Singer-songwriter India.Arie

Originally aired on June 20, 2013

The four-time Grammy winner talks about her four-year absence from the public eye and her latest CD, “SongVersation.”

India.Arie writes, produces and sings, using her voice as an interpretive tool. She received critical acclaim for her multi-platinum 2001 debut CD, "Acoustic Soul," and has earned 21 Grammy nods, winning four times, and sold some 10 million albums. She's also collaborated with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Sérgio Mendes. The Denver-born artist relocated to Atlanta as a teen and played several instruments before focusing on acoustic guitar. After co-founding an artists' collective, she sealed a Motown deal and now has her own SoulBird imprint, on which she recently released her fifth  studio album—and first in four years—"SongVersation."


Tavis: With her eclectic mix of musical styles that combine R&B, soul, jazz, folk, and even hip-hop, India.Arie has always defied easy classification. After a four -year gap she’s just released her latest CD. It’s called “SongVersation,” love that title. Let’s take a look at India singing a cut from the new CD, called “Cocoa Butter.”


Tavis: We were just (laughter) – y’all missed that.

India.Arie: Oh, I’m terrible.

Tavis: When the brother started walking at the end, India said, “Hey.”

Arie: “Hey.” (Laughter) Oh.

Tavis: And I was saying, “Hey,” when I saw you at the beginning of the video>

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: All right. You’re welcome. We were talking while the clip was playing about whether or not it seemed like four years to you, because to your fans, myself included, it felt like four years. Did it feel like four years to you?

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s a long time.

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: Why you do that to us?

Arie: (Laughter) I needed to get myself together. I needed time to just – what’s the word? There’s so many – I have like all these words just popped up. I needed time to allow the transformation that was happening to just happen and just be in private.

I needed time to get my health together. I needed time to get my emotional health together. I needed time to catch up with myself, because I’ve been doing this all my adult life, and I didn’t feel right about the way things were.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: Just, I guess that’s kind of general.

Tavis: To your point about not feeling right about the way things were, how does an artist avoid – this is my word, not yours – avoid that kind of burnout?

Arie: I don’t know. My hope is that I’ve figured it out, and for me now where I’m at, I make decisions based on what I want to do. Everything. Because there are always – artists need people around them to help them just get there. You need your security, you need your people. Your band –

Tavis: Your mother.

Arie: Your mother. You need your mother. But you need your people. You can’t play all the instruments by yourself, and you can’t run all your business. You can’t do your own publicity, you can’t be your own manager, so you need your people, and everyone is always having an opinion, because that’s what human beings do.

That’s what we do. We all have our feelings about things. But when you’re the person that it’s all focused on, you get lost with yourself, so now I just make my own decisions. I hear people’s opinions, and in the end they know that the decision is mine.

I don’t have to go back and forth about stuff, because it was like that. I’ve been doing this all my adult life, like I said, so it’s been – I kind of grew into womanhood with all of these voices and it just got – I started to see that my life was kind of off-path because I was listening to other people.

Every decision you make puts you in this moment right now, so I was in somebody else’s moment, and it just felt 10 years from now, where am I going to be? Is it going to be my choice?

But I didn’t answer your question. I don’t know. I hope that I got it right. I’m just coming back, so things feel good. I’ve been doing a lot of work and I don’t feel tired or burned out, so it’s working so far.

Tavis: It’s one thing to navigate those disparate opinions that the people in your world, who you know ostensibly care about you. It’s one thing to navigate those disparate opinions. It is quite another, it seems to me, to deal with what the media and the critics and even the fans have to say.

This isn’t something I want to spend a lot of time on, because I didn’t believe it, knowing you as I do, when I first read it, but people seemed to have a field day with this story that was circulating about you bleaching your skin and becoming lighter.

Now to the white folk watching PBS now, this is a conversation that I just lost them, I’m sure, about. (Laughter) But to Negroes, they understand. This is a big deal.

I suspect that Michael Jackson is the most famous African American artist who was subjected to these conversations about whether or not he was bleaching his skin, lightening his skin, for whatever purposes. So Michael Jackson had to navigate this for many, many years and had his own response to it about his skin disease, et cetera.

But I’m looking at you now and you look to me like the same India I’ve always known. But it was painful for me to have to watch you endure that, and I wasn’t even seeing you every day. But just knowing you heart to heart, that troubled me.

