Proper’s ‘Jean’ Celebrates the Life of Jean Jimenez-Joseph, Who Died in ICE Custody
Jean Jimenez-Joseph was a talented drummer, carpenter, and one of the smartest men Proper frontman Erik Garlington ever met. Tragically, in May 2017, he became another victim of ICE’s dehumanizing war on undocumented people. Jimenez-Joseph died by suicide in Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center after repeatedly telling officials, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement helpline, about his thoughts of self-harm. Despite his pleas for help, he was left in his solitary confinement cell. He was 27.
“The thing that really shook me was seeing the pictures of Jean’s cell,” Garlington says over the phone. “There’s no windows. It’s just a cot and a toilet, and he was allowed to draw. So it was just seeing his mental state deteriorate in real time through his drawings, his self-portraits. It’s another thing that he was really good at. And it just seems really cruel to lock someone up and not tell them when they can get out.”
Garlington, who grew up all over the South, got to know Jimenez-Joseph during a later stint in Kansas City. By 2017, Garlington was in New York chasing his music dreams, and had formed Proper, a band full of Black and Brown, mostly queer, musicians. “Just trying to make an inclusive band after a lifetime of living in the Bible Belt and not feeling seen,” Garlington reflects. In his own words, he “burned a lot of bridges” on his way east, and he hadn’t kept up with his friends back in Missouri. When he learned what had happened to his friend in 2022, he was so distraught that he sought to honor Jimenez-Joseph’s life through song. That’s when he wrote “Jean,” a song from Proper’s album Great American Novel.
“They let a brilliant mind like yours/Waste away behind a locked door,” Garlington sings over rousing guitars. Garlington says that “Jean” was so well-received that the band decided to create a music video, which was directed by Jeffrey Mundinger, a friend from Kansas City who Garlington had reconnected with. He flew back to Missouri for the video, which is being released now, a year after the album. The first half of the visual splices clips of Jean laughing and rollicking with his loved ones, while the second half is a mini-documentary in which Garlington, Jean’s other friends, and his family talk about their memories of Jean’s talent, personality, and smile.
“Humanization was the goal,” Garlington says. “I know that people are going to hear the lyrics and be like, ‘This doesn’t match the video.’ But we really didn’t want another person that’s been victimized to have the last thing that people see about them be just the sadness that they went through.” The second half of the video mostly focuses on happy memories. But Jean’s sister Karina Jimenez, who has advocated for her brother and other people in ICE detention centers, also speaks to his family’s fight for justice in the video.
“It isn’t over yet,” she says. “The wrongs will be made right… We’ve fought for that, we’ve done a lot of litigation over the years, we have fought for policies to change, for laws to be reformed, and we can do some of that. But ultimately speaking, God is going to bring to justice every wrong deed… Every person that knowingly did something to cause the unjust suffering and death of so many people like Jean.”
Jimenez-Joseph’s family is working with Al Otro Lado, a human rights nonprofit, in his memory. Proper also want their song and video to amplify the cause of Detention Kills, a collective of activists who “envision a world where immigration Detention Centers do not exist,” as the group’s official site says.
We talked to Garlington about Proper’s story, his memories of Jean, the creation of the “Jean” song and video, and the inhumanity of ICE detention centers.
Can you speak to how you want your work with Proper to affirm the roots of rock as Black music?
From the jump, I wanted to be really punk and make white people uncomfortable. But as I got older and exited my early twenties, I would rather express the Black experience and show how beautiful it can be as a southerner, as a Black person, as a queer person, as an autistic person — and through the roots of rock music, that would be the best way to do it. I grew up listening to rap also, but I really wanted to see what I could do with a guitar and a band behind me.
What was the acclimation like moving from Kansas City to New York?
It was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was 24, I was pretty naive and I thought “OK, it’s New York, I’ll just put out a Craigslist ad and people will come flocking.” It didn’t really work that way. It took me probably the first two years to find the indie/emo music scene, and then another year to find my bandmates and start teaching them the songs that I had written for our very first record. It was an uphill battle that I thought would be really easy. And of course, like most things, it was not.
Where did the song “Jean” start for you?
I knew it was something I’d wanted to write about for a while, I just didn’t know how to say it. When I left Kansas City, I didn’t hear from anybody for about five years. And then when I did hear from anyone, it was to tell me that Jean passed and what had happened to him.
I didn’t feel ready to talk about it for our second record, which is right around the time it happened, and with [Covid] lockdown, it really felt like the world was ending. [But] it would be a disservice to not write about this topic and my friend and what he went through and how many messed-up things are still happening at once and how we can have time to focus on all of them.
What kind of person was Jean?
He was the textbook definition of an everyman. He was a drummer, he was really great at that. He spoke three languages. He was a model. He had a six-pack out of nowhere, and me at 20 with all of our friends just drinking all day… He was an inspiration to try and get in shape, which I would fail at all the time. He was a carpenter. He could build things with his hands.
