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By Lawrence Ferber
Like hair, India.Arie keeps growing and growing. But on her stunning new single, “I Am Not My Hair,” the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter points out that there’s a profound distinction between one’s inner self and what’s atop – or not atop – one’s head.
“Writing that song began with me cutting my hair off and deciding to do other things and confronting fear,” she reveals. “Like I’d want braids and I’d be afraid to get something as simple as braids and I had to dig deep and figure out where all this fear was coming from. It goes all the way back to my childhood. I had my hair burned off of my head with relaxers – I had scabs on my scalp. I was injured. So when I think of hair and my hair being healthy, I think of my body being healthy and my well-being. So I had to confront all that and let it go and realize it’s just hair and as long as I’m OK I can do anything I want to do. Get braids all the way down to my butt and afro-puffs. I’ve been doing everything.”
But damaging, losing and changing one’s hair (one verse of the song addresses friend Melissa Etheridge’s chemotherapy-induced hair loss) is only part of what drives India’s new album, “Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship” (Universal Motown). The lyrics are fueled by painful lessons learned when a long-term relationship with the man she planned to marry deteriorated. Her first full-length studio effort since 2002’s “Voyage To India,” “Testimony: Vol. 1” is a rich neo-soul journey with tinges of hip-hop (“There’s Hope”), gospel (“The Heart of the Matter”) and even Sade-style lushness (“Good Mourning”).
Arie says the album’s recording process was “erratic and sporadic,” due to her emotional evolution during and after the breakup. A studio in Arie’s basement served as lyrical confessional while writing the songs, capturing each epiphany as it occurred. “I just wanted to talk about where I was in my life,” she shares, “which was learning lessons about relationships. Specifically a very connected, committed coexisting relationship, and learning lessons about that and how different it is from what they say in movies and songs. I’m a person who was born a romantic the same way I was born a female. It’s very much a part of my nature. So when I learned that you can love somebody and not want to be with them, that was devastating for me.”
One song that encapsulates Arie’s painful post-relationship journey is “Good Mourning,” which features the lyric: “Good mourning to the pain in my chest/ I know I said I wanted this but I have regrets/ Good mourning to the fact we’re not husband and wife.”
“It’s both the most painful and most triumphant [song on the album],” Arie says. “On an emotional level that song is something I wish I had been able to hear because it channels the story of the healing process. You start in the beginning in a whole bunch of pain. By the end of the song I’m not saying ‘I’m healed,’ but, ‘You know what, if this is the way its supposed to be, that’s OK.’ That’s a beautiful place to be about things. The only way I could get to where I could write the end was to be at that place emotionally. I always like to tell the truth in my songs. So when I hear that song I hear my whole healing process and it’s beautiful to be able to sit back and have it heal me every time.”
Not all of the songs on “Testimony: Vol. 1” are focused on relationships with others: some address relationships with oneself. In “Private Party,” Arie celebrates her own body. “I’m not talking about the shape of my breasts or how flat my stomach is – I’m talking about my female body,” she says. “Your sexual organs, your womb. [The show] ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was so necessary because society is like it’s [unpleasant], the whole thing. And ‘Private Party’ is once again autobiographical. There was a day I wanted to call my mom and say, ‘Hey, I’m on my period and don’t have cramps’ or whatever it was. But I couldn’t really say that because who’s going to celebrate that? But I can, and that’s a great thing to celebrate because a woman’s body is so connected to her emotions.”
Arie has mined her life and emotions for music since her seven-time Grammy-nominated 2001 debut “Acoustic Soul.” Many remember its ultra-catchy, empowering hit single, “Video,” on which she sang: “I’m not the average girl from your video/ and I ain’t built like a supermodel/ But, I learned to love myself unconditionally/ Because I am a queen.” 2002’s “Voyage To India” followed, garnering four more Grammy nominations and two wins. She went on to snag another Grammy nomination for a duet with Stevie Wonder on the title track of his “A Time to Love” album, and she contributed a track, “Purify,” to the soundtrack for “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”
A UNICEF ambassador since 2004, Arie also took time off to travel to Africa. She performed at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 HIV/AIDS Benefit Concert in South Africa last year (she name-drops Mandela in the song “Wings of Forgiveness”) and spent time in Kenya, where she took part in “Tracking the Monster,” VH-1’s documentary about AIDS in Africa. “Everyone knows it’s a pandemic, but I didn’t really know what it looked like on a human level [until I got there],” she notes. “When you see this whole sea of faces and all these people are affected by AIDS. In Africa, AIDS is a death sentence. You get AIDS and die and that’s it. Everyone is affected.”
This past May, Arie performed at Long Beach Pride in California. Arie has long loved, respected, and even been roommates with gay people. “I wrote and recorded all of “Acoustic Soul” while I was living with [a gay friend, Eric],” she says. “He was looking for a roommate. He didn’t need money – he just wanted different energy in his house. A beautiful person, we ended up being like brother and sister. He taught me a lot about making a home beautiful. He’s [also] the person who made me look and see that all the stereotypes that people put on gay men especially are not always true. He wasn’t effeminate at all. He didn’t call me ‘girl’ – but I have gay friends who do!”
Speaking of girls, Arie admits her previous experience with men has led to musings about whether lesbian relationships might be a better deal. “That has definitely been a conversation over the past three years!” she laughs. “I can see the value in that – to be able to communicate with another woman, because women have communication styles that are similar. I feel like some people are born gay and others have experiences that make them feel like ‘I want to try this.’ I have friends who told me both things, so I definitely see the value of thinking outside the box! I haven’t made the decision to be with a woman, but I have thought outside the box in those conversations with my friends.”
Arie realizes the entire country isn’t quite in step with her open-minded, accepting attitude towards LGBT individuals. A second volume of “Testimony, Love & Politics” (to follow in late 2006 or in 2007), will touch upon this fact and how we all might better the world by accepting others. “I have a song called ‘Gift of Acceptance,’ and I wrote it with [my ex-roommate Eric],” she says. “It talks about how people say it’s not right to be black. Some people say it’s not right to wear a short skirt. Or be gay. But you can choose to give the world a present and give the gift of your acceptance. There’s one line that says ‘if you don’t have a husband and you’re pregnant, if you’re a woman and have a wife.’ On that album people think I’ll be talking about Bush and all that. He’s not my choice as president but there are other things going on in the world that matter more to me. I’m talking more about the politics of human nature and how we treat each other. Also songs about AIDS, HIV, HIV in Africa.”
Arie will take her socially and self-aware messages and music on the road through the summer. And possibly, having finally shaken free some pain from the past, a funky new hairstyle or weave – if it’s not too long. “I wouldn’t do straight hair because I like textured,” she smiles. “But the braids [I had for a while] was a crazy weave – all the way down to my butt. When I would hug people they would hug my hair and pull it and stuff. I liked that hair but it was too much of a responsibility.”