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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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American Idol and beyond
Denise Jackson and Rafael Ragland shoot for the stars after brushes with poverty and crime

Little ditty 'bout Rafael and Denise

Two American kids trying to find them some peace

To invite a girl who's beautiful and charming, and who's been on American Idol - twice! - and who's regarded in many quarters as Madison's brightest musical hope, you might imagine the boys would have been lined up all the way to Monona Drive. But she wasn't a party person like the popular kids, because "parties put you in a position to get in trouble, and trouble's not something I want to be in." So Denise Jackson not only attended this year's La Follette High School prom dateless, but had to dress herself for it, and redo her own coiffure after it fell.

You might have thought her mother, Charmaine Brown, who gave birth to Denise while strung out on crack, and who has since assured a local newspaper that "if I could take back the things that hurt [my daughters] during my drug addiction, I would, in a heartbeat," might have welcomed an opportunity to show Denise how much she loves her, but fat chance. She might have renounced the crack pipe, but she's replaced it with the bottle, and instead of being a source of comfort and support to her daughter is only a major source of aggravation to her daughter's best friend, Rafael, who had to drive Denise to and from the prom in a car with a windshield Charmaine had cracked a few days before in a drunken rage.

It's not easy being Denise Jackson, Madison's brightest musical hope, but when has it ever been? Until the age of 9, she grew up essentially parentless (she never knew her dad, and Charmaine's absences were both regular and extended) in a part of Chicago so destitute that, by the time her grandmother moved her up to Madison, Denise had never met a white or Asian. A lot of teachers in her Madison elementary school were sweet and encouraging, but then she got to La Follette, and there were a lot of teen hormones in the air, a lot of jealousy and resentment. So she made the first cut on American Idol two years running? If she were all that, wouldn't she have been one of the Top 24, and been seen week after week after week?

And what about The Controversy? Hadn't girlfriend foolishly gotten herself kicked off the show she'd been counting on to make her a household name with an ill-conceived benefit performance at Café Montmartre?

Well, no, she hadn't. Jackson's first season, the one Jordin Sparks eventually won, everybody and his brother seemed to try to leap aboard her bandwagon after her exultantly sassy audition, witnessed by 37.4 million, got her a ticket to Hollywood. Said leapers included a guy who threw what he said was going to be a party in her honor. As guest of honor, she could either sing at it or not, depending on her whim. In any event, she wasn't going to be paid. But then it emerged that the guy had been urging guests at the party to donate $5 each to help defray her expenses before letting them in - not that American Idol wasn't paying all her expenses! About 20 people showed up and around 50 bucks - not a dime of which wound up in Denise's coin purse - raised. And she'd already been eliminated from further competition anyway.

Bloodied but unbowed, she auditioned again this past season, made it once more to Hollywood, and failed once again to make the Final 24.

Sure, there were some overtures by semi-major music business players after AI, but after exposure to Charmaine - who was going to need to sign contracts for her underage daughter - they all mysteriously stopped returning calls. So now, in the summer following her graduation from La Follette, Madison's brightest musical hope is working as a cashier at Copps in Monona and hating it. She's also singing, to prerecorded accompaniment, for black audiences who may or may not pay her at performance's end, and for white audiences who can be counted on to pay, but can also be counted on to start talking eight bars into her first song, and then to talk more and more loudly over the course of the performance, until they're pretty nearly louder than she is.

"When something like that first happens," she sighs, "you think, 'I must be singing bad.' But if they're just not interested at that moment, they're missing out, not me."

Just as it's never been easy being Denise Jackson, being Rafael Ragland - of whom Denise says, "I wouldn't be here now if God hadn't sent him" - hasn't been without enough challenges for four or five people's lifetimes.

When he was 11, his mother's house in southwest Chicago burned down and they had to move to Le Claire Courts, one of the Midwest's most desolate projects.