And mind you, this is when we’re all like 19, 20, 21. So that blew my mind. He could do anything he set his mind to. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He would just casually be reading books in French. He would read the Bible because he found the Spanish-language version of it.
He always wanted to learn. And back then, when I was just a shithead 20-year old that wanted to party, it really shifted the trajectory of my life to be like, “Partying is cool, it’s fun, but I could also take a day to learn a skill, or I could practice my instrument, or I can try to learn Spanish because I’m Afro-Latino.” He was the person in the group that everyone was just like, “Oh, there’s an issue? I bet Jean knows how to solve it.”
Did you ever collaborate with him as a bandmate?
No, I was too intimidated. He was too good. Back then I was not a confident guitar player. I was writing songs that would become Proper songs, but I wasn’t performing them like that. I was still too afraid to even perform for people. Jean was the drummer everyone would go to because he was that good, and I was just not on that level.
Did you think about doing a “Jean” music video initially for the album?
No, honestly, it wasn’t until the feedback we’d start getting where everyone was like, “‘Jean’ is my favorite song.” Or even Dan Campbell from the Wonder Years, he co-produced this record, so we’d be on Zoom sessions, even help me writing stuff… and whenever I’d see him, he’d be like, “‘Jean’ is the song.” It went from a thing that I was shy to even write about, let alone share with people, to where it made sense for it to be a single and to do a video.
How long did it take to write the lyrics?
I have a pretty quick turnaround for lyrics, so I think it was only a day or two. I think it was one day, and then I showed it to Dan and then he helped me edit it into a couple places that narratively flowed a bit better. So probably at max two days.
What was the process in terms of the video treatment? Is the video that we see now always the idea?
That was always the idea. Maybe a year and a half ago I rekindled the friendship with the person that introduced me to Jean and everyone I knew in Kansas City, Jeffrey, and I was like, “Hey, I’m sorry we haven’t spoken in almost a decade. I miss you. What’s been going on?”
He’s a videographer and he is really good at it. And then one day the light bulb went off. I was just like, “I should fly to Kansas City and we should do a video for ‘Jean.'” And then kind of just lightning in a bottle, we had the idea, we texted whoever was still in the city and we put it together last August, I believe.
Jean’s family is in the video as well. Were they eager to be a part of it, or was it something that they needed convincing to do?
Oh no, they were eager. Jean’s sister, Karina, she already has so much activism work that she does. And for Jean’s case specifically, she got with Detention Kills and has been trying to get as many eyes on his story and his case as possible. So she was down immediately. She very badly wants justice for her brother, as do I. She was like, “What do you need from me? Let’s make it happen.”
We really tried to emphasize interviewing people, and one of the questions was like, “What’s your favorite memory of Jean?” We wanted to make sure to show the best moments that we could with him and about him. I think humanization is one of the greatest acts of defiance you can do. To show even more people how great of a light shone through that man was always the intent.
Can you speak to how immigration affects all POC in America?
Growing up in the Bible Belt, it was always just this thought that, “Get a real job, move here legally,” et cetera — even though we’re on stolen land as it is. There are people like Jean who were here since they were children, and that’s all they know. There are so many different stories that you hear about Vietnamese people down in New Orleans, obviously a lot of Spanish people in the Southwest. [We’re] trying to spread that word that there’s no such thing as one type of American, there’s no such thing as an illegal immigrant. This country is founded on illegal immigrants and immigration.
How much experience do you have with undocumented people and their struggles with ICE?
Just Jean. I knew back then that he was undocumented. I would drive him to and from this work lot every day, where he’d just kind of hang around, someone picks you up. I would drop him off at probably 5:30 in the morning and I would go pick him up probably at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and he would do it all over again the next day. It really opened my eyes as a 20-year-old.
You’re also trying to raise awareness of Detention Kills. What is it about that particular organization that made you want to amplify that through the song and the video?
I’m a pretty lucky guy in the fact that I hadn’t faced much death and loss in that certain way in my life. So Jean was a real turning point for me. For one, to try and take music more seriously, because we had the sparks of something and I didn’t really appreciate it. That made me realize I could really go tomorrow, being a Black man, a queer man in this country. And also just the fact that it’s really cruel what some people are being put through, all for something as ridiculous as immigration status, again, in this country that is founded from illegal immigration. I would say that people don’t need to suffer in custody. It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s cruel, it’s unnecessary.
What was Jean’s family’s reaction to the song?
Karina said she played it for her family. She has a son now who’s named Jean, and she really appreciated that we were even speaking about it, that we were trying to get more eyes on this thing. So [they had a] a gratitude and appreciation, and [it sent] her down memory lane about how good of a person her brother was and how talented he was. He really could have been a senator or president one day.
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