When black people who are musically inclined choose to pursue a career as an artist, they are proclaiming that they not only believe in their talent but also don’t subscribe to the conventional ways of making an American dream a reality. These people are dreamers with thick skin. Rejection is palpable when you choose to be an artist.
There are times when the sky opens up and angels play harps and sing sweet music because you’ve made it. Your music is well-received, you’ve got budgets and superstar cameos, and the world is buzzing about you. Word to Cardi B. But not everyone has that Binderella story. However, Cardi’s climb was no fairy tale. She fought for her position of grandeur, and so do all the artists out there committed to making sure the world hears their music.
For Black Music Month, I connected with several artists of all genres to get candid stories about the industry. For this article, I talked to pianist and soul singer Aaron Abernathy; singer-songwriter and storyteller Jessica Lá Rel; and Afrobeats artist-songwriter and humanitarian Della$ie about their climb up the ladder to success, the frustrations during that climb and the triumphs that ensure their music is heard. If you’re an artist who is making the climb, these three artists’ stories can hopefully help motivate you to keep pushing.
Let Della$ie make it plain for you. She said: “It’s frustrating because you know you are so close [to success] but feel far and still aware that you are just one opportunity away. It makes you anxious all the time. But every day, small victories encourage me to push, and those small victories have led to bigger and bigger ones. My time will come.” So will yours. Let’s get to know these climbing artists!
The Root: Describe your sound.
Jessica Lá Rel: I like to call my sound “cinematic soul.” My music uses soul as the foundation of the sound but then pulls on a variety of different vocal and instrumental influences: jazz, classical, soundtrack music, Chicago house, gospel, neosoul, Afrobeat, South African deep house, even rock and musical theater. There is a theatricality to it by nature of my background. I classically trained in opera for four years, sang in a rock band for three and starred in a number of musical-theater productions.
Aaron Abernathy: My sound is soulful with a funky attitude and solely based on authentic emotions. As a student of my father’s record player that consistently churned out soul/funk records from the ’70s, I found 50 percent of my voice from emulating that brand of cool and mixing it with a ’90s R&B that I tuned into daily on my FM dial. A few vocal jazz classes helped top off the hybrid that is my voice.
Della$ie: My sound is best described as Afrofusion. Afrobeats is the music I represent, but my style of Afrobeats is a bit different, as it takes in a part of my New York City influence, which gives my sound a unique, dualistic perspective. I infuse hip-hop, dancehall and even pop within the framework of West African production while also using African colloquialisms (pidgin).
TR: If two artists had a baby to make you, who would that be?
Della$ie: At least stylewise, if Foxy Brown and Fela Kuti had a musical baby, that just might be me!
JLR: Vocally? Lalah Hathaway and Anita Baker and Chaka Khan. Stylistically? Emily King and Laura Mvula.
TR: Where would you say your music career is right now?
Della$ie: I consider myself a midlevel artist. With nearly a decade of experience, I’ve toured in North America and Europe, I’ve released projects independently, and many poignant labels and executives know me and have shown tentative interest.
I’ve partnered with Fortune 500 companies on various projects, and I’m currently working on a philanthropy project with one of the biggest organizations in the world, but I haven’t been signed yet (not necessarily the goal), but moreover, I haven’t had what I consider my “big break.” I had a lot of success in West Africa and Europe with singles “Dogo Yaro” and “Bouncé,” but I’d like to have major-market success, be a triple threat and break through all three markets (Africa, Europe, U.S.) very soon!
JLR: I am an emerging artist, still building my tribe. I have had a lot of amazing opportunities to perform for major names—Oprah, civil rights icons like U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Freedom Rider Rip Patton, etc.—but I am still building that community of people who are truly dedicated to the movement.
TR: What have you done to help yourself break through to the mainstream? What are you not willing to do?
AA: The best thing I’ve done to help myself break through is to know what success looks like for myself. I had a record deal that could’ve placed me in the mainstream, but it would’ve cost me some things that I wasn’t willing to lose for mainstream exposure. Thankfully, I came out of that deal unscathed with a new outlook on how I wanted my career to be and a trajectory on how to accomplish just that. It’s important to know who you are and what you stand for! That should never be up for negotiation.
Della$ie: I have functioned as six people at any given time: an artist, a publicist, a booking agent, stylist, MUA [makeup artist] and manager. I’ve worked two jobs I absolutely hated to afford to travel overseas to tour. I’ve played at countless free shows in the past, played tons of near-empty venues early on, never gave a drop less energy and never felt above any of it.
I’ve done hundreds of hours of free work in the name of furthering my career. What I’m not willing to do is sleep with people for opportunities, lie or front about who I am to further my trajectory, do something stupid or ridiculously sexual online to go viral, or sell my soul. I’ve worked this long with integrity, and it may have been a longer, harder road, but I’m proud of myself and what I’ve accomplished.
TR: What does it look like to you to be “put on”?
JLR: My end goal is to have a sustainable business model around my music and to then use my influence to provoke social change. I am not chasing a record deal; I am building a tribe. Being “put on” looks like sharing my music on platforms that reach broader audiences. It looks like opening doors for performance opportunities for crowds that may not have already been familiar with my music but still have a vested interest in freedom, community and justice. It looks likes exposing my music to new listeners by placing it in movies, television shows, commercials, social justice ads, documentaries, classroom curricula, rallies, vigils, you name it! Being put on for me is about helping the flame catch fire.
TR: Tell me a story about a time where you saw yourself making progress as an artist.
AA: I won Tower Records’ 2016 Soul Album of the Year award in Japan for my album Monologue. It was also amazing to perform in Tokyo and hear my song on the radio. To eat in a restaurant and have people approach me and ask for autographs, I was shocked! Another time I knew I was on the right path was late April of this year when I toured Spain and 9 out of my 11 shows were sold out. There’s a whole world out there that is waiting for your art; you just have to be willing to honor your gift and find ways to get it to the people who are supposed to receive it.
JLR: 2017 was a pivotal year for me. I switched up my production team and I prioritized working with people who respected and added to my vision as an artist. It was a hard season, as it meant letting go of some relationships and welcoming new ones. It allowed me to collaborate with people that I never in a million years would have imagined being able to team up with. And that freed up my mind to create without limitation. When I listen to the music from f(lux), my upcoming EP ... and my upcoming album, War Love, I hear that freedom. I hear that clarity. I hear myself. That’s so liberating. That’s progress to me.
Check out Della$ie’s latest here.
Check out Aaron Abernathy’s latest here.
Check out Jessica Lá Rel’s latest here.