How big is your dream?
Jorel Flynn had just enjoyed one of the biggest nights of his life, touring with R&B singers Kelly Price, Dave Hollister and Glenn Jones, when a voice in his head posed that question.
It was a good one.
Flynn was a 26-year-old from Waycross, where for many African-Americans the path to economic and social mobility, stability and success was fraught with distractions.
From a demographic standpoint, it wasn’t the worst place a black kid could grow up, but it didn’t offer a lot of opportunity either.
If people dreamed at all, Flynn said, you didn’t hear about them.
Flynn and his seven siblings, though, had grown up with certain advantages others in the neighborhood lacked. He had two highly involved parents, who, in addition to passing on their faith to their children, taught them the importance of hard work, respecting their elders, the principles of sowing and reaping, and the power of prayer. While his father, a church deacon, worked to provide the family with shelter, food and clothing, his mother, an evangelist, made sure he and his seven siblings were busy and as far away from trouble as possible.
From an early age, Flynn played sports and dabbled in music, playing bass guitar, trombone, drums and a little piano.
When one of his teachers forced him to give up drums to play tuba in middle school, he gave it all up.
“I had a problem with my weight,” he recalled recently. “The tuba enhanced my (midsection).”
Flynn sought his identity on the football field, earning the nickname JFly for his speed, but nothing compared to the feeling he got when he played drums.
“Every time I played drums, people paid attention,” he said.
In 1994, Flynn graduated from Waycross High and moved to Atlanta to find himself.
He would eventually enroll at DeKalb College and he began work on an electronic technology degree, but in 2002, a year before he was scheduled to graduate, Flynn got a call to go on tour.
“All this time, I had been playing drums for community choirs, not getting paid, just doing it because I loved it,” he said.
He was in New York with gospel great James Bignon when his passion for music awakened in him and he began to realize all the career options that provided.
Flynn’s energy shifted from pursuing a college degree to the world of entertainment.
He was relaxing on the tour bus, heading from Minneapolis to Miami, reflecting on where he was and where he wanted to be, when the question popped in his head.
“It was a divine moment,” he said. “God dropped in my spirit how big is your dream.”
He had no idea how to answer that, but he believed God wouldn’t ask him to do something without providing the resources to get it done.
“I prayed about it and stepped out on faith,” he said.
The offers started to pour in — music director at Turner South with Ryan Cameron, the Heisman Trophy Awards with violinist Ken Ford, the Soul Train Awards and BET’s “Sunday Best”; drummer on the soundtrack for the movie “The Fighting Temptations”; and drummer in Tyler Perry’s “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” and “The Family That Preys.”
As life happened around him, Flynn, music director for WSB’s “Georgia Salutes America” 4th of July celebration and fireworks display, started to think about all the other kids, “who live their lives so far away from their destiny because they are afraid to take a leap of faith.”
Meanwhile in 2009, he returned to Waycross, where he hosted a free music festival, featuring the likes of Bobby Brown, Toni Terry and Jennifer Holliday. The event drew over 30,000 people and continued for eight years.
Still focused on the question, Flynn began volunteering at metro Atlanta schools, talking to students about staying true to themselves.
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In 2011, he founded the nonprofit How Big Is Your Dream to encourage and mentor kids interested in pursuing careers in entertainment.
“We take dreams and help turn them into reality,” he said.
To accomplish that, Flynn hosted what is now the How Big Is Your Dream Academy of the Arts, a four-week summer program in which industry professionals teach student ages 8 to 18 music theory and technology, production, to sing and dance and other disciplines.
That was in 2012.
“I didn’t have a marketing strategy,” he said. “I did an email blast and a post on Facebook.”
They were a week away from the opening, with no registrants, when a board member noticed they’d been checking the wrong server. They launched the program with 30 students.
To showcase what they’d learned, Flynn held a finale concert. More than 600 turned out for the big event at Decatur’s Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center.
Today the academy, which is taking applications for its next group of aspiring artists, has a cap of 80 students.
Flynn, known in the industry simply as JFly, still finds it all hard to believe.
“Even now as the first black president for the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter (Grammys), it doesn’t feel real,” he said.
In many ways, it isn’t. What started as a dream for this father of three, these days feels more like an obligation to give back, to awaken dreams in others.
For Jorel Flynn, that’s simply an honor.
Eighth Annual Unity Concert
8 p.m. April 19. $20-$50. Clayton County Performing Arts Center, 2530 Mount Zion Parkway, Jonesboro. howbigisyourdream.org.
Academy of the Arts Open House
7 p.m. May 14. Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, 3181 Rainbow Drive, Decatur. Register at howbigisyourdream.org.
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