At 22 years old, Trevor Jackson may be young, but he’s had his fair share of experience in Hollywood. For those who make up Generation Z, their earliest memory of Jackson may be from the Disney Channel television film, Let It Shine, where he played Kris McDuffy, the best friend to Tyler James Williams’ Cyrus DeBarge. Although in that movie, Jackson’s character lacked a creative streak, that’s a far cry from the Jackson that exists today, or has ever existed. While he’s still very much the heartthrob he was at 16 (he once had a girl faint at the sight of him during a meet-and-greet), Jackson is talented like no other. Today, he stars in the ABC show, Grown-ish, as Aaron Jackson, a self-proclaimed “woke” activist who doubled as Yara Shahidi’s love interest in the first season. When he’s not protesting for the rights of students of color in the series, he’s offscreen creating his own musical content.
That is where the difference between Trevor Jackson the actor and Trevor Jackson the musician comes alive and he makes the distinction between the two adamantly clear.
“The biggest difference between the two things is when I do music it’s always from my exact experience,” he says. “It’s always from my exact experience, it’s very close to who I am because I’m writing all of it. Musically, it’s just everything that I’ve been inspired by I try to recreate. When you’re acting on screen, you’re trying to be somebody else or say someone else’s words. That’s the only difference. Music is definitely more connected to my heart.”
The Indiana native’s connection to music is deeper than most would expect. Jackson likes to be a part of every step in the music making process, going as far as even directing his own music videos because he wouldn’t be satisfied otherwise. This isn’t to say that the Rough Drafts Part I artist is uptight. As a matter of fact, he’s the complete opposite. He’s a self-described adrenaline junkie who regularly surfs — he spends most of his money on surfboards — who also just happens to be a perfectionist when it comes to his art and he’s not afraid of showing it.
“I surf heavily to get any stress out. Just to find my center. It’s the push and pull, it’s the struggle and the reward. I think that’s what makes me love it, it mirrors my life.”
If Jackson has anything to do with it, his life will continue to be full of rewards. When VIBE had the chance to sit down with the actor-musician, he shared his aspirations of winning multiple Grammys (he hopes to eventually have 12), and his desire to act in a major film franchise. The towering 6’2” actor with his “dragon-tail” hairstyle was more than at ease in our office, so much so that he told us which character he’s played before that he’d switch lives with for a week (hint: the role isn’t as innocent as his Grown-ish character). Read below to get the full scope of who Trevor Jackson is, in all his creative aspects.
VIBE: Do you ever feel like you could do acting over music, or vice-versa?
Trevor Jackson: No. I feel like people try to make it feel like that and I say to those people, “FU. I can do whatever I feel inspired to do.” Any genre of life, not just music or entertainment, like if you’re a doctor and you only did brain surgery now you want to move onto something else. I think there should be nothing holding you back anything that you feel led to do. I feel like it was put in me for a reason, that want or hunger to do it. And for me, I feel like it all goes hand in hand especially in the entertainment industry. Music, directing, acting, writing, whether it be scripts, whether it be poetry. I feel like it all goes hand in hand. And again, I get to turn life struggles, or trials and tribulations into something beautiful.
Would you say you feel more like yourself when you make music?
Absolutely. And it’s also who you want to be when you make music, it’s who you were when you make music. It’s kind of the recognition, the realization of self I feel like when I make music. The past, present, or future, or pain or happiness, but it’s just very close to my life.
Is it hard for you, whenever you’re creating art, to channel the negative aspects of what you’re going through in life?
That’s easier I think. Those are easier to channel than anything. ‘Cause I think that’s the most relatable. I don’t know anyone whose life is perfect. No one person’s struggle is greater than another person’s struggle, but struggle all in the same is universal. When I do that it’s kind of easier instead of crying about a heartbreak. I’ll write a song about it and then I’m able to cry at the beauty of it instead of hurting. Like wow, this sh*t turned into something really tight. I always think the painful things are easy to write, those are the quickest songs. Those are the quickest like, “Okay it felt like this, then what she say? She said this, and then she yelled at me and then I was like damn.” You know? I think the songs of who you want to be are always harder because you’ve never experienced that before, or you’re searching for that. It’s not familiar. I think things that you’ve experienced and things you are experiencing are easier to write.
