J Mello: A Voice for Abused Children
In "I've Been Dying to Tell My Story," the Bloomfield musician chronicles his own horrific childhood
J Mello is poised at the top of the stairs, staring down the row of broken steps leading down to the basement. He is wearing a long chain around his waist. His black and red pants are shredded-looking, like they were clawed by a savage but precise animal. Rings glint on his fingers. His face is hidden under a dark hood.
He descends the stairs.
There’s a recording studio on Bloomfield Avenue, called Booga Basement Studios, tucked under a row of buildings on a side street. Wyclef Jean has recorded at the studio, as have The Fugees, though it is virtually unknown to Bloomfield residents. J Mello walks in.
There are several rooms inside, a dim hum of voices amidst shadowy figures. J Mello enters a dark blue studio lined with sound equipment, computers, a leather couch. He sits down on a chair in the middle of the room and covers his face.
Justin Smith, or “J Mello,” wants to be a star. His childhood, spent among wealth and celebrity (his late father, Claydes Charles Smith, was a founding member of the 70s band, Kool and the Gang) was also a breeding ground for violence, torment and sexual abuse. Smith has spent his adult life reeling from those experiences.
“I wouldn’t be here if this hadn’t happened to me,” he says, referring to his music career. “Excuse my language but I’m kind of f****d up. Thank God I’ve got an outlet. Can you imagine if I didn’t?”
Smith is honest -- disarmingly so -- about what he’s been through (including a jail term, according to his official biography.) Sitting in the middle of the room surrounded by his manager, Frantzsi Celestin, his publicity consultant, Bart Schmidt, and his producer Keith “Lil Wonda” DuPlessis, Smith opens up about his past.
“Despair was heavy in the house. It was tense,” he recalls. “I never could understand why he did the things he did to me. He wouldn’t tell me.”
Smith says his abuser was his father, who died of AIDS in 2006. The youngest of five children and, by his recollection, the only target, Smith’s bitter memories are seemingly tinged with blind spots and blocked emotions, the selective memory of an abused child.
“I remember I got handcuffed to a fence and beaten with a rock,” he says. “Those types of things happened. I could be in the house and just get hit. A crock pot was thrown at me.”
Like many abused children, Smith conveys a mixture of reverence and revulsion when speaking of his abuser. “When I got older, probably when I was around 19, I went on the road with him. He was a totally different person. He was actually fun,” he says. “Then when he would come home . . . well, it was something else at home.”
Smith says his father didn’t drink ("I might have seen cocaine here and there but it was a normal type of celebrity thing"). He also says his abuse did not end with his father. From about age six to 10, he says he was sexually abused by his nanny.
“I can’t have relationships [now],” he confides. His face is expressionless as he speaks. “I can’t make a relationship work. Even though I keep saying, it’s her, it’s her, it’s her [who’s to blame], I know it’s me.” He pauses. “[Sexual abuse will] mess a person’s chances up to try and be a normal human being. I can’t be normal. I’ve tried it.”
Smith’s painful history is chronicled in his upcoming album, “I’ve Been Dying to Tell my Story.” Singles, entitled “Torture” and "Beer Pong Cutie" are preludes to it, due to be launched in early spring 2012. There is also a series of music videos associated with the project, notably "Glitters and Gold," and "Torture," some of which have been made, some of which are in the planning stages.
Smith’s manager, Frantzsi Celestin, stands up. A former DYFS worker in Union County with a criminal justice background, Celstin’s experience with abused children was the springboard for his collaboration with Smith. He issues a warning about the videos.
“He’s talking about bullying, molestation, sexual abuse. Justin has a platform. He literally is the spokesperson for people who have lived through this or are still living through it.”
The lights go down and Smith’s life experiences unfold. A rollicking kaleidoscope of images wash over the room, as Smith’s childhood is offered up in a frantic hybrid of storytelling and macabre humor. Though the lush colors and film quality are beautiful, the complex emotions generated by the videos are uncomfortable, in part because the chronology of pain offers little or no hope of redemption.
In a second video, Smith’s life is explored in a more straightforward way. With the same rich color and high-quality, professional packaging, these videos are ready for MTV. Surrounded by J Mello and his creative team, it's clear Smith's entourage consider his painful past a powerful enough device to launch him to stardom. But is it?
For now, calling the launch of the album “the perfect project because he’s not afraid to talk about it” DuPlessis says, “My role is to help him be the voice for the kids who are going through [abuse now.] If you’re down for helping to kill this disease that’s going on, you should support this.”
Adds Schmidt, “Because of the whole Penn State situation, we [have to] talk about this. It’s happening. We want people to notice.”
“When I was with Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction, [writing songs about the abuse] was really like therapy,” says Smith, who now lives in Bloomfield, having grown up in South Orange and Maplewood. “It’s a roller coaster, putting it out there. My attorney just suggested, if we’re gonna do this, really go hard, put it in the budget to have a psychiatrist. 'Cause I’m gonna need one.”
Celestin acknowledges that the message is sometimes hard to hear. Still, he says, “We’re going there, because if we don’t, it’s not going to promote change.” He calls Smith an “individual who gives a voice to those who are silent.”
Whether Smith’s message will resonate with his audience is an open question. But his career depends on whether he’s got the musical chops to do it, and whether his listeners want to hear the message he is purveying.
“We’re gonna make MTV our permanent home in the next couple of years,” states Smith confidently, envisioning success for not only himself but for other musical artists he intends to help along the way.
“Five years from now, I’ll have a label. I’ll have other artists that have a story. That’s what I look for, that’s who I want to sign. Someone who’s not afraid to step up to the plate and talk about it.” He pauses, then adds, “Hopefully by then I’ll be married and have kids.”