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After Public Battle With Cervical Cancer, Nashville Singer Jessi Zazu Dies At 28

Sep 15, 2017
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Jessi Zazu fronted Those Darlins. The Nashville-based band was known for a kind of music you're probably not going to hear at the Grand Ole Opry. Zazu died at the age of 28. She had cervical cancer caused by HPV. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Some of Those Darlins songs were folksy. Some leaned alt-country. And some were poppy, like "Screws Get Loose."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCREWS GET LOOSE")

THOSE DARLINS: (Singing) I got on a plane 'cause I was going insane. And I took a little trip uptown.

LIMBONG: They lit up clubs and some bigger spaces all around the country.

SHELLEY DUBOIS: Man, they raised so much hell for a really long time.

LIMBONG: That's Shelley DuBois, a friend of Jessi Zazu.

DUBOIS: She was so good at playing the guitar. She would do this thing when she played "Mystic Mind" where during the bridge of the song, she would go out right in front of people in the audience, and she would stare right in their eyes. And people were unnerved by it, but they loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE DARLINS SONG, "MYSTIC MIND")

LIMBONG: Jessi Zazu Wariner was born just outside of Nashville. She, along with the rest of Those Darlins, were deeply involved in the Southern Girls Rock Camp, a group that teaches and supports girls interested in music. Starting in the 2000s, the band had heat from critics, fans and peers. Then in 2016, they broke up. That same year, after trips to a number of doctors, Jessi Zazu was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

DUBOIS: She kind of got discounted by certain health care professionals - not all. A lot of them felt - sort of fell in love with her and took her very seriously.

LIMBONG: DuBois helped Zazu get medical care, and she wrote about Zazu for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene. Zazu was public about her illness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSI ZAZU: Oh, my God...

LIMBONG: That's Zazu Last December. Before chemotherapy, she rounded up a bunch of friends and taped a hair-shaving party. She talked about writing a song years before being diagnosed called "Ain't Afraid."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T AFRAID")

THOSE DARLINS: (Singing) There's a tumor growing on my body. And I...

LIMBONG: It was a metaphor about getting sober, about getting yourself together and facing the things that scare you. Here's Jessi Zazu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAZU: That way maybe I could, like, get myself out of the fear. But also by other people hearing me walk through my own fear would find some sort of solace in that and say, oh, well, she's not afraid of that. Then I'm not going to be afraid either or whatever. I don't know. I don't know if it worked or not, but that was the goal.

LIMBONG: By then, it had stopped being a metaphor. Dr. Kimberly Levinson is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She focuses on prevention and treatment of cervical cancer. She says that HPV-caused cervical cancer is preventable.

KIMBERLY LEVINSON: We should not see this disease at all with the HPV vaccination that we now have, and yet women are still dying.

LIMBONG: That makes Jessi Zazu's death especially poignant. At 28, her legacy is twofold - her impact on cervical cancer awareness and on the national music scene. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WESTERN SKY")

THOSE DARLINS: (Singing) I don't want to hear another civilized roar. Let's make our own noise, make our own noise. I don't want to hear another civilized roar. Let's make our own noise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.