My favorite thing about the size of Jacksonville is the diversity that comes with it. Aside from the racial diversity, nearly every single subculture has representation. Our music community has the full range of country to drill rap, art from industrial size public art installations to miniature model specialists and a culinary culture boasting 5-star restaurants and hole-in-the-wall hot spots. We get to choose where on the spectrum we want to fill and support; the niches are simultaneously plentiful and filled.
To no surprise, the entire spectrum of musicians showed out for Folio’s Second Annual Battle of the Bands. Unlike similar competitions where musicians perform in front of a live audience with judges deciding the winner, Folio’s BotB has artists submit their best performance on video for an open voting format where readers get to choose their favorite via online voting.
This year we had entries representing a wide range of genres including Annie Dukes, a female-fronted twang band, and Gravity, a rock and roll band sporting heavy bass riffs and fast guitar, but it was Monique Denise and her smooth R&B/gospel inspired vocals who came out on top.
I had the opportunity to hang out with Monique and her band recently, running around Downtown shooting photos, snagging drinks at Volstead and having an all-around great time. After the evening was over, I had no question why she won; her energy is infectious and easily felt through her music.
Monique is a lifelong singer, learning to sing alongside her peers in church as a little girl. She’s since made the transition into secular music and began making an impact in the local scene in 2016 performing solo at local restaurants. She eventually formed a band, which still stands by her side to this day. Monique holds down the vocals, while Rashard Lavender plays the keys and key bass and mixes audio. Deshon Hunter is the lead guitarist, and Mike Walker keeps the tempo on drums.
“Growing up in church, when people sing, you can feel what they sing. You can feel they mean what they’re singing. They’re singing from a deep place … When you come over to the secular realm, I’ve always kind of felt like maybe people write songs, and they sing them, but you don’t always get the true feeling unless you’re actually going through it. And so one of the things that I always said I wanted to try to do is when I sing that song, I want people to be able to connect with me and the song. So I want to be connected to people, you know, with people the same way you do in the church. I want to show the same emotion,” she said.
Unfortunately, a year after Monique started making a name for herself in music, she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.
“After I went through treatment, in 2018, I went into remission. And then my whole mindset just kind of changed, as far as, you know, life’s too short. So that’s when I really started pursuing [music] more as a profession. And really investing in myself and knocking on doors and trying to make some moves to do what I enjoy doing and do what makes me happy,” explained Monique.
It wasn’t until the day after we hung out I learned Monique was still undergoing chemotherapy. After a few years of performing music, she began to develop serious pain in her lower back, and due to COVID-19, her cancer check appointments became more sporadic, which ultimately led to the disease’s return, as stage four cancer in her spine.
“One morning, we went to do the video shoot, and I’m in excruciating pain, like, I can barely stand up. But I’m like, ‘We’re gonna get this video done. I’m so excited. We’re gonna do it.’ And so we finished the video, we did everything. And then after the video, [the pain] was just so bad I drove myself, I didn’t tell anybody, to the emergency room, and they did some scans, CT, ultrasound, and they basically told me that the cancer had come back. Three parts of my vertebrae were crushed, and I had some fractured ribs,” she explained. “The key is that cancer now is stable. I still experience the pain, and I’m in pain more times than not when people see me, but I just keep it moving. I go get injections once a month, and I take a chemo pill daily.”
She doesn’t let her condition slow her down or prevent her from doing the things she wants. If anything, it’s inspired her to push even harder and take bigger risks. “How can I tell my kids to chase after their dreams, if I’m not doing it,” she said. Monique found that music has been an incredible outlet for emotion and has ultimately taught her what’s most important in her life. As a single mother, she knows her two children have been a vital aspect of her positive attitude and encourage her to keep following her dreams.
Since the formation of the band, they’ve had multiple performances at the Apollo Theater in New York City, an iconic non-profit catalyst for up-and-coming talents who “partner in the projection of the African-American narrative and its role in the development of American and global culture.” They’ve also performed at local festivals like the LOL Jax Film Festival and have recorded music with PRI Productions.
The band’s sound has matured with time. They’ve spun their collective background in gospel-worship music into an original mix of blues, jazz, R&B and country. They have found love from crowds of all backgrounds and will continue to do so in the upcoming year. They’re currently prepping for a major showdown in Orlando. Monique hopes to continue traveling with her music, perform at a few festivals and get back on the Apollo stage in New York.
“I always look for how I can take something and use it to encourage others. It’s one of those things that when you feel like maybe I should stop, maybe I should give up, especially with my health and everything I got going on. And then I won Battle of the Bands, and it’s like, I don’t mean to get too spiritual, but it’s like, ‘OK, God. Maybe you’re telling me I need to just stay,’” she explained. “It’s now or never.”
Check out Monique’s Instagram at @moniquedenisesongstress for updates on upcoming shows. And stay tuned in with Folio for your chance to see her perform at Folio Headquarters.