ATLANTA — When Jamie Grace performs music, all of the uncontrollable facial twitches and involuntary body movements called tics become an afterthought.
Tourette syndrome has plagued the 20-year-old singer for nearly half of her life. But she hasn’t allowed the incurable neurological condition to completely weaken her faith. Grace says she wants to use her first trip to the Grammys as another platform to share her inspirational story of resolve to motivate others.
“I’m not the only person who has something in their life they can’t control,” said Grace, sitting inside her dorm room where the walls are lined with Johnny Cash posters while the record player plays the country legend’s song “I Walk the Line.”
“It’s all about taking control over what I can control and that’s saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got Tourette’s, but I can also play guitar, I can also sing and write songs about it,'” she said. “Hopefully I can encourage other kids who are going through crazy stuff too.”
Grace’s song “Hold Me,” featuring TobyMac, is nominated for best contemporary Christian music song. She wrote the guitar-driven ballad at a time when she felt lonely in her dorm room at Point University — a small Christian college in suburban Atlanta.
“I saw that there was depth there,” said TobyMac, a Grammy-winning Christian rocker who signed Grace to his label Gotee Records in 2010 after he discovered her through YouTube. He took notice of her when he learned that she posted a three-minute medley on the online website that included 12 of his songs.
TobyMac saw potential in Grace’s airy vocals, her ability to play several instruments and her savvy songwriting. Her constant message of hope and perseverance in songs drove him to introduce himself to her through Twitter.
“She really did intrigue me because she’s writing songs that are meaningful,” he said. “Her songs have light to them and sound like they can be around for a long time. Her songs have heart to them, unlike most songs that have a hooky track or melody. She has a beautiful story to tell through her music.”
It has been a tumultuous road for Grace, who was diagnosed with Tourette at the age of 11. When she took medication to combat the repetitive symptoms, she said the medicine caused her to lose her hair and made her feel emotionally inattentive like a “zombie.”
At the time, Grace — known by family and friends as a bubbly character — lost her motivation to sing and thought boys would never find her attractive. She remembered asking God why she had to struggle to walk on her own, couldn’t hold a fork to eat food, or had to wear biker gloves to protect her scared knuckles because she would unconsciously punch things as a result of her Tourette.
Mona Harper, the mother and manager of Grace who also homeschooled her, said her daughter would be sick four times a week from the medication.
“She lost her unction to go out in front of people and sing,” said Harper, who is a co-pastor with Grace’s father at Kingdom City Center in suburban Atlanta. “Things regressed for her but she showed a lot of resilience, and wasn’t dismantled by the things that were happening to her. The beauty of it for me is to see her bounce back and not break down.”
Grace’s breakthrough from her somber state came after she heard a testimony by Christian singer Tammy Trent, and her grandfather bought her a drum set when she was 14. She went on to learn how to play the piano, guitar, banjo and the ukulele.
For Grace, music became a stress reliever from her Tourette. She realized that her recurring twitch did not happen as often the more she beat her drums, strummed her guitar or sang a melody.
“It’s almost like I’m in another world,” she said. “Everything goes silent and it’s so amazing. … I learned how to manage it through music. I can still follow my dreams and I know that God hasn’t forgotten about me. I just had to pray about it.”
Grace said she had to lean on her faith more since she stopped taking her medication about four years ago. She has learned how to cope with her condition and hasn’t allowed it to have a stronghold over her life.
“If I didn’t have Tourette, I don’t think I would be as strong as I am now,” said Grace, who has her own nonprofit mentoring program called GraceTalk. “I wouldn’t have the strength of resilience to speak with the 14-year-old girl who doesn’t feel beautiful.”
In the spring, Grace will graduate with a degree in child and youth development. Along with continuing her musical career, she wants to help families with children who have Tourette and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
TobyMac feels strongly about the longevity of Grace’s music career. With her being a young black singer who has an infatuation with country music, can sing R&B and gospel, and can play the acoustic guitar, he expects her to make more appearances at music’s top showcase in the future.
“She’s full of surprises and has all of these different facets,” he said. “She can really make a mark. For her to earn a Grammy (nomination) this early in her career, I think it’s an amazing sign of things to come for her.”