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I’m tripping in disbelief when folk-funk artist Jai Michael informs me he was once so shy that he wouldn’t even eat in public. “I was neurotic as a kid—a pint-size Woody Allen,” he laughs, volunteering that he decided to forgo his initial career goal as a psychiatrist to pursue aspirations as a singer.

The at-times-still-introverted, stoic-looking Jason Michael Francis Green knew early on that he wanted to be a performer. But for a good while he was one of few who believed he could do it. “I spent so much time being treated like a loser. I grew up the redheaded stepchild of the boojie D.C. scene. Other kids were very much into sports; all I did was play drums,” he says.

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Admittedly accustomed to being dismissed as a hack or a bullshit artist, the 25-year-old asserts, “People would see me and think I was either dumb, gay, or an egotistical prick. It’s only recently that D.C. has given me love as an artist. The people who would come see me play would look at me, see this high-yellow brother with this acoustic guitar, and say, ‘What the fuck kinda show is this gon’ be?’”

But strong misconceptions soon gave way to a staunch fan base in his hometown. At a Friday-night State of the Union show, the room is packed with family, friends, and numerous others—from big, roughneck-looking brothers to trendy, nose-ringed 20-year-olds—all nodding their heads to Michael’s very un-D.C. music.

In an area where go-go and hiphop rule, Michael is proud of the niche he has been able to carve for himself. He is always excited by the high turnout of blacks at his shows. “I’m always shocked, but it makes me feel really good,” he says. In a city where competition among local artists is fierce, Michael explains, “They would rather spit on you than look at you—but I’m humbled by the love I’ve received from other musicians this year.”

Soon off to Atlanta to record his first album, Michael says his musical aspirations were also greeted with skepticism by his parents, education-minded folks who gave no real credence to his desire to skip college and try show business. They have now had a change of heart, however, their eyes lighting up when their nonconforming youngest child commands center stage.

Michael explains that he’s been singing since age 11, but was 20 years old before his parents ever heard him. He recalls with a chuckle their reaction to hearing his voice on a demo tape: “They heard the singing and were, like, ‘Who’s that singing?’ ‘That’s me,’ I told them.”

Their loving response: “You can sing?”—Deborah Rouse