Music Critic Lauren Ramsden attends and reports on a press conference for Jon Batiste in anticipation of the upcoming release of new album, We Are

Written by Lauren Ramsden
21 year old BA student studying English Literature and History, with a specific interest in cultural histories of the body, sexuality and consent. Actress and all round lover of theatre, film, television and music.
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Images by Louis Browne

When Jon Batiste entered the zoom call, where 75 giddy students – including myself – waited for him, he was out of his familiar Late-Show-suit garb and wearing a comfy, black and yellow tracksuit, a relaxed demeanour, and a smile, clearly comfortable in front of his piano and a camera. The Louisiana native is fresh off of acclaim for his contributions to the Disney-Pixar film Soul (which he has just won a Golden Globe award for Best Soundtrack), both musically and through helping the animators with main character’s piano playing, but he certainly did not show any signs of taking time off to enjoy the impromptu holiday the pandemic has pushed many in his profession into. Instead, he was lively, promoting his new album We Are which is one of my most anticipated for this year due to the quality of its singles so far. ‘CRY’ is a beautiful and sombre track, taking the listener on an emotional journey with the oft smiling Batiste, and ‘I Need You’ a contrastingly catchy dance-inducing track which pays homage to the swinging dance halls of 1920s Harlem in its music video.

The Louisiana native is fresh off of acclaim for his contributions to the Disney-Pixar film Soul (which he has just won a Golden Globe award for Best Soundtrack)

Jon Batiste began by stating that he was ‘on a vibe,’ followed by a short scale interlude on his piano, which joyfully peppered the whole Q&A, and made Batiste and his music feel almost inseparable. At just 34-years-old, Jon Batiste has released 11 albums and EPs (not including his up-and-coming release) and has recorded and performed with icons of the industry such as Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson and Mavis Staples. He is also, as the Q&A coordinator informed us, the Music Director of The Atlantic and Artistic Co-Director and Creative Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and a self-proclaimed activist, something he sees as being deeply rooted in his – and in a more general, wider sense – music:

‘I look at my role as an activist and a musician under the one umbrella of being a human; I think that being a human being creates opportunity for you to tap into your divine nature or your lower nature… so I am just trying to be the best version of myself. This creates opportunities for activism, for music and everything in-between. It is all one.’

Batiste also went on to explain his view on how music can be used in social change:

‘Music changes the way people’s emotions and thoughts happen. It makes it feel communal. You have music at BBQs, worships services, funerals, etc. so I think music has always been a social glue. So, if you get people together, and you make people feel the same emotion at the same time, it is a lot easier to have a nuanced conversation and dialogue. That is why people have been musical ambassadors throughout the centuries. People have used music in the civil rights movement, it is just the oldest trick in the book!’

It was clear to see the passion Jon Batiste has for social change and his belief in his contribution through and with his music. Truly inspirational and thought-provoking words such as these were the bulk of the Q&A. I think his appeal is that, although much of what he said was insightful, it was also effortless and authentic. He was wholly himself, especially when talking about his childhood: 

Music changes the way people’s emotions and thoughts happen

‘I think growing up in the south, there is a pace to life which is very slow and allows for you to be reflective. I think growing up in Louisiana in particular, there is so much that is culturally different to many other place in the world… there are the Spanish areas and the French areas, the African influences all over; you have all of these different ways that subconsciously teach you how to appreciate culture and appreciate tradition and appreciate community. Then, you start to think about life in a certain way before you can verbalise what that is. I think, ultimately, the south has a lot of negative stereotypes and a lot of negative realities that have influenced me in […] filters to view the world that I had to be wary of. All these things are good too, because it is just real life […] that is just the long way of saying that the vibe of [The South and] Louisiana is very unique; it creates a unique perspective in a young person.’

Jon Batiste was also very eloquent when speaking about the treatment of Black ingenuity and creativity in the music industry and the power of black music: 

‘Those of us who are musicians cannot avoid being influenced by Black music, it is just a part of the DNA. It is like the air we breathe. We have gone through times where we have been reluctant to acknowledge Black genius, but that is different than being influenced by it. The undeniable quality of the culture is something we will always struggle with if we view it through the prism of race and racism. I see things ultimately as a spiritual lens over everything. Spiritually, it is a calling for Black culture and the people in our ancestral group  to give this to the world. It is a superpower, whether people are ignorant about it or not.’

Those of us who are musicians cannot avoid being influenced by Black music, it is just a part of the DNA

The acknowledgement of Black culture’s influence is something that we as a society are still to fully achieve. The strength of Batiste’s words clearly and articulately emphasises this, and places him firmly in conversation with a long line of Black, artistic genius; further exemplified by how he spoke about his new album We Are

‘It is like a Black, pop, masterpiece work. It is a novel, and if you close your eyes, it is a movie. You do not skip chapters. It is one piece. If you are open to it, I believe you will feel very full.’

We Are. That is it. A lot of times we wait, and we look around for the answer, and we are. We look around for somebody to save us; we look around for somebody to understand who we are. I look around at the times that we are in and that is the question and that is the answer: We are? We are. That is it. That is why I put it there. It is something for you.’

Despite Batiste’s impressive list of achievements, it feels as if he is only just getting started. At least, that was the impression I got from this Q&A. Everything he said was authentic, inspiring and in depth; he thought long and hard about all the questions he answered so that they were meaningful. His album, I am sure, will reflect this authentic yet playful personality. 

We Are will be released on 19th March 2021 via Verve Records

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