If you ask most people what month makes them the happiest, some will say June, when the first day of summer brings freedom and relaxation; still others may say January, when all things start anew, resolutions are refreshed and new goals are set.
If you ask me -- what month thrills me? What month fills my soul with purpose and song and joy, my answer will always be September.
Seventy years ago, in September, Otis Redding was born, and the landscape of Soul music was shaped as magnificently as a view from the "Dock on the Bay."
Fifty-three years ago, in September, Berry Gordy followed his dreams, listened to his soul and founded Motown Records. Unleashing Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5, Diana Ross -- and other talent that can never be duplicated -- into the world.
Thirty-five years ago, in September, Soul music legend Stevie Wonder released Songs in the Key of Life. His music would later "Knock Me Off My Feet" and remind me that "Isn't She Lovely?" and to never forget to "Have A Talk With God."
Soul music was born in September, and my life was inextricably bound to it before I ever opened my eyes in this world.
It's taken me a long time to define what Soul music means to me. I've always known that it was my connection to my mother. Digging through crates as a child, grooving to her 45's, I got to know her in ways that I couldn't even articulate until I had a little bit more living under my belt. My heart was connected to the music before I even knew I could sing, and once I experienced the brilliant art of Michael Jackson, my path was set.
I was 15 years old when I joined a gospel group called Providence. My family and I traveled the Deep South with an African-American choir from a church in Orlando, Florida and when I saw how people would get out of their seats, throw their hands up, shout and give praise, I realized that Gospel was the father of Soul. I saw that joy and that freedom, and I knew that I had to share that feeling with the world. I finally knew whom Soul music spoke for. It's not for Black people, or White people, or Brown people, or Purple people; it's for anyone who's ever heard a melody, ever heard a lyric and had it come together in such a way, at such a moment, that it transports them to a place where only the music is powerful enough to speak for them.
Do you remember these lyrics?
I was born by the river/In a little tent/Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since/ It's been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change gon' come, oh yes it will
Where were you? What were you doing? Whom were you with?
I remember I was at home, listening to my mother's albums, and it stirred something so powerful within me. Then later, I would see the images of the Civil Rights Movement. The dogs, and the guns, and the resolute strength on the faces of those brave people, those brave souls, who understood that this moment, this time in history, it was going to be different.
That's what Soul music does.
It puts the world in perspective. It shows you love in the darkest corners, behind the brightest lies, inside the most secret dreams. It pierces your heart and fills it with music.
Soul music allows a genius like Donny Hathaway to take the words of Leon Russell and infuse so much pain, love, heartache and regret, that when the notes of 'Song For You' trickle down the piano, the hearts of everyone listening begin to stir in recognition:
You taught me precious secrets of the truth withholding nothing/You came out in front and I was hiding/But now I'm so much better and if my words don't come together/Listen to the melody cause my love is in there hiding...
Those lyrics are the very essence of Soul music; they're the very core of who I am as an artist. Soul music introduced me to myself, to my own truth. It stands in front of me and speaks for me when the words just won't come together. Love, in all its forms, lives in Soul music. 'Song For You' touched me so profoundly that it became the cornerstone of my inspiration to write love songs. Nothing means more to me than to delve into how love develops and colors every aspect of humanity.
I've had people tell me that because I'm white, I shouldn't sing Soul music. I should sing rock or pop, or whatever else the blond-haired boy groups of the world are singing. But my soul doesn't live there. I want people to ignore the color of my skin and recognize themselves in my music. There is more to me than what is recognizable at face value. My generation has experienced more acceptance and less prejudice, so Soul music -- through my eyes -- allows me to demonstrate this. A person's soul isn't visible from the surface, and neither is Soul music. It is universal and distinct, and it uplifts my spirit each and every time I hear it. When people tell me they appreciate my music, it humbles me, because I know that it's not really me that they appreciate, but what my music allows them to feel -- if only for a few moments at a time. I realize that I'm a part of something larger than myself. When I am able to see how music touches people's hearts no matter their age, color, gender or religion, there is no better feeling.
When I look at the careers of Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, or even taking it further back to Michael McDonald, these are all white musicians who have not only flourished singing soul music, but helped to redefine the sound to be inclusive of all races. I have been ostracized by some people who accused me of trying to capitalize off a genre that does not belong to me, and though I can respect that opinion, it does not make me shrink away from my dreams, instead I chase them with more determination. Just as Black artists sing from the depths of their experiences, every criticism, every negative judgement thrown my way, I let it sink in and flow out through my music. Some people march to eradicate racism and bring people together, I sing.
No other sound, no other groove, no other hum, scat, whistle, or melody tells a story like Soul music. There is no other genre of music that transcends race, prejudice and classism -- if we let it. Soul music brands you like a hot poker and even when the throb isn't there anymore, you remember what it felt like. The right song is like the perfect snapshot with the ability to take you back into time or make you look to the future, or better yet, enable you to look around and enjoy the present. I feel that deep in my heart, and through my voice, I want others to feel it too.
Do you remember the/21st night of September?/Love was changing the minds of pretenders/While chasing the clouds away
My soul sings with as much power and conviction as the elements of Earth, Wind, and Fire, so my music has to harmonize.
Especially, in September.