A lot of your fans can remember growing up and watching you on Disney Channel’s Let It Shine and now they’re watching you as Aaron on Grown-ish, so you’ve been in the industry for a minute now. How have you dealt with fame? Do you ever feel like it’s gotten to your head?
No. I feel like I’m surrounded by really good people. My family being those number one people in my life supporting me. Never letting me forget, or lose sight of who I am. I think my faith in God is the weight that keeps me down to earth and understanding why I’m here. I think once the vision or the perception of why you’re doing something changes, that’s when you should be worried. When you think it’s for you or because of you or for you is when things get a little hazy. But for me that I’ve always realized it’s bigger than me. My life is bigger than my own. And so I push through a lot of the times I feel like giving up or when I feel like damn I don’t feel inspired today. Or ah, I don’t want to do it. Or I just think about all the people that depend on me. I think about the younger me that depends on me. The people that I’ve never met before that my music could help get through anything. Somebody hearing this, could be like “oh damn I thought about doing this tomorrow but instead I’m going to try and push through.”
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Very true. So, let’s talk about your “rat-tail.”
It’s a dragon tail now, I’ve changed it.
So your dragon tail is almost as famous as you at this point. At first it appeared in Grown-ish, but was it your idea?
Yeah. Kenya [Barris] actually wanted me to cut it before the show and that’s why they make fun of it because I think that’s his way of “oh, he didn’t want to cut it, now let’s make fun of it.” I started growing it for Rough Drafts Part 1. I watch movies religiously like all the time and the same movies, millions of times just to figure out why, they’re so dope to me. So I went back and was watching Star Wars 1, 2 and 3 and I just really connected to Anakin Skywalker. He’s talented, he’s really skilled but he doesn’t know why, he didn’t know his purpose or his own strength and I felt like people know that I’m dope but they weren’t giving me the opportunity. I felt like that’s what he was going through. He was like “I want to go on missions, I want to help, I want to do good.” I was just in between, I was feeling indifferent about things and yeah he had a rat tail, or a dragon tail, so I started growing it. I was talking to my brother about this the other day, it’s like I started off when I was younger, knowing what I wanted to be. I wanted to be famous.
That was when I was kid, 2 or 3, I wanted to be in movies. And then when I was 15, 16 I realized why, and it’s because I want to lead people to the peace that I’ve found and knowing God and my journey, I just wanted to make the blueprint easier. Lead people to a different way of thinking and then, now it’s the how. How I do that successfully, how do I get enough press but also how do I create something dope? How do I manage this part of my life? I think life is broken up into parts like that. That part of my life, the Anakin, was like “why am I?” and then that’s when I started making my writing. Rough Drafts Part 1, I wrote almost every record on there. I started playing guitar, picked up guitar. It kind of just represented the beginning of me being okay with me. Not trying to fix myself for anybody else and just be myself. So that’s what the rat tail represents. So, when people say to cut it… [Laughs] Even in Superfly they tried to cut it, I was like, “No.”
Do you ever think you’ll cut it?
It depends. It would have to be a Marvel movie and three installments and a very good check.
You said that God is a very big reason of why you’re here today, so how do you maintain faith and knowing that you’re doing the right thing? How did you know your come up was going to happen, and how did you stay motivated?
I think again my mentality of it wasn’t the same. If you do it for fame, if you do it for money, if you do it for things that aren’t important, it’s easy to just be like “alright I’m tired, whatever.” But when you feel like what you’re doing is going to change the world, you sacrifice your discomfort sometimes. So I feel like for me, when I was unhappy with things going on in my life, I’m just like “but what I’m meant to do is bigger than my unhappiness right now.” And that kind of just pushed me. I was like “I feel like there are millions of people that are waiting on me that I haven’t met, that I need to touch in some way. Or do something positive.” That’s what I always say, too. Whenever you carry a positive message or try to do good in the world, it’s always going to be harder. When you think about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, all these people that did huge, amazing things, had the hardest time getting there. Beaten down. It’s kind of what it takes, though, to be a legend.
