INDIA.ARIE (WITH SADE)
Key Arena, Seattle Center, 628-0888, $35.50-$75.50 7:30 p.m. Sun., July 15
EAST COAST, WEST COAST—it's so 20th century. Hip-hop is global now. Just ask the soul singer of the self-respectin' single "Video," India.Arie, about her recent trip to Asia.
"Black American culture is young culture all over the world," she says by phone from her home base in Atlanta, two weeks before hitting the road to open for Sade. "They emulate hip-hop, they emulate Erykah Badu. I saw Japanese girls with hair wraps on, just like Erykah Badu, with ankhs."
And that's what worries the 25-year-old singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Not that she frets about Asian girls with head wraps. What keeps her up at night is the idea that MTV and BET, with their cash-money, nekkid-honey videos, are the de facto ambassadors for black American culture throughout the world.
India.Arie aims to inject positive vibes into the mix with Acoustic Soul, her debut album, and the "Video" single—which boasts the head-bobbin' chorus, "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."
"Music in my opinion is a manifestation of the way that society thinks," she says. "When I think about my album, and a lot of other albums like Jill [Scott's] and Erykah [Badu's] or even Joe or anybody whose desire it is to sing about something that's uplifting—when I think about that, I think about the perception that the world has of young black America through the music. My mom says [Sam Cooke's] 'A Change Is Gonna Come' was about the civil rights movement. And for me, when I think about the movement that's happening in music, it's putting a better light on young black America."
Her parents, Ralph Simpson (the Denver Nuggets star of the 1970s) and Joyce Simpson (a clothing designer who still creates outfits for her daughter), raised India Arie Simpson in Denver to the sounds of Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. As a girl, she'd come home from school, rummage through her folks' jazz records, and find instrumental versions of songs she knew the words to. With a tune like "God Bless the Child" spinning from the turntable, she'd huddle next to the speaker with a tape recorder and record her own vocals with the music.
Though she was a veteran of school choirs and the local recorder club (where she played soprano, alto, and tenor), India.Arie didn't pick up the guitar until she was studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Then, in Atlanta, she helped launch the Groovement/Earthseed collective and cut a tune for a compilation album that scored her a couple of nights on the 1998 Lilith Fair tour.
History and ancestors float in and out of Acoustic Soul: some overtly, as in the roster of family and musical influences she rattles off in "Intro," "Interlude," and "Outro" (everyone from Grandma Louise to Billie Holiday to Stevie Ray Vaughn), others indirectly. The sensuality of the oozing tune "Brown Skin" makes India.Arie an apt tour companion for Sade (though a line such as "I'll be your Almond Joy, you'll be my Sugar Daddy" is certainly less subtle than Sade's work). The introspective pride and humility of "Strength, Courage and Wisdom" could have been penned in 1973 and played on the dial next to songs by Roberta Flack.
"When I travel outside of America, people talk about soul music and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and all that stuff," India.Arie says. "They have like a great reverence for it in Europe. But that's the people that I'm from. We went to the same churches, the same cities, same towns. Our families know each other. My mom grew up in Detroit when Motown was new, my mom knew Stevie Wonder when she was 16. My great-grandma is part of the Pentecostal [church], the same thing that Marvin Gaye [was]. Those are my elders and my ancestors. I'm of that blood, that's in my blood. It makes me understand better what I want to do with my music."
After the Sade outing, India.Arie may hook up for a trek with traditional rocker John Mellencamp. She recently added vocals to an upcoming single of his called, "Peaceful World."
"It's real upbeat and lighthearted summertime, riding in the convertible in the sun," she says. "It's a little bit political, it talks a lot about racism and America. And the hook is just saying let's just have a good time today. Let's just be friends today. Everything's as cool as can be in a peaceful world."