“That’s who I want to be when I grow up.”
I was leaving an India.Arie concert at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside last weekend when I uttered those words. Of course I didn’t want to be the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, or any kind of performer for that matter, and when my partner Zane responded with “You know what she would say to that,” I knew he was right.
We had, after all, just heard her perform her new single and admitted theme song, “Just Do You,” from her latest album “SongVersation.” It’s an exultant call to be the star of our own remarkable and daring life story. And so I wasn’t necessarily aspiring to the Atlanta songbird’s life but something about the way she has so authentically embraced who she is and the gifts she is here to share has always moved me deeply.
I am a huge music fan. My long and eclectic list of favorite artists spans a range from Glen Hansard to Angelique Kidjo to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. But at the top of that list, for more than a decade, no matter how many new artists I discover, has always reigned India.Arie. She is the sole artist whose album I will buy — and I mean the physical CD — on the morning of its release date, driving to whatever store I have to in order to find it, and the only one whose concerts I will buy the best seats for without giving a thought to the price.
She also is the one who motivated me to want to learn how to play the guitar after a different show at the Keswick many years ago, though when, shortly after, my mom’s companion Lou bought me a guitar for my birthday, with the promise of 10 free lessons — he was a guitar teacher and a member of a local country music band — I quickly realized how overly ambitious that goal had been.
But I admire India.Arie for much more than her musical talent. When I first discovered her at Black Lily, a former open mic night in Philadelphia that served as a showcase for artists like Jill Scott, Macy Gray and Erykah Badu before they broke into the spotlight, she hadn’t even released her first album, “Acoustic Soul.” But she shone with a quiet confidence and grace that night, and I have followed her career ever since, always buoyed by her songs of empowerment and affirmation — and her determination to keep writing and recording them in an industry that, despite her acclaim and record sales in the millions, hasn’t widely embraced her soulful, folk-inspired positivity.
Yet that’s the thing about India.Arie. She knows who she is and is clear in her mission “to spread love, healing, peace and joy through the power of words and music.” And she seems to embody that intention, whether she’s sharing her own personal breakdowns and breakthroughs or championing the risks we all must take to lead fully realized lives.
When she first emerged onstage last Saturday night, Zane initially kept staring at me. “I wish you could see yourself right now. You look so happy,” he said. “It’s like a light just went on.”
In many ways, that’s how I felt, awash in light, transported by a feeling akin to rapture but steeped in something deeper I couldn’t quite name. For me, seeing her live isn’t a concert but a profound experience. At the Keswick, she opened and closed the night with prayer, making one of her newest songs, “I Am Light,” an invocation, while a beloved ballad, “Ready for Love,” from her first album, was the benediction with which she sent us all home. In between, she showcased uplifting quotes from the likes of Anais Nin to Maya Angelou on a multimedia screen behind her, gave the back stories, both humbling and triumphant, to many of her songs and shared a moving video of the ritual she performed when she decided to cut off her locks. (By that point, the sold-out crowd had already been roused to a euphoric frenzy when she sang her self-acceptance anthem “I Am Not My Hair.”)
The entire performance felt like being in the presence of a spiritual luminary except she created an atmosphere as intimate as a living room, given the transparency with which she invited us into her songs. Throughout the night, I felt more like a kindred spirit than a fan, and I know I am not the only one who’s had that response to her.
In my Journeys of the Heart bio, I joke about India.Arie being my BFF, and over the years, it’s always amazed me, though it shouldn’t, when a couple chooses me as their wedding officiant because of how much they also relate to her. Years ago, when my friend Shira lived in Atlanta, we would imagine scenarios where she would run into our beloved India and the two would strike up a conversation that would evolve into a philanthropic project somehow involving all three of us.
But even if that would be an amazing dream come true, what she invites us all to do is find our own passion, live our own truth. By following her path and creating the career she wants to have, despite the demands and expectations of others who’ve pressed her to achieve their version of success, she reminds me we all have a purpose for which we’re here. And when we choose to give full and vital expression to who we are, the world will find a place for us and our gifts — the place we are meant to be.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times