Getting back to music, you recently collaborated on Jacob Latimore’s song “True Sh*t,” and you directed the visual for it. How did you get into directing music videos?
I got into it from doing my own music videos. I started doing it when I was unhappy with the way other videos turned out that I didn’t do. I was like, “let me just try it.” And I feel like I’ve done enough film and TV and I watch enough movies to know what I want and the idea of where I’m going to head and so I just started doing it. The minute that happened I fell in love with it. I just try to study people that I love. Steven Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, I love his movies. Christopher Nolan is another big one. So yeah, I would just kind of do that. And then, I actually recorded that record a long time ago, “True Sh*t.” And then I had ended up not using it, so he was like “bro, I’m taking it.” And I was like “alright cool.” He was like, “I want you to do the verse on it.” So I was like “alright for sure.” And then he was like, “dude do you want to direct it?” and I was like “yeah.” So I was just thinking about the song.
To me the song was about a woman putting herself in a position that she has the capability to get out of, but she complains about where she’s at. I feel like a lot of us do that. We have the tools to get out of our own hole but we complain about being in the hole. I feel like a lot of women will be like “oh he’s this, he’s that,” but you’re still with him, you’re still seeing the guy. You’re doing it to yourself. Look what you made me do, you made me hurt you, but really it’s you. I wanted to mimic that in the video. By them trying to hurt us, they end up hurting themselves in a sense. So that’s where I was going with the whole poison and all that.
You have Rough Drafts Part II coming out soon, and Rough Drafts Part I was released last year. What’s the difference content-wise between the two?
This is a little more party, I would say. Rough Drafts I…I don’t know, I think that was party, too. It’s hard to explain. ‘Cause I really write music when I make it, it’s very impulsive. It’s never like, “okay let me sit down and make an album that’s going to be solely about this and solely about that.” It’s just like “yo, I gotta make a song.” I feel like I’m always growing. I think “Spam in a Can” was a huge difference from Rough Drafts I in terms of how open I was with my audience and fans. I’m going to strive to do that more. Even “Crocs [In My Crocs],” it’s just very close. I feel like Rough Drafts I I made a lot of good songs, but not all of them were as close to me as this one. Maybe not, maybe I’m just in a different place. But I don’t know, you gotta hear it.
What is the meaning behind the name for “SPAM in a Can?”
I used to eat Spam all the time when I was younger. So it represents the beginning to now and what people thought it was, but it’s really as raw and grimy as spam in a can, my life. It’s just being real. People see one thing and then behind the scenes it’s a very different thing. There’s a lot of people that know me and a lot of people that don’t, that assume my life is one way. Like “oh my god, you got it like this.” Of course I’m having a good time, but like I was saying before, no struggle is greater than another, regardless of the field. Just like anyone doing anything, I know it hurts, I know there’s times you want to give up but you gotta keep pushing. That’s why the video is literally representative of my life, it’s stairs. Sometimes you fall down the stairs but regardless of how heavy the weight gets, and how far it seems. Regardless how hard your leg burns from working out, you gotta keep pushing. That’s always been my message. I always tell people, the only way to lose the game is to stop playing the game. That’s why when I was little, I feel like even now, I’m really good at video games because I will play until I’m good. I don’t like to lose.
That’s actually very interesting what you said about the stairs because when you first watch the music video, or any music video, you don’t really get the meaning that the director or the artist puts into the video. One viewer might think “oh he’s just on stairs.” Now you’re saying, “no, it means that I keep going.”
Yeah, and that’s why you know ‘cause it could have just been me, just walking up the stairs. But I would sit down and breathe and feel like I’m losing my balance or falling back down a few steps but I keep going. I’m at this step longer than I was at other steps, sometimes that’s how it goes. Sometimes, you’ll be at the same steps for a while, and then you can skip two steps. It’s all relative.
In that song you also talk about your struggles being who you are. Do you feel like there’s a struggle in knowing who’s real?