"In that neighborhood, gang membership was forced on you. If you didn't join, you got beat up." Rafael stopped trying to forestall the inevitable at 13. For their initiation into the gang, he and his friend Alvon played Russian roulette. Rafael went first, and lived. Alvon went next, and blew his own brains out. "I hope he's up in heaven looking down on me. I always hear his voice when I do something stupid."

Too young for real criminality, the newly initiated gangbanger had to content himself with drinking, smoking weed and fighting. He dropped out of school. His mother moved him and his three younger brothers up to Madison's grim Broadway-Simpson neighborhood. It didn't look so grim to them. "It was an improvement on where we'd come from. There weren't any cockroaches. We weren't sleeping on the floor, but on a real bed. There was food in the refrigerator."

Rafael enrolled at East High, but began using and selling drugs. "Principal [Milton] McPike really tried to work with me and my brothers, to guide us in the right direction. But we didn't want to be guided. You can take the boy out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the boy."

Selling crack in the notorious parking lot at 1918 Broadway, he earned between $200 and $300 a night for around six months before being involved in a fight in which an acquaintance wound up being shot dead. The Capital Times cover story marveled that he could face 146 years behind bars. He testified against the shooter and received a sentence of three years' incarceration followed by seven years' probation.

Sent to Dodge Correctional for intake, Rafael had a room to himself until he turned 18. Though small and slight, he wasn't raped even after entering the general prison population. "When you're gang-affiliated, no one touches you." That was the good news, but there was bad news too. If another member of the gang, who's doing life without possibility of parole, and thus has nothing to lose, gets in a fight, you're expected to jump in, even though doing so might negate any credit toward early release you've amassed by keeping your nose clean. "If you don't, they be coming to see you."

He was remanded to a halfway house 15 months into his sentence. "When you're 19 and a half," he says, shaking his head, "you think nobody else knows what they're talking about. Once you're in a criminal mind state, you always think you won't get caught next time."

Rafael got caught, busted for possession. This time he was in for four years, but began to...get it, thanks in part to the state of Wisconsin's aggressive rehabilitation program. He earned his GED. He went through a couple of psychological treatment programs and learned that selling is an addictive behavior just like using. He worked in the prison kitchen and even tended to farm animals and developed a work ethic. He enjoyed cleaning up the room in which inmates received visitors. It was good to see people who were free. He spent a lot of time in the music room, and rapped at inmate talent shows. Even the COs - guards - were impressed.

"I won't say I wish I'd had someone," he says. "I wish I'd listened to those I had, like my mom. She loves me to death, but did that take away the pain that I put her through?" Right in the middle of a downtown coffeehouse popular with students and grizzled writers with ancient Apple laptops, he bursts into tears. "Before my mom leaves this earth I'll make up for all the drama I've put her through and show her I'm a good person."

Back out again, and determined to stay out, Rafael found the deck stacked against him. The only Madison apartments he could rent were near the scene of his earlier crimes. He told his probation officer he had to get away, and accompanied his girlfriend, whose brother had tentative ties to the music business, to the Twin Cities. He applied for financial aid and enrolled in recording engineering classes. He met such C-list hip-hop luminaries as Flavor Flav and Digital Underground's Humpty Hump.

In getting away, though, he'd violated the terms of his second probation, and wound up incarcerated for a third time. He wrote a rap called "I'm Finish" about his determination not to be locked up a fourth time. "The next time you see me," it proclaimed, "it will be on TV." When he performed it for his fellow inmates, they reacted with enthusiasm so fervent that extra guards swarmed in, thinking a riot had begun.

"I have met the devil himself," he asserts. "Excuse my language, but I've been in hell.

"I had a talk with God while incarcerated. I sat on the edge of my bed and said, 'This is what I want to do, but I have no way of doing it. Can you please show me the light?' Then here comes Denise in my life."

