Dreamville singer Ari Lennox talks working with J. Cole, coping with stress, and moving back to D.C.
The U St. corridor is one of D.C.’s busiest neighborhoods on any given weekend, but it was injected with a new dose of energy when the 2018 DC Funk Parade jumped off.
The fifth annual day fair, parade, and music festival contained a bustling array of sights and sounds. Middle school marching bands clad in elaborate uniforms battled face to face, one song at at time, as crowds lined the streets to cheer them on. Go-go rhythms and live instrumentation could be heard echoing around corners, down streets, and off buildings.
Multiple streets were blocked off to make space for the throng of people that flooded the area to witness six different music stages, along with a marketplace filled with local vendors.
At 6 PM, performances stopped to make space for the parade itself.
Colorfully garbed dance troupes whirled banners and streamers in the air, moving in unison to dancehall and reggae. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser waved gracefully, throwing out colorful beads to whoever screamed the loudest as she walked down the street.
Brazilian flags waved in the air as the Vava United School of Samba moved down the street, dancing and fist pumping to their own beat. Skateboard crews pulled their best tricks out, taking delight in “ooohhhs” and “aaahhss” from the crowd each time they landed successfully.
Related: watch my DC Funk Parade video recap + Ari Lennox interview + unreleased song performance
Art vendors with home made products screamed at passers-by in an effort to divert their attention and make a sale. A lone man walked along with the parade, proudly waving his explicit Anti-Trump sign and receiving applause on every block. Each group felt like a moving, miniature house party. People leaving restaurants and bars had no choice but to stop and stare at everything going on.
If you had your eyes peeled, you might have seen Dreamville’s own Ari Lennox amongst the crowd. The D.C. native told us that her favorite part of the festival was stopping at D.C. soul food staple Oohhs N Aahhs, as she saw “beautiful Black people across the street dancing and blasting go-go.”
After enjoying her time on U Street, Ari headed to Lincoln Theatre to deliver a performance that brought the day’s festivities to a beautiful conclusion. She was one of three artists on the bill at the Funk Showcase.
D.C.-based DJs Underdog, Ayes Cold, and Native Sun used sharp sequencing and classic records to turn the time between sets into dance breaks for everyone in attendance. The Lincoln Theatre audience was treated to D.C. native Dreamcast’s powerful, rich vocals and Nigerian artist/producer Mannywellz’s charismatic display before Ari emerged to close out the day with her sultry vocals and dominant stage presence.
Clad in black tights, Nike joggers, and a fur jacket, she walked out to raucous applause from her hometown before delving into select tracks from Pho such as “Backwood,” “La La La La,” and “Backseat.” The seven-track EP, which originally released in October 2016, is full of vintage soul and modern R&B influences.
She also made sure to dive into older cuts for the day-one fans. Ms. Lennox gained a significant following from her free SoundCloud tracks and YouTube videos before being signed, so it was unsurprising to see a significant amount of fans singing along to her older records as she took us on a trip down memory lane.
Much to the crowd’s delight, Ari took a few minutes in between songs to announce that she’d be moving back to her hometown of Washington, D.C. in the near future.Before stepping off stage, she treated fans to one record from a future project featuring heavy bass, futuristic instrumentation, and another fluid vocal performance. Ari’s vocals are a standout feature of her music, and she was just as engaging in a live setting.
Read a portion of our conversation below to find out the story behind tracks such as “Backwood” and “Backseat,” the process behind selecting records for Pho, and who would be on her dream team of collaborators.
You mentioned that you're moving back to D.C. during tonight's performance. What makes you want to move back home?
I miss the grittiness of D.C. There’s a level of realness here. People are going to check you in certain ways, and I fuck with that. Transportation, too. You can get around so easily here, on the buses and trains. Out there, you gotta drive an hour to get anywhere. It’s gorgeous out there, but I just miss my people.
Dreamville is a huge, well deserved, and high profile look. Do you feel a lot of pressure to live up to expectations?
I love Dreamville. They’re so sweet, and they definitely instill a warm, low pressure type of environment - but let’s be real, in real life there’s a whole lot of pressure. J. Cole is the leader, the Fatha. I can’t come wack when I drop a project. I need it to be as fire as all his stuff.
How do you cope with that pressure?
Creating a project can be very stressful. I had never done it before. Pho was my first time doing that. I don’t know how I cope — I guess I need to find a way. Here’s the thing about DC vs L.A.. L.A. doesn’t have any animal shelters. On the East Coast, I have access to more animal shelters where I can go see animals. I really love animals. Nature. All that. I miss Rock Creek Park. I feel like that would really help me to do a better job of coping. I’m just ready to be back. No diss to Los Angeles, but DC is where I’m from.
Performance is an art. Do you have any pre-show rituals that you use to get your head in the game?
DJ Komari leads us in prayer. Personally, I try to drink water beforehand - or a shot, depending on how I feel.
Or both. Or maybe I’ll put water in the shot. [laughs]
I’m a huge fan of “Backwood,” but I have to ask — are backwoods really your go-to for smoking?
I actually don’t smoke [laughs] I’m a poser. I like to make songs about metaphors. I have friends who smoke. My songs are mostly about me, but when it comes to smoking, I get panic attacks. Can’t do it.
So, is “Backseat” also a metaphor?
No, hell no. That was my whole life story with my ex. He kind of opened up my world. It has nothing to do with anal sex. A lot of people assume that the song was talking about that, which is certainly not the case.
How difficult was the process of picking certain songs for your debut project over others?
I wanted “Woo Woos” and this song called “Forward” on there, but some people in my life weren’t feeling it. Honestly, I didn’t want certain songs on the project that made the cut. I was a little skeptical. Today, I’m so glad that Pho turned the way it did. I love the project.
Your YouTube channel is also full of gems. You have any plans to release any of the YouTube exclusives you dropped back in the day?
The first thing that comes to mind is the song “Cocoa Puffs.” I mean, I’d have to re-record it. It just depends on the demand. You think I should?
Officially releasing songs like this could show people a different side of you.
I might look into doing more stuff like that. Definitely getting back into the YouTube world. Who knows, maybe when I get back to DC I’ll start to dig deeper into that world.
If you could collaborate with one artist, past or present, who would it be and why?
Minnie Riperton and Marvin Gaye, because I think they’re fire. I’d love to do all their background vocals and learn. Live in their hearts, live in their closet, whatever I gotta do to soak up all their amazingness.
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