Here’s the highlights:
On considering himself Bi-sexual:
You can move to the next question. I’ll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and boxes and shit. I’m in this business to be creative—I’ll even diminish it and say to be a content provider. One of the pieces of content that I’m for fuck sure not giving is porn videos. I’m not a centerfold. I’m not trying to sell you sex. People should pay attention to that in the letter: I didn’t need to label it for it to have impact. Because people realize everything that I say is so relatable, because when you’re talking about romantic love, both sides in all scenarios feel the same shit. As a writer, as a creator, I’m giving you my experiences. But just take what I give you. You ain’t got to pry beyond that. I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel. The other shit, you can’t feel. You can’t feel a box. You can’t feel a label. Don’t get caught up in that shit. There’s so much something in life. Don’t get caught up in the nothing. That shit is nothing, you know? It’s nothing. Vanish the fear.
You were born in Long Beach, California, but moved to New Orleans at age 5. When is the first time you realized you wanted to write and perform music?
I feel like I was writing as I was learning to talk. Writing was always a go to form of communication. And I knew I could sing from being in tune with the radio. I would listen to whatever my mom played in the car—the big divas: Whitney, Mariah, Celine, Anita Baker. Then I got exposed to Prince. I think it was “The Beautiful Ones.” He was screaming at the end. And this lady who was playing it was saying, “Ain’t no man scream like Prince.” And I was like, “That’s fucking awesome.”
Your dad had left when you were 6, so your mom raised you on her own.
I haven’t seen him since. And for a while, you know, we were not middle-class. We were poor. But my mom never accepted that. She worked hard to become a residential contractor—got her master’s with honors at the University of New Orleans. I used to go to every class with her. Her father was my paternal figure. He’d had a really troubled life with crack, heroin, and alcohol and had kids he wasn’t an ideal parent to. I was his second chance, and he gave it his best shot. My grandfather was smart and had a whole lot of pride. He didn’t speak a terrible amount, but you could tell there was a ton on his mind—like a quiet acceptance of how life had turned out. He was a mentor at AA and NA, and I would go with him to meetings.
When did you start recording?
I booked my first studio at like 12 or 13. Somewhere in that season of my life, singing along with the radio became me wanting to be on radio, you know. And writing Langston Hughes replica poems became me wanting to write like Stevie Wonder. My dad had been a singer and keyboardist. So my mom was like, “You’re going to follow that bum? Maybe you should just go to law school.”
So how did you go from Fatburger to writing songs for Brandy and Justin Bieber and John Legend?
We’re talking about hundreds of things that happened. One night, I went to a listening party just to pick up my backpack from a friend. Next thing I know, I’m in this studio, and everybody’s putting their laptops on the pool table, playing songs through these big-ass speakers. It was crazy. And they wanted me to play, so I plugged in, and they were like, “Oh shit.” There were producers there, and they said, “You should come up to the studio and write.” So I did. I’d sit in those rooms for hours.
But I wouldn’t write any line that was as good as the lines being written in the rooms next to me. It was just like: I had to elevate. I was looking at it like an athlete then—like I just wanted to be better than everybody else. I hadn’t gone through anything emotionally yet. I had never been in love. I had never been heartbroken. When that happened, that’s really what changed everything. That turned me into a real artist. It made the difference between somebody hearing something of mine and being like, “Wow, this is a fresh approach,” and somebody hearing something and crying, you know?
On writing about being in a relationship:
It became effortless. Like breathing. Because now I have something I really need to say. It was Mindfuck.net. It was a floodgate. It opened up the works.
On working on his Channel Orange Album:
Yeah, then I worked on them for nine months—a typical gestation period.
On his open letter, and how his perspective changed:
The night I posted it, I cried like a fucking baby. It was like all the frequency just clicked to a change in my head. All the receptors were now receiving a different signal, and I was happy. I hadn’t been happy in so long. I’ve been sad again since, but it’s a totally different take on sad. There’s just some magic in truth and honesty and openness.
Whatever I said in that letter, before I posted it, seemed so huge. But when you come out the other side, now your brain—instead of receiving fear—sees “Oh, shit happened and nothing happened.” Brain says, “Self, I’m fine.” I look around, and I’m touching my fucking limbs, and I’m good. Before anybody called me and said congratulations or anything nice, it had already changed. It wasn’t from outside. It was completely in here, in my head.
On fearing the letter would have derail his career:
I had those fears. In black music, we’ve got so many leaps and bounds to make with acceptance and tolerance in regard to that issue. It reflects something just ingrained, you know. When I was growing up, there was nobody in my family—not even my mother—who I could look to and be like, “I know you’ve never said anything homophobic.” So, you know, you worry about people in the business who you’ve heard talk that way. Some of my heroes coming up talk recklessly like that. It’s tempting to give those views and words—that ignorance—more attention than they deserve. Very tempting.
Some people said, “He’s saying he fell in love with a guy for hype.” As if that’s the best hype you can get in hip-hop or black music. So I knew that if I was going to say what I said, it had to be in concert with one of the most brilliant pieces of art that has come out in my generation. And that’s what I did. Why can I say that? Why I don’t have to affect all this humility and shit is because I worked my ass off. I worked my face off. And the part that you love the most is the easiest part for me. So I’ll do it again.