Life In An Album II: India Arie's Acoustic Soul
(Note: This is a continuation of a series that began here.)
In 2001, something happened that changed my life forever: India Arie released her first single: “Video.” The chorus for Video goes:
I’m not the average girl from your video
And I ain’t built like a supermodel
But I learned to love myself unconditionally
Because I am a queen…
Thirteen years old at the time, I was growing into a body I did not feel completely confident in. I had a wide gap in my teeth (thank God for braces), skin that people referenced like a disadvantage (“You’re cute for a dark-skinned girl!” they would say), and I was overweight (or “orobor” in Nigerian speak). But here was India Arie, telling me that it was okay to not fit within conventional beauty standards; that I was worthy, just as I was. If this Denver born/Atlanta raised woman who also had dark skin, a flat nose, and thick hips could learn to love herself unconditionally, I wanted to get high on her supply.
India Arie’s sound has been likened to that of her idol’s (Stevie Wonder), her predecessors like Tracy Chapman and Meshell Ndegeocello, and contemporaries like Jill Scott; but her neo-soul was like nothing I had ever heard or felt before. I was in complete and total love at first listen.
And ask anyone who knows me: do not let me fall in love with a song. The minute I start to love a song, I will play it so many times you will like it, love it, get fed up with it, and most likely hate it. I will play a song I love like its lyrics contain the cure for AIDs; like its melodies supply my lungs with oxygen. I will probably sing it at the top of my lungs too—while I’m in the car, the shower, the kitchen, my room, the living room or the middle of a conversation with you—anywhere and anytime.
Naturally, there was no way I could wait for Abuja's radio DJ’s or MTV’s TRL hosts to play India Arie—I needed to listen to her on demand and on repeat. When India Arie's debut album, Acoustic Soul, came out the next month, it became the first original album I ever bought myself. No Aba-made (pirated) CD for me this time: I gathered my allowance, changed it from naira to dollars, and gave it to an Uncle traveling to the U.S. to get it for me.
Acoustic Soul album became an experience, a prayer, a life-line. The summer of 2001, my parents were in the U.S. getting chemotherapy, radiation and a range of other treatments for my father who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. I would lock myself in their room, stick the CD in their big black CD player, and sing myself to salvation.
Acoustic Soul empowered me in a way music never had before. Long before self-love became a trendy millennial refrain, India Arie showed me what it meant:
When I look in the mirror and the only one there is me
Every freckle on my face is where it’s supposed to be
And I know my creator didn’t make no mistakes on me
My feet, my thighs, my lips, my eyes, I’m loving what I see…
At a time when flashiness and flexing were the order of the day in hip-hop and R&B, India. Arie swam against the tide: her music was decidedly anti-materialistic:
Keep your fancy drink, and your expensive minks
I don’t need that to have a good time
Keep your expensive cars and your caviar
All I need is my guitar…
Don’t need your silicone, I prefer my own
What God gave me is just fine…
The beauty of music before the popularization of iTunes was people bought full albums, not singles. This made it more likely that one would listen to a full album, and hopefully, get a sense of the breadth of the artist’s work. Video was my gateway song to the rest of the amazing work of art that is Acoustic Soul. For example, “Brown Skin” celebrates black skin (in all its hues), black femininity and black love:
Skin so brown, lips so round
Baby how can I be down?
You make me feel like a queen...
Another of my favorites, “Strength, Courage & Wisdom,” celebrates the journey of following dreams:
Inside my head there lives a dream that I want to see in the sun
Behind my eyes there lives a me that I've been hiding for much too long...
I've gotta step out on faith, It's time to show my face
Procrastination had me down, but look what I have found, I found
Strength, courage, and wisdom...
The last song on Acoustic Soul, “Wonderful” is a tribute to Stevie Wonder:
You bring the music of your mind to elevate human kind...
You inspire me
The way you make me feel inside is amazing
Your honesty, your artistry is engaging...
You have touched my soul
I want you to know...
I am throwing those Wonderful lyrics right back at you India Arie, right back at you.