Rafael met her at the funeral of a good friend who'd died of cancer. Having begun attending the funerals of friends at 13, he didn't want to go. But a cousin insisted he hear this little girl who would be singing. Having "seen how the business takes you over, how it can swallow you," he dedicated himself to keeping Denise from being swallowed. They have nothing in writing, but "we're the best friends in the world. Before Denise, I'd never trusted a woman other than my mama. She will tell you I'm the best help for her in the world. I can guarantee that she will never let me go. I would lay my life down for Denise."

Once out of prison for the third time, Rafael tried desperately to find a job. The owner of the local 2 Men and a Truck franchise agreed to give him a chance because Rafael's youngest brother had been working for him. After three years, Rafael became the local WeHaul franchisee. He prides himself on treating his customers well. "I know how people love their goods. If we break something, I'm not going to wait for the insurance. I'll give you the money to replace it on the spot."

A fair percentage of his earnings have gone toward advancing Denise's career. She'd yearned to audition for American Idol since the show's debut but hadn't reached the minimum age of 16 until two years ago, when Midwest auditions were to be held in Minneapolis. Family, friends and members of her church contributed money toward expenses, but no one's sacrifice came close to that of Rafael, who gave up his apartment, using what would have been rent money for gasoline and motel rooms.

When it turned out they were going to have to stay in Minneapolis more nights than anticipated, and his wallet grew ever thinner, though, he had to appeal to his old girlfriend's brother to let them stay in one of the houses the brother was renovating for HUD - a house that had lights but no heat. Rafael had to buy a $20 heater at Wal-Mart to get them through the freezing nights.

Rafael hasn't only danced on the edge of pennilessness for Denise, and given up on having a girlfriend - "Nobody wants to come second to Denise" - but relegated his own ambitions to ensure that the spotlight finds her. "I give her the front because she's young and very talented." In Hot 105.9-FM's 2006 Blazin' Idol competition, he and Denise were among the top three finishers. Given his past, Rif Raf, as Rafael calls himself when he raps, isn't exactly lacking credibility, and though Denise is probably as good a singer as Rihanna, so, at this moment, are probably several thousand other young American women of whom no one will ever hear. An act combining the two friends' abilities would almost certainly be more than twice as strong as the sum of its component parts.

And it isn't as though they're not already collaborating. They work hard daily on their music, sampling beats, trying to ascertain what made singers like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald so special, watching movies about musicians who threw it all away in different ways, reading biographies of singers who allowed themselves to get strung out. Denise, whose friends provide her with beats and melodies to which she fits lyrics, estimates that she's already written something just short of a million songs. "I think I like writing more than singing." She's proudest of one about how much she'd like to meet her biological father, who she suspects might not even know of her existence. Its companion piece is "Dark of the Day," a song Rafael wrote for her about the lengths to which she used to long for her absent mother.

It isn't as though they never disagree. There are times when Rafael thinks she should sing something she doesn't want to sing, or wear something other than what she'd chosen for herself. But the biggest struggles are over Denise's family. "It's like you're driving down the street and you run over a pothole," Rafael sighs, "and it messes up the alignment of your car. The next time you hit that pothole, and have to get your car fixed again, you learn not to take your butt down that street anymore. Well, Denise's mom is like that pothole. I try not to go around there, but I can't keep Denise from her family."

Denise saw friends get suspended from high school for fighting, "but I don't like commotion. Day and night, though, there's people coming in and out. Sometimes there's so much going on in my mother's house I can't even sleep. But she can't con me anymore. I'm not giving her or anybody else leeway to con me. Rafael had to teach me that sometimes you just can't help everybody you might want to help."

That knowledge doesn't preclude the dynamic duo, as everyone calls them, contemplating relocation to Atlanta or Las Vegas early in 2009, with the intention of trying to take advantage of the opportunities those cities offer entertainers. If the entertaining doesn't work out, Denise will enroll in the College of Southern Nevada to pursue a degree in social work. "Watching my grandmother helping everybody while I grew up," she says, "was a big influence on me. I hate seeing people in bad situations."

Whether they're here or elsewhere when it happens, Rafael says, "We honestly believe we're going to be the ones to open up the door for Madison."

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