If the triumph of pop stardom is universal name recognition, then those who only need a first name, whether given or invented, are the royalty amongst royalty. Beyoncé, Elvis, Madonna, Prince. Perhaps even Adele, Kanye, Rihanna, Bono and Björk. Each of these singular names generates a face so burned into our collective consciousness that it claims sole ownership of its moniker. There will never be another Prince, just as there has never been, say, another Cleopatra. And even if your mom’s name just so happens to be Björk, you might have a tough time not picturing Ms. Guðmundsdóttir first.
In the case of Jocelyn Muhammad, or just Jocelyn, as she’s known on stage, her name remains universally unclaimed. But the 19-year-old virtuosic singer-songwriter has been making a strong bid for it this past year with her soulful yet spirited acoustic pop sound, not to mention that thing, whatever it’s called, that only emanates from the kind of people mentioned above. She’s currently putting together her first record with multi-platinum producer Jim Huff (Skylar Grey) and Grammy Award-winning engineer J.J. Blair (Johnny Cash, Kelly Clarkson). And, of course, a live snippet of her song “Just Like Everybody Else” recently went viral to the tune of almost 5 million plays, even before the studio version was released last month.
“I was kind of just bubbly about it,” Jocelyn said about her unexpected breakout this past summer. “I was like, ‘Okay, you guys are making me look cool or something.’ People would come up to me: ‘Hey, you’re the girl on Twitter. You’re famous.'”
Filmed on the phones of a few passersby, the 23-second video of Jocelyn belting out the chorus to “Just Like Everybody Else” while sitting on a downtown Omaha stoop brought a foot-tapping sense of wonderment to the Twittersphere, among other social media platforms. “She deserves to be heard,” a sort of motto that was attached to the video, became the consensus. And the song’s ambiguous lyrics gave meaning to thousands, if not millions, of listeners.
Though, Jocelyn said she has her own interpretation of the song:
“To just chill, relax. Chill out everybody, just flow with life kind of vibe,” she said. “And when I sing ‘just like everybody else,’ I mean like all the successful people. Not meaning richness as success, but success as in what’s inside of you. ‘Cause I have this belief: Once you as an individual can achieve things for yourself, you’ll be able to fall in love, and find love, just like everybody else.”
Jocelyn’s growing legend began with an Arthurian episode in which the then 14-year-old musical neophyte rescued a black Indiana acoustic guitar dubbed “Black Bastard” from the flames of a friend’s bonfire. She said she took it home, studied her favourite British songsters, including Ed Sheeran, and then had her friend, Jaime, teach her how to play a G and Cadd9 chord.
“Two weeks later, I wrote my own song,” Jocelyn said. “It was called ‘Burn It Down’ and it’s like the cheesiest song ever. And I remember showing it to Jaime and he was like, ‘Whose song is that?’ And I was like, ‘It’s my song.’ And he was like, ‘You what? You already wrote a song?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, dude, of course.’ And I just kept writing after that.”
If her origin story wasn’t serendipitous enough, Jocelyn said she began playing originals and covers in the Old Market a few months later and was quickly scooped from outside of Spaghetti Works and plated in front of local musician Aly Peeler, who at the time was in charge of an open mic night for the then-named Side Door Lounge. Peeler was impressed with the high school freshman’s first stage performance, Jocelyn said, and eventually introduced her to her current manager Jeff McClain of Midlands Music Group (MMG), which has a free mentoring program for budding musicians.
But before McClain would take on Jocelyn, the MMG co-founder said he had one request: She needed to learn how to be a good student.
“I said well here’s the deal,” McClain explained. “The exact same work ethic and discipline you use to get an ‘A’ in school, you use to get a Grammy or gold record. So if you want to make it in this business, get your grades up.”
McClain describes his mentoring program as a sort of vetting process in which 99 percent of his recruits get “dropped for not following through.” Not only did Jocelyn put in the work for MMG when she was a junior in high school, but she said the semester she began working with McClain was the first semester she hadn’t failed an academic class.
“I graduated,” Jocelyn said. “I’m happy about that, because I was really slacking.”
Jocelyn said she owes a lot to Peeler and McClain for showing her the ins and outs of the music biz and life in general, but she credits her older brother, Deven Muhammad, an accomplished dancer, for unlocking her potential as a singer. As Jocelyn tells it, after watching Muhammad perform in his high school choir a half decade ago, the eager-to-learn songstress wanted to know if she could hack it vocally. She sang him a Gavin DeGraw song.
“When I sang that to him, he goes, ‘You suck,’” she said, bursting out into laughter. “And I did, I totally did. So he laid me down on the ground and he put a book on top of me and taught me how to breathe. He kind of just pushed me. He kept pushing me. I kept coming back to him singing him stuff, and I just kept getting better and better every time to a point where he was like, ‘Alright girl, you’ve done it. Alright, stop showing off now.’”
When the name Jocelyn is uttered 10 years from now, our brains might be wired to generate the image of Jocelyn Muhammad, if they aren’t already. And in 50 years, it might seem like she’s the only Jocelyn to have ever existed. Of course, the potentially once and future singer-songwriter will have her own images, and they’ll probably include the faces that helped her along the way.
“Open your mind,” she said. “It’s all about having an open mind in anything, in any type of enterprise. If you want to be in any business, you have to work with other people.”