Music Producer and Writer Jermaine Dupri On Being a Vegan Influencer
"Feel the beets. Lose the meats."
That's the motto of award-winning music producer, writer and hip hop artist Jermaine Dupri. If you don't know him by name, or sight, you definitely know his music.
Dupri, a member of the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, has written and produced songs with Mariah Carey (like We Belong Together) as well as Usher, Lil Wayne, and even worked on the launch of Destiny's Child's debut album.
Known in the Atlanta music scene as a "hitmaker" and the "Unofficial Mayor of Atlanta," respected the world over for his music and writing talent, Dupri is the "secret sauce" in the studio that other musicians seek when making an album. He is also a long-time vegan, known to duck out of recording sessions to go find food he can eat, bring food to places where they don't serve vegan dishes, and has an exacting sense of his own best self that influences others to emulate his music and his vegan lifestyle. Dupri has influenced a generation of hip hop moguls, singers, and musicians to sit up and take notice of his dedication and try eating plant-based because of it.
Dupri tells of times when, on the road, he would pop into a vegan place like Plantable in Miami and bring his traveling companions with him, and they were shocked at how delicious and satisfying a plant-based meal could be. He brings his own meals to clubs, much to the chagrin of owners. Jay-Z and others eat largely plant-based in part because Dupri led the way and showed an early and consistent commitment to the vegan lifestyle.
The Beet covered a recent survey that showed the fastest-growing segment of the vegan population is African Americans, and the hip hop community has a growing number of stars writing lyrics about the vegan lifestyle, so we can't help but think many of these artists were partly influenced, directly or indirectly by Dupri. Just last week, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams announced a Hip Hop is Green collaboration to host a Healthy Rap Battle for young artists to compete with new music about a healthy lifestyle and eating plant-based.
Dupri is an influencer in and out of the studio: Two years ago he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and we think he deserves another award for being a healthy-living advocate. Dupri recently talked with The Beet for a 90-minute exclusive interview to share his passion for eating vegan and how the culture has shifted toward his lifestyle and where we go from here. Hint: He wants to be your guide to the vegan lifestyle. We are ready to hand him the keys!
The Beet: Let's start at the beginning, which is "Why did you go vegan?"
JD: It was time for me to feel better. And I didn't like myself in photos.
We know when we are feeling bad, when our body is feeling heavy when our health is not in the right place. We act as if we didn’t know when we were unhealthy and we go to the doctor and we know when we are doing our body a disservice. I recognized that at a point in my life. Sitting around in the studio eating unhealthy food, it didn't feel good.
People take photos of you. I looked a way I didn't want to look and felt a way I didn't want to feel. I didn't know what vegan was a the time, but I went on a master cleanse for 25 days and after that… as I got closer to the end of the 25 days I started asking people questions: What should I do to maintain this feeling that I had? And people said, Well, you can become a vegetarian. And I used to think that vegetarians were the worst thing. They just eat grass. And I thought I can’t do that. I gotta eat! I just continued to say it. I was determined to find the solution, to find what I wanted to find to feel the way I felt.
But vegetarians still eat cheese and drink milk and things that were not good for me. And I thought that was going to wean me back to eating regularly. I couldn’t distinguish the difference between cheesy products and where I was.
I needed my next step to be super clean. And I ask "What should I eat to be clean?" And the answer was "Decide to be vegan."
The Beet: So now others are copying you. Or are influenced by your lifestyle.
JD: I do things for me, not to get recognized.
It’s interesting because when you're in music… for me any way… The whole vegan lifestyle I did for myself. It was really as an organic situation, I'm not out here screaming. I knew Russell Simmons was vegan, and a few others, but I am from Atlanta and on my block, there’s nothing but Waffle House and McDonald's, and my mother cooks soul food every day.
So being vegan in Atlanta was the most backward thing you could be a part of. So I was also facing the fact that in Atlanta people were like, "Vegan? We got to get you some sausage and some meat." I felt like I was an outcast. And PETA happened to be paying attention to the fact this was on social and I was talking and they reached out to me. And that's what started the ad campaign, "Feel the beets. Lose the meats."
The Beet: What's a typical day of eating for you?
JD: Lately I can have pancakes.... Vegan Pancakes. There is a place that makes breakfast all day.
Breakfast is Vegan Pancakes with vegan bacon and some days I might have scrambled tofu and hash browns and wheat toast but as time has gone on I have become more plant-based and tried to stay away from tofu. Grits are vegan, by themselves they're just a grain.
People don’t know how many items they already eat are vegan. We are part of a corrupted world, and I don’t want to be too harsh but, it's like grits are smothered in butter, people don't realize that … they don’t want you to taste it in a way you were meant to taste it.
The Beet: How has being vegan affected your work?
JD: That's the thing about being vegan, it smartens you.
When I went on a fast for 25 days I learned that eating is mental. I often ate because I wasn’t hungry. I ate because other people were doing it. Someone comes in and has McDonald's and you think, I will have that too.
When I went on a fast I actually felt what hunger is. We eat without being hungry. We eat just to socialize. It’s as easy as talking. You’re not really that hungry but you grab a slice of pizza.
People say "I'm not really that hungry", but they eat anyway. Then they'll go to a restaurant and eat again.
So that’s what I fell in love with being vegan because it makes you aware of where your food comes from and what’s in it and what you want to put in your body. It’s also about control.
We were never taught to control what to eat. At some point, you have to take control of your life and drive it in the direction you want to drive it in. Veganism might be hard to do. Not everyone will want to do it. It takes discipline. When you pass by pizza and want to eat, it takes discipline to find vegan food. And take control. That’s where the discipline comes in … and that’s what grows your mind.
