal, a vulgar compromise of a half-truth that implies cancer won this ruthlessly unfair fight. Cancer did not win when Jessi, terrified at the rate at which her body was hemorrhaging blood after her nightly rock shows on tour, went to the doctor to figure out what the hell was going on with her insides. Cancer did not win when it settled in her cervix and she began a treatment plan. Cancer did not win when when she shaved her head and embraced baldness long before the chemo didn’t give her a choice in the matter. Cancer did not win when the physical strains of treatment and the psychological duress of her incurable condition didn’t snuff out her impulse to create, but fueled it. Cancer did not win when she sketched portraits, designed book covers, drew everything from her cat to the Confederate monuments she longed to see torn down, and mounted gallery showings that displayed her vibrant paintings alongside those of her mother. Cancer did not win when she showed up to peacefully protest with those at Nashville’s Women’s March — with signs she made, because of course — nor did it win when she showed up at She’s A Rebel, an evening of music celebrating the girl groups she loved, and sang her heart out.
Cancer didn’t win a battle on September 12, because cancer doesn’t take all of that away — the songs, the brushstrokes, the hours of conversation in the van spent on Patti Smith’s Just Kids and the art she consumed so voraciously, the work, the love, and the lasting impact of all of the above. Cancer killed her, but it cannot claim Jessi Zazu.
Jessi's friends and family are raising money through the Jessi Zazu Memorial Fund for her memorial service and to offset her remaining medical expenses. For more information, click here.