Shelley Nicole Is Right (on Time)
For her latest project I Am American, the singer, songwriter, bassist, and activist Shelley Nicole has created the soundtrack for our times, addressing the roots of patriarchy, racism, misogyny, and more with a mixture of rock, soul, blues, jazz, and funk. Before debuting the new songs in a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium on April 5, Ms. Nicole sat down with her friend and collaborator—and producer of the album—Vernon Reid to talk about her work, advice for aspiring artists, and what's next.
Vernon Reid: First, let's talk about your album, I Am American.
Shelley Nicole: Yeah, let's talk about it. Considering everything that is happening in the world right now, the title of the album is highly appropriate. For almost the duration of our presence on this continent, Black people have not been considered fully American even though—not to sound super cliché—we built the place. You know, being African American and fully claiming America can be challenging because of our history here. How do you reconcile the fact that for most of us, at the end of the day, this is home? As much as we are connected to Africa at the root, this is where we live, the culture we were raised in and/or ultimately where we were born. So we are Americans, but more often than I'd like to recount we are treated as if we are not citizens by birthright and to say that's challenging is putting it mildly. I think the title of the album, that statement, "I Am American," coming from me, a Black woman at this time, is provocative.
VR: It's very on point. A lot of the things on your record are incredibly on point. The conversation couldn't be more right now, but one thing that's important to note is that we worked on this album when Obama was president. So the conversation started when it was supposed to be "happy days are here again."
SN: That's true! I wrote "I Am American" when Obama was running for president. So it was a moment where I thought, "Okay, let me reexamine my thoughts about America a bit." So often the things I would see happening here would make me think, "No, no, no, America. No!" You know? So the lyrics in the song speak to the changing of my mind and the changing of the times. Barack Obama as president was a deep energetic paradigm shift and it lingers, but look where we are now.
VR: It's interesting because on the one hand one of the most radical things you can do is to redefine what patriotism is. In a way, those that would seek to marginalize—it works in their favor for us to disassociate from America. And one way of counteracting that is to say, no, this is our America. "I Am American" is incredibly provocative and it really speaks in opposition to the marginalizers and those that want to create a fake narrative or a narrative that leaves out a lot of the DNA details. That's a big thing.
"The biggest disservice you can do to yourself is not being yourself."
SN: "Punanny Politixxx" is another song that was written a while ago and is now right on time, in the midst of the Women's Marches, #MeToo, and Time's Up movements. I'm reading Roxane Gay's book Bad Feminist right now and it reminded me of when and why I wrote the song. It came directly out of two incidents: first when former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO)—I hate to even say his name—talked about "legitimate rape," and when Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut for demanding that the university cover contraception in their student healthcare plans—basically slut shaming her.
So I wrote "Punanny Politixxx" because I was like, "Seriously? 'Legitimate rape?' Ugh." I feel like anytime we start looking at broader issues that are happening in government and if things start to lean a little left or even center, the right will start making a media play with women's issues to deflect from bigger problems. They'll start jumping into topics like abortion and contraception, and all of a sudden it's like, how did we get back over here? So anytime they want to pull a smoke and mirror act, they seem to come right to my "areas."
If women were out here legislating the comings and goings (pun intended) of the penis, it would be a whole other conversation. Or there'd be no conversation at all because men would do their best to shut it down. The timing of this album has been quite interesting to me because some of these songs I've been performing for a while, and then boom, here we are. So I really do believe that everything happens when it's supposed to and everything is right on time.
While "Punanny Politixxx" is specifically about reproductive rights and consent, the song in a broader sense is about all the things that women encounter daily and the politics around that: when we walk into the workplace, show up on the protest line, or even in the hospital and we're not taken seriously, listened to, or considered; that's "Punanny Politixxx." How often have we heard or experienced the story of walking into a healthcare establishment, you tell the doctor what is going on and if they can't diagnose right away then they may think, "Oh, she's just crazy!" or "She doesn't know what she's talking about." That's "Punanny Politixxx." It's amazing that even now healthcare professionals still don't know or consider that men and women's symptoms present differently for similar conditions. My heart attack may not show up like your heart attack, but guess what, I'm still having a heart attack. So the song is addressing the sexual side of things, but it fans out to all the things that women have to deal with every day in the world.
I started a social media campaign where I've posted quotes from known figures and friends around situations they might have experienced that to me suggested "Punanny Politixxx." Even Serena Williams, in a recent article, spoke about about how she basically saved her own life after she gave birth because she knew what was going on with her body. She knew that she had blood clots and even though she told the doctors and hospital staff, they weren't really listening to her and she had to repeat it over and over and over again until finally they were like, "Oh! This is what's happening with you!" So in my campaign I quote her, and other well-known foremothers of feminist/activist movements, including Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde, but then I also bring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tracee Ellis Ross, Alicia Garza, Mickalene Thomas, and Lupita Nyong'o into the conversation, alongside women in my life who have spoken or now speak to the politics of the punanny. Olympic champion Simone Biles has a ton of national and international gymnastics medals, but people still try to compare her and say she's the next Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. But she said no, "I am the first Simone Biles." You can't just be in the world as a fantastic woman, you have to be in the world as a fantastic woman compared to...
