Sunnie Yi Ning ‘18
On the evening of Saturday, Feb. 4, the singer, songwriter, actress, musician and record producer India.Arie spoke as the keynote speaker for the Black Students’ Alliance (BSA) Conference last weekend.
Themed “Music in Black Culture,” the artist told her personal story of gaining power and learning to love herself. A large audience showed up to the event and left teary-eyed, encouraged by her powerful message of self-caring and mission to uplift the world.
The BSA Co-chairs announced the opening of the conference, and the event began with the reading of the winning essay of the 2017 BSA high school scholarship. The winning essay explored how safe spaces are necessary for colleges and universities, arguing that “the best things any learning environment can do for students is understand each other; a safe space would include all, open up all minds and expose space to all around them.”
The BSA Conference Chairs then introduced India.Arie and explained the theme of this year’s BSA conference “Can You Hear Us Now? Music and Media in the Black Culture.”
“Black culture and music have been intertwined for decades, allowing for generations to constantly adapt through [systematic historical oppression]. There is an abundance of history and herstories for black bodies that bond us to our predecessors and to the culture that shapes our day-to-day lives.”
When India.Arie appeared on stage, she was greeted by bursts of cheers and applauses from a standing audience. Instead of a regular address, the four-time Grammy winner performed a SongVersation, a combination of a traditional concert and interactive conversation, to present the influence music has had on her life and how music has affected the black culture.
Opening with an interactive vocal exercise with the audience, India.Arie engaged the audience during her whole SongVersation, talking about her struggles, critical moments of her life, her heroes, and new meanings she found in her life and career. She gave a name to each step of her transformative experience, “breakdown, breakthrough, break-the-shell, elevate and fly,” as she repeated throughout the SongVersation.
The artist started her stories with her painful childhood experiences, which shaped her need for healing and love for music. At 23 years old, she entered the music industry, hoping to find self-worth and healing. “Which is laughable now because the music industry is treacherous,” she says.
She spoke honestly of the challenges as a black woman in the music industry: racism, sexism, exhaustion, relationships, isolation, constraints on personal growth, etc.
Even though she achieved outstanding success as a musician and became a celebrity, she realized that “success doesn’t mean living happily ever after.”
After several physical and emotional breakdowns, she finally reached her limits. “By the end of 2009, everything I was afraid of happening happened. I was humiliated onstage. I was sick. I was stolen from. And I hit rock bottom,” she says. “I knew what needed to change—and it was me.”
India.Arie decided to withdraw from the music industry and explore what she really wanted. “It’s time to take a chance on the truth,” she said. She learned to care for herself, speak her mind, empower herself, and make music for her healing. A manifestation of her real dreams and courage have taken over her career. Having released the album SongVersation in 2013, she recently expanded “Soulbird,” her label imprint, into a company housing her other businesses such as jewelry, apparel, merchandise, film and TV, music and book publishing. Now, she is ready to continue to do what she loves and contribute to the elevation of humanity.
Throughout her storytelling, India.Arie performed many songs, including Breathe, a song inspired by the death of Eric Garner and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement.
After the performance was over, India.Arie took questions from the audience. Many students voiced the influence her music had on their lives and asked for advice facing challenges in their personal lives.