by Lauren Means | photos courtesy Edward Bodnar Photography
We all have that friend who dabbles in a little bit of everything and has their hand in many different projects. A self-declared “artistprenuer,” Sunny St. James is that friend. She’s an MC/songwriter who also owns a couple of small businesses. Sunny’s a master loctician, an herbalist and has developed an organic hair care product. She stays busy but being self-employed allows her flexibility to pursue other projects. “I’m grateful because my work allows me the time I need to work on my music,” said Sunny.
Originally from Atlanta, she came to visit Nashville at the urging of a friend. “I was actually homeless for nearly six months and at the time — it was the worst experience,” she said. It was during this period of homelessness that she started her business, Dred Doc. She reluctantly came to visit her friend in Nashville, met her first Nashville client, and discovered Nashville had a great vibe. Within a year she made the move.
“When I first got here, Nashville was mostly centered around country music. However, as I dove into the scene, I realized it was more diverse and there was a bit of music magic hiding behind the scenes of this music city. Nashville is a songwriter’s heaven. There’s no place on earth like Music Row,” noted Sunny.
She said Atlanta, on the other hand, is a huge melting pot of different genres blending. “It’s heaven for the artist. It’s all about the city because people push their artists to succeed. So much so, the entire industry has its ear to Atlanta’s underground music scene. So, if you can make the clubs jump and the streets love you, you’re ahead of the game,” Sunny explained.
Like many artists, Sunny got her start in music by singing in church and school when she was a child. “My seventh-grade chorus teacher was a huge inspiration. That woman evidently saw something in me. I had zero confidence. I could rap well, but never thought I was good enough to sing,” Sunny recalled. Her teacher had her sing lead solos in front of the entire school and sing duets with, according to Sunny, the best singer in school. This teacher was also the one who encouraged Sunny to audition for the North Atlanta School of Performing Arts where she did get accepted. Sunny said, “I knew then that whatever she saw in me or thought about me had to be legit.”
As she got older, Sunny started doing talent shows, open mic nights and won a few competitions before her relocation to Nashville. “I made the cast for a TV show about songwriters which later got dropped by the network. That’s when I really started to take music seriously,” said Sunny.
As a member of the LGBT+ community, she’s received a warm reception as an artist in most places. “Everyone respects the muscle behind the LGBT+ community. I’m just thankful to be grandfathered in on the perks, I guess. I know I’ve gotten a few major gigs probably because the music is really dope, and I say that humbly, but even more so, everyone really wants to be inclusive,” said Sunny.
That doesn’t mean she’s always had an easy time breaking into certain regions. “Now in Nashville, I’m a true minority and I hate to say it like that. But I found it to be like pulling teeth to get support or even consideration from some of the LGBT+ organizations. For a couple of years, I reached out and got ignored. I can’t lie, I felt rejected,” she recalled. Sunny gave up on the LGBT+ scene in Nashville and started traveling and doing shows elsewhere. “I won a few competitions and landed a couple of soundtrack placements,” she said.
This year, however, she landed a spot on the Main Stage at Nashville Pride. “I have a 40-minute set which is so AWESOME! I’m like thank you so much for just noticing me! I felt like I’d tackled a beast,” said Sunny. While Nashville Pride is currently postponed until the Fall, she’s hopeful COVID won’t stand in her way and is planning to give the best show possible.
The current pandemic has allowed Sunny to start working on herself. “I was so happy for the break at first. Then social media and the news had me with anxiety on 100. I was trippin’. Until I unplugged and started working on my spiritual life which allowed me to calm myself, reconnect with God and regain focus,” she said.
It also provided her the opportunity to start a live songwriting session on social media called “Write With Me Wednesday” where she creates a song from scratch with her viewers and they can contribute to the session.
A Family History
Sunny is also using social media to open the conversation around racism in America with the hashtag #AskThem. She shares the story of her family’s experience of being Black in America:
“My great-grandmother Ida Mae Johnson was born in 1910. She was the first generation born free in my family. She grew up in the era of legal slavery AKA sharecropping. Her father wanted to move them from the plantation, but he needed some paper from his previous owner. He was told it would cost him $15 before he could have them. So, he worked and eventually saved or borrowed that money, which was a lot back then, and he prepared his family to leave. My great-grandmother said she was around eight years old at the time. He went to his former owners to pay for his “papers to freedom.” They took the money and murdered him in front of his family, leaving them stuck on the plantation.”
At 13 or 14, Ida eventually married and had children who also became sharecroppers. “Her husband was murdered by white men and the cycle repeated,” Sunny said. She remarried and had a total of 10 children, one of which was also lynched in the schoolhouse where they all attended school and they had to continue to go every day after that.
“Eventually, my grandmother had to drop out of school in sixth grade to help work in fields. She later met and married my granddad and had four kids. They all were eventually able to move to Atlanta where my mom and her siblings grew up and she later had me and my siblings.”
Sunny’s grandmother is only 79 years old so this is something that happened not too long ago. “Look at the emotional trauma, the undiagnosed and untreated PTSD, depression, and oppression. Then look at the strength, blood, sweat and tears that went into basic survival to get us here. That’s just my family’s story. We each have these traumatizing stories,” said Sunny. She said the goal is to live a normal life for a change without fear and with the ability to heal. “We don’t even know our full potential because there has never been room for growth. At the end of the day, we aren’t looking for handouts or sympathy [just] a little empathy and to be treated like people with feelings,” said Sunny.
This is why she started #AskThem. By trying to just understand one another and understand someone else’s experiences, we can make a change. “If you happen to be white and you read this, please understand that almost every Black person in America has experienced some degree of racism. Almost every Black person in America has either been or knows someone who has been harassed by a cop or murdered by a cop. If you don’t believe me, they are your friends #AskThem,” said Sunny.
From Betty White to Aquarius
When she’s not working on music or one of her other many ventures, Sunny spends time renovating Betty White, her retro RV. The plan is to downsize for a tiny lifestyle and go fulltime RV living. Friends are pitching in on this project and you can follow them on Instagram or Youtube under the user name @FriendCruzin.
Sunny is currently working on new music and will release new singles soon with plans for the full project, “Aquarius” to be released this year. As a bonus, she wants to give Focus readers a gift. “Follow me, post a pic of this magazine, or a selfie using the #AskThem and #FocusMidTenn on either Instagram or Facebook and I will give a free download link to one of my singles.”