A lot of people don’t want to think about it. They just eat.
The Beet: When do you think the plant-based trend went mainstream?
JD: It has not yet, in Atlanta, really.
Atlanta has a vegan world here. It’s here, but I still have to go find it. When it’s right on my block then I’ll say that. But I still have to go find it. The Slutty Vegan was a food truck. But even that, just to say I am going to eat at a food truck -- that isn’t regular when you’re used to going to waffle house and cheesecake factory. But it was a truck and that was not in your face.
The Beet: Where do you eat vegan in Atlanta?
JD: More restaurants have opened their menus to add vegan options.
True Foods in Morning Square, basically you can get everything on the menu vegan, in a vegan style. When I started seeing restaurants doing that, I started thinking that it is becoming mainstream. It’s starting to be where you don’t have to go out of your way to find it. Like Whole Foods, which you can’t find it on every block. You have to drive to find it. But we have more Trader Joe's than Whole Foods but you still have to get in the car and take a drive. Not like Kroger’s or Publix.
The Beet: What do you say to people who say: It's expensive to be vegan?
JD: I don't think the vegan life is more than regular food. I actually think it’s cheaper.
Lots of people get veganism and organic confused. Organic food, or what they make you think is organic, is expensive. To eat Kobe beef is expensive, like $25 or $30 and it’s supposed to be organic.
Once again the language and education are wrong: Most people think veganism is organic and they confuse that with the price. That’s not veganism.
There’s a Chinese restaurant here called Green Sprout and everything is Chinese, like Lo Mein, it’s all vegan. You can get three dishes at this place fo 30 dollars. Scallion pancakes, spring rolls, sweet and sour chicken, all the same flavors that are all vegan.
It has this vegan sausage bowl that comes with brown rice and kale and it’s the best vegan bowl I have ever had in my life. I go to Miami just for this bowl. The dressing, all of it.
The Beet: Where do you eat on the road?
JD: There's a chain … they have a place in Miami, called Carrot Express.
In LA I love Crossroads. The Chicken Parmesan on their menu is pretty amazing. Wherever I am, Paris or New York, I am just happy to be in the mix of all veganism.
Another place in Miami is Planta. By the way, all these places came alive since these guys met me. It's been like watching an evolution.
The Beet: You famously were first in line when KFC served Beyond Meat's Chicken. Why?
JD: I loved this collaboration!
I went and I was the first person to get the opportunity to try it. [The "chicken"] was beyond light. I ate six chicken nuggets and more strips. And it was all because it was super light and if I had eaten that in real meat I would have had to take a nap.
That’s what I like about being a vegan, is that it makes you feel super light. When I ate meat I used to be tired and have to eat again. And now I can't be that person anymore. I need to be able to move around. Now I can have a full breakfast at 11 and at 1 o'clock it’s time for lunch.
The Beet: Are you a vegan influencer? Are other artists watching your lifestyle?
JD: I feel like everyone sees me, like Jay Z, and I went to 40 40 and I brought my own food.
It was like a joke. When I went in there, I started to bring my own food. Dre and all of them would say that was so disrespectful. And they said we got fried chicken, we got food. Why are you bringing food?
Now 4 years later they are doing the vegan diet and investing in vegan companies! I have to know I was part of that …. I was definitely the person who introduced the idea to certain people.
At first, Catch didn't have a lot of vegan options in New York and when they opened in LA, I said you have to add vegan onto the menu. And they had the Russell Simmons salad and I said that’s not enough and the chef made the gnocchi for me and I said I loved it. They put the vegan gnocchi on the menu because of me.
They went as far as to add vegan desserts, vegan cheesecake. Now Catch has a whole vegan menu and I feel like that was pushed by myself and Russell Simmons and now Jada Pinkett. And all these other people are living this lifestyle now and I will probably frequent that place based on that menu.
The Beet: So you were just consistent and now others are coming around to it?
JD: I don’t push my lifestyle on people but people around me see how dedicated I am to it.
Back when I was starting out as a vegan, I would go to the place my friends were going and drop them off and then I would take a drive, go where I needed to go to get my food, and come back and pick them up.
They'd think: That’s pretty dedicated. As long as I have been vegan, I can feel when something is not right with my body. When people are lying to me and they've put butter in something, I can tell.
People who aren’t vegan are missing out on that. You get to know your body really well.
The Beet: So what does the future hold? More music? More influencing?
JD: My future plan for my lifestyle is to become a person who is that guide to this lifestyle.
My goal is to become the Anthony Bourdain of veganism. I have a show called: Everyone Eats. It’s a vegan show where I go from restaurant to restaurant and I take a nonvegan with me and have him taste what I am eating and you can see their reaction and it’s a vegan talk show but tasting food in all these different restaurants.
The conversation is with that person about veganism and how we can get outside their comfort zone. I feel like veganism has to be looked at as mainstream and just to go to a food network is putting it up on a shelf. I want it to be where mainstream people will not miss it. I want it to be in a space where my people and my generation will see it. It has to become more mainstream.
I want to be the person who is the guide. I want to jump out in front of people and say, listen, I am the one you should be listening to. I was taught to be the best of the best.
I am clearly the best person to review the best restaurant in every city, and I can tell you the insider information on where to go. And give my recommendations, like the Green Cafe, which is not in the city but in College Park, about 35 minutes' drive outside. I took Bow Wow there and he was like, I want to become vegan, because of the "shrimp."
The first vegan people to be vegan before I was -- they were treated like hippies. It was like smoking weed. It was off to the side. Now it's an open playing field … so we can all play!