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To Astonish A Mean World

Whenever I experience depression in all its exhilarating lows, I look for mood-boosting entertainment. TV shows like 30 Rock, Weeds and The Good Wife always bring cheer into my life, so I watch them with the obsessiveness of a good-time fiend, jonesing for a hit of perfectly-timed bon mots and badiner. Although one could make the accusation that they are meaningless divertissements, I would disagree and say that there is something healing about these shows, something strangely medicinal and comforting. The same could be said of India Arie’s entire musical catalogue.

When Arie made her debut in the early 2000s, she was an outlier whose CDs were shoved into the neo-soul section of your local Tower Records. Neo-soul artists, at that time, were seen as an alternative strain to the real R&B heat-seekers – the Mary J. Bliges, TLCs and Aaliyahs. These neo-soul proponents were politically-minded, incense-burning auteurs like Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, who all whiffed of high-mindedness and traces of hotepism. The gag is – and there is a gag – these artists are the ones who still have cachet and careers when the hot-steppers of the new millennium have fizzled into obsolescence.

India Arie’s debut, Acoustic Soul, is an ode to black love, black beauty and black power wrapped in a tenderly-woven cloth threaded with womanism, respect for self, nature and a higher power that transcends religiosity. This is the sound of your sister-friend lacing you with sage wisdom. It’s also the sound of your local barbeque joint, family gathering, smoke session, stroke play, or when you simply want to sit in the warm glow of the sun. It’s a summery record for all seasons.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard this album. I was a doobie devotee back then, living with my cousin, her partner and pickin in Kent. I had just come into the house after puffing on some dank with the neighbourhood kids and dashed upstairs to freshen up. Afterwards I put the Acoustic Soul disc into the CD player, and immediately felt a rush that has been impossible to replicate since. I felt cocooned by Arie’s soothing contralto. Her voice sounded like the home I never had, the dreams I had forgotten to cultivate. She sounded like a cure for the cancerous emptiness within, the melancholy that threatened to subsume me. Even to this day, listening to India Arie’s music makes me feel relaxed, restored.

As I write this I’m enjoying this record in an entirely different setting, years after several storms have dissipated. I’m delighted that the album still holds up and retains its crissness, its sense of exuberance and gentleness. I recommend this chef d’oeuvre again and again.

And to Ms. Arie: merci for the music.



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