How did you navigate, how have you navigated, this nonsense over the last couple months of whether or not you were bleaching your skin?

Arie: Bleaching my skin? First I want to thank you, because it’s nice to know you care about me like that, so thank you. It was weird, too – you didn’t ask me this, but it was also weird that, with the whole social media, I didn’t really get any support from my peers. Nobody said anything.

I was like – but I get it, because you don’t want people to turn on you. I get it. But I was surprised by the attention, and then I was surprised by how negative it turned.

Then it made me really – I thought a lot about it, because it made me think about it, and I’m skipping over a lot of steps in between about colorism and all the stuff that happens, the cultural pain in the Black community around all of that.

But what it came down to me, the bottom line of it was when I decided not to defend myself, because I knew that my reputation would speak for itself, and it has, and it’s all died down now. The other part of it was about worthiness. So I had this necklace made.

Tavis: I was about to ask you why you – can Jonathan see that real – Jonathan, can you see that? Zoom in on that necklace. Can you see that? Yeah, there you go. Tell me about the necklace.

Arie: It’s a powerful word. For me, the bottom line of that whole conversation is about – like you said, for the Caucasians watching your program right now, there’s colorism, which historically meant you were worthy or less worthy based on how light or dark you were, and we’re treated as worth more, literally worth more or worth less based on how light or dark you were.

But then now we’re living in a time where there are still challenges being whoever you are – being gay, being Black, being a woman. There’s challenges that come with any aspect of humanity.

This is a time where you can define your own worth, and you’re a perfect example of it, coming from where you come from and creating what you’ve created. You don’t let anybody tell you or define your worth for you. You don’t do it.

We do it, but it’s not sustainable, it’s not productive, it’s not going to give you a beautiful life. For me, the colorism issue aside, it all came down to that for me, and my prayer really now, because this is what I do, is to have a song at some point come out that’ll just help people wake up, because it’s time really to start healing that.

We have a Black president – not that that heals everything. I’m not saying, like, the whole post-racial society thing. I get annoyed when people say that, because it’s not. But things have changed enough where we can start redefining who we are in so many ways, but we hold on to the old stuff.

Tavis: We don’t control this kind of nonsense. This stuff comes and goes, and we have no control, again, over even what the genesis of this is.

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: But you do have to find your own way to navigate through it. What’s – I’m just curious, trying to get inside your head here – I’m curious as to how you process why or how something that vicious could be said about you.

Why or how something that ugly, why or how something that is so historically laden, as you laid out, with vitriol, could be leveled against you. Did you spend any time just – because sometimes I just ask myself.

I’m human, and so are you. It’s like wait, wait, why me? Why me and why this? How could I (laughter) – “Jesus, I’m the one to say I’m not the average girl in the video, I’m not the one who,” my worth, and they’re talking about the price of my clothes.

Let’s go to your lyrics. I’m thinking of people, did y’all Negroes forget the song? This is India.Arie who sang that song. She would never do this. But do you process why or how something like this happens to you, given the whole image that you project?

Arie: I was asking myself that, once it – because it was first just like, hm, interesting. Then it got really negative. My Twitter timeline was full. It wasn’t just negative; it was like vitriol, like you said.

People were cursing me out. It was great. It was just the whole thing, just (makes noise) running down, this is the iPhone roll, right (motions a scrolling screen)? Everything was just –

Tavis: Do that again? How does that work? (Motions a scrolling screen)

Arie: (makes noise) (Laughter)

Tavis: Okay, I got it.

Arie: They were cursing me out, and I had never experienced anything like that in real life or just, you know, in my life as a public person. I never experienced anything like that.

So of course, on a spiritual level, the question always is why when things happen. You want to know why, so you can get your lesson out of it.

Tavis: Exactly. My grandmother said, “The lesson and the blessing.”

Arie: There’s a lesson in every (unintelligible). Lesson in every blessing.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: A blessing in every lesson.

Tavis: Right.

Arie: I’m going to – just give me a second.

Tavis: Sure.

Arie: I’m going to talk a little slow, because I want to figure out how to answer your question.

What I came to – now this is my own personal, this is not what I think about society or why people do these things. What I came to, and I’m still kind of working on it, but what I came to is about judgment.

