Struggle Jennings is a Nashville-born rapper, writer, performer, and independent label owner whose music draws inspiration from hip-hop, rock, and country traditions, as well as from his grandfather’s (Waylon Jennings) 1970’s personification of the ‘Outlaw’ country sound. A cohort of Yelawolf, Struggle debuted his first record, “I Am Struggle,” in 2013, and has continued to amass both critical respect and devoted fans thanks to his authentic character, nuanced storytelling, and musical sincerity. With a journey that has followed Struggle from poverty, to prison, to performer, to independent businessman, he is no stranger to mental health matters. Struggle sat down with the BTD Foundation to share his own insights on music, mental illness, and everything in between for our December 2020 Music for the Mind Feature, so read on – and enjoy!
How would you describe your music in four words or less?
Troubadour of troubled souls… That’s what my music really embodies - showing people that regardless what you go through, you can overcome it.
You come from a very musical family, with notable music history lineage. With that in mind, what was the moment you decided that you wanted to carry on that music legacy in your own career?
I always loved music, and I'd always wrote music. But I've never took it seriously…Even though I came from a family that had been successful in music, there were times when Waylon (Jennings), for example, had the number one record in the country but would still run out of gas for the car. Plus, seeing the struggles with addiction, I watched how hard it was. I watched my mom aspire to perform, too; she has an amazing voice and is a beautiful piano player, but she had a son at 16, and with having to chase me around, plus things like stage fright and self-doubt, I just kind of wrote off a career in music for myself.
As I got older, I got into some trouble and was doing a 3 year bid in the county jail, which ultimately was going to go down to 15 months. About 9 months in, I had gotten into habit of watching the other guys in my block sit around and rap, circles of people around them listening and watching. I’d write stuff, watching them and writing even more, but I never went in to try to rap with them. I was stressed about what was happening outside of jail – the mother of my children was running wild, I had a newborn son I hadn’t seen yet, my 3-year-old daughter was being bounced around between friends – and one day I just had that bad day that turned into a verse. I got up and went over and rapped it, I just had to get it out, and the guys were like, “What?! You rap, bro? We didn’t know!” It gave me that little glimmer of hope… and there was a guy in there with me who was a well-known rapper in Nashville, had his own record label, and said that once I finished my time, “I got you.” Leaving jail, I was coming home a single dad, two kids, no work, and I just vowed I could not go back to the streets. I had the fire for it. So, I cut my first record in 2003, printed the CD’s up, sold them out of the trunk, that whole deal.
Given that you’ve come from a strong musical background, and have been actively working yourself in the music industry for nearly two decades, how has your music grown over time?
Well, when I made that first album, I was still the single father of two kids, working two jobs, a house full of family and friends living with me when they needed it, and still getting slapped with the eviction notice, so even though I swore I wouldn’t go back to selling drugs, I hadn’t gained steam in the music business to live on that income. I can’t make excuses for what I did, I ended up going back into drugs to better support my family than the jobs I had were…but it led me back into prison again. When I got out of prison the next time around in 2016, that was when I was really able to start making money off of music and stay fully away from the hustle I cycled through. Sometimes it looks like it happened overnight, but it was a really long road. And I think my music reflects the challenges, the many dark places, and the triumphs, and the growth, of what I’ve gone through to get where I am. I mean, I’m at a place where I’ve been able to start giving it back, helping artists develop through (editor’s note: Struggle Jennings’ label) Angels and Outlaws, and breaking them into the industry. That’s important for me, to keep it going.
I've been through so many phases in life as a man, as a father, different stages mentally, and my music has progressed, adapted to who I was. I’ve always been honest in my music, whether it was when I was out running wild on the streets, selling drugs, being the white Rick Ross (laughs), or talking about the other side of that life, the door getting kicked in, kids watching their dad go to jail… or about sitting in the prison cell, safe, as my family outside fell apart. Earlier in my life I had already been diagnosed with PTSD (editor’s note: post-traumatic stress disorder defined) after being shot a couple times, experiencing my dad’s suicide, burying friends to drug overdoses and gang violence, and I used that diagnosis for a crutch for a minute. Eventually, I decided I had to strip myself completely, learn where every one of my thoughts come from, the way I feel and how I react to emotions, why I circle back into the same patterns, all of it. So now, my music is able to be a different story. I might seem like some big, tough guy that has a legal record, but my past doesn’t define me – and I put that in my music. I want to give people hope. I’ve been through all the gauntlets – jail, drugs, mental health issues, grief, gang membership, you name it – but I did not let that define me. I’m here, living in one big house with all my kids, making more money than I ever thought I could see, doing the thing I love: making music. Everybody’s happy, we made it through this, and we still go through things, but that is just part of life. It doesn’t have to mean the story is over.
