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Vivian Sessoms: To Be Black In America

Kevin Press By

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I saw Erica Garner speaking and I began to read about her and saw that she had become an activist in the wake of her father’s passing. I really admired that. I thought, out of something so tragic, she’s taking a stand. It’s not only about justice for her dad, it’s for other people. —Vivian Sessoms
Vivian Sessoms has built a career in collaboration with a range of world-famous artists. P. Diddy, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Sinéad O'Connor, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Stevie Wonder all have a place on her resume. With a new Ropeadope contract in hand, Sessoms has produced a two-part album release called Life. They make an extraordinary pair, from both a personal and political perspective.

All About Jazz: There is a lot here thematically. Walk us through it.

Vivian Sessoms: It's been a really long time since I did a record. So I really wanted to talk about where I am at this point in my life. I've been singing jazz for a very long time but I've never made a jazz record. I've been working on this record for several years. Then about three or four years ago, the climate in America really seemed to change drastically. For me, Life is sort of an autobiographical record in that I chose songs that have always had a special meaning to me, songs that I loved growing up. But I started to think about revamping the album, with all that was going on. I began to take stock of what it feels like to be black in America at this time. So that really shaped the record. I won't say it's a coming of age, but it's about reaching another plateau in my life. It's about being a black woman in America, or a black person in America.

I grew up in Harlem, which is famous for jazz and a famous enclave in New York City. But when I was a kid, it was all black. I had a lot of good memories growing up there and I wanted to feature a lot of the music from my childhood. So it's a little bit autobiographical, it's a little bit of a snapshot of what it means to be black in America at this time. It's a love letter to Harlem, and a look back to songs I love from my childhood.

AAJ: There are personal, community and even national aspects to what you're describing. Is it difficult to maintain focus on something so complex?

VS: Because of the climate, it's hard not to focus. It's become difficult for it not to take up a lot of time and emotion for black and white people—white people who get it, and who care and understand what's happening.

Seeing things that were happening that were just so shocking. We've always known that these things happen, and that the world can be this way. But with the onslaught of social media, it has become undeniably clear. It felt right to talk about it in my music because it feels so disturbing to me. And hopefully I can influence people and change some minds about what's really going on here.

AAJ: The emotions on the album feel personal. Is that fair?

VS: It is fair. It hasn't happened to me, but it's hard to watch people die. If you talk to probably any black person in America nowadays, they will sound the same. It's hard, very near impossible, to see these kinds of things on television and on the internet and not be affected by it. And it's not just affecting black people. It's affecting us all.

It's shocking. Even if you're not experiencing it where you are, to know that it's happening. No one can know this and see this ever and not be changed by it in some way. So it does feel very personal.

AAJ: The track "I Can't Breathe (for Erica)" has a lot of significance.

VS: When I saw what had happened to Eric Garner, I really was shocked and stunned. It made me feel ill for several days. But it wasn't until maybe a year later, when I saw Erica Garner speaking and I began to read about her and saw that she had become an activist in the wake of her father's passing. I really admired that. I thought, out of something so tragic, she's taking a stand. It's not only about justice for her dad, it's for other people. I thought that must be an incredibly difficult thing to do.

So I started playing around with some words, thinking about how much strength it takes to be able to fight that way after you've lost someone so dear to you. I thought that her pouring herself into this was a good way to combat the feelings of pain and heartache.

AAJ: Why did Eric's story resonate so widely?

VS: Because we saw it play out. To see that play out on television, I think it was the first time a lot of America really understood that there's a problem. Very often you read about something like that, and there are details about perhaps resisting arrest, or causing trouble, or they had had a difficult past, or they'd been in trouble before with the law. Somehow it seems in many people's minds that it was justifiable. But when we saw that, it brings this home to you. It's clear that this person was not harming anyone, and he absolutely did not deserve to die.

AAJ: And the video shows so much of what happened. It starts before the situation escalated, and confirms what we've been hearing from people of color for so many years.

VS: It's the realization that you don't really have to be doing anything. Many times, black people have said I wasn't doing anything. I wasn't running away. And still people get shot, and sometimes get killed.

AAJ: Let's change gears. I grew up in the 1980s, and The Fixx was one of those bands we were excited about. How did you come to cover them?

VS: I always loved that song. I had done a demo of that song for a commercial a few years earlier. I always loved the demo, and I wanted to one day include it on a record. When I gave the demo to my husband Chris [Parks], he said he had an idea for an afro-beat. So he was really at the helm of that song. He came up with the horn arrangement. He played keys, guitar, bass and did some programming.

I thought it was a very appropriate tune for the times, and for the political climate of the country at the moment. It's a perfect tune for now.

AAJ: What was it like to work with Ryuichi Sakamoto?

VS: I adore Ryuichi. I look at him and my years with him as something of a mentorship. He really sort of groomed me. He helped me grow in a unique way and caused me to really be OK with stepping outside of the box.

I was very young. It wasn't my first tour, but it was an early tour for me. And he put me with very accomplished musicians and I really had to mind my Ps and Qs. I worked really hard, and I will forever be grateful to him.

His music is unlike anything I've heard before. Very beautiful, very lush but very provocative. I call it head music. I loved working with him and I hope I get to do it again.

AAJ: You've played both The Tonight Show and The Knitting Factory. That's range. What is it about what you do that works on those two very different stages?

VS: A lot of the television stuff I've done is in support of other artists. And even The Knitting Factory; I've played there on my own but I've also played there in support of other artists. I've had a strong career singing background for other artists and writing with other artists. I've always worn a lot of caps. So I have found myself on all kinds of stages, and that's always been the career I wanted.

AAJ: Do you have a favorite?

VS: Ryuichi is definitely one of my favorites. Joe Cocker is another beloved artist who I've worked with. Patty Austin. I've had a lot of favorites, but those are at the top.

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