Singer India.Arie Offers Hope During These Troubling Times
How she overcame fears of letting herself bloom.
Posted June 13, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
The marvelous India.Arie is an American singer/songwriter who has sold over 3.3 million records in the United States and 10 million worldwide. She has won four Grammy Awards for her 23 nominations, including Best R&B album. She made a masterpiece film, "Welcome Home," to help calm the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are an interdependent species, Arie told me. “We were brought up to believe wellness is an individual pursuit, but we must expand our vision from me to we.”
As a wellness practitioner, she insists that our economic, political, and social systems are not well, so our people are not well. In the absence of systems that care for us all, mutual and community care are critical pathways to our collective well-being. In striving for wellness, we must expand our vision from me to we. According to Arie, this unprecedented time is the perfect time to offer wellness, peace, and tranquillity using her music as a vessel for thought-provoking lyrics and mindful meditation.
I had the privilege to sit down with Arie to discuss her ideas on how we can become well in an unwell world and become more connected in a culture ruled by separation. And how it all starts with each one of us by looking inside.
Bryan Robinson: India, I’m excited to talk with you. You’re a phenomenal music artist, but I’d like readers to know about your own personal journey into wellness and some of the things you’re doing to help the nation heal during these extraordinary times we’re living in.
India.Arie: When I got into the music industry, my health was hit hard on all levels—mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. I started looking at my spiritual practices not as a hobby but as tools to make it through life. Now my self-development, wellness, and contemplation are my favorite things to do.
Robinson: Is there a correlation between your personal life and some of the things you’re doing now?
Arie: When we talk about what things look like as opposed to what they are, the things I’m doing are about the place I’ve developed to. My career is 20 years old now. There’s part of being a celebrity that you construct and you tell people, “This is India.Arie.” We all have a public face. For me, it was missing many facets of everything I really am.
Robinson: In psychology, we call it the persona.
Arie: That’s right. The thing that makes me feel uncomfortable with the persona is how big it is. Sometimes people stop me and say, “Are you India.Arie?” and I have to think for a second. When I hear that, it sounds like they’re talking about a thing. I’m not a billboard. It’s not anything that hurts my feelings or bothers me. It feels weird.
Robinson: It’s as if you become a product or a thing bigger than life, and people want to be close to you.
Arie: Yes, almost like they tell you what you are, but they’re telling you what you are to them. That persona thing is so flat, missing facets of who you really are. Over the years, it was okay with me if it was what I had to do to get where I wanted to go. But as I grew, I’ve outgrown the ability to squash myself down or diminish my real nature in my public life. I used to be so careful not to offend people or say the right thing. Now when I sing, I let the audience know I’m not perky, just low-key. I allow myself to be who I am, fully me.
Robinson: Can you tell me about the Wellness of We?
Arie: The Wellness of We is a joint venture with a longtime best friend because these are the things I’ve always wanted to offer. She’s on this journey I’m on to come out of the closet with all my stuff.
I’m a wellness practitioner, and I’m as much a meditator and writer as I am a singer. If I walk out the door right now, people will call me India.Arie, but they don’t know anything about my writing or meditation practice.
I’m ready to come out and be all this stuff in public. I’ve always wanted to be part of anybody’s healing process with my music. That was my goal from the very beginning. Now, I’m ready to be more involved in the conversation, more on the ground with smaller groups of people, experiment with what it means to be in the conversation, not just the music. The Wellness of We is doing the personal practice with me being involved but also with giving people something they can turn to.
Robinson: Your opening up and letting people see more of you is going to help them because many people feel they’re the only ones who feel a certain way which isn’t true.
Arie: My writing taught me that. My first album came out at 25, and I thought there were a lot of things that only I had been through, but when the song came out, I was like, “Everybody feels this way?” Then about 10 years ago, I started writing songs where I didn’t hold anything back. I have a song called “One” where I sing everything I believe, my complete spiritual philosophy all in one song. It says everything comes down to love, no matter what religion you are. But I had to work my way up to that level of honesty where I didn’t have to hide things or say them a certain way.
So in the last 10 years, I write everything I want to write; I say what I want to say. After I wrote “I Am Light” in 2012 and after four or five years of letting myself be free, really free in my songwriting, I was able to write a song so simple but so true. Now I’m writing for that next level of opening. I learned after writing those songs, nothing changed. Nobody judged me. Every once in a while, three or four people will leave the concert, and I think, Well, I’m glad you left now because we’re about to go deeper. You know how people are about religion. It makes them question their whole thing about themselves.
