Glenis Jackson knew her son Lester enjoyed music. How could she not? When he was a young boy, they would …
Glenis Jackson knew her son Lester enjoyed music. How could she not? When he was a young boy, they would sing songs by the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and a host of others around the house or in the car.
They would also sing faith-based music together. And Lester had just started learning to play a guitar that someone had given him.
But Jackson never grasped just how much her son had been consumed by music until the magical day that Lester, then 15, invited her down to the basement of their house in Charlottesville.
He had just finished writing his first-ever song, and now he wanted to sing it for his mother and older sister, Kerlie.
The song, entitled “Hey You,” was about everything he and his family had been through, and how his mother had always been there for him.
I wrote this to show I love you, and I’m always, always thinking of you
“When he sang that, I just cried and cried and cried,” Glenis Jackson said. “He has such a beautiful voice. It’s just so melodious and smooth.
“I had no idea that he could do it. It just blew me away.”
Lester Jackson has been singing and writing songs ever since.
In the last four years alone, the 37-year-old – who works as an elevator technician in the University of Virginia’s Division of Facilities Management – has created 12 full-length albums under the stage name Nathaniel Star.
“For me, music is like breathing,” Jackson said. “If you don’t breathe, you die, and it’s that way with me. I feel like it’s as real to me as breathing, so I have to do it. Even if I’m not putting it out for others or nobody ever hears it, even if it’s just me in my studio, I have to create or I’ll die. I don’t know how else to explain, but I have to do it.”
Jackson, along with a sister and a cousin, was raised by his mother in public housing project on South First Street in Charlottesville.
When Jackson was 2 years old, his father was sent to prison for what would amount to a nearly two-decade sentence.
“It was very, very hard,” Glenis Jackson said. “He didn’t have a father to say, ‘Come on, let’s do this,’ or teach him stuff.”
Jackson began having trouble in school when he was in the fifth grade, with his mother receiving frequent calls about his behavior from the principal.
Glenis Jackson didn’t like the direction things were heading, so she decided to put her career as a licensed nurse on hold and home-school Lester. She did so for the remainder of his education – sixth through 12th grade.
To make the arrangement work, she cleaned houses.
“There wasn’t even a second thought,” recalled Glenis Jackson, who also home-schooled her daughter. “I knew I needed to be able to take care of them and I needed to be able to get to them when they needed me, and that was the best way to do it – by doing domestic housework.”
Under his mother’s watchful eye, Jackson got back on track.
“She was the nucleus of my childhood, my biggest influence,” Jackson said.
Many of Jackson’s fondest memories are of singing around the house with his mother. They often listened to classic soul singers, such as Sam & Dave, who his mom had grown up listening to.
“My house always had music playing in it,” Lester Jackson said. “That was the beginning of my singing. We would sing in cars, on trips, everywhere. That’s just what we did.”
Whenever she could, Glenis Jackson would take Lester to visit his father in prison.
“My mother definitely made sure that I understood who he was and that we had some semblance of a relationship,” Lester Jackson said.
It certainly wasn’t easy on Glenis Jackson, who was divorcing her husband at the time. “Many things you do because you have to, not because you want to,” she said.
When Lester Jackson was 12, he discovered the Music Resource Center, a nonprofit afterschool program located close to where he was living. At the center, Jackson learned all about music and subsequently became interested in rapping.
The Notorious B.I.G. was Jackson’s favorite artist. “I loved his delivery, his style, his punchlines, his cadence – everything about him. I loved his approach,” he said.
Jackson, though, started developing an appreciation for all types of music – the Beatles, Aerosmith and even Beethoven, whose classical music he would play as he did homework.
After completing the 12th grade, Jackson worked in construction and attended the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center, where he completed a two-year program to become an electrician in just a year.
Looking back, Jackson said the construction experience – one in which he interacted with people of various ages and backgrounds – had a big impact. “It was very difficult, very hard, but very necessary,” he said, “because I feel like, in a lot of ways, it helped me understand what hard work actually is.”
Jackson continued to tinker with his music, creating hundreds of songs.
It was from his time in construction that Jackson, whose given middle name is Nathaniel, adopted his stage name of Nathaniel Star.
Star is a play off the way Jackson used to write his first name – “Les” with a star next to it – on his lunch bag that he took to work every day.
“When you’re in construction, you’ve got to label all your stuff, man, or it’s going to grow legs and walk off,” said Jackson said, with a laugh. “I wanted to pull something from that time period of my life, so that I would always remember those beginnings.”
Jackson worked as an industrial electrician before coming to Facilities Management about eight years ago.
Since that time, Jackson has taken on an increasingly active role in the UVA community.
Presently, he serves on Facilities Management’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, Sustainability Council, Inclusive Excellence Team and on a civic engagement subcommittee.
“He is willing to sit back and let others embark on their own inquiry,” Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee member Kit Meyer said. “When he does participate, he is likely to ask a probing question rather than talk about himself.
“Once in a while, when he looks you directly in the eye and asks you a question, there is nowhere to hide, and it might be a good idea to think before you answer; his question is likely to ask you to think about what you might have just said, perhaps a bit too casually.”
Emily Douglas, who works as a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist within Facilities Management, says every time she speaks with Jackson, she learns something new.
“No two meetings or discussions are the same,” Douglas said. “He sees things at a cosmic level and has lived the lives of several wise people, and that experience is what we get to be around when we’re with him, listen to his music, or engage him on an issue or topic he is very passionate about. And passionate doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
“He provides educated and insightful perspectives into our departmental culture as well as connections to larger themes in local and national headlines,” Roland Zumbrunn, associate director for housing facilities, added “He’s always active and engaged at discussions and events across the University and the city, and he seems to have connections all over through a variety of passions like music, food and politics. I think every time I visit with him I learn something new – including just a couple of weeks ago when he was talking about his new music.”
