Every year around this time, Qnotes takes on the inspiring responsibility of selecting a Person of the Year. With so many meaningful contributions and so much talent in our community, it’s not an easy task to select one individual – yet we have. Our 2022 Person of the Year is a multi-talented and spirited community activist and artist who appears to have had his hands in so much, it’s difficult to find a worthy project he hasn’t founded, inspired or worked within.

Arriving in Charlotte at the close of the second millennium [1999], native Floridian Jermaine Nakia Lee is an unapologetic Black gay man with a purpose. And if Lee is in the mix, there’s sure to be multiple and positive purposes behind his goal.

From what we’ve learned by speaking with him and a few admirers, we think he’s capable of accomplishing just about anything he sets his mind to.  Moreover, the real excitement might rest in what’s next for Lee and those he’s had the pleasure of touching through his art, philanthropy and friendship. Lee’s list of accomplishments is lengthy and demonstrates his ability to create and motivate.

Charlotte Black Pride – Co-founder and Development Director

POOR NO MORE – Founder & Executive Director

State of Emergency – Co-founder & Program Director

KUUMBA Academy – Founder & Executive Director

Brand New Sheriff – Productions Education Director

Producer and playwright Rory D. Sheriff is Founding Artistic Director of BNS Productions. Sheriff is an ally and fellow creative who described Lee as, “an awesome guy, hardworking, driven and very active in the community. He’s our Education & Outreach Director. He’s my birthday twin and I’m glad, more than glad, I’m honored to have him be part of our team. He’s just a great mind and a great friend to have.”

Looking back at one of Lee’s earlier endeavors, Rell Lowery chimed in on what it’s like to work with Lee. Lowery, who serves as Charlotte Black Pride’s Trans Liaison and is an actor in Eden’s Garden (the first known web series to center and feature a cast of Black transgender men) has said of Lee, “Jermaine is the definition of Charlotte Black Pride. He’s made it his mission to bring class, elegance, professionalism and cultural representation to our community.”  And that he has. Lee was one of the co-founders of Charlotte Black Pride many years ago and now serves as the organization’s Development Director.

As for Lee’s feelings on what he’s most proud of this year, he offered the following thoughts: “It’s so difficult for me to choose what I’m the most proud of. I was reading an article recently on the Great Resignation [the wave of mass employee resignations following the COVID-19 Pandemic] and how people are so dissatisfied with their jobs. I made a decision in 2015 that I was only going to do work that was aligned with my passions: arts, culture and community. Slowly but surely, I transformed my life to do just that. It took a lot of bravery – coming from working jobs, with stability. I’m incredibly blessed. It’s not that I’m extraordinary, it’s just that my life is aligned with my purpose. But, if I had to choose one particular thing this year, it would be the work that I’m doing with State of Emergency.

Having more in common than last names, Reverend Sonja Lee, Founder and Director of Lionel Lee Jr. Center for Wellness elaborated on State of Emergency and J.N. Lee’s involvement. Reverend Lee [no familial relation] is a spiritual advisor, friend and collaborator.

“Jermaine is a visionary who served as the Project Director for the State of Emergency Program,” she offered.

The program had a town-hall feel and was comprised of a group of concerned Cis and Trans community members who routinely came together to discuss and find solutions for eliminating Black transgender discrimination and quelling the disproportionate rate of murder of Black trans women.

“He has led this project and been an inspiration to women whose lives are literally at risk,” Reverend Lee continued. “Jermaine has provided guidance, been instrumental in raising funds to establish an emergency fund to address the needs of Black trans women and has greatly assisted in creating a network of allies to provide wrap-around services like mental and physical health practitioners, legal services, faith leaders [and more] for these women. He’s also a brilliant and creative artist. I enjoy working with Jermaine for his steadfast commitment to the community, as well as his personality. He’s got jokes, a wonderful sense of humor and a very big heart.”

Dedication and a sense of humor are surely needed in the work Lee has chosen, and it’s not always easy.

LMK: When you think about your public service work this past year, what did you find most challenging?

JNL: Oh my God. I was especially challenged with the acknowledgement of how thankless community work can be. There was a lot to do. I had to push myself a lot further – out of my comfort zone. You can’t go into it with the expectation of being appreciated. Any position of service can often be thankless. No matter how many wins you’ve created wins for whomever you’re serving, there’s going to be loss. You’ll never be able to meet all needs. When those you’re serving react mean spiritedly or with gross ungratefulness, for me, it really hurt. So many nights, I had to come home, care for myself, remind myself of my purpose. Whether those I serve are grateful or appreciative, is null and void.

LMK: On a lighter note, what situation, event or personal accomplishment made you smile the hardest this year?

JNL: Other than this honor? There’ve been a lot of wins. I think the one that comes to mind is Kuumba Academy. It’s an 18-month artistic and professional fellowship for artists of color. I’m the Founder and Director. It was enthusiastically funded by the Knight Foundation and Arts & Science Council of Charlotte.

LMK: Congratulations on securing funding and support. What inspired this project?  What’s it all about?

