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Jay Denton

A Global Album Gives a Voice to Refugees Through Music Meet Endure Studios Founder Jay Denton

A reluctant mission trip to Peru became a turning point in the life of Jay Denton filling him with purpose. A drive that would eventually combine the realms of international conflict resolutions with mainstream media. He founded Endure Studios and most recently wrote and recorded, in Lebanon and Los Angeles, a global album showcasing refugee artists titled For Home. The first chapter is available now and Risen caught up with Jay to learn more about the impact of his project. 

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: Let’s just start off and share a little bit about your background and how your love for music developed.

Jay Denton: I grew up in Dallas, Texas and I was an athlete. I never took music lessons or anything like that. Then I got an interest in playing the guitar because my dad would play guitar and put my sister and I had to sleep with James Taylor songs and such. But for me, growing up, music was always this periphery interest where I’d kind of do that when I wasn’t doing sports. I never had formal training. But my initial kind of love for it was in junior high/high school when a bunch of guys are getting guitars and learning covers songs. After I learned a couple of chords, I just wanted to write my own thing.

So I actually started writing songs really early, even though I had no real career ambition of doing it; it was just kind of an outlet. And then my sister drug me on this trip to Peru when I was in tenth grade. It was a youth group mission trip through a church in Dallas, Texas, to this orphanage in Peru, a tiny, tiny village off one of the major Amazon tributaries. And we were working down there and I was working specifically with street boys and we were working all day. And then I would lead some music stuff at night for them. And that was kind of a big turning point in my life.

I was about sixteen at the time and kind of was accidentally on more of a professional track with sports. I loved sports. I just didn’t really want to do it with my life. I didn’t really feel the same sense of purpose. And while I was in Peru I got this ignition of a sense of purpose of working with communities in various areas of the world that have seen very hard times. And so that kind of triggered my interest in international stuff. And then I came out to college in Los Angeles, did an international relations degree at USC. And again, music was all this stuff I would do as an outlet, would keep writing songs, but I hadn’t really considered doing it professionally, until after college.

RM: I love that it was an unexpected trip that triggered the path that you would eventually go down.

JD: Yeah. When I was in school studying international relations, my real focus was terrorism, genocide, and humanitarian disaster. All the most wonderful things that happen in the world, right? I was studying all of those things and I was thinking about how I would want to get involved in that world of international justice and conflict resolution. I even considered going military. I trained with the Marine Corps, did a program called PLC Combined [Platoon Leaders Course] at Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. I got a commission offered to become a second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and considered going infantry there. But all of the conflicts that I studied in college were all conflicts where the US military would, just by nature of the conflict, have no involvement. So I started gravitating towards stories of people that were going into regions where major militaries had no involvement. So I followed a guy named Sam Childers and the work…

RM: Machine Gun Preacher, right?

JD: Yes. I started emailing Sam Childers my senior year of college when I came back after a training with the Marine Corps. I had a commission offered to me that if I accepted it, I’d become a second Lieutenant the day I graduated college. But I didn’t have mandatory service if they didn’t pay for school; I had the option. I started emailing Sam and said, “Hey, I’ve got this commission offered to go into the Marine Corps, but I really love what you’re doing and I’d rather come fight with you.” There’s a waiting list of people that want to join the Marine Corps. There’s just not a big waiting list of people that are looking to do what Sam Childers was doing. And so that’s really how this kind of all got started.

Fast forward a couple of years, I graduated school, I worked for a while in India and then in East Africa. And among other things, I was building a network in the counter human trafficking world there again, getting to know organizations that were fighting human trafficking. I went to Sudan with Sam Childers and he actually offered me a job, but ironically, he wanted me to lead music for his church in Pennsylvania and then come to Sudan here and there. But the war was really over, the fighting was done, and so he didn’t really need me on that side of things in Sudan.

