Under The Groove
Star power is not something that can be learned or trained for. When you see it, hear it and feel it, you realize its undeniable energy and strength. Now, I’m not one to get all metaphysically new-age on you, but I will tell you without shame that Detroit’s Monica Blaire carries about her an aura that is irrefutably fantastical. It’s clear that this woman, thriving off soul-power and interconnected musical meshing, is destined for the stage. Whatever “it” is — Monica Blaire is bursting with it.
In the vein of great voices in modern music, such as Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, Blaire offers uncompromising emotion in every lyric she sings … or raps. This multi-talented beauty is an evocative lyricist, but when she takes the stage, her charisma is nothing short of addictive, or seductive. You don’t — scratch that — you can’t possibly leave a Monica Blaire show early. It just doesn’t happen.
Her last record, Portraits of Me, is a telling sign of how diverse this daughter of Detroit is, as are her numerous collaborations with artists like Wajeed and D12’s Bizzare, to name a few.
Speaking of diversity and collaborations — this year, Comerica Cityfest presents Monica Blaire’s Detroit Groove Gumbo. Tomorrow (7/3), from 3 to 11 p.m., Blaire is bringing out over 20 Detroit artists for a soul-powered party that will be unlike any other. The honey-swoon voiced entertainer will join rap, rock and reggae artists on stage throughout the day to offer up some audible sustenance for all of Motown. Consider it a feast for your ears, feet and hips.
On a sweltering hot summer day, RDW caught up with Monica Blaire in Ferndale at AJ’s Café. Such a casual meeting might not be possible in years to come — what with all the agents, publicists and label reps she (and us journalists) will be having to deal with.
Monica, when and how did you get involved with Cityfest?
Over the last few years, Mike Solaka and I talked about doing something for the festival. When I first started to go to Northern Lights Lounge, I was performing with Lola Valley and we were doing our thing and over time, more people I knew were playing shows there as well — so the connection started to build. Last year, we played Cityfest then we also did an after-party at Northern Lights, so we talked about doing something this year for the fest and Mike told me that if I could put something together, he’d help make it happen, so we put together Monica Blaire’s Detroit Groove Gumbo. The concept revolves around all these people I know that are phenomenal musicians, from Dark Red to L Renee’ to Kenny Watson to UR and all the rest of these people that I respect a whole lot as musicians.
Being as well-connected in the city as you are, was it hard to choose the artists without feeling that you’d leave someone out?
It was more of a natural selection. People I work with, whether it be for a song collaboration, graphic art or doing a show together, it’s really an organic process. I go on emotions and feelings a lot and I listen to what the universe is telling me. For the Gumbo, I chose people that I was kind of already in the mix with. It was important that the show represent the eclecticism of the city.
It must have been hard — I believe Detroit is without a doubt the most musically rich city on Earth.
In Detroit’s clubs and venues, you can go block to block to various spots and metaphorically take a trip around the world. The amount of talent and eclecticism is just ridiculous. In Detroit we rock out, we funk down, we hip-hop, we R&B, we soul and alternative, we anything you want to and you can find it all around town for probably $5 and a beer.
It seems that although Detroit is so rich in talent, you don’t see bills that represent it all like you might in some other cities that bring it all together. But that’s what you seem to be doing, without compromising any quality.
Yes, absolutely, and that’s what I want to stress, the amount of quality musicianship. People that I know who have moved to L.A. always make it a point to tell me how the quality of music we have in Detroit and the abundance in which we have it is supremely abnormal, and I don’t think people understand that because they take it for granted because it’s in their own backyard. I want to continue to do shows like this, where we’ll have three or four acts that nobody else would put together. The way that the music scenes aren’t unified represents the way that the city isn’t unified; you’re either on one side of Eight Mile or the other, you’re either on one side of Telegraph or the other; we’ve built up these great divides. I think it’s up to artists to homogenize the whole situation.
You’re set to perform a song with each act contributing to the Gumbo, and I’m wondering if there’s a musical genre that you’ll be attacking for the first time?
Well, yes and no. One of the things I like to say is that when it comes to playing a show, the experience is always new because I’ve never been in that room or space with those people at that particular time and never will be again. Each individual presence, from the people on stage to every single person in the crowd, contributes to the experience of a show and that’s something I don’t think people take into consideration. In that respect, it will be completely new.
I get overwhelmed, in the best of ways, by the communal vibe at Cityfest and the way that it bridges gaps and becomes such a racially diverse celebration of Detroit. The energy is something else.