"The artists that I really love and respect, the thing that I admire most about them is that they just came kicking in the door as whoever they were unapologetically."
VR: Speaking about fantastic women, how do you pay homage to Black female artists who came before you and also pave the way for those who are coming up now?
SN: I think I pay homage to those who came before me by being myself. The artists that I really love and respect, the thing that I admire most about them is that they just came kicking in the door as whoever they were unapologetically. I paid close attention to that. I will forever call the name of the group Labelle and Nona Hendryx in particular. Nona comes through fully, completely, and confidently as herself. She has been a force from day zero, you know what I mean? Doing you, being you, is so important; which moves to what I would say to the next generation.
There's so much to look at right now and you might think you have to fit in with the mainstream of whatever is it or it is, but if that's not who you really are or if you're not feeling what's Top 40, the other beautiful thing about this time is that you can be yourself, find a niche, and create space for yourself. Find your tribe; blaze a trail. The biggest disservice you can do to yourself is not being yourself. If I listened to what the world told me, I would've stopped doing this a long time ago because the world has aged me out. The world has colored me out. The world has gendered me out. But that is not my world or the reality that I have created. Turn down the noise and listen to your inner-self. There you will find the truth and your power.
VR: On that note, what advice do you have for aspiring artists, or advice you wish someone gave you?
SN: The first thing that comes to mind is "Don't be afraid." I know that sounds really general, but it's one of the most challenging and simplest things we can do for ourselves. There's nothing to really be afraid of. Get out of your own way. The other thing I wish somebody had told me was to really go for it. Really go for my dreams. If you live in a city like New York where you have to do extra work outside of your art to help with the expense of eating and living, don't make your backup plan your forefront plan, meaning don't make your living and eating work your focus if that's not really where your heart is. Make it so that your art, or whatever you really love is the frontrunner and that will quickly become how you eat and live. Or better yet just make it how you eat from the start. Believe in it. Know it. If there is something in your spirit and that something is really moving you—you're really clear, there's passion—if you go for it in the place of knowing, everything's going to open up for you. Everything. And that is the truth.
VR: What do you hope audiences take away from your work in general and in the upcoming show at the Atrium in particular?
SN: One thing I always do in my work is while I'm talking about what's happening in the world and I'm making that plain, I don't like to leave people without something to feel good about. I don't mean that in a syrupy way, but in a real self-empowerment kind of way, and in a way that can lift us up to a space of, okay, we're going to be okay. We will not only get through this, but we have the power to change our situation. Even though the world looks crazy, if we look up from our phones, look up from our tablets, and turn off our TVs and start talking to our family again and our neighbors and our friends and start communicating and having that sort of energetic connection, we're going to be better than all right. I do my best to leave people with that vibration. So hopefully that will happen at the show. I also don't like to be super heavy. I like to be light, you know, because I don't think we can get through this life without laughter. We just can't get through it.
VR: One thing I appreciate in your show and your approach is that you have a way of being with people that puts them at ease. You're saying something very profound, you're saying something very direct and very honest, but you allow for the human dimension. You know, we're trifling, we can be petty, we can be small, but we can all keep it moving, and that's a very important thing. You say the things you're saying very clearly, but you allow for people to be themselves.
SN: Thank you. At the end of the day we are spiritual beings having a human experience so we have to acknowledge our humanness. It is what keeps us on the ground and is our daily presentation.
I'm so happy to be releasing "Punanny Politixxx" here at Lincoln Center. I've been here many times with Burnt Sugar and with you and had so many wonderful experiences here at the Atrium. I'm really excited to be bringing the music to this space, to this audience at this time.
VR: Oh, it's going to be a party. It's going to be a revival. It's going to be a cross between a tent revival, a labor rally...
SN: And a juke joint…
VR: And a disco free-for-fall. A free jazz disco free-for-all. It's going to be all of the above.
SN: Yes, all of the above!
VR: One last question: What's next?
SN: Well, what's next is the album is going to come out late spring/early summer. And then what's next is some beautiful person is going to ride in and say, "Shelley, we want you to go on the road with us," and I'm going say, "Yes! Let's go!"
Everything is next. This album has been done for a while, but its time is now. So yes, I think everything is next. The world is next. That's what's next. Yeah.
Guitarist Vernon Reid founded the Grammy Award–winning band Living Color and cofounded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. He has worked with a wide variety of musicians and artists across genres, including Defunkt, Bill Frisell, Public Enemy, John Zorn, and Arto Lindsay, among others.