I do what I do the way that I do it, and that’s my choice, to be socially responsible in my lyrics and even in my clothes and everything I do, to be responsible and to bring a contribution to society through what I do, because it feels good to me.

I don’t know that I ever did it publicly. I’m sure it probably slipped out here or there, but in my private conversations, just when I’m talking about the world and the state of things, I would judge people who didn’t have my philosophy about words and how to use music.

I would judge people. I would judge people, and I feel like a lot of that was because it made it harder for me to do what I do. It was kind of like, well, they got my slice.

That’s not real. We all get what we’re supposed to have, and I truly believe that because of my life has gone, or my career. But on my hard days I would be like, “Why? Why?” “Why, when I could be right there or Jill could be right there,” or somebody whose values I agree with.

Tavis: That’s human, that’s human.

Arie: It’s human, right?

Tavis: Absolutely.

Arie: So when all that happened they were really judging me to be one of those people that I would judge, and without them understanding the back story or my intention. Because really, I was just having a picture that was luminous. I wanted to glow.

The dress was metallic, the skin glowed, the backdrop was metallic. I just wanted it to be luminous, like as an allegory for the spiritual light of a person, and then letting my legs show and all that, for me, it was being feminine and strong, which is how I see myself.

I have a very athletic body and stuff like that, and so that’s what it was for me. But that’s not how I got judged, and so when I had that clarity, the moment of that clarity was an epiphany that changed everything for me in that regard with judgment.

Tavis: About judging people.

Arie: Because now I look at people and I always say, “You never know what they think, what their intention was, what they’re going for. You never know.” They could be way better than they were last year. This could be their better. You don’t know.

I say it to myself a lot now, and I think that was my spiritual lesson then, and I hope it was, because I don’t want to keep that (unintelligible) anymore.

Tavis: Right.

Arie: One of the things I did say was that I, when I said I wasn’t going to defend myself, that I felt like my reputation would speak for itself, it all really did just die away.

Tavis: Sure, absolutely.

Arie: So that was cool. It was good for me to see that people still trust me. I realize that it would have been a betrayal if that were true.

Tavis: In the worst way.

Arie: In the worst way.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: But my heroes, Dr. Maya Angelou and Oprah and Iyanla, those women who are well-spoken and spiritual and strong and feminine all at the same time, they never betray us. So I aspire to be that person, so it’s good for me also to see that my reputation cleared it all up without me having to say a word. Just my presence.

Tavis: So how much, rich is this content for the next project? (Laughter)

Arie: There’s so many good things.

Tavis: That’s what I love about artists, man. I was like, I don’t know how India’s processing this, but I guarantee you there’s going to be a record about this. (Laughter) There’s going to be something coming.

Arie: There’s one on there that, of course, I wrote before all this happened.

Tavis: Exactly.

Arie: It’s called “I Am Light.” It talks about the light, your spiritual light, and how it shows on the outside. That song means a lot to me.

Tavis: Since we’re into it now, tell me about – I love the title, as I said earlier, “SongVersation.”

Arie: “SongVersation.”

Tavis: Yeah. How’d that come to be?

Arie: Well technically I thought about it for a really long time. It was like months and months. I was like, there’s something. I wasn’t trying to find an album title; I was trying to find a way to, a moniker for my performance style.

Tavis: Got it.

Arie: Because I always have a lot to say, and then I want to sing and I want to share. I want a fellowship with people. So early in my career I always felt like I had to get it out fast and then sing, because this is what they came to see.

I felt like if I created – if you build it, they will come? I felt like if I did that, then people could decide if they want to come and see me speak and sing. So that’s “SongVersation.”

I thought about it for a long time, because in this part of the four years, this whole four years for me was about figuring out how to do this in a way that I love and that feels good to me, because it wasn’t feeling good.

I loved singing, but everything else was just so much of a challenge I was exhausted all the time. So in that regard of looking for ways to be more me inside of my career, then I wanted “SongVersation.”

I’ve been doing songversation performances for two years, and then I decided to name my album “SongVersation.” But I want to tell you this too. I was thinking about it for months, and I was literally standing in my kitchen, because I had been traveling to all these countries by myself, just being in the world.

