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Jamie Grace On Her Uplifting Song "Marching On," Life With Tourette's Syndrome And The Transformative Power Of Gospel And Contemporary Christian Music
Jamie Grace strives to be a beacon of hope for young people who struggle with Tourette's syndrome (TS). Diagnosed with the debilitating disease when she was just 11, the GRAMMY-nominated singer-songwriter creates contemporary Christian music fueled by empowering lyrics inspired by, but not limited to, her condition, as heard on her recent song, "Marching On."
The song carries a message about the importance of resilience in the face of adversity. Its uplifting lyrics unify those who suffer from TS while celebrating their uniqueness: "We are warriors / We are beautiful / Even with our scars / We march on / 'Cause we are fighters," she sings in the chorus.
While the song grew from her personal experience with living with TS, its underlying theme of positivity is universal, Grace says.
"I intentionally avoided talking about Tourette syndrome in the lyrics ... I wanted people to hear this song and immediately think about something they have faced, but have chosen to continue to press through, whatever that may be," she tells GRAMMY.com.
As an advocate for the TS community, Grace has been vocal about her condition throughout her career. She's actively worked with the Tourette Association Of America (TAA) for the past 10 years. During Tourette Syndrome Awareness Month, which ran from May 15–June 15, she joined the organization for a livestream performance of "Marching On" and worked with the nonprofit on National Advocacy Day in March.
"We are proud to have Jamie as a partner, raising awareness and fostering social acceptance for Tourette' Syndrome, which impacts an estimated 1 million Americans," Amanda Talty, CEO and president of TAA, says. "'Marching On' is an anthem for people in the Tourette community; they are diverse and talented and bring incredible gifts to the world like Jamie!"
Released in May, "Marching On" has since taken a new meaning in the wake of the nationwide protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black U.S. citizens by police. Grace, who's faced racism throughout her life and career, has embraced the song's second life.
"Now when I sing 'Marching On,' I am reminded of my culture ... the beauty in the color of my skin ... and the many Black men and women who are fighting every day to continue marching on."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Jamie Grace about the personal journey and universal message behind "Marching On" and the healing power of gospel and contemporary Christian music.
You released your song, "Marching On," in May, but it resonates even more so now.
As a songwriter, you never know how people will interpret the songs that you write, even if they are very specifically about something that happened in your life. However, it's rare that I write a song about one thing and once it's released, it begins to take on a new meaning for me. In the last few months, I have shared more than I have before when it comes to my experiences as a Black woman in America. I did lose some followers on social media who oppose the idea of speaking out. But more than anything, I have been privileged to be a part of seeing perspectives shift and eyes opened.
Over the years, I have faced racism in many of the churches where I was booked to sing, and I have dealt with the daily microaggressions as both an entertainer and in social settings. These experiences have been pushed aside or shot down by many [of my] peers and some of my audience, but I am seeing a shift toward humility and a willingness to listen that I am grateful for.
Even so, the last thing I want is for stories of racism to become emotional bait that do not call for self-evaluation, intentional education and, ultimately, action. And as Black people, though often faced with the struggle, we are many years post action, as resilience is simply a part of who we are. So now when I sing "Marching On," I am reminded of my culture ... the beauty in the color of my skin ... and the many Black men and women who are fighting every day to continue marching on.
Tell me about the inspiration behind the song.
I never want to be seen as a victim. While I want people to be empathetic toward what I go through on a daily basis with Tourette Syndrome, I want my resilience to speak louder than my pain. My friends and I saw Billie Eillish perform at the  GRAMMY Awards. When someone complimented her voice, I casually said, "There's something about us … " alluding to the fact that when you face adversity in your life, resilience is almost an obvious sequel.
I finished "Marching On" just weeks before flying to [Washington] D.C. with the Tourette Association for National Advocacy Day in March, spending intentional time thinking about and praying for kids, teens and adults with TS. Many of us share our stories publicly, but if you stop for a moment and hear about our Tourette, we simply hope that you will stick around and hear the rest of the story, and how in spite of our challenges, we are marching on.
What makes the song so relatable?
I intentionally avoided talking about Tourette syndrome in the lyrics. I did mention a "tic" in the lyrics, but even then, most people have had or known someone who has had a temporary eye twitch or nervous tic. I wanted people to hear this song and immediately think about something they have faced, but have chosen to continue to press through, whatever that may be.
We have all experienced something in our lives that we cannot control—whether it's our health, family dynamic, the result of a test, job application, loss of a job or even losing a loved one. There is "a time to weep and a time to laugh ... a time to mourn and a time to dance … " [Ecclesiastes 3:4] and I wanted this song to be a bridge of those moments that we all inevitably face.
You recorded your tics and implemented them into the song, with your tics themselves becoming instruments. How did that feel? What does that sound like?
At 28, my tics are vastly different than they were when I was a teenager. When I was growing up, there was a list of 10-12 physical and vocal tics that weren't very easy to disguise, so it was pretty obvious that I had Tourette's. Even so, I would often suppress them, which I shouldn't have, to attempt to present myself as "normal" to my peers. But my tics would always find a way to show up.
As an adult, my tics range from blinking my eyes to hitting my upper chest to making "ah!" and "uh!" sounds to my arms and legs bending repeatedly. Most days, I may not twitch a lot, but when I do, it's pretty obvious. The list of the subtle and bold ways Tourette presents itself in my speech and movements [is quite long], so recording it for a song felt more natural than suppressing it.