I declined because I was like, “Sam, I want to work with you but I didn’t want to come work with you to go lead music at a church in Pennsylvania. I did this to work with you on the ground in Sudan.” When I was there in Nimule, South Sudan with Sam Childers at his Children’s Village Orphanage where I wrote this little three song project called The Nimule Project. And when I came back, I was based in Nashville at the time, I released it and used some proceeds to get a guitar and some equipment to this orphanage because they loved it when I brought the guitar to play.

Then, I did another song kind of specifically for the people of South Sudan. I found the music actually had a much bigger impact than me going over there and saying, “Hey, I’m here to fight if you need me.” And that’s how I actually started building a following for my music. A lot of my followers were from Uganda and South Sudan and East Africa. So it started getting me to think in the realm of, “Okay, I can approach international conflict resolution or approach working in regions of the world that had been hit by wars, that have been hit by political destabilization, persecution, et cetera by going and being available to fight if needed, or, I could go and really proactively be involved in building something [through music].” And that is what really launched this mission.

At the time, I was still working two jobs. I was a fight trainer. I teach Krav Maga in defensive tactics, whether it be for military, law enforcement, private security or civilians; and I was a songwriter. I was doing those two things and looking for a way to sort of bring two very strange worlds together. I was in Lebanon about four years ago, briefly, doing some work of a different nature. And then I wanted to go back and do this project because I met so many really amazing Syrian people there that were in Beirut and they were kind of in a limbo period because they couldn’t get a visa to the U.S., Canada or Europe. There just were very limited jobs available in Lebanon.It was a rough transition period for them.

I met a guy who had a production studio and he walked me through the recording studio section of their production studio and I got this idea to come back and actually do a recording project. About a year and a half ago I decided, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” I contacted my contacts in Lebanon and said, “Hey, do you guys know any Syrian refugees that sing, or are artists of any kind because I want to come in and write and produce an album.” One guy there said, “I know two Syrian guys that sing a bit.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m doing it. I’m coming on this trip.”

I have my recording studio here in Los Angeles, California, I packed up, bought some equipment to get a mobile studio that I could carry in a backpack and a duffle bag to set up a little mobile recording rig anywhere. A friend of mine who’s a filmmaker in Atlanta, when he heard about this he said, “Okay, I’m not going to let you do this by yourself. I’m coming and I’m going to make a documentary about it.”

So the two of us jumped on a plane and flew to Beirut, we landed, and then two days later we met these two Syrian guys that sing and we talked with them about the vision for the project. We wanted to make a project that would be a blend of refugee singers, Syrian artists, one artist from Iraq, alongside some U.S. artists that are maybe a little bit more established and create an album that would be a blend of stories, a blend of cultures, blend of languages and styles. And they invited me into their little community of some of the artists, and friends, that they knew that also did music. And four days later we did our first songwriting sessions.

And so I understand for the past year or so you were back and forth between Los Angeles and Lebanon writing and producing for an album called For Home. So what is this project?

RM: I’m glad you touched on how you found the refugees that became your singers, but then how did the lyrics for the songs develop for the album For Home? Would they tell you their stories and you would write them, or would they try writing themselves?

JD: We kind of went both directions. I really wanted to go in with the mentality starting by just listening. Listening to what they do and how they do it and what their story is, instead of coming in with tracks built and songs written. I kind of had my concept of what I was maybe looking for with the project, but I wanted it to be formed by the people of Syria and not just by me and my conception of what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee.

Our first songwriting session, for the first two hours of it really, we sat down with a group of about six of us and we talked about their stories and would hear the story of one girl and how when the war hit and she was running through the streets, her family was trying to flee and get out of the city as it was being bombed and as there was gunfire… and then would hear another guy’s story of his perspective. I really wanted to get all of these stories.

