Jon Batiste riffs on the moment with We Are
Jon Batiste could not have been working with a fuller plate. In the summer of 2019, the prolific 34-year-old songwriter was leading the band at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; writing tracks for a musical based on the life of renowned modern artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; penning the score for Pixar's latest marvel, Soul (which eventually nabbed him an Oscar nomination for Best Score); and laying the groundwork for We Are, his 16th studio album. The workload was astounding, so Batiste used his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City as an impromptu salon for collaborators to sketch out the "blueprint" for his forthcoming record.
"We had food deliveries coming in and out," he says, chuckling. "This is like, around the clock. I'm popping in from the set to different studios, going back into my dressing room, and just monitoring, and playing, and contributing in this communal way."
As demanding it might seem to juggle multiple high-profile projects, it's a necessary part of Batiste's process, along with an accurate representation of his interests.
"I prefer that they leave an imprint on each other," he says. "I'm not ever segmenting my love and respect and craft in jazz when I'm composing music for Soul, or separating that in my mind from all of the different types of music that I grew up playing in New Orleans and absorbing as a child… It's all one world within myself."
Yet that world grew increasingly inflamed as he continued to work on We Are, first with the onset of the pandemic and then with last summer's Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Batiste soon took to the streets and led a second line as he and his fellow protestors marched down the avenues of New York to show support for the movement. That experience underlined many of the lyrics and stories he tells throughout We Are; he even worked the sounds he captured during the protests into the title track.
The world had plenty on its plate in 2020, but We Are is a record that licks that plate clean. By writing through one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, Batiste has managed to peel back new layers of his own artistry.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We Are goes beyond your jazz roots by bringing R&B, hip-hop, swing, and pop into the mix. How did it feel to embrace more genres on the record?
JON BATISTE: It felt really, really natural. Once you get to a certain point as an artist, you're comfortable exploring things. Still knowing that your integrity will be intact, you can play a country song, and it'll sound like Jon Batiste. You can play a song in a style people have never heard from you before — it could be dubstep, EDM — and it'll sound like you because you found this center of yourself, and it is a core that doesn't change. I think when you're younger — and also when you've become known for something — it's hard to feel confident enough to stray away from that fear that you might lose the public, or you might not sound like yourself. When you start to realize who you are as an artist, it becomes one of those things that, you realize, is a myth — there is no real genre or any real sense of categorizing music beyond the soul of a man or a woman. When I'm honest with who I am and what I love and what I wanted to make at the time I was writing this, that's what came out.
I was struck by the different flourishes on the album that nod to New Orleans and its culture, notably on "Until," which incorporates New Orleans Indians singing "Shoo Fly." How important was it to work these specific references into the story you wanted to tell with We Are?
If you think of America as this cultural experiment — to see if all of these cultures could coexist underneath the banner of an ideology — New Orleans is the greatest modern example of that working. Look at all of the different things that we've gotten from New Orleans as a result of that — the food, the architecture. And then you have the music, which is this blend of Afro Caribbean sounds, and the sounds of the enslaved people, and Irish Celtic music, and French sounds and instruments, I feel like, if we're talking about what's going on in America today and the ideal that we have to be this utopia, then what better example do you have than the Black Indian tradition of New Orleans, which is indigenous people and our enslaved people creating a culture that is still a part of the social fabric of the city? It's incredible to me that that is something that is not talked about more in reference to New Orleans. I feel like people often talk about New Orleans as a party city, and they think about Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, but it's actually a real representation of what American life can be.
Something I've been thinking about in recent months, especially during the pandemic and the protests, are the horrible parallels between Hurricane Katrina, when the government shut out marginalized communities during and after the disaster, and the pandemic and scourge of police brutality, which disproportionately impact people of color. Are there any connections between the two for you?
I think that when we see stuff like what happened post-Katrina, and when we see stuff that constantly happens with Black communities... it unearths certain aspects of our culture and citizenship that are unsavory, and even pulls the country in a direction of divisiveness. It's the thing that's already there that we don't want to deal with, but we put bandages over it or sweep it under the rug hoping it will go away. But the dirt is still there. And I think that's one of the things about New Orleans that kind of exemplifies that, even apart from any tragedy, is the fact that the people realize what New Orleans is, and what a superpower it is, and what an example it is, culturally. That's something that I like to represent in my music.
Obviously, I'm from there, and I come from this family tree that has such roots in the south. But on top of that, as an artist, even if I wasn't from New Orleans, understanding New Orleans as a musician and what it represents to me as an artist and as an American, all of those different representations are so important. It's deep that we don't actually get [that] there are people who actually play in the streets of New Orleans as a part of the function of society. There's music for everything in New Orleans. There's people who understand what music goes with what food goes with what dance. There are few places in the world that have that rich of a cultural manifestation that's tied to life and also represents Black people in America. It's so important to me — even if I weren't from there, just as an artist, and as an American, and a Black person — to understand that.
You spent a lot of time marching with the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer. Are there moments on We Are that remind you of that time?
Absolutely. I'm going into these rallies and marches that we did during that time, and leaving 10,000 people and going into a room for 14 days by myself and finishing the album, then going back out, playing on the Brooklyn Public Library steps, basically losing my voice by just speaking the truth through a megaphone, and then going back, again, 14 days into solitude, putting the finishing touches on the album. When you listen to it, all of those tracks are infused with that energy and that spirit. For instance, you listen to "We Are," the chant has this kind of edgy sonic quality, as if people are marching in the street protesting when they're singing the song. That was something that I added, after the experience of actually doing that in the street: I put in a little voice recording that I [took] on my iPhone to give it that flavor.
How did 2020 change your understanding or definition of protest music, and what you can do with it?
Protest music, in our time, has to look and feel different than it did in the past. We're fighting a different beast. Right now, we have a lack of knowledge of who we are. It's so vast, but we don't have the ability to actually sort through, in real time, what's true and what's not. It leaves us open to manipulation. It leaves us open to basically adopting toxic ideologies that don't actually represent the truth of who we are. I wanted to go out into the street to protest against injustice, but more to bring music to people that makes them reconnect with their shared humanity. Because I think the dehumanizing quality of what we're dealing with causes us to hold tight to rage and hold tight to aspects of ourselves that will continue to dehumanize us, and won't breed the results that we're looking for. I think that the protest music of today isn't necessarily as straightforward as it was back in the day. It's more of a spiritual practice. I think that that's harder to put into a song. It's more in the intention of the musician, and the way that is presented to the people. That might not always be marching in the street. It's something that I feel like we're still defining for ourselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.