Absolutely. Trustworthy people…that’s very difficult. I mean I’m thankful that I’ve never had crazy switch ups from anybody but I think that’s because I’m conscious. People are still crazy and it’s still difficult, especially with women. I like to know what their intention is. It could change, or it has changed. That’s why I often times I find myself going backwards, ‘cause I’m like “at least they knew me before.” Which isn’t good, because you left that for a reason. You go back and then it becomes a cycle, that’s the album that’s coming out after this is a lot about the cycle. It’s hard to know who is trustworthy but it’s just so funny because as long as I’ve been doing this, it’s like the people who call me “oh that’s my brother” are the same people who wouldn’t let me in the club. And I get that all the time, “oh he said you’re like his brother, you guys are best friends.” Met the guy one time. It’s kind of hard for sure. But the switch up is great. It’s almost like yes but then it’s like “dang you really are that fake.” But it feels good to know like “wow you switched up your whole thing.”
Let’s say you meet someone. How can you tell if they’re going to be real or if they’re going to end up switching up on you?
I don’t think you can tell for sure, but like I said I think I’m grateful for my intuition. I’ve always been big on vibes. Someone could do one thing and I’ll dissociate myself or keep them at arms length.
Also, in “SPAM in a Can” you talked about drugs. Would you like to further elaborate on that?
I won’t say what drugs, but I’ll say you just kind of do things. I don’t know if it’s searching for something or it’s like a self entitlement thing. But it’s growing up, it’s trying new things, it’s trying to figure it out. You try to fill voids with different things. And you realize the only things that can fill voids are yourself and things that you get. But I feel like I can’t understand people until I’ve been through certain things. That’s what I try to do. I really try to live my life to the fullest so I can understand people and even myself in a way. But surfing has helped a lot. Drinking, whatever, just finding that balance. I think life as a universal law is balanced. I think a lot of kids today could use that due to… we have a lot of people overdosing, we have a lot of people dying. A lot of people that we love, so it was kind of just a wake up call. Love. Love is another drug. That’s why even in the song I’m saying, “I’ve been falling into so much of it that I feel numb to it.” It’s like I don’t get enough of it, I can’t get enough of it from one person.
In your music, you rap and sing. Is there one you favor over the other?
I’d say I sing more than anything but sometimes when you sing good people aren’t hearing what you’re saying as much. So I feel like some songs, especially songs that are important to me I try and talk so that people are really listening to the words. But if I’m singing, they’ll be like “oh his voice is really good” but they’re not hearing what I’m saying. I just want to get the message straight to the point.
Who are people that you admire as an artist?
Prince is a huge one. Prince is a huge artist. Michael Jackson. I like Drake a lot. I like Donny Hathaway. I like a lot of country music. Rascal Flatts are my favorite, they’re dope.
You co-produced and you co-wrote your LP. Do you feel like it’s really important for you to be completely involved?
Yes. I think because of what I was saying in terms being so close to me, it’s my picture, it’s my painting. Whether I’m painting it or not, I’ve got to oversee it and be like, I like this color, I approve that color. Ian Jackson who’s my brother, who also produced a few records on the album and helps me creatively and come up with all the concepts and things, he’s the same way. He’s like “this is the idea” but if it’s not fitting here, you know, no one knows me better than him. I’m happy that he’s involved as he is. I think it’s very important, to tell your story you have to tell it. You can’t let other people tell it. They might get a word wrong. Whatever it may be. I think it’s super duper important.
Would you say you’re a perfectionist when it comes to what you do?
Yes, absolutely. I’d say that for sure. Not to any other aspect of my life, just music and acting. When it comes to my life though, my room, not really, not the neatest person.
If you could give advice to anyone wanting to be in this industry, acting or music wise, what would you say?
Do it for the art. That is the only thing that will get you through the objectives or the let downs. It elongates the process, through the ups and downs, you’ll have patience if you’re really doing it for the art. But if you’re doing it for things that are kind of deteriorating, you’ll lose motivation. So I’d say do it for the love of the art. Be a nice person. There’s a lot of successful dickheads in the world, those aren’t people you want to be. It sounds nice, like “oh they’re d**ks but at least they have money.” No, it’s not fine. You want to be loved, you want to give love and you want to be loved. I rather that than be rich.