JNL: Thank you. After I graduated from UNC-Charlotte, I entered a fellowship at what was then the Afro-American Cultural Center, now the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture. That fellowship was called the Artist Roundtable Development Series. Kuumba was developed using that fellowship as a model. So, in the same spirit Kuumba Academy assists artists with grant writing, contract negotiation, budgeting and personal finances, social media strategies, vision building and self-critique.   I’m really proud of this, because I’m at an age where it’s about paying it forward and giving back. In my creative collaboration with Gen Zers it was very clear that they didn’t understand the business of their art. For more mature adults that I’ve been collaborating with creatively I found that they, too, had that deficit. So, we started in August with vision building and are now on Session 4: Grant Writing. We’ve been funded for 20 fellows and have already had four who have written and been awarded their first grants.

LMK: With all that you’ve got going on, is there time for a personal life?  Are you partnered?

JNL: No, I’m not seeing anyone right now. I did think I would be married to the love of my life by now. Instead, I’ve had five boyfriends in the last 10 years and entered each of those relationships thinking there was a potential for marriage.

LMK: Describe your Mr. Right, in case he’s reading this.

JNL: He’s spiritual but not religious. He’s ambitious – because that’s probably sexier to me than anything. He has a vision and is working to execute it. He’s someone who [feels] family is important. Someone who is adventurous and spontaneous.

LMK: Will Mr. Right’s adventurous and spontaneous nature have to extend to children? Do you have any children?

JNL: I have two biological children (Josiah who just turned 15 and Jediah who is 8). I also have three bonus children [all] from my son’s mothers past relationships (Cotton, Jeramiah, and Azaiah).

LMK: What’s fatherhood been like for you?

JNL: It’s the greatest gift. At some point hopefully, a human being gets to a point where achieving for themselves is not enough. I met my sons’ mother and her partner when I had contented myself to the point that achieving had almost become stale. We arranged to be parents and co-parent. We had our kids through artificial insemination and then we charted out, as much as you can, what kind of parents we wanted to be. We knew we wanted equal co-parenting. My sons are my heart and my motivation. So, everything that I do now – is not just about me anymore.

LMK: Sounds like you’ve found an achievement that is anything but stale. How do you feel about being selected as our Person of the Year?

JNL: It really is a profound honor and I don’t say that lightly. In 2016 during President Barack Obama’s administration, I was invited to the White House for their LGBTQ Pride Reception in June of that year. It was an incredible honor. The very next year I received one of the city’s highest civic honors, the City of Charlotte MLK Medallion Award. I was the first artist and first out LGBTQ person to ever receive that award [and remain so to date]. But this is more important to me personally because this is coming from my LGBT community. This award encompasses who I am as a creative, who I am as a Black man, who I am as a gay man and who I am as a community leader. And it’s from my peers. So, upon hearing it, I was just in tears, because I take the work that I do with community seriously. It’s my passion and it’s important to me.

LMK: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

JNL: People don’t understand that I’m an introvert. Most people don’t believe that, but I’m a performer and a servant leader so I can pull it out and be “on” when I need to; but I’m very content being by myself, or [just with] my intimate partner or my kids and family.

I feel compelled to acknowledge that literally all my life I have heard people say to me “I wish he’d just go sit down somewhere, he just does too much.” There was a time when I listened to that and adhered to that. I thought [and now realize], I’m getting on people’s nerves because I have the ability to focus on several things [at a time]. I’m just wired that way.

But I’m at a point now where if I’m not hearing that, [I’m thinking] something is wrong. I know now, that often, where that is really coming from is that your achievement is revealing their inadequacy. Every time they look at your life it’s a reminder of their own shortcomings, fears and insecurities. I hear that now and don’t even clap back anymore.

LMK: Are there any new projects we can look forward to for next year?

JNL: Next year I plan to produce my musical “For the Love of Harlem.”  It’s been over 10 years. It’s a big show with a live jazz orchestra, a dance ensemble of at least 12 people, 10 lead and supporting actors and an elaborate period set. Rory Sheriff, the Artistic Director for Brand New Sheriff Productions (the only African American repertory theater in Charlotte) has just committed to producing it in 2023. I’m also working on an HBCU college tour of another production, A Walk in My Shoes. That show follows four young adults in a southern urban city who are dealing with all of the turbulence of young adulthood.

LMK: Before we let you go, can you offer any advice for budding artists or philanthropists?

JNL: I think for creatives, there are certain gifts that are enviable gifts, like being an amazing athlete. Then there are things, gifts like being a mathematician – which is appreciated but not necessarily envied. Creative gifts are shiny, attractive and envied. So, I’ve always approached my art like a civic responsibility. You have a responsibility to your art, yourself and whoever is supposed to see or hear your art. If you start with those values and those virtues, [stuff] just opens up for you. Remember those values and apply them. That needs to be the heart of everything, especially when you’re not getting the outcomes you expect or your art isn’t being appreciated or funded

For philanthropists, it’s my opinion that people are professional givers because they enjoy being around the lowly [and] it makes them feel superior; or they can relate to people with less than because of their personal experience and/or giving is one of their talents. So the advice is: check yourself and do an honest inventory to see which one it is. 

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