INDIA.ARIE at the Music Hall (147 Danforth), Friday (July 7), 8 pm. $38.50-$48.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
While accidentally watching BET the other day, I came across a gem: the video for India.Arie's I Am Not My Hair, featuring Akon.
With a degree of lyrical specificity that's more R. Kelly than Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo or any of the other stars of the "neo-soul" circuit that Arie is usually lumped in with, the well-matched singers sound off on the histories of their hairstyles.
Jheri curls, flat-tops, dreads, fades, waves, braids, shaved and natural - between them Arie and Akon have done all the dos and elicited a spectrum of reactions over the years. But most recently, when Arie chopped off her braids, many of her fans thought she'd flipped her wig. That's what inspired this charming song, the 12-Grammy nominee (and two-time winner) says.
"After I cut my hair, everyone was looking at me crazy, like I wasn't the same person," the Denver, Colorado-born singer/songwriter coolly explains over the phone from New York. "Because I'd had long braids down to my butt or whatever before, I went from people first saying, 'Sista, we love you - Queen,' to looking at me crazy.
"I was like, can hair really do all that?"
That and more, apparently. Since releasing the single (the video cuts between Arie styled as herself, then as Naomi Campbell), Arie says she's been questioned about the track's broader implications.
"People keep asking, 'Is this really about women's issues?' I'm like, 'No - this is about being happy defining yourself for yourself. '"
This sentiment has permeated Arie's music since her breakthrough single, Video, from her double-platinum-selling debut, Acoustic Soul, when she espoused, "My worth ain't determined by the price of my clothes," topping things off with an uplifting, repeated "Love yourself."
As for the remainder of the new album (her third), Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship (Umvd Labels), India. Arie doesn't let the frankness slip; one of her greatest strengths is how smoothly she can convey the most brutal truth.
"How can love survive in such a graceless age?" she asks on the overpowering The Heart Of The Matter, amid her treatment of coming to terms with someone falling out of love with her. Thoughts on solitude, family and fame are deepened by real examples cut directly from her own experience.
The clout that over 10 Grammy nods and the millions of records she's sold has won her now clearly allows Arie to drive her own career.
As she's now addressed personal appearance and representation a few times in her songs, I'm wondering if she's got any nightmarish stories of major-label attempts to style her or push a look. Despite being projected through the industry lens, both her music and image have always seemed genuinely unprocessed.
"There have been some suggestions that I thought were ludicrous," she chuckles. "But I never take it as an attempt at restyling, because I just don't do anything I don't want to do.
"But everyone knows that about me."