Some people with Tourette have explained it like a sneeze. You can hold it in as much as you'd like, but eventually it's going to show back up, and maybe even more intense than it would've been the first time. So pressing "record" and letting those walls fall down felt like pure freedom. Then, as a musician and nerd, I enjoyed chopping up the sounds and making them into music.
What do you think about what is happening in our country right now?
Growing up as a little Black girl in Georgia who rode horses, wore boots, dreamt of playing guitar but also loved hip-hop and smooth jazz, I am not oblivious to what it means to be different and to be treated differently because of it. I have experienced racism since I was a child, and I have heard the many stories of my parents, grandparents and others. While I continue to grieve the injustices that Black men and women face, I am grateful that things are being brought to light.
I do believe that there is hope for our future—I must. I try my hardest to do my part in sharing music that is honest and joyful, in sharing my story in hopes of providing understanding for those whose eyes are just now being opened. And I try to shed light on the activists who are on the front lines of the fight for justice and the calls to action they so graciously share.
The gospel music featured during the George Floyd memorial in June was so soothing. Can you talk more about the spiritual side of gospel music? Do you think the genre can cross over into mainstream audiences?
Historically, music has been a crucial part of recovery and rejoicing for Black people and people of color. I remember being a little girl and my mom playing Mahalia Jackson throughout the house and making sure that my sister and I knew about Negro spirituals. These songs, while full of hope and joy, were oftentimes written out of places of absolute despair ...
George Floyd did not deserve to be treated the way he was treated and certainly did not deserve to be killed. As I heard "Amazing Grace" at his funeral and later in the service, seeing people get up and clap and sing along to "Every Praise," I realized that the world is seeing who we genuinely are.
As a people, we have been victimized and brutalized, but we will not allow our voices to be silenced. Whether singing about not turning around when faced with gas-masked injustice or about the grace we still find to face yet another day in the midst of tragedy, we will always sing. But know that our voices don't end when the song does. Our lyrics are a representation of the depths of who we are, and the message in our words is a call to action for us all to create and advocate for significant change.
How have you overcome the challenges of having Tourette's while being a singer-songwriter?
I realized that music was therapeutic for me when I was really young, even though "therapeutic" wasn't yet a part of my everyday vocabulary. It always brought me so much joy to sing songs with my mom in church or to dance in the living room to jazz with my dad or listen to rock music that my older sister, Morgan, loved, though I wasn't positive I was cool enough!
Shortly after my diagnosis, our grandaddy brought over a drum set and a guitar for Morgan and I. He wanted to bring a little bit of joy into our day, but he sparked something in us that, years later, still remains. Our dad is also a drummer, and both our mom and granny love to sing. I remember the entire family staying up way too late, making up new songs night after night.
The physical act of playing music is a literal antidote for my tics. The choice of choosing songs with lyrics that encourage and empower subconsciously start the work of building me up emotionally.
I am grateful for my therapist, my doctors and my family, of course, but being a singer-songwriter has been one of the greatest parts of having Tourette. Because even though I have a complex condition that often causes me physical and emotional distress, it always pushes me to be creative and find a release that I always enjoy.
How resilient did you have to be when you were growing up?
Fortunately, my family is the greatest support system I could have asked for. I had to learn to bounce back and recover from bullying and the everyday stress of having a neurological condition. However, I always had a safe place at home. I was provided with love, support and understanding, which took some of the pressure off of me to be resilient. If I needed to cry for what seemed like a long time, I could, because their strength was always something I could depend on.
Even so, I didn't realize until adulthood that I had to grow up a lot faster than most of my peers. There was a time when my medication was affecting my heart, so I was put on a heart monitor. Learning how to jump very gently on a trampoline so as to not mess up a heart monitor was a casual lesson for me in middle school.
Spending nights in the hospital because my tics had caused physical damage was "normal," and my tics being mocked was a part of my life almost every time I was around kids and teens. When you grow up with a medical condition, your mental health is largely dependent on your ability to face and experience excruciating pain and disappointment, yet still find the strength to press on. I am so grateful for a family that provided comfort in my life, allowing me to find that strength.
Do you ever want to perform other kinds of music?
I've always felt privileged to be able to incorporate all styles of music into the kind of music that I make, especially now as I've been producing my music for a few years. I'm definitely a Christian, and I love singing about my journey as someone who truly loves God. And for me, that includes singing about everyday life experiences.
Within the genre of gospel music, there are so many different styles. I grew up on mostly faith-based lyrics, and most people think that means I don't know much about music. But within gospel, there is hip-hop, country, soul, contemporary and so much more.
I play the banjo, and recently did a singer-songwriter-style project with my sister called "Show Love." I also love hip-hop, and I recently shared a single called "Dream Big." One of my favorite things about my faith is that God is leading me through every aspect of my life. So whether it's a song about my husband ("90's Kids") or a song about my relationship with God ("Wonderful"), to me, it is gospel music because it's a part of a story that is so beautiful, I know that it must be bigger than me.
What's next for you?
I will continue to raise awareness by helping the Tourette Association Of America, and I'm releasing music every month for the rest of 2020, including an EP in October that will be released alongside my book, "Finding Quiet." Most people, whether you have Tourette or not, face some kind of anxiety or anxiousness throughout life. The book is about my journey to quieting my mind in our anxious world. The EP features songs that I have written during this journey.