R&B | Soul
INTERVIEW: Solange’s musical director and singer/songwriter PJ Morton talks being a Black artist in anti-Black times
By Hari Ziyad
May 9, 2017
New Orleans-based singer/songwriter PJ Morton has a lot on his plate. In addition to his role as the keyboardist for Maroon 5, the artist recently published his first book, Why Can’t I Sing About Love?, became Solange’s musical director after her A Seat At The Table release, and just dropped his own second solo album, Gumbo, featuring the singles, “Claustrophobic” ft. Pell and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” ft. BJ The Chicago Kid & The Hamiltones.
The Grammy, Dove, and Stellar award-winner has also worked closely with Lil Wayne, Stevie Wonder and many of the other biggest names in the industry, and has learned a lot about what it means to be a Black artist along the way. I had the pleasure of chatting with him about those lessons, his latest project, and about what makes his hometown so special.
Your new single “Claustrophobic” is a very self-reflexive track about the pressures prevalent in your industry to become someone you are not. Were there any specific experiences that inspired this track?
Definitely! I wrote it at a time when I was having a lot of meetings at labels. And it almost felt like they had passed out a script to all say the same thing. I left frustrated and wrote Claustrophobic.
A part that really stood out to me was when you sing about being advised to present closer to the most stereotypical representations of Blackness. What’s really interesting is how, outside of the media world, the opposite pressures–to erase anything associated with Blackness in order to succeed–seem to be more at play. It’s as if Blackness is dope as a commodity, but not as part of living people you have to engage with. How do those two competing pressures show up in your life?
It’s true. I think blackness has always been cool to sell. “We’ll watch you perform but you can’t use our bathrooms.” I guess in my life it’s shown up on the business side. People were happy to partner as long as I’m entertainment, but when it came to being a true partner in business there was hesitation.
AFROPUNK is rooted in the idea of embracing individuality, and affirming the many unique forms of Blackness, so the song really resonated with me and I’m sure it will with our readers. How do you stay strong in your individuality through the pressures described in the song?
Well I’ve always felt that the things that separate me and make me different were the things I wanted to shine a light on. Especially in music, originality is the thing that allows you to last. I’ve always been in all types of environments and around many different types of people. Staying consistent in being myself is always the goal.
Your second single, the BJ The Kid and The Hamiltones assisted “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is a far more upbeat track. What was your inspiration behind this song?
My inspiration was just trying to bring something positive to this crazy world we’re living in. Got tired of seeing young black boys being killed. But instead of focusing on the sad part of it I wanted to make a soulful anthem that helped people to see a light at the end of this horrible tunnel.
100% the political climate played a part. In many of the songs on the album actually. For me, a person that usually mainly talks about love and relationships, I felt the need to go deeper. Art is supposed to make you look at hard truths. I knew that I had to be one of the ones talking about it.
New Orleans is a big part of your music. Your debut album was titled after the city, and this one is Gumbo, seemingly a reference to the dish the city is famous for. Besides being where you were born, what is it about New Orleans that resonates with you on such a musical level?
I titled it Gumbo because of all the different subject matter. Along with the fact that it’s the first album that I created in New Orleans. I think what resonates with me is the integrity for music that’s instilled in you. We’re raised here to respect the music and the musicians. Our musicians are who keep the city moving. The musicians are who bring us all together. So I wear that with a badge of honor because of New Orleans.
In addition to the themes in the singles, “Claustrophobic” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, what other themes should listeners expect from the album?
There’s “Religion”, which talks about people using God as a scapegoat. There’s “Go Thru Your Phone” talking about whether someone would want to know if something was going on in their relationship. “They Gon Wanna Come” talking about fake friends. It’s truly a Gumbo!
You’re the son of a gospel singer, and that influence is recognizable, but your style is still so distinctive! What other influences shape your music?
Well soul and R&B music mainly. Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Prince, D’angelo, Brandy.. Then also 60s/70s Pop music. The Beatles, James Taylor. I mixed it all up.
In addition to your solo work, you also recently became the musical director for Solange, and remain the keyboardist for Maroon 5. What are some of the challenges you face in juggling everything on your plate?
Just not having to time to sleep (laughs). It’s a lot at once sometimes, but I try my best to use my time wisely. Scheduling is the toughest part. Also, trying to remain present versus thinking of the next thing all the time.
You’re a Grammy award winning artist, and, in addition to Solange and Maroon 5, you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the industry like Lil’ Wayne and Stevie Wonder. As an artist, when do you know you’ve “made it”?
I’ll never feel like I’ve made it. There’s always more to be done. Always more people to touch.
*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.