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  • Tara Crutchfield

Eddie ‘Smoke’ Jackson

Fourth-grade teacher and Fire Light Reggae frontman Eddie ‘Smoke’ Jackson uses music to make a positive change in his classroom and community. The drummer and vocalist grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2003 he and his wife Jaime decided they needed a change. He told his boss at the Guitar Center that he and his wife would travel down the east coast, and he’d transfer jobs wherever they landed. They stayed with family in Winter Haven towards the end of their trip. “We liked the area. We realized that it was a place we could affect some change. We saw some bits of progress popping up and thought, ‘We can be a part of this and help push it forward,’”


said Jackson. He and Jaime have lived here for 18 years and have two daughters, Juliana, 16, and Jalah, 15. Jackson is a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Sikes Elementary School. Jaime, a jewelry and fiber artist, owns a local business called Jaime Jay Handmade.


TAKING CENTER STAGE

Music has been central to Jackson’s life. The soundtrack to his childhood was plentiful with Jamaican reggae music from the likes of Bob Marley and Barrington Levy. As a teen in the mid- to late90s he jammed out to Super Cat, Buju Banton, Garnett Silk, and Morgan Heritage who he said “were creating some of the best reggae and dancehall music at the time.”


“They started to influence the way that I played and the way that I wrote. Those were some of my big influences on the reggae side, but I also grew up listening to Gospel, to punk rock music,” said Jackson. “One of my favorite artists of all time is Prince. His work ethic and ability to play every instrument and touch on every type of genre of music and make it his own influenced the way I approach and appreciate music. He’s my biggest influence.”


He played drums and sang in the church choir as a kid, eventually singing and performing in high school. Jackson penned his first original song during his senior year.


His high school drama teacher, Hope Hartup, had perhaps the most profound impact on his early musical life. Jackson remembers playing Conrad Birdie in his senior production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” “That was probably the first time I was front and center entertaining in that way,” he said. “She saw something in me that other people didn’t and encouraged it.”


One of the most significant opportunities Hartup gave Jackson was a spot on a drama club trip to London when another student had to back out. “She said, ‘Eddie, there’s a ticket, there’s room for you. [...] You’re going to come on this trip with us.’”


Jackson described the transformative trip abroad as “absolutely amazing.” He remembers, “We went to theater productions in London, got to take a train trip out to Stratford-upon-Avon. [...] I got to explore the city and ride the Underground. My last day there was a completely free day.” Hartup told her students to walk around, have some fun, and explore on their last day in London. “And I did. It was one of the best experiences of my life.” Jackson lit up as he talked, his energy filling up the room.


As his high school career came to a close, teachers and guidance counselors nudged Jackson to go to school for writing or journalism. “But it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be involved in music,” he said. Hartup connected him with a personal friend of hers, a drum instructor who waived lesson fees for the promising young musician. Hartup’s husband was a professional musician, giving Jackson marimba lessons so he could ace his melodic instrument auditions. Though he didn’t end up going to school for percussion, Jackson said, “She was right there supporting me, no matter what I wanted to do.”


Jackson and his high school drama club teacher remain friends. Mrs. Hartup even attended his wedding. Her influence reached beyond his time as a student and into his work as a teacher himself. “She let me know teachers have to connect, and they shouldn’t be afraid to do it. So, I try to make those kinds of connections with my kids as often as possible.”


FIRE LIGHT FRONTMAN

Following high school, Jackson attended the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he studied studio engineering. After his studies, Jackson’s love of reggae transferred into a ska band. “We had a nine-piece group, full horn section, enthusiastic kids jumping around stage in these crazy shows at the local punk rock clubs,” he said. Using his studio engineering background, at just 19-years-old Jackson recorded, engineered, and produced his band’s album.