Yeah, totally! People come in droves and they come and hang out and it’s phenomenal. You know, I think sometimes people need an excuse to get together and I think that Cityfest is a great excuse to come out and not just see bands and eat some great food, but to see the city.
Are you planning a big jam at the end of the night, or is that something you’d keep a secret from me?
[Laughs] It’s not even something I’m really keeping secret, I’m keeping it organic, which is always how I like to do things. If there’s a big jam at the end that would be awesome. Yesterday, all the artists, well, about 80 percent of the people appearing on the stage, and I got in a room together and we sat around and talked about the concept of the show and I gave them the freedom to do whatever they wanted, just as long as they let me know so I can coordinate. It was really significant to get together with everyone — I kept telling everyone, “My inner smile is so huge right now!”
Is it fair to note that though you’re presenting an eclectic bill, your heart beats hip-hop?
You know, that’s a hard question. I’m a hip-hop fanatic and I don’t make bones about it. I used to rhyme a lot more than I sing and then that equation reversed itself, now I find myself rapping and singing at the same time. The thing that drives me is crazy drums — I’m a percussive individual. Everything is music to me. I sing doorbells, I sing to harmonies to commercials -— I’m the weird chick that sings to anything. If I hear a group of people walking, their footsteps is music to me. I can’t shut it off, it’s the essence to who I am and I think music is in everything.
Your “Say No To Crap Rap” T-shirt is dope, by the way. There’s a lot of that going around these days, eh?
I’m a pop fan, but I have to say that Top 40 right now is horrible. Some of that stuff is like junk food and it’s OK for singin’ a funny hook or shakin’ it a little bit, but recently I’ve been wondering how many times the same stuff can be regurgitated. But without the good there’s no bad, and it helps appreciate that artist up the street who you can see for $5 and they’ll rock your face off — that’s where the inspiration is for me.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that we’re about the same age, I’m 26 —
And I’m 25 —
Cool, then you can feel me when I say that in comparison to what's on radio now, most of the Top 40 shit we grew up with was —
Crazy dope! I was just talkin’ about this and reliving the stuff we heard on the radio in the ‘90s, like Wu-Tang and Bad Boy and …
And the R&B was fucking awesome, too .
Aaliyah! What?! Where’s that?
And even Boys II Men, Jodeci and Black Street and stuff like that was total Top 40 crossover.
Yeah! It was awesome because it was musically sincere and real musical thought was put into it in those days.
And you could listen to WJLB at night and hear quality ghetto-tech and listen to shit that’d really make people dance.
And now when you go to a club, it’s like everyone’s tryin’ to act like they’re too sexy to dance. You know what, I’m sexy, but I’m not too damn sexy to dance. It’s scary because I feel like people are afraid to feel. We have all this clutter and we’re all moving super fast and I’m really afraid of this android thing that people seem to be buying into. It’s alright to read a passage from a book and cry or let loose at a dance club and feel overwhelmed with joy and excitement.
So, in your opinion, how do we get back to that?
It’s just important to be honest about who you are and where you’re at. Honesty can be cruel and unusual, but it’s far more painful to be dishonest for a long period of time than to be honest for a short period of time, no matter how hard that is.
Word. So, Monica, post-Cityfest, what’s on your horizon?
Well I’m working on a project that I’m so excited about. It’s a mixtape actually, and it’s tentatively called Back To The Future and it’s set to come out on August 30 — we’ll be doing a big show at Bert’s Warehouse. The songs on the mixtape are tracks that have motivated me to want to do music — I’m taking them all apart then putting them back together in my style.
Sounds hot, what cuts might we find?
Ooooh, I don’t know if I can tell you …
How about one track?
Well, there will be three new Monica Blaire songs … and I won’t tell you which song ... but I will tell you that there’ll be a Nirvana track on there.
Sounds like quite the experience …
It will be a musical experience and will offer a good musical insight into me and what drives me. The next album will be coming out next spring, and right now we’re working on everything simultaneously at Silent Riot.
Monica, you’re doing big things, positive things, and have surely come a long way from when you first decided that music would be your path. What are the differences between who you are now and where you were when you first got into it?
I love myself a lot more in that I’m a lot more honest with myself. I can see where this is going now and I see the progression. I am more confident about my ability, and I’m more mature in that I realize I not only feel that I have a lot to give, but I have a lot to receive as well. | RDW
Monica Blaire’s Detroit Groove Gumbo • 7/3 • Cityfest, Pure Detroit Stage, 3-11 p.m.
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