Lalah Hathaway is bringing a new groove to Saturday’s free concert at Burton Chace Park
By Bliss Bowen
Five-time Grammy winner Lalah Hathaway has made a career-long practice of keeping her music open to diverse audience perceptions while her velvety contralto has ranged through jazz, R&B, soul and gospel. But with her seventh studio album, 2017’s “Honestly” — specifically, with the release of its deluxe version and the artful short film she just made to accompany it — Hathaway felt compelled for the first time to insert her own “super-interpretation of what the songs are.”
“To be living in this country right now, to be a woman in this country right now, to be a woman of color right now, it would be dishonest of me and disingenuous to say that everything I see on the news every day doesn’t make me feel like, you know, ‘May the Lord open’ at all times,” she says. “That definitely influences my art …
“‘Honestly’ is a love song, but it’s more of a falling out of love with the American Dream type song. I just needed people to understand that.”
In the short film, aching album tracks like “Y O Y,” “Change Ya Life” and the title tune play over thoughtfully intercut, provocative images: a child monk burning; Charlottesville, Ferguson and Standing Rock protestors; Black Lives Matter marchers; Colin Kaepernick speaking; a girl dancing; Hathaway’s sweetly youthful alter ego defending herself against a man in the woods. During a spoken interlude, Hathaway expresses a hard-won personal conviction: “If you can remember to honor the joyfulness of your spirit, it will show up for you. … Your power is your joy.” Which raises a significant question: How do you retain your connection to that positive spirit in spiritually pulverizing times like these?
“It’s hard,” she acknowledges. “For me, a lot of it has to do with music. Music is my passion. I’m singing songs all day; I’m discovering music all day. I’m like the crazy music lady. That’s what keeps me going. It is absolutely another entity in the room that knows me better than everyone, that on the last day of my life I’ll have to say goodbye to. That joy is just creating and listening and learning music, and it endures for me. I’m not jaded. I’ve been doing music literally since I was 2 or 3 years old, and it is a discovery all the time. I don’t lose the passion for it.
“I lose the passion for the business daily, at about noon,” she says with a hearty laugh. “But I really love what I do. I really love creating for people.”
Not unlike her father — soul legend Donny Hathaway, who died in 1979 when she was 10 — Lalah Hathaway has reached for meaning through song since she began writing in high school. After graduating from Berklee College of Music, she released her self-titled debut in 1990; subsequent albums yielded a deepening catalogue of romantic balladry and affirming anthems like “Outrun the Sky,” “Breathe,” and “Mirror” (“Sometimes you’ve gotta make the mirror your best friend/ Maybe then you’ll find some peace within/ Stop hiding yourself”). She’s won Grammy, ASCAP and Billboard/BET Awards for her own recordings as well as collaborations with Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy and Kirk Whalum. In professional but warm tones she insists she doesn’t want to be “too preachy,” but nowadays she’s more at ease with audiences’ need for catharsis.
“Whether or not the records are about self-care and self-preservation, or resisting and saying no to fascism, or women’s rights or girl power, more than anything the music is meant to inspire,” she says. “I never want to make records that don’t have any meaning to them. …
“There was a point in my life that I’d sing certain songs from my catalogue and people would tear up and it would make me super uncomfortable. But I am very, very comfortable with it right now, very aware that the experience of music for some people is that it will just wring you out, and that’s what a lot of people want and need. They want to dance and have fun, but not as much as they want those moments where they can be wrung out.”
Hathaway’s been working on projects with Glasper, U.K .producer Hannah Vasanth, and Dr. Dre. This week she and her band are rearranging “Honestly” material for Saturday’s concert at Burton Chace Park. She recently returned to L.A. from the U.K., where she performed at festivals and a London exhibit with members of her Real Music Rebels collective, a loose federation of “like-minded, serious musicians who are speaking to social issues and injustice in the world” that includes her creative partner Steph Tom, Glasper, Freda Knowles, Sandra St. Victor, Terrace Martin and Hiatus Kaiyote.
“You know how you feel when you find your tribe, like, ‘Oh, I fit really well with these folks?’ That’s what Real Music Rebels is,” she says. “We all have things to say, and the majority of us are doing it through music.”
Fans sometimes place her on “some kind of weird pedestal,” but she likes to advise “civilians” that they’re artists too: “Your life is your art. And how you show up for it is your art. How you raise your kid, how you get ready for work, how you wear your hair, how you cook, how you present yourself to the world is your art. I really try to encourage people to find that art inside of them. What is it you love? What is it that gives you pleasure, what are you passionate about? That’s your art.”
See Lalah Hathaway in concert under the stars at 7 p.m. Saturday (July 21) at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Admission is free. Call (424) 526-7900 or visit marinadelrey.lacounty.gov.