A few years ago, Nina Morris, who served as sustainability program manager, was discussing music with Jackson and mentioned that the first cassette tape she ever bought when she was 7 was by the R&B/pop group En Vogue. Morris told Jackson the tape wound up falling apart because she played it so much.
Jackson responded by saying that he had worked with one of the En Vogue singers and that he was going to get Morris on the phone with her.
“Never in a million years did I expect him to follow through with making that happen,” Morris said, “but a few days later, Lester shows up at my office with Maxine Jones (a member of the group) on his phone and let me talk to her. I think I actually cried as I gushed on the phone talking with her. It was truly one of the best moments of my life, and Lester made it happen.”
A few weeks ago during a meeting, Douglas, as a fun way of introducing some new participants, asked people to think back to when they were 8-year-olds. What did they want to be when they grew up?
“Many of the responses were as you would expect – ballplayer, etc.,” Associate Vice President and Chief Facilities Officer Donald Sundgren said. “Lester’s response was that he was brought up in the projects, and all he wanted at the age of 8 was to live.”
Jackson hopes sharing his perspective will help lead to more change in and around UVA.
“The University has made a strong effort to be more inclusive and be diverse and to really hold the banner as it relates to these subjects and to try and be a beacon,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. We are excelling in some ways and not so much in others, and I think that’s the ultimate goal of the diversity council, as well as the inclusive excellence team – to make sure we are holding ourselves accountable …
“Ultimately, we’re trying to make the University finally become what’s it’s always said that it was.”
Jackson said he was inspired to share his personal story after reading other profiles that have appeared in UVA Today. They have included stories on his friends, including UVA professor of hip hop A.D. Carson, with whom he worked on Jackson’s “Bush Master” album a few years ago.
“It’s important because we see these people walking through the halls at UVA and we know they’re into something, but we don’t know the depths of these people,” Jackson said. “We walk past people all the time and they may just be Facilities Management workers, and you might not even make eye contact with them. We all look the same because we’re all walking around with the same uniforms on, but we don’t really know what these people are involved in in the community and what they do once they clock out at UVA.
“I think these profiles are important so that we know who we’re actually walking the halls with. A lot of us are involved in things that run very, very deep. But these conversations aren’t really had with the average person we may see at UVA.”
Over the years, Jackson, who has worked with several big-name artists, including members of En Vogue and the Dave Matthews Band, has created more music than he can sometimes keep track of.
Four years ago, he released his first official album, “Collide a Scope.” Since then, he’s created 11 more, including two this year. “El Negro” was released in February in honor of Black History Month. His latest album, “Eros,” came out on Aug. 12, the third anniversary of the August 2017 violent Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville.
Jackson, who can be found on Instagram (@nathanielstarmusic), Twitter (@iamsoulmusic) or by visiting his website, said social commentary comes naturally to him.
“If I’m not speaking directly about it, you’ll get the sense I’m referencing it,” he said. “I am Black life, so I don’t need to mention Black Lives Matter by name. My very existence is an ode to that – especially as it relates to Black women. I try and hold Black women in the highest esteem of all humanity because I recognize what media and life has tried to do to the image of Black women. So I try and do my part to make sure I control the narrative as much as I can.
“I know that Black women are often oversexualized and not recognized for the many accomplishments to the success of humanity. I try and make sure the world recognizes that. I feel it’s important.”
Jackson’s next album, “Hmmm,” is a collaboration with Blacmav, a producer he’s worked with previously.
Recently, Jackson received some exciting career news: His music will be used on yet-to-determined Netflix movies and TV shows. He has also received inquiries about performing in the United Kingdom after one of his albums charted there. While he hopes to tour at some point, he said “gigging” has never really been his thing.
“I’m more about creating music and putting it out to the masses,” he said.
Jackson’s musical style is eclectic in every sense of the word. He’s made rock, rap, soul, blues, country and electronic dance albums. Jackson calls himself a “genre-less” artist.
“I do whatever I want to do and whatever I feel at that moment,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s mother loves everything he sings – except for his rap songs.
“I tell him I can’t take the rapping,” Glenis Jackson said, laughing. “I listen to it, but it makes me wonder how he can even think that fast. His mouth, it just keeps going.
“‘Hey You’ will always be my song. It will always be my song.”
Since the original recording over 20 years ago, Lester Jackson has made another version in which you could swear there are three or four people singing. But the only voice on the adroitly produced track is Jackson’s.
Glenis Jackson keeps a copy of the song on a CD in her car. She likes to listen to it from time to time. When she does, she said she can’t help but shed a few tears.
“How can something so strong be so tender, you’re my summer, you’re my fall, my spring, my winter …
“You pick me up when I fall, you must be here for the long haul”
After she finished home-schooling Lester and his sister, Glenis Jackson returned to nursing. She worked as an operating room technician for 18 years at UVA Health before retiring in 2010. Now a good portion of her days involve spending time with her grandchildren. Lester Jackson has a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
“I am very proud of him, and I tell him that often,” Glenis Jackson said. “He goes after what he wants. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t break him down. It doesn’t stop him from having the initiative of trying to get what he wants.
“He just keeps going no matter what.”
Glenis Jackson could certainly say the same thing about herself, and Lester knows how lucky he is to have her.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “My mom is queen.”