After the younger kids in the band graduated and went off to college, he was recruited for a reggae band in the area called Holy Smoke. The band eventually went their separate ways, and Jackson began DJing with Thomas Dubee (who later started record label, Upsetta Records, for whom Jackson has recorded) for the few years leading up to his move from Connecticut to Florida. “I packed up my drums, packed up the house, packed up my records. Jaime packed up all her jewelry supplies, and we hit the road.”


When the couple arrived and settled in Polk County, Jackson was one of the few people DJing reggae music in local bars and clubs. Tanner’s then-owner Debbie Tennick gave Jackson his first gig. When he formed The Burn Dem Band, she invited them to play there as well. The Burn Dem Band, led by frontmen Eddie ‘Smoke’ Jackson and Everton ‘Aqua’ Hill, would play throughout Lakeland and Ybor City. “We were super high-energy. On any given night, you probably see one of us jumping up on a table or running across a bar and getting people hyped up,” said Jackson.


Fire Light Reggae, Jackson’s current band, ‘ignited’ from The Burn Dem Band. Able to sing and play drums, he and keyboard player Pablo Mastodon would book smaller venues and private parties as a duo. The name Fire Light alludes to the scaled-down version of the original band. Eventually, they started doing all their gigs as a duo, adding members here and there for larger sets. Fire Light’s current iteration consists of Eddie ‘Smoke’ Jackson, Pablo Mastodon, and female vocalist Syreeda Battle. The vocalist and drummer acknowledged his appreciation for his Fire Light bandmates for the chemistry they share both on stage and off.


Fire Light Reggae is a “roots reggae band with influences from soul, hip hop, and dancehall all mixed together,” according to Jackson. “Some of the songs I write don’t always fit right into that reggae vein because my influences are so varied.” Like the alternative rock-influenced song “Wannabe a Star” with ten tracks of arranged guitar playing throughout. Making music is a collaborative effort for the band. Jackson will start with lyrics and melody at his home studio. “In my free time, I’m able to work out the skeleton of a song, and I’ll send it to Pablo and see what ideas he has for it. He’ll record a bit at his place, send me the files back, and it’ll bounce back and forth until we can see each other again and really flesh out the songs.”


After scaling back on where and how often they perform in response to the pandemic, Fire Light looks forward to more shows. The reggae band has a steady set at the Poor Porker on the second Saturday of each month.



“We’ve tried to make it not just a reggae night, but more of a reggae and Jamaican cultural night,” said Jackson. Part of that experience is modern Jamaican fare prepared by Our Noire Kitchen. Jackson, who raved about their jerk chicken and mango slaw, met these pop-up culinary artists at a Buena Block Party and hooked them up at his Poor Porker gigs.


“That’s one of the things we were looking forward to doing here in Lakeland – finding other people who were doing different things and seeing how we can help them along. It sounds kind of cliché these days, but we really are stronger together. […] When you see potential in an area, you can’t just sit back and say, ‘It looks cool, and it’s probably going to grow.’ You can’t let things try and grow organically. If you want to see change happen in an area, you’ve got to put yourself out there, you’ve got to take some risks, and try and make that change happen. […] Because if you want some kind of change, the odds are that there is somebody else who just needs a little bit more push who wants that same thing.”


MUSIC IN MATH CLASS

His career trek into teaching was spurred by a class he taught while working at the Guitar Center in Tampa. They started a ‘Recording Made Easy’ course where Jackson would teach beginners how to use recording software. Jackson’s penchant for teaching shone through as the class grew from five or six to 25-30 students at a time. One of his music students, a veteran teacher in Hillsborough County, took note of Jackson’s abilities in the classroom and asked why he wasn’t teaching in the school system. Jackson asked himself the same question, and it stuck with him.


“Both of my daughters are autistic and having to navigate the public school system, trying to make sure that they got the services they needed, making sure that they got everything possible out of the education they could in Polk County – it opened my eyes to some of the struggles other parents were going through. Knowing that I had the aptitude to teach, knowing I had the patience for young kids, and that a lot of other people needed help – that pushed me over the edge to try and get into teaching,” said Jackson, now in his fourth year in the classroom. He taught second grade before moving into his current position as a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Sikes Elementary School.


