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Tiffany Jackson muscled her way from opera houses to bodybuilding stages to Western Carolina University

Tiffany Jackson on stage in her solo show, "Rising of the Necessary Diva."
Tiffany Jackson on stage in her solo show, "Rising of the Necessary Diva."

Tiffany Jackson first performed her autobiographical show under the title “From the Hood to the Ivy League.”

“I used to walk from the projects, from hearing gunshots every night, to singing a Mozart aria,” she said. “‘From the Hood to the Ivy League’ is a story. It’s not an active event. So the event is the rising.”

Even the revised title—“Rising of the Necessary Diva”—doesn’t quite capture Jackson’s unique path. She went from a happy upbringing in inner-city New Haven, Conn., to esteemed concert halls, stages of competitive bodybuilding, a run to the semifinals of “America’s Got Talent,” capped by a PhD in vocal performance. Today, she is a voice professor at Western Carolina University. She's performing her show Jan. 26 on campus at the Bardo Arts Center.

“At Western, my faculty recital, I performed traditional Spanish music with a guitar player, I sang some French songs, some Jewish poems, I sang some jazz and blues,” she recalled. “This Tiffany Jackson—she’s trying to be all the things. As a service to my students, my Western voice students don’t understand they can be all the things.”

Athletics ran through Jackson’s family, but she received early validation from teachers for her vocal talents. In her teens, her mother channeled her into elite voice programs. Jackson recalls happy memories of jumping double-dutch as a kid, taking voice lessons and playing sports through her school years. She rejects the notion that her talents, alone, printed a ticket out of the Church Street South housing project.

“You can’t escape history. It is a part of who we are, no matter what side of the track we’re on,” she said. “But I’m doing fine. I have friends who have homes now. I have friends who have been working all their lives and have families. Yeah, I also know a whole bunch of dead Black men who got caught up in the drug game. The way I’m wired is to see the glass as half full. I got that from my mama.”

Jackson attributes her perspective to her mother, who grew up in the deep South in the 1940s and ‘50s in Titus, Ala. Jackson said her mother was focused on “survival and thriving and not someone who is a victim to their circumstances.”

In the first decade of this century, Jackson established herself as a featured soloist with orchestras and in opera houses throughout the United States and Europe. But as she noticed cutbacks with the recession, she pivoted, at age 39, to bodybuilding. She hired a coach and competed at elite levels for more than two years. She then felt called back into music and pursued a doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music.

“I could be both the bodybuilder and the singer when I was in Harlem. I felt really I had found the intersection between the two,” she said. “I have this mantra where it’s train the mind to control the body that houses your soul.”

Western Carolina University is Jackson’s first tenure-track faculty position, but she questions whether the region fits well for her. Without getting specific, she said she’s has had experiences on campus and off she described as harmful.

“It’s been hard for me, I’m not gonna lie. It’s been tough,” she said. “When I go to the local Wal-Mart, I feel uncomfortable. When you see confederate flags everywhere, on hats and tags, I’m constantly reminded ‘Oh yeah, you’re Black.’ Oddly enough, I’m ok with that, because I need not get it twisted and forget, just because I have this fancy professorship and my students love me and my mama loves me, that not everybody feels that way.”

Jackson said that’s why her one-woman show, a mix of music and storytelling, has an ending in constant evolution. At 53, Jackson said her days of competitive bodybuilding aren’t necessarily over. She also foresees converting her stage show into a printed memoir.

“At the end (of the show), I always use a gospel sermon that is the most dynamic for me, so I can use the pulpit literally to preach,” she said. “The scripture that I talk about is ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, rulers of the darkness, spiritual wickedness in high places,’ and then I translate them into ‘What are those spaces inside us?’ We’re not fighting against others. Our fight is within.”

NOTE: The Bardo and this event are sponsors of Blue Ridge Public Radio.

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.