In reflection of your career, it’s noteworthy that you didn’t always use your family name of Jennings in your own career marketing. What influenced your decision to take ownership of that lineage in your career?
Honestly, I never even wanted to use the last name Jennings because I didn’t want to lean on that. I partly picked that up from my mom, because she was the same way where we lived in lower-income housing, rougher neighborhoods, because she wanted to do the work. She didn’t want a handout. I didn’t want it either, I wanted to stand on my own. The media is actually how Jennings became part of my name; they started using it when I would be featured, saying things like, “Young Struggle Jennings,” instead of just “Young Struggle” that I had gone by. I fought it, too. I hated it at first, but my manager at the time pushed it, because he saw that it did stand out against the usual search for just “Struggle” or Young Struggle.” So, I talked to Shooter (Jennings, Waylon Jennings’ son), and he encouraged me to use it, that it was an honor. It still took me awhile to embrace it, but now I have pride for that name.
Shifting gears a little bit, our campaign is founded in reflection of a quote from New Orleans’ songwriting and performing legend Allen Toussaint, who said, “Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also has a role to life you up-not to be escapist but to take you out of misery." With this quote in mind, how has music gotten you through hard times in your life?
Honestly, just being able to make music that is real and true has helped me get through the hard times – even like when I used to sit in the cell and just write, not sharing it with anybody yet. I don't listen to one kind of music, and I don’t get caught up in boundaries. Whatever emotion I need in that moment, I channel that. Maybe I get in the car and I’m broken, so I want to hear some (editor’s note: November 2020 Music for the Mind feature) Ron Pope (laughs), or feeling loved and put on some Ed Sheeran, or I’m hitting the gym and Meek Mill goes on rotation. Music has always been my therapy, making it and listening to it. When I was young and started doing that crazy stuff in the streets, I’d come home beaten and just sit at the piano while my mom played for me. It healed me, it cleansed me. It’s truly my therapist.
What does the concept of “Music for the Mind” mean to you?
One of my favorite parts about being an artist is that I get hundreds of messages a day from people saying, “Hey, man, your music got me off drugs,” “Your music led me back to going home to my wife and kids,” “Your music got me through a prison sentence,” “Your music really helped me when my father died,” “Your music kept me from ending my life,” and things like that. I get those messages every day, and knowing that my music – just the way I feel when I hear other people’s music – can affect someone in a positive way is the biggest blessing and joy that I have. Music for the mind is music that brings you out of a dark place, and gives you space to find that peace to keep going.
Aside from music, what are some of the other coping skills you use to manage your mental well-being and manage stress?
I love long drives, usually accompanied by music so I don’t know if that counts (laughs). But having a good hour, half-hour, or longer to drive, sit, reflect, and listen really helps me. Especially on the country backroads. It’s beautiful and takes me out of my head a little. I’m also a gym fanatic, so usually if you can’t find me working on music, you can find me in the gym. But even in the gym, I can’t go without my music! (Laughs). When I’m really feeling something hard, I like to talk. Whether that’s someone I know that went through what I’m going through, or someone I trust to put me in my place, or even someone who can just help me process it, that human connection just means the world to me.
For our final question, what is something you’d like to leave our readers with?
I mean this when I say it: don’t give up. Every day is another chance. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. The only time I look back at the past is to see where I’ve come from, and to know where I don’t have to go back to. Every night, I clear my mind before I go to sleep. However you do it – meditation, talking to God, music, whatever – getting rid of that before going to sleep so waking up can feel better is key. I know it’s easy to say that where I am now is why I can say “don’t give up” without feeling the obstacles, but I hope my story shows that it’s possible. I could have a chip on my shoulder, be angry at the world, justify a million irrational emotions… but life is beautiful. Even when it’s chaos, in the middle of the storm, stop and experience that. Do what you can in that moment, at your best. If you fail, you have tomorrow to keep trying. I’m living proof.
To listen and learn more about Struggle Jennings, head to:
Official Website: https://www.strugglejennings.com/
All photos by Melissa Croft for the Brett Thomas Doussan (BTD) Foundation.