Ebony Jackson refuses to classify her music. Her audiences usually put it in the gospel or Christian genres. The Upper Marlboro singer remains strong in her convictions that just because she uses her music as ministry doesn't mean it belongs in those categories.
On Saturday, listeners can decide how they want to define Jackson's stylistic mixture of neo-soul, jazz, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, go-go and reggae sprinkled with gospel messages.
She will perform and host an open microphone session at Sipp'ss Cafe in Fort Washington.
"People are so comfortable with being able to just say 'this is R&B or this is gospel,' but when you try to cross genres and do Christian music that sounds like neo-soul or jazz, it is hard for people to process," said Jackson, who compares her musical style and content to that of Jill Scott and India.Arie.
"I don't care if people can't place what I do genre-wise. I want to do what God wants me to do," said the 27-year-old native Midwesterner, who had little vocal training outside of church and school choirs.
Jackson left the church performing circuit last year to reach out to a wider audience at performance spaces such as Sipp'ss Cafe and the District's Teaism and Gospel Cafe.
By singing in smaller, secular spaces, she aims to connect with her audiences and expose them to ideas about religion and social consciousness that they may not get from the popular music they hear.
Jackson moved from Kansas City to Washington to attend Howard University on a full academic scholarship.
She graduated in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in broadcast management.
At Howard -- after a freshman-year hiatus from music as she basked in her newfound freedom from a strict upbringing -- Jackson renewed her faith along with her love for music in the campus's community and gospel choirs.
"The four years I was [at Howard], God took me from just being a singer to understanding I was a minister, understanding that I'm not really called to the church but that I'm called to write music that appeals to the masses and helps them understand who God is and what He has to offer," she said.
Now a full-time graphic designer for her alma mater, Jackson has begun what she hopes will become a full-time career as a musician with her first CD, "How can U Love Me," released last year.
Jackson wrote most of the selections on the album, which includes a song about girls who grow up fatherless (which was not her experience) and one about God's love.
She is also beginning to work with the choir at Forestville's Soul Factory (formerly the Church of the Lord's Disciples), where she is a member, to help infuse its Jesus-inspired music with the kind of modern, hip feel that her own songs possess.
Jackson said she wants to affect people with her artistry.
No matter what, she said, her music does not need "a gospel disclaimer on it."
"That's what people want me to do, but I can't do that. It doesn't make me happier at the end of the day.
"You have to go harder than the mainstream if you want to make an impact," Jackson said. "You have to do something that makes people turn their heads. The word speaks for itself no matter how you package it."
"Artist Showcase and Open Mic Featuring: Ebony Jackson and the Miss Ebony's Boys' Band" takes place from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday at Sipp'ss Cafe, 10707 Indian Head Hwy., Fort Washington. Admission costs $5. 301-203-8311. Jackson's future appearances are listed on www.ebonyjackson.com.