Robinson: That discomfort is their lizard brain, the fearful survival part of us that gets threatened by new ideas. It’s not a thinking or creative brain. It’s narrow and scared of change. What you’re doing is widening that scope. In a way, you’re an evangelist spreading a message.
Arie: My own personal lesson is that my lizard brain had me thinking it was dangerous to write these songs that kept me thinking at the beginning of my career I couldn’t sing these things. Once I got free of that, every time I sing “One” and the deeper songs, the ones that are expressive, I get a standing ovation. And my lizard brain feels just fine.
Robinson: Does any of your music come from personal adversity?
Arie: All my music comes from personal adversity. People who really listen know because it speaks to them about their own personal adversity. If you just listen to the music, it’s pretty, but you miss it. If you listen to the song, you hear a person who is working through things. With the song, “I Am Light,” for somebody to say, “I am not the things my family did,” that alone makes you ask, “What did they do to you? You had to have been there to know to sing that.” So I’m not the voices in my head; I’m not the pieces of the brokenness inside.
Robinson: “I Am Light” is my favorite.
Arie: I have another song called “Get It Together.” The first line says, “One shot to your heart without breaking your skin. No one has the power to hurt you like your Kin.” So what did your family do to you? I have a song, “He Heals Me.” What is he healing you from, and who is he? How many he’s have there been that hurt you? It’s all from adversity. I’m not your average girl from your video. I learned to love myself unconditionally. So what were you like before you learned to love yourself unconditionally?
For me, I want to heal myself with the music. And if anybody else can get something out of it, then I feel like I’m really blessed to get to do this. How many of us get to help people on a mass scale? I am grateful for it, but it starts with me. And I never know what people are going to think or how they’re going to respond. I just know how to sing my story with a certain depth that other people are able to hear their story, too. It all comes from personal adversity; even the songs that sound like the happiest love songs come from adversity because it’s how I’ve learned to say things you could never say in conversations.
What I love about songwriting is that you can write the perfect sentence, and I don’t have to search for the words to speak my perfect, perfect truth. That was a long time coming because I came from a person who wrote songs that had spiritual qualities, but I was afraid to say certain things in my songs.
Starting in 2009, I set myself free. “I Am Light” is one of the jewels in that crown to be able to express a deep truth in a simple way is a songwriter’s gold. I was able to go all the way from being afraid to sing a song like that to singing it at the Grammys ... I didn’t win that award, but I got a standing ovation. That was a whole other type of win. It felt good to come into my own in that moment in a public form.
Robinson: What message would you want to leave with people struggling with fear, uncertainty, and despair during these extraordinary times?
Arie: I lead an unconventional life. I’ve never been married. I’ve never dated a man I wanted to marry. I don’t have children. I was working for myself by the time I was 25. And what I get to do for work is rare and unique. Sometimes I forget the everyday things people go through. I feel like when we live really busy lives, a lot of times we’re not only engaging our responsibilities. But we’re also running from our feelings, pain, or fear. Or whatever that stuff is inside—that loud voice.
I think there’s something symbolic about the pandemic mandate to stay inside. It feels like an opportunity to go inside. It doesn’t have to be esoteric where you’re meditating for an hour. Just to go to a place and look at all the stuff you’re afraid of because we know when you look at your shadow, it dissipates more quickly than we think it will.
And inside that place where you’re able to look at yourself, your fear, often answers come up. And that’s what we need right now: answers. A lot of that gets tossed around in our brain. If we can put it into our mind and heart and turn and look at ourselves, the answers start to come with little ideas and thoughts. Nobody knows what to do, but we all have that place in ourselves that knows. You have to become acquainted with that part of yourself. It’s hard at first to be quiet when you’ve never been quiet because that’s where all the scary stuff is. But it’s not as scary as you think once you look at it.
Robinson: You are very wise. What you just shared is relevant for everybody, regardless of their circumstances. If people could access the place you’re describing within themselves, everything else comes from that.
Arie: The answers are inside for all of us. And there are certain things nobody can tell you but you. Now that the stakes are so high, you’ve got to find a way to hear yourself.
A Final Word
India.Arie’s online practice, The Wellness Of We, seeks to advance collective well-being in an unwell world. The series features daily practice videos and live conversations with a range of wellness practitioners and advocates from around the country, including Arie herself, for talks designed to advance collective well-being and community care. “Wellness of We” is an 8-day online conversation to advance collective well-being that ran live from May 25 to June 1, 2020. You can watch the 8 sessions at Wellness of We.