I will confess to having some of the most joyous -- dare I say -- spiritual moments of my life on the dance floor dancing to some largely mindless pop songs. However, I do find myself longing for music with a deeper connection. It's rare to have the two main passions of my life -- music and spirituality -- perfectly intersect. In my experience, it's truly difficult to find an artist who can blend these two elements in a secular pop / R&B context and create work that is accessible but spiritually grounded. Many female pop singers often boast of "self empowerment," but to me, the songs usually seem more like ego trips than genuine empowerment. And, sure, there's Gospel, but generally music derived from a specific religion doesn't appeal to me. My personal belief is more aligned with the belief that underlies most religions: love above all else and the oneness of all that is.
That's why I find India.Arie a revelation. India.Arie's fifth studio album, SongVersation, creates a conversation rarely heard in popular music today with such finesse and elegance. It's a deep look at spirituality. What makes it so refreshing is her take isn't derived from a specific religious vantage point.
In today's pop, soul and R&B scenes, many songs (and even albums) are easily interchangeable among artists. The sign of a great 'voice' is the ability to deliver something in a way that no one else can. India.Arie's music has always had a spiritual underpinning, but in SongVersation, we witness her in full bloom. It's like the other works were a prelude to the depth we find here. Arie clearly sets her intention upfront with full opening track "Just Do You." With the opening lyrics, "I heard a voice that told me I'm essential. How all my fears are limiting my potential," I couldn't agree more. India.Arie is essential to the popular music landscape.
The first half of SongVersation is comprised of lovely love songs, but once it settles into its deeper magic midway through, it opens up like a lotus. "Moved By You" is a moving ode to an intimate who could be a lover, friend or God. Then with a turn of coin, she perfectly expresses her longing for a life partner in "The Life I Know." She paints a rich picture of her late 30s single life having expected to be partnered by now, instead doing errands alone and being confused where she fits into the world with her unconventional life. "We all have a secret pain. We all have a tender place. But we were born to want more. I know I'm not meant to live alone. But this is the life I know." It's something -- as a single person myself -- that resonates deeply. And somehow India.Arie uplifts the moment from a heartbreaking pity party to a hopeful moment of grace, self-acceptance and release from expectations.
The album's apex comes in the one-two punch with the songs, "Break the Shell" and "SoulBird Rise" which the album revolves around (or evolves into as the case may be). On "Break the Shell" she tells the story of a prophet who advises "Life's gonna hurt but it's meant to be felt. You cannot touch the sky from inside yourself. You cannot fly, until you break the shell" and helps her find the courage to face her pain and be free. India.Arie poetically births herself into a new way of being. "SoulBird Rise" starts in a quiet storm with subtle energy, but by its end, it bursts into a soaring point that's so well arranged and orchestrated, it perfectly evokes a magical moment where a bird begins to fly for the first time. She drops the weight of other people's expectations ("I will no longer be defined by what someone else believes that I am") and becomes airborne once the burden is removed. And soar she does!
The tracks that follow show more breakthroughs: on "Brothers' Keeper" it's taking care of each other's hearts, well-being and reminding them of their worth in God ("will I judge him or love him," a needed reminder in our often self-centered US society), on "Thy Will Be Done (feat. Gramps Morgan)" it's letting God animate your life, and on "One" she makes a point of addressing religion. After giving a reverent shout out to everyone from Muslims to Atheists, she calls for a look at the underlying truth of love. "We are a human kind of seven billion. So many different races and religions. And it all comes down to one." She reflects on the work of great leaders, but wonders aloud: "How far will we have to go before we learn the lesson. Ghandi was a Hindu, Martin Luther King a Christian. Regardless of religion they knew love was the mission." Finally she finishes the album (Standard Edition) on the fully realized "I Am Light." She might be informed by her race, gender and past experience, but she's not defined by them. She declares: "I am not the mistakes I have made... I am not my age. I am not my face. My soul inside is all light." A beautiful clarity of vision.
It's hard to imagine India.Arie was going to retire before all this. In a recent interview on Oprah Winfrey's weekly "Super Soul Sunday" on OWN the singer confessed that in 2009 she decided to retire from the music business and went into seclusion to make music for herself. Fortunately, she came out of that renewed and ready to share. And what has emerged feels like the album she was destined to make; we witness an artist at the top of her personal game. And for those of us who are 'seekers' -- who also love our pop culture -- it's feels like an essential work to behold. Thank you for 'just doing you', India.Arie. In the process, you help us all be a braver, better version of ourselves.