Singer Songwriter Andra Day has taken the music world by storm with her combination of electrifying vocal performances tied to both highly purposeful and inspiring works as well as in definitive footsteps of past icons ranging from Billie Holiday to Nina Simone. This year she was nominated for her second Grammy Award, this one for the Dianne Warren-penned “Stand Up For Something” from the powerful film “Thurgood,” a cinematic study by director Reginald Hudlin concerning one landmark criminal case within the legacy of legendary attorney African American Thurgood Marshall. “Stand Up For Something” was recently nominated for an Academy Award in the Original Song category.
Greatly anticipating the long-awaited follow-up to her debut album Cheers to the Fall (Warner Bros. – 2015), a mind-blowing opening slot on Lenny Kravitz’s concert tour in 2016 (which stopped in Los Angeles at the Greek Theater), multiple late night talk show appearances, and a number of collaborations with no-less than Stevie Wonder, music journalist A. Scott Galloway spoke with Andra Day via phone for a quick introduction interview about “walking with purpose” in her career and the honor of her Grammy nomination. It is a conversation that most definitely falls under the category “to be continued” – like an Isaac Hayes LP.
A. SCOTT GALLOWAY: You are not celebrity driven. You are consistently purposeful in what you do and who you work with. What drives that for you?
ANDRA DAY: First of all, it’s a spiritual thing that starts with my relationship with God – being a little older and not just wanting to do things only for myself to advance my career. It’s great when that happens, I’m appreciative and, of course, we do make some decisions that work for the business. I posted something I was reading the other day from C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. He said something I truly believe: “Anytime you create any conversation or interaction you have, or anything you produce that people will absorb in some way – you’re either pushing them toward Light or toward Darkness.” That’s what drives what I do. Even if I’m telling a story that’s dark from my personal experience, I don’t want to leave it in a lace of hopelessness. Some songs will be blatantly inspirational like “Rise Up” or “Stand Up For Something.” Other songs will be stories of my life or other people’s lives that people can relate to. Waking up every day, I would rather be doing and producing things that are adding Light to people’s lives.
A. SCOTT GALLOWAY: From a very young age you have been studying and involved in dance, music, theatre – all these expressionist arts. You have already been connected to some of the most influential creators of our time including Stevie Wonder and Spike Lee. And you haven’t released your second album yet! Do you feel that Light you’re shining has enabled you to leap into places that most new artists don’t reach so early in their careers?
ANDRA DAY: I believe the people that are attracted to the Light are either people that are looking for it or are already part of the people looking to spread Love and Light. They’re already doing it. I honestly did not imagine that my career would have gone the way that it has gone so far. With you just saying what you said, it sounds kinda crazy – it’s not like I expected it. Again, when you want to serve something bigger, other people that are already doing that become a part of your story. It’s been a blessing. We worked really hard for a long time but there are also blessings that we cannot control. The work has opened doors. We had to walk through them.
A. SCOTT GALLOWAY: When you started, was part of your focus understanding that you had to have a really strong team behind you – management that could place you at the Sundance Film Festival where you could meet Spike Lee or book you on Bee Gees Grammy and ‘CM’ Country Music Christmas TV specials that bring you to the attention of a broader audience? You have not been presented as solely a Black “Conscious” female R&B singer.
ANDRA DAY: You’re 100% right. It is absolutely my team: Joshua White (Day to Day Manager), Jeffrey Evans (Manager), Phylicia Fant (Publicist), Miriam Santos (Creative Director) and a slew of other people I work with that are my core team. I 100% believe these people were put into my life for a reason. Their talents and gifts are as diverse as my own. They all have different eyes and perspectives on music and art along with mine. There’s things that we’re passionate about, and we become passionate about what the other is doing. When something seems really odd or out-of-the-box crazy, we’ve developed a culture within our company to gravitate toward that so we don’t get pigeonholed or stuck in one lane. If it scares us then we want to go after it. That’s the mantra we’ve created as a family.
A. SCOTT GALLOWAY: I imagine from doing songs like “Rise up” is what led to you being approached to do “Stand Up For Something” for the soundtrack of the movie “Marshall” about the great Thurgood Marshall. Were you aware of Mr. Marshall’s legacy before you became attached to the film?
ANDRA DAY: To do the song, I was approached by Dianne Warren. She and I have wanted to work together for a while. Common and I are friends that also wanted to work together for a while. Dianne reached out to Reggie, and said she heard he was doing this movie, and said she had the perfect song for it. She’s the one who wanted me and Common to be a part of it as well. When I heard the song, and thought about what it was designed to do for people and how it tied Thurgood Marshall’s story to current issues that we’re still dealing with, it was an easy ‘yes’ for me.
Before I got involved, I knew about Thurgood Marshall. I was inspired by him and felt indebted to him – as we all are – for the landscape of the culture right now. I also learned more about his specific criminal cases for which he almost lost his life taking on. That’s why I was so drawn to the project – because of who he was. It was amazing to me that they were telling stories that preceded Brown v. The Board of Education… To me, it was great that they were telling the story about one specific case in this movie because you could honestly make an EPIC about every single criminal case he did. There were so many times that he was almost killed for what he was doing yet he still went into the lion’s den, willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the people.
(Director) Reggie Hudlin and I met for the first time on-set after which he reached out for me to be in the movie as well. For this role I was just playing a singer (inside Harlem’s legendary Minton’s Playhouse) in the movie. I wanted to be tied to this film in any way possible – tied to the legacy of Thurgood Marshall. Reggie is an incredible director – a visionary really – and Jonathan Sanger is an amazing producer.
A. SCOTT GALLOWAY: You are up for your second Grammy nomination this year and have had wins and nominations for several others. Are awards important to you? If so, why?
ANDRA DAY: Awards are big and important… The Grammys are our Oscars – the biggest accolade you can receive in music. It’s special because they come from a community of your peers – other people creating music, leaving their mark or entertaining people. I love it. I don’t think it defines who I am as an artist. If I was never nominated or never won, I wouldn’t be discouraged or stop doing music. It’s an honor and I’m so grateful but it’s also a byproduct operating purposefully.
A. SCOTT GALLOWAY: With your involvement today in causes such as the Equal Justice Initiative and Global Citizen, I wonder did you have a personal or family history of activism that transcends your musical artistry? I read that you had many jobs before music truly began working for you as a career. Were any of the occupations you were doing before socially impactful or community oriented?
ANDRA DAY: I don’t think I had even reached that point in my mind yet. I was stumbling through personal issues and growth! However, there is definitely a history of activism with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. I believe it was a mixture of their organizing for the Black community and/ or women. Also, my grandmother on my mother’s side is White. Hearing about her and my mother’s experiences being dirt poor yet unable to receive the help that other families could receive because her kids were mixed and my grandfather was Black. They had to dive through garbage dumpsters to pull off the good leaves from heads of rotting lettuce or the struggles they had just to find decent shoes…[Just] hearing the discrimination, the things they were forced to go through and how my grandmother received death threats for being with a Black man and openly supporting the Black community. Hearing all this as a young person, you try to reconcile, “Why are things like that?!” You can’t help but make yourself aware of these disparities between cultures.