Bleachers - Cover Story

Interview: Ari Lennox on her debut album 'Shea Butter Baby'.

Interview: Ari Lennox on her debut album 'Shea Butter Baby'.

Ari Lennox’s twelve-song debut album ‘Shea Butter Baby’, released earlier this year, sees her explore funk and soul - with songs like ‘I Been’ and ‘New Apartment’ highlighting her rich and soothing vocals.

Since signing to J. Cole’s label Dreamville three years ago, Lennox has toured with him (coming to New Zealand to open for his 2017 show), as well as establishing herself as an artist to watch - just recently making her television debut on The Tonight Show.

We caught up with Ari Lennox in the midst of tour, to discuss her excellent album ‘Shea Butter Baby’, her adorable dog, representing black women, and more…

A lot of people are afraid to wear their natural hair, or their natural skin-tone, or their natural body features - it’s a culture of constantly cutting up and altering ourselves, and I just want to encourage people to dig deeper and just love what you have and learn more about who you are.

COUP DE MAIN: How’s tour going at the moment?
ARI LENNOX: Tour is going amazing! It’s just been a dream. I can’t believe people know my songs.
CDM: And congratulations on the release of ‘Shea Butter Baby’! We love the album!
ARI: Oh my gosh, thank you so much!

CDM: I really love ‘I Been’ - that song dates back to 2015, and I’m so glad it still made the album. Was it a tricky process choosing which songs would make the album?
ARI: Oh my goodness. We just knew, we could just tell with the feeling of it. We just knew that was going to make it. I always wanted a Mary J. Blige, Elton John-inspired record, and ‘I Been’ naturally happened - so I knew that one was special. I didn’t care how old it was, you know?

CDM: The outro of ‘I Been’ is really cool. Do you remember what was running through your mind when writing it? Was it just all on the spot that you came up with it?
ARI: Oh, definitely. It was definitely a freestyle, that’s why it kind of doesn’t make any sense - like, ‘Don’t date these niggas 'til you're 43 / A heartbreak gonna creep on after me,’ it really doesn’t even make sense, but it does. I decided to keep it, but yeah! I could just remember my dad telling me, "You don’t need a boyfriend. You don’t ever really need a boyfriend. Take your time." He was kind of right for a while. <laughs>

CDM: What was it about the song ’Shea Butter Baby’ which made you want to name your album after it?
ARI: It just felt right. Nothing else could describe the album more beautifully. I mean, when I think of blackness and natural hair and what we use to moisturise our curls and to keep our skin glowing, it just felt right. I wanted to use the opportunity to glamourise our curls on a cool platform.

CDM: That’s so cool, I feel like fellow black women can look at that and feel celebrated.
ARI: Oh, yes, because I feel like we’re slept on a lot as people. I feel like we are just so amazing and so great, and we contribute so much to life, and I just wanted us to feel celebrated because I know there’s a lot of chocolate girls out there that feel insecure because of their skin tone, because the world sometimes says if you’re too dark you’re not pretty. I think dark skin is just the most beautiful - well not the most beautiful, but kind of, you know what I mean? I don’t want to be apologetic for it, but it’s just kind of life, overlooked and not appreciated, so I just had to make something for us.

CDM: I really admire that for the track-listing you numbered each song with black women’s hair types - which you said you wanted to do to help encourage other women to go natural. What’s it been like seeing the reaction from fellow black women in your community to this?
ARI: Uh-huh! I was just pleased to see that people thought it was really cool. People are excited to figure out what their hair type is so that they can find different videos about what products to use, and things to use to make sure their hair is healthy and beautiful. I just think it’s an important thing to glamourise because there’s a lot of people that are afraid to go natural, and that’s every race really. A lot of people are afraid to wear their natural hair, or their natural skin-tone, or their natural body features - it’s a culture of constantly cutting up and altering ourselves, and I just want to encourage people to dig deeper and just love what you have and learn more about who you are. Dig deep into the culture and I think that can just help overall to be more confident and to love yourself even more, if you find out more about who you are and where you come from, and maybe why your hair does this, or your nose looks like this.

CDM: I spoke to a black actress last year who was telling me about how she would always heat-treat her hair every day before going to audition for different roles, and that she thought it was so unconscionable that some black women feel like they won’t be employable or treated the same if they wear their hair naturally. It’s cool to see so many women in different entertainment industries speaking out about this issue!
ARI: Oh yeah. It’s really important, and it is true. It makes me feel happy when I am rocking my natural curls and to get so much love from all kinds of races, and people of different backgrounds. Yeah, it is everywhere that straight hair may be the only acceptable hair, the only hair that looks appropriate or professional, so it feels good when I get love for rocking my curls.