I was standing in my kitchen at home, and I felt it come out of my stomach. It was almost like (gasps) “SongVersation.” It was like that. So it sounded weird at first, but I feel like now it makes perfect sense.

Then I named my album “SongVersation.” I had another album that I was working on for three years called “Open Door,” which I ended up having to shelve for business reasons, and so I decided to name this one “SongVersation,” because it really encompasses my whole journey, my performance style, and also there’s a songversation happening on the album with the music itself.

I went to Turkey and got all these Middle Eastern strings and percussion, and –

Tavis: I heard that, yeah. Sounds good, sounds good.

Arie: You heard that song? All that stuff you hear is real. Real strings, real people.

Tavis: Did you enjoy Turkey? I loved – Istanbul, I could –

Arie: Istanbul.

Tavis: I could I’ve there, yeah.

Arie: Me too. I say that all the time.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: I met Turkey’s biggest star walking in the Village in New York. We were just going in and out of the same stores and we started talking, and this beautiful coincidence.

She was talking to me. She said, “You should come to Turkey,” and I was like, I was just talking to her, but I knew she was diva because she had this crazy ring on. I love jewelry. These earrings, they were aquamarine. It was crazy.

She was saying how inspirational it was for art, and she said it’s – I had never even really thought about Istanbul – water and food and culture, all the arts, all the culture.

Tavis: All that, mm-hmm.

Arie: I was like, oh, I said, “Are you a musician?” I kind of could tell. She said, “Yes, my name is Sezen Aksu.” Okay. That means nothing to me, I just knew this lady was amazing and she looked gorgeous with her ring.

We started talking about music. I said, “I’m a singer-songwriter too,” and she said, “Do you love Gladys Knight?” and I said, “Mm-hmm.” It turns out she has a voice very similar to Gladys Knight, that depth and the air and the stuff.

I said, “My idol is Stevie Wonder, though,” and she said, “Oh, he has a new song out,” her accent, “He has this new song out (humming),” and she starts singing the song that I wrote with Stevie Wonder, “A Time to Love.”

Tavis: Absolutely. (Laughter)

Arie: She started crying and I started crying and she called her son. He was in school in Paris. “You have to come to Istanbul.” So the next day she came to my show and brought me her box set, and it was just (makes noise). It was like 20 CDs, and it turned out she’s Turkey’s biggest star. Sold 70 million CDs in 30 years.

Tavis: You’re like, “Who knew,” huh?

Arie: Who knew?

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: Then I listened to it. I was like – her voice, it was really like God just – because I wanted to make music that encompassed all the things that I love about the world, the rest of the world. I’m African American but that’s not all I am, you know what I mean? I’m a traveler, I’m a musician, I’m an artist.

So in the music industry it’s just you’re either your Black or your white, and this is the box you get put in. She opened up this whole world for me, and (unintelligible) crashed and I decided to do “SongVersation,” I called her.

It makes me want to cry, thinking about it. I called her and asked her if she would help me with “SongVersation,” and she said, “Anything my India is doing, I’m in.”

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: So it was my second time going to see her, and we just got all this stuff in five days. She was in and out of the studio, we were just eating food and learning how to play Turkish flutes, and she was hugging me all the time, giving me clothes, and she made everything –

Tavis: But I see she didn’t give you that ring.

Arie: She gave me another ring. (Laughter) She gave me a few pieces of jewelry.

Tavis: What you really wanted was that ring (unintelligible).

Arie: I just want – she’s trying to be kind of like my mom.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: I was taking these flute lessons, and the guy, (laughter) there was a guy who was in her band, and he would go, “Okay, I’m going to show you how to play this,” (makes noise). Because you know I like to play the flute. Did you know that?

Tavis: I did know that.

Arie: So he would (makes noise) and he would hand it to me. She would take it out of his hand and go, “No, I’m her mom.” She would wash it off and give it.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Arie: Every time. (Laughter) I just love her.

Tavis: When I heard – I love that instrumentation that’s on the project.

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: What I wanted to hear when I popped it in, and I heard what I expected to hear, but I just wanted to confirm that what I was going to hear was India.Arie. I’m glad that I heard that, because when people disappear – four years in the music business, as you know, that’s like – the music business moves like the speed of light.

Arie: Just like all technology.

Tavis: Like the speed of sound.

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s just how fast it is.

