Jessi's Story

Jessi Zazu Wariner was born in Franklin, Tennessee.  At the young age of 26, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  She died on September 12, 2017, at the age of 28.   It is what Jessi did with the short time she had here on this earth that has inspired the creation of Jessi Zazu, Inc.

Jessi as a child; photo by  Jeff Frazier

Jessi as a child; photo by Jeff Frazier


As a child, Jessi was a naturally gifted visual artist and musician, learning to play guitar from her grandfather at the age of 8.  She painted and created puppets and collaborated with and performed with her brothers; they wrote songs and made art of all kinds.  When she needed resources for her art, her energy and drive and confidence in herself made those resources happen.  

When Jessi was 12 years old, she attended Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, thus beginning her journey toward becoming an acclaimed professional performer.  Southern Girls Rock Camp became a passion for her; when she aged out as a camper, she returned to the camp each summer to volunteer and teach.  As a volunteer she taught guitar to campers, helped them manage their own bands, and encouraged them to pursue their own passions.  She gave back what she had been given.

While attending and working with Southern Girls Rock Camp, Jessi began to play music with her friends, Kelley Anderson and Nikki Kvarnes, eventually forming Those Darlins. They took the Nashville music scene by storm and were soon touring both nationally and internationally for a large and ardent fanbase.  They recorded and received critical acclaim on three albums.  

In 2015, Jessi helped launch the Nashville chapter of the national organization, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).  As a member of the steering committee, she brought a creative eye to activism - making posters and building puppets for protests, meetings and rallies. She mobilized other artists and musicians to support grassroots activist groups like Black Lives Matter, Workers' Dignity, and the Fight for $15 campaign. 

After ten years of touring and recording, Those Darlins announced in 2016, that they were going on hiatus indefinitely.  While on the band’s farewell tour, Jessi fell ill with alarming symptoms.  One month later, she received a diagnosis of stage 4 cervical cancer caused by exposure to Human Papillomavirus (HPV).  Prior to diagnosis, Jessi had not seen a doctor in several years; she had not had a pap smear nor had she taken the Gardasil shot designed to prevent infection due to HPV.  Like many artists, she did not have health insurance, making it difficult to get the care she needed.  Planned Parenthood, with its policy of offering free health care to any who need it, became her health care giver.  

During Jessi’s 18-month struggle with cancer, she painted, wrote, built, and created constantly.  Her art remained her driving passion.  She recorded an album with her friend Linwood Regensburg.  She painted and created art for two public art installations.  And she continued her work with SURJ, serving on the steering committee, managing their social media, and creating compelling art to promote their mission and their events.   

Jessi took her fight with cancer public.  She announced on Facebook that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and declared that she “Ain’t Afraid.”  This phrase, “Ain’t Afraid,” became her mantra, and she incorporated this defiant statement of courage into her art.   In continuing Facebook posts, she kept her friends and fans up to date on her battle.  She posted beautiful portraits of herself during chemo, and candid shots of herself in her hospital bed, in her home, with her therapy dog.  She encouraged all of us to stay strong with her, to love each other “real hard,” and to “welcome the coming storms.”  She never stopped smiling.  She never stopped creating.  She never stopped loving and comforting and encouraging her friends, her family, and her fans.  

photo by Linwood   Regensburg

photo by Linwood Regensburg

Jessi Zazu lived an extraordinary life that tragically ended far too soon.

Her work, her passion, her art, her enthusiasm for social justice, and her commitment to opportunity and education for girls everywhere must be continued here.  Jessi Zazu inspired us to be better artists, better musicians, better activists while she was here on earth.  So Jessi Zazu, Inc. exists today to continue Jessi’s work and to tell her story.  

Her extraordinary life continues to inspire us as we memorialize her legacy and continue the work that she began.