For Asheville-based singer Jonathan Santos, the line “I’m changing the world by changing me” is more than a catchy song title, slogan or voice mail prompt, it’s a call to action.
“Santos,” as he is commonly known, hails originally from Jamaica, Queens, New York. He spent most of his elementary through high school years in Okinawa and Yokusuka, Japan, where his mother taught English. “That culture is very important, and kind of a big part of my life, my past,” he says.
“In Japan, people are more connected, and have like an innate respect for one another, for culture, for tradition, and for community,” Santos says. “It seems that things you have to teach or remind people here, are pretty innate there.”
Santos, 28, has held on to some of the important things. He still gives a subtle, reverential bow when he meets someone, and speaks softly about balance in his life. His voice is like the clear and soulful tone of the shakuhachi.
His latest release, CWCM, was produced by Santos and Josh Blake with the crew at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville. The EP remakes many of the songs Santos released on his more acoustic 2010 debut, Changing The World By Changing Me, lovingly blending new and old school soul.
“Transformation” gets a reggae funk treatment with the Asheville Horns piping in. “Learn To Love” features the smooth harmony of singer Debrissa McKinney, and “Melody” features the rhymes of Agent 23. The title track drops a John Legend-like piano over Santos’ trademark acoustic guitar and Legend-ary smooth vocal.
“I’m hoping to use this platform to create curriculum for schools and community centers, after-school programs offering a creative outlet for youth around health, the environment and arts,” he says.
One of Santos’ first yoga teachers in Japan, Sunyata Saraswati, helped inspire Changing The World By Changing Me. “I was always making observations, this needs to change, and that needs to change,” Santos recalls. “My teacher would just shake his head and say, ‘You know, you can’t change people. That’s not going to change.’ So I meditated on it, and was determined to prove a point. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to change the world by changing myself and helping other people. And hopefully other people will catch on.’ It was nothing new, but that was where it came from.”
Santos recalls hearing jazz played in his house in Japan, along with ’80s and ’90s R&B, Bob Marley records, and gospel. “I grew up listening to gospel music, so I love that soulful element that’s tied to love,” he says. “Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ things that transcend all aspects of society and culture, but keep that heart-gripping soulful feel. I feed myself on Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Otis Redding.”
He began singing in choirs and hip-hop/R&B groups. “I started turning my poetry into songs in middle and high school, and everybody cheered me on, ‘Go for the music, keep singing,'” he recalls. Santos got an acoustic guitar and began teaching himself to play, to accompany his lyrics, rhymes and poems.
After high school, Santos returned to the US to attend college at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, NC, earning a Political Science degree while continuing to write and sing. “Being there was an eye-opening perspective of how America is,” he says. “To really see a lot of discrimination still, just getting hit with a lot of those experiences for the first time in coming back to the States, it was like, ‘Okay, this is important work.'”
Santos became active on the spoken word scene in Greensboro, Raleigh, Durham, and Winston-Salem. “Poetry, spoken word, and this love for music and culture. The things that I’ve learned through tai chi and meditation and yoga have really taught me about the universality of the human experience,” he says. “Just giving hope and inspiration, and encouraging people that they do have the power to work through whatever situation. So I guess my earliest songwriting has been more in the inspirational vein than it has been social justice-oriented or political. I’m looking to bring in more topics, more aspects of my experience.
“I want to touch on it all, like Bob Marley. He was the peoples’ news, he was the peoples’ spirituality, and he was just a pretty simple down-to-earth dude through his music. He’s one of my heroes. For years people would show up to his door, and he fed them breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just a really great strategist and humanitarian, and music was kind of a catalyst that gave him the opportunity to do so.”
In 2005, Santos attended a meeting of the arts service organization Alternate ROOTS in Asheville. He was practicing tai chi in Pack Square Park when approached by the park’s director about teaching a class for the city. “I was like ‘Okay, this place has something for me,'” he says.
In addition to teaching tai chi, Santos mentors youth through the Asheville Writers In The Schools program, is a LEAF In Streets And Schools teaching artist, and is working with the In Real Life after-school experience at Asheville Middle School. “I came up with a program called Lyrics To Life,” he explains. “It’s poetry, creative writing, and songwriting — letting the students tell their own story.”
Santos has built up his musical connections as well, appearing regularly at the funk and soul-jazz jams in Asheville, and making appearances at festivals such as Gnarnia, HATCH, and LAAF. “Now I’m figuring out how to put together my own musical project. I’ve always wanted to share music and go far myself playing,” he reflects. “And now I’m understanding that creating, sharing, inspiring, is a life-long journey.”