Arie: Yeah, the speed of sound.

Tavis: You take four years to come back, you could be forgotten or people have to try to reinvent themselves, whatever that means in this business.

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: But I heard, I put it on, I was like, “Oh, thank God.”

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: “It sounds like India.”

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: I was relieved because after four years, I didn’t know what to expect.

Arie: Thank you. I’m happy to hear that. I didn’t – I feel now, I think it’s my first time really realizing this too – that if “Open Door” had come out now, you might have been a bit confused. I feel like it’ll have its day. I don’t know.

I just feel it, and I think then it’ll be something I can do, something just a little bit different, after people remembering who I am, because I was singing in different languages, and it’s beautiful.

I think people who love music will – I still think that you will love it, but I was singing in Hebrew, like, straight. It’s still my voice, it’s still gospel styling, but I was singing in Hebrew. English too, but – so I honor that it happened this way. It hurt, but you know.

Tavis: Fans can be tough, though. Fans can be –

Arie: Yes.

Tavis: I’ve had this conversation with, I know with Prince and other artists any number of times about the integrity that’s required to be true to your own art, because the fans, if they had their way, you’d be singing the same songs every night.

Arie: Same thing.

Tavis: And never –

Arie: Never allowed to grow.

Tavis: Exactly.

Arie: Never allowed to grow. Who wants to live like that?

Tavis: Yeah. Very quickly here, everybody who’s a fan of yours, again, myself included, knows that you adore and love Stevie Wonder, as we all do, but you’ve got a special relationship with Stevie.

How cool is it, though, to not just perform with Stevie, which you’ve done any number of times, but to actually write a song, back to your story, write a song that Stevie records, with you, no less.

Arie: I don’t have any words to explain.

Tavis: This is Steven Morris. It don’t get no deeper than Stevie.

Arie: I don’t have any words to explain.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: It’s funny. He gave me the melody, he said, “This is what I want it to be about,” and I took it home, and I pray for songs all the time, because it just helps you get centered. Prayer just helps.

This time in my prayer I said, “Please let me finish it all today,” because I want it done now. (Laughter) I did, and then I sent it to him, and I didn’t hear from him. So I just flew to L.A. I live in Atlanta, so it’s a lot – I work on planes. I live in airplanes, so it was a lot to just voluntarily get on a plane. But it’s Stevie and he has my song, and I want to know what’s up.

So I flew myself to L.A. and I went to his studio and he said, “I recorded it,” and he pulled it up and started playing it, and I got lightheaded. I was sitting in the chair and everything just went (makes noise). It was just (laughter) – it was a moment.

Then he said, “You sound so great on here, do you want to sing it with me?” I was alike, “Uh, yeah. Yes, I do.” (Laughter) My favorite part about that record is our intonation the background vocals, because I grew up listening, literally all my life.

So there’s parts where we sound just – he sounds like me and he sounds like him, but we sound just right. It just touches my heart, those little things like that.

Tavis: That’s what makes life worth living.

Arie: Yeah, those little things.

Tavis: Those moments, yeah.

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: Okay. Grab your stick there. The new project from India.Arie, after four years, again – I close where I began. I can’t believe she made us wait this long. (Laughter) But it’s a great project. It’s called “SongVersation.” It is more than worth the wait, I can guarantee you.

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: Great cover, great stuff on the project.

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: We’ve been waiting for it and here it is. I’m going to say my closing goodbyes, as I do every night, and I’m going to let India play us out. What you going to play us out with?

Arie: A song inspired by Cicely Tyson.

Tavis: Okay. (Unintelligible)

Arie: It’s called “Break the Shell.”

Tavis: Absolutely. “Break the Shell.”

Arie: “Break the Shell.”

Tavis: “Break the Shell,” a song inspired by Cicely Tyson, who just won her Tony award at 88 years of age.

Arie: Yes. Woo, woo, woo, woo.

Tavis: Go, Cicely Tyson, we love to. “Trip to Bountiful,” and I’m going to see it when I get to New York in a couple of weeks.

Arie: Are you? I need to go see it.

Tavis: So India’s going to play us out with that. That’s our show for tonight. Good night from Los Angeles. As always, keep the faith.

[Live musical performance]


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Last modified: August 9, 2013 at 1:12 pm