India.Arie Keeps the 'Songversation' Going

Bryan Parys
March 22, 2017
Songwriter India.Arie performs a song with Berklee student Lisa Oduor-Noah
India.Arie performs with Berklee students at the Berklee Performance Center
Keynote speaker Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Woodwinds Department Chair Bill Pierce
India.Arie performing at the annual MLK Celebration keynote concert
Inspiring songwriter India.Arie joins hands and sings with Berklee student (and longtime Arie fan) Lisa Oduor-Noah during an interview at the David Friend Recital Hall.
The night after the clinic, India.Arie performed with students in the Berklee Performance Center as part of the 2017 MLK Celebration concert called Mobilize, Educate, Elevate.
The keynote address for the MLK Celebration concert was given by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard professor, activist, and Berklee trustee.
Bill Pierce, chair of the Woodwinds Department and namesake for the Bill Pierce MLK Scholarship awarded later that evening, also performed during the keynote concert.
Regarding her success, Arie said her secret is to "be clear about your values and live by them. I knew who I was and what I wanted to be."
Image by Dave Green
Image by Dave Green
Image by Dave Green
Image by Dave Green
Image by Dave Green

In a recent visit to campus during Berklee’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Series, songwriter India.Arie addressed a standing-room-only David Friend Recital Hall, talking about her career and how she achieved her version of success: “Be clear about your values and live by them,” she told the students. “I align everything with that mission statement.”

She wasn’t content to just offer an inspirational phrase, however. Over the course of the hour-plus interview, conducted by contemporary writing and production major Lisa Oduor-Noah, Arie spoke in depth about topics ranging from her songwriting process to being an African-American woman in the music industry. And to the surprise—and sheer delight—of the audience, she frequently felt moved to sing. This spontaneous act of song is part of a process that she’s developed called “Songversation”—a self-generated practice that has become sacred to her and keeps her grounded on and off the stage. 

Transcending Genres and Stereotypes

As an example of the Songversation ethos, Arie shared her thoughts on how naïve she was about how her identity as a black woman would affect her dealings within the industry, and how the challenges she faced informed some of her early breakout hits such as “Video” and “I Am Not My Hair.” For the song “Come Back to the Middle,” she told the audience that when she played it for a record executive, he thought it was pretty, but he wondered where the beat was, expecting her to fall more rigidly into the commercialized definition of a “black artist.” As she spoke, Arie's guitarist, Blue Miller, waiting in the wings, began strumming the track, to which the audience erupted with cheers and applause. After she finished singing, Arie went right back to where she'd left off, leaving the audience with a firsthand testament to the eventual success the song found, despite its tenuous beginnings.

Finding Light in the Art and the Artist

Oduor-Noah, who grew up in Kenya listening to India.Arie records, went on to ask about the writing process behind the song “I Am Light” (from 2013’s Songversation, no less). “I always thought the words ‘I am light’ were kind of corny,” Arie said of the song’s origins. But what she felt while singing the song transcended the words, and when she sang a round of the song, the audience instantly knew what she meant. As she kept singing, the whole room joined in, harmonizing into an impromptu choir that moved Arie so much that she had to leave the stage for a moment. There was a sense that she wasn’t just relaying stories, she was living them, and inviting the students into that experience with her.

Reflecting on the experience overall, Oduor-Noah was most struck by Arie's authenticity. "The person behind those beautiful, healing lyrics is evidenced when you meet her. This is so important for musicians and artists to know: Let all your art reflect who you truly are and not to compromise who that person is just because some people might not understand it yet.”

A Concert to Mobilize, Educate, and Elevate

The night following the clinic, Arie joined the culminating event for the 2017 MLK celebration at the Berklee Performance Center, a concert aimed at furthering the work of Martin Luther King Jr. Subtitled "Mobilize, Educate, Elevate." The event also included a keynote address from  Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot—Berklee trustee, Harvard professor, and prolific activist—as well as a performance by will Bill Pierce, chair of the Woodwinds Department, making the event a powerful "songversation" inspired by the life and legacy of King.