Bilal, Sorcerer of Modern Soul
JULY 15, 2006 – LONDON ENGLAND, 9:42 PM
Bilal is a sorcerer.
He doesn’t know it, but the magic in his music can transform the dead into a living, soulful exuberance. I know this because despite my will, I’m forced to accompany friends to the Jazz Café on a rainy night in North London, determined not to enjoy myself. Determined not to feel anything. And then—
Despite my best efforts, my foot taps. My body sways. I feel a welling up inside. What began as the crooning sound of a weeping willow in a summer’s breeze, is now electric drum cracking thunder.
He opens himself to the music gods.
And I wonder if it’s Hendrix’s Fender Strat he’s channeling, or the cries of his ancestors. I’m thrashed into the crowd—waves of vengeance unleashing from his microphone. Vengeance on love. On pain. On an industry who may recognize his genius as remotely as seventeenth century literature did Nietzsche’s. A girl throws her hands into the air and screams. A Rasta yells obscenities. Bilal kicks the mic stand, overwhelmed by his own power. No longer reluctant, I’m pushed with the sea of bodies towards the stage.
Bilal is a high priest.
He doesn’t know it, but in a time where sonic mediocrity is celebrated in the American main stream—he is our Santeria. I leave the concert drenched in sweat, and pissed that I let him take me that far.
SEPTEMBER 30, 2012, 1:15pm – DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES
THE MAYAN THEATER
Sound check. An empty nineteenth-century theater, where a sixteen piece orchestra is on stage rehearsing in plain clothes. I spot Bilal, standing in a corner. He signals me. As I approach, he’s mumbling—[memorizing] his contribution to tonight’s show. When he’s called on stage to join the orchestra, the power I felt six years ago in London sweeps the small production staff and we know this isn’t going to be a normal sound check. All I can think of is my mosh pit experience years ago and wonder if they have insurance for the three thousand attendees expected at the theater tonight.
Bilal grabs his jacket. Tells me he’s ready to go. Humble. Unaware of his power. Or the souls he’s stirred.
Tell me about the first time you ever sang in front of a crowd.
Bilal: The furthest back I can remember is around five years old, in church. Second Baptist Church of Franklinville—my whole family went to the church. My family was the church. I used to sing in a choir called the sunbeams choir. That was for the little kids ’n’ shit. My older brother Damon was in the—
[my preacher’s voice] Junior choir…
[laughs] Yep. The junior choir. My brother’s really the talent. He can really dance his ass off and sing, but he—you know that was a different time. Pre–crack era. Not to say that my brother was on crack but the streets changed during the late ’80s. Cats wasn’t gonna be singin’ in no church choir. Cat’s wasn’t gonna be singing anymore at all.
Did you guys have a washboard player?
[laughs] We didn’t have a washboard, but we had an organist some weeks.
Do you play?
I’ve always wished I could play.
Man—anything. We had a piano at the church but nobody could play it. And the church was kinda like my whole family, so you couldn’t just go up there and play without being good or they would get on you. I had a Casio, so it made me get more intrigued with learning how to play. I was never pushed to learn. But I wanted to. Bad.
Did wanting to play an instrument affect how you’d eventually use your voice?
Hell yeah. Because we couldn’t afford a piano. Eventually, the church choir would travel to other churches and sing, and we realized they would let their children get up there and play, and sound like nothing—they’d let them sound bad until they got it. Not our church. You had to do it right. My mom was the biggest critic.
Does your mom have a back ground in music?
No, she was just a tough critic. My mom would come to one of my shows and I’d ask, “Hey, mom, how was it? And she’d say, “Yeah…that was horrible. That was one of your worst shows ever.” [laughs] She tells me when I do well, but she’s always been a harsh critic; she’s always been that way. I started singing in church around five and I started getting good. My mom would sit in the middle of the church, directing me, [impersonating] “Go higher go lower! No! Sing! What are you doing! Turn it up!” [snapping his fingers] And the usher would have to come and take her from the middle of the church and sit her in the back.
Middle of the church? [I’m cracking up]
My mom was like my early manager. I used to sing at everybody’s church, man, I never got paid, but I should have. I was singing at everybody’s church, everybody’s wedding, everybody’s funeral. [pause] I sang at a lot of fuckin’ funerals. That was the dark shit.
How did that affect you as a kid?
It fucked me up.
I went to too many funerals in Brooklyn as a child.
Yeah, man. I used to have lots of nightmares. My mom was very religious, like…we’re doing this for the Lord. But my dad—just like my mom was into Christianity, my dad was Muslim, and he was more like, “I gotta take you to jazz clubs, man.” My dad is finally starting to get into my music and like my shit.
He introduced you to jazz?
Yeah. His best friend owned all the clubs jazz clubs in the city. When I was young, I would go to the clubs and they used to let me sit in the back.
What age was that?
About twelve years old. But my dad’s whole thing was he wanted me to do something else. But I’ve always been into music. I was always an eccentric kind of child. I started growing my locks in high school. I was a bugged-out hippie kid. And then I wound up going to a performing arts high school.
You, Jose James, Robert Glasper, all went to New School. Can singing be taught?
I don’t know, because I turned into a rebel in school. One day, I was in theory class and we were talking about where the harmonic concept of jazz music came from and they were saying it came from Europe and I was like—what? I would start to challenge the professors. They said the only contribution that African Americans had was the rhythmic component. So I was a defiant at new school. But really truly be defiant you have to know the information.