CDM: Were the songs ‘Shea Butter Baby’ and ‘FaceTime’ made in the same session? 'Cuz the beginning of ‘FaceTime’ has a reference to ‘Shea Butter Baby’ right?
ARI: So ‘FaceTime’ was the first record I ever recorded with Dreamville, outside of the record ‘Sweat It Out’ with Omen. When J. Cole found out about me and flew me out, the first record we did was ‘FaceTime’. But ironically, earlier this year I went to the studio and when I edited ‘FaceTime’ and I was adding more things to make it beautiful, I decided I wanted this hip-hop talking voice or vibe on it, so I just asked this amazing engineer [Juro “Mez” Davis] at the studio to basically say, “Shea butter baby,” to kind of tie in the album title. It just felt right. So basically the ‘Shea Butter Baby’ reference came years later.

CDM: In the bridge of ‘Speak To Me’ you ask, “Can I trust you?” - do you think that trust is one of the most important aspects of any relationship?
ARI: Absolutely. It’s just the main cause of havoc and arguments. If you don’t trust your partner all hell can break loose. I was basically like, "Okay, this person he’s not communicating with me, so I’m asking him to communicate with me, he’s not doing it. Maybe he’s running away, maybe he’s also coming back, and it’s just like, Yo, now that you’re here this time, can I trust you?" So that record is basically me screaming out for communication! Just communicate. Just tell me, "Is this what you want?" Or, you know, fuck off. <laughs>

CDM: It’s rad that Masego plays the saxophone on ‘Up Late’! How did that come about?
ARI: We were just having a beautiful time in the studio. Kojo, Masego, Nick Quinn, Bigg Kid, Hollywood JB, it was just beautiful vibes. We were just chilling, and all of us are from that Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Beach area, so I know soul is rooted in us all. That’s how ‘Up Late’ came about, our roots made that beautiful beat. I heard those lyrics, it was just a fun time! We were all having a beautiful time. Masego is hilarious, it was fun.

CDM: I love the shout-out to ‘Adventure Time’ in ‘Pop’! What other TV shows do you like watching?
ARI: ‘Black Mirror’ is my shit. ‘The Twilight Zone’ is classic, I love that. Let’s see... I love ‘Family Matters’, ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Adam Ruins Everything’, ‘Arthur’. There’s so many, I can’t think of them! Oh, ‘Goosebumps’, that is number one.

CDM: We need to take a moment to discuss your dog Galactus, he is SO cute! How old is he now? Who’s looking after him while you’re on tour?
ARI: My baby! So my baby is seven months. This lovely lady named Carla is watching him, and I’m getting really sad and jealous because she’s like, "Yeah, he’s best friends with my dog, they go everywhere together." I’m just like, "Damn, when I take him back I hope he’s not sad!" He has a best friend now. I can’t wait to see him again, hopefully, next week when I’m in Atlanta.

CDM: You last came to Australia and New Zealand when you were supporting J. Cole on tour, but when are you going to come back and play your own shows?!
ARI: Oh my goodness, as soon as somebody says "come" I will be there! First of all, I love Australia a lot, I love New Zealand a lot. It was just beautiful, I felt like the people were beautiful, I loved the vibe. I felt beautiful walking down the street, I felt like people made it known that they thought I was pretty there. <laughs> Sometimes in the United States, depending on certain parts, and I’m sure it’s the same out there, sometimes it’s easy to feel invisible in certain areas as a chocolate girl. In Brisbane especially, I felt like I was getting some looks, I liked that a lot.

CDM: Did you have much time off when you were on the tour?
ARI: I did have some time off, and I made the most out of every day because I never get to go places like that! I went to the kangaroo sanctuary, and I was so happy to be able to see the kangaroos. I saw a koala bear, and all these beautiful birds, it was lovely. I also went to the Sydney Opera House and I did a ghost tour as well. There was this ghost tour somewhere in Sydney and they even told me that the hotel I was staying at was haunted.

Ari Lennox’s album ‘Shea Butter Baby’ is out now - click here to purchase and watch her perform ‘Up Late’ and ‘BMO’ on Jimmy Fallon below…

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