I would start talking to them about how we can find a way to take their story and put it into a song that other people can relate to and they can hear what they’ve been through and actually use their story as a way to give them courage to keep pressing on through their difficulties. And they really jumped right in. In this first writing session, there was one girl that spoke enough English that we could really communicate with, and then I speak just a tiny little bit of Arabic, so we were able to actually do a writing session where they wrote all of the ideas at the beginning and I just took notes. I took like five pages of notes in my journal and then we started writing from there. We actually wrote our first song, and we wrote the entire song. The first song is in Kurdish, because most of the artists that I was working with there are Syrian Kurds from Northern Syria. This first song called Xenci Te, which is up on Chapter One of this album that just released. We wrote it, I tracked it on the spot right there so we already had an early demo by the end of that day.

RM: You mentioned Chapter One, I understand there’s three chapters and you’re going to do a kind of progressive release?

JD: Yes, I did my first trip and then there were elements of the story that I really wanted to capture. So, I went back again later in the year and recorded more. It’s a very full album. There are going to be twenty-three tracks and possibly even another bonus track on the full album. Normally, if a studio is releasing an album, they’ll put out singles at the beginning to prep the release and then drop the album. But I thought because this project is so different, a single would not necessarily really communicate the whole message of what this is. So, I decided to stagger it and break the album into three chapters; three pieces, essentially partitioning the album. I’m a hopeless artist when it comes to album orders. I know no one listens to albums all the way down anymore. But I still think of it that way, kind of like a film. I want to tell a story from start to finish. I divided the album into three sections and then I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to release it as three chapters: Chapter One went out on March 20th, Chapter Two will be April 17th, Chapter Three will be four weeks after in May.

RM: Aside from giving a platform to these artists to share their story, what is the goal of the album in your eyes?

JD: There are a couple main goals of the album: one, is to create an album that can give some hope to the refugee community that’s spread out all over their region in the Middle East, but also all over the world creating something that that community can really rally around, and provides hope. Secondly, I want the rest of the world to get more of a sense of understanding of this issue and these particular people in a very nonpolitical sort of way.

If you mention Syrian refugees, the lens through which most people think about Syrian refugees oftentimes comes from their political leanings. So you’ve got one side that thinks immediately one thing, and you’ve got another side that thinks immediately something else. But I wanted to do something that would show the human elements of the people and communicate their story in a way that the rest of the world could hear and learn from without there being any sort of political bent to it.

RM: The filmmaker that traveled with you for a potential documentary, did that come to fruition? What can we expect?

JD: Yes! His name is Jake Green and his company is called Peaceful Sea Productions. He has finished the full-length documentary, called Endure. They were going to be running the festival circuit all year this year and then release the documentary to the public towards the end of the year. Now, of course with quarantine, it makes that a little bit more interesting because most of these film festivals, are called off so everyone is trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. His goal is to make it a documentary series because for me, this trip was something that I want to be a part of the DNA of my production company, Endure Studios. Every year I’ll be looking to go to a different conflict zone or a different destabilized region of the world, and do an album like this.

RM: Share how the project has resonated and connected with some of the local faith communities as well as with the United Nations.

JD: One of my contacts from an earlier trip, who became a friend, was working for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and she connected me with someone at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). So I had a meeting with them in Beirut, in February of last year, and they were really interested in the story. And then when I came back on my second trip, we had a follow up meeting and they wanted to hear some of the stuff I’d worked on. I played one particular song called One Day – it’s with a U.S. artist named Faith Richards, and with a Syrian artist named Souzda Ammo. And they were kind of blown away by it, both in terms of the song and the level of production on it. But really what blew them away is Souzda has this unbelievable voice.

She’s just turning 23 this year and she’s this young girl who lost really everything in the war. Her mother passed away during the war. She had to flee Syria. Her father had to stay. She’s been on her own in this town outside of Beirut, called Zalka, when I met her. She has this incredible voice, very cinematic, powerful voice. And when they heard the song with her singing it, they’re like, “We have to cover this.” So they came out a few days later, sent a film team out and filmed Souzda and I working together for a few hours and then did an interview with her and did an interview with me about the project. Then they posted that video with the interviews, as well as a full article on the UNHCR platforms.

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