Is there such thing as Black music?
Listen, man. All American popular music started off Black; we inspired a lot of the shit. But the thing is, we create then re-create, then create again…and in some cases take it for granted—
—Because we do it so easily.
Well, it’s a pedigree of sorts. To me, the Black American inheritance of jazz and blues is one of personal experience, life texture, and context. It’s not just about the arrangement or composition of notes. A special recipe of life-variables creates the sound. A lot of people have a problem with saying music can be Black. Jazz, blues, soul—it’s important to recognize where the musicianship came from not simply that it arrived.
Yeah, but as far as musicianship goes, that shit is changing now because you can do a whole beat on your iPhone. The level of musicianship—even for us, the whole thing of it even being recognized is becoming…different. The whole view on it has changed.
But you know what? You can’t really escape learning your craft. At the end of the day, the human spirit recognizes—
Which is why your shows sell out all over the world. Try getting a ticket to see you at Bellevilloise. You’re an icon in Paris.
It’s true. What’s up with the next album?
I got a new one coming out on E1 [Records]. A Love Surreal.
From the minute you get an idea to the day you record it, what’s the process like?
Man…I can have a melody in my head for a long time—for years. And then I’ll randomly write some shit with lyrics. I play mix and match all the time. I’ll mix two songs together in my head—you know.
Do the lyrics come to you first or the melody?
The melody. Then I take it to the musicians.
You must have a great connection with your musicians.
Well, yeah, but I pretty much spell out a lot of the concept for them. I lay the keyboard parts, then a bit of the drums, and then bass line. Then put a little dummy guitar part down. Go from there.
When do you actually write the lyrics?
I’m writing the lyrics the whole time. The song is in my head while I’m doing this. I’m a real melodic person, so I’ll write a bunch of lyrics and when I’m not feeling something I’ll draw a bunch of lines between them. It’s all mixed and matched in my head. I put puzzles together in my mind. I’m walking around with mad puzzles in my mind and shit.
When you’re onstage, and you go into your “Bilal Zone”—kicking mic stands and amps—taking those who are willing with you to wherever that cosmic place is—where are you in those moments?
[laughs] I don’t know. I’ve never really tried to figure out what that was. I just try to listen. If it’s a good song I’m just trying to spell out what the music is saying to me. I’m trying to let go. Trying to see how far I can go. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, I just… it’s like theater. I just open up.
And we’re having a cosmic experience through you. Thing to remember is, wherever y’all are going as musicians, you’re taking us with you.
I have a painter friend who says the same thing.
Let’s go back for a minute. 1st Born Second was classified as a soul record. A Love for Sale, if we had to put it in a box, it could be classified as a blues record. Airtight’s Revenge has dirty rock elements to it. Obviously, you’re not afraid to venture into different areas of music. Do you get nervous when you know that you’re doing something completely different than what you’ve done before?
Uhm…yeah…you know… I just do this shit. I don’t even think about it. But afterwards I’m like, aww man. [laughing] This shit is waaaay out there. And then I just laugh to myself. Like on Airtight, I was like—I’m sick of this whole neo soul shit. I don’t do neo soul. I was like, I’m gonna to do a record and I’m not gonna play Rhodes, I’m gonna play guitar. I guess it turned into rock. But my thing has always been that space-blues shit, so we just went more out there. I just go in and worry about it later. Now I get more into the visuals—how things look. I just now started to think deeper about that stuff. You know?
Do you think that helps or hurts your music? Thinking about marketing and visuals.
Oh no, I still do the music the way I’ve been doing it. But say before—I used to be like, okay, here y’all, I did it, now here it is. But now I’ll deal with the photos and that stuff. For example, with Airtight’s Revenge, the Martin [Luther King] reference, working on that was awesome. And because we were independent, I had more of a say with all the different looks. I’ve just started to say, okay, here is the music, but now what should this other stuff look like?
When 1st Born Second came out, it was on mainstream radio. Whether you were a part of the commercial demographic or the artsy crowd, chances are your grandma was singing the chorus to “Soul Sista.” Now, there’s the demographic that progressed forward—we have more amazing music than we know what to do with, and the one who regressed—they complain that there isn’t anything out there. The industry that brought them Prince and Michael Jackson isn’t bringing them Prince and Michael anymore. Something disconnected after 2000. What happened?
Lifestyle became more important than art. In America, it’s really about a person’s album selling their lifestyle. Everything is relative, but in certain way, when you’re making a lot of pop—making shit pop, you just keep going at that formula, instead of having contrast, instead of having different scenes and other things that folks are willing to put their money into. It’s like, man, if this one sound is working…when you listen to the radio, it’s just that one sound, and when you hear something different, it’s like….from a whole different country. [laughs] ADELE!
When people look back on your catalog, say a hundred years from now—debating the impact of your music on our culture, they’ll say, “I fuck with Bilal because….”
[thinks] A hundred years from now, folks’ll say I fuck with Bilal because…he has a dope vibe. I can play this shit all day. He’s the chill. The low ride…
[my alarm rings] That’s it.
You can visit bestselling novelist T .P. Carter at www.tpcarterbooks.com or contact Kensington Books for info on her latest novel Lovestoned.
Kwesi Abbensetts is a Brooklyn-based photographer known for capturing “Iconic portraiture of the modern diaspora.” You can visit him at his website.