“I love seeing the kids learn. When they can make that connection between what I’m teaching and something in the real world, and that light clicks on in their head like, ‘Oh, I’m not wasting my time, I’m not here being babysat. This person is not just speaking at me. They’re trying to connect and help me learn,’ It lets me know that I’m in the right spot and I’m doing the right thing,” said Jackson. “When I get messages from kids I taught a few years ago and from their parents saying, ‘He’s doing so well. He hated school before you were his teacher, and now, he’s getting As and Bs, and he’s engaged in class.’ Hearing stories like that definitely lets me know I’m in the right place.”


One way Jackson engages his students is through music. He writes and performs songs for the kids and uploads them to YouTube so they can go home and share them with their parents.


“When the kids come in, in the morning, there’s music playing to set the mood,” he said. His choice of music depends on the demands of the day or the face of the first student to walk in. “If we need to get the energy up, then I might play some more lively jazz. Sometimes I’ll play the instrumentals from the “Hamilton” soundtrack.” His classroom reverberates with the classical versions of pop songs from the show “Bridgerton” and songs from his reggae roots like a little Bob Marley or Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander.


“I always try to expose them to something different,” Jackson said. “During the different cultural celebration months we have – like Hispanic Heritage Month – I made sure I canvassed the different kids in the class and pulled music from their backgrounds. This year I’ve got kids from Colombia, kids from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua. I pulled music from their cultures and had that playing when the kids came in.”


Not only do those children recognize it and respond to it, he said, “It gets the other kids asking where’s this from, where’s that from, do you have any more of this?” Jackson even encourages parents to engage with their children about what they are learning or listening to in the classroom to “open up those cultural windows just a little bit more.”



Jackson is currently deep in the trenches of producing a new Fire Light Reggae album titled “#realityvibes.” Inspired in a roundabout way by the hollow ‘Good Vibes Only’ message on shirts, bumper stickers, and social media posts, Jackson’s album title urges the listener to pay attention to the reality of a situation, good and bad.


“I’m not here to tell you it’s sunny when it’s raining on your head, but I will tell you what that rain is going to bring you. Enjoy the reality of the moment that you’re in. Respect the reality of the moment that you’re in,” Jackson said. “For instance, it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There are celebrations going on to celebrate his life. At the same time, we can’t get voting rights reform passed in congress. You can’t gloss over what the man stood for by offering entertainment. You’ve got to dig in and see what work we still have to do.”


He related “#realityvibes” to his work in the classroom and as a parent navigating the school system. “I can have successes with some kids, but I know when I have to dig in and help those kids who might get overlooked. On paper, you can see that you’ve got an 80-90% success rate on this test or this skill. I’m not worried about that 90% right now. It’s that other 10% who are still falling behind that I’ve got to grab and pull up. [...] It’s kids and parents dealing with disabilities at school who don’t know how to navigate the system to get services for their children. That’s where “#realityvibes” comes from. You’ve got to put out a vibe, but it’s not good vibes only.”


Follow Fire Light on social media for information on a GoFundMe to support the artwork and finalization of the audio and vinyl printing for “#realityvibes.” Fans who donate a certain amount will get a vinyl record once it is printed along with a bonus album mixtape called “Reignited,” which will take some of the band’s favorite songs and reimagine them in reggae. Upon release, the album will be available for download and streaming, and on custom USB drives with music and artwork.


Jackson, unfortunately, lost his mother in December. “I couldn’t sing without breaking down crying for a couple of weeks. It was really rough,” he said. After taking some time to grieve, he is diligently back to work on the album’s production and expects to release it in April.


Fire Light Reggae

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Soundcloud: SoundCloud.com/Edward-d-Jackson (Searchable as Fire Light Reggae)

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