Todays eclectic music scene is filled with an array of artists looking to figure out where or how they fit in, but songstressAri Lennox is just the opposite -- she was born to standout.
Her easy-going demeanor and unique sound give her a somewhatunfamiliar, but entirely refreshing, edge in the midstof her peers, while her music boasts an air of authenticity, boldness and unapologetic, filter-free feminism.
We caught up with Ariduring a recent visit to NYC and she had plenty to say about her upcoming performance at the 2017 ESSENCE Festival, her journey thus far in the music industry, working with J.Cole and why shes slightly hesitant to embrace the title of Dreamvilles First Lady."
While certainly grateful for where her path has led her today, Ari says her journey to get there was no walk in the park. Sharing a similar story to that of many artists determined to reach stardom at first, the singersays it didnt take long to snap herself out of the quest for fame when things got worse than shed anticipated.
"Man it was hell," Ari tells ESSENCE."I had multiple situations that were just horrible. I mean, I dont know, I was just so eager to be signed. I went to California a couple of times trying to be famous and wound up homeless for a couple of days and then I was just like, Girl, bye, stop being dramatic.You have a family on the east coast; take yo ass back to the east coast."
From there, it was back to the grind -- and to YouTube.Although the massive video platformadmittedly gaveAri her first taste of success as an artist, she was mindful of not letting her presence there eclipse her ultimate goal. Rejecting the idea of becoming known as a "cover artist," she linked up with her manager Justin in 2012 and hit the ground running in NYC.
"I started gravitating towards Soundcloud.So, that was my hustle and then I met my manager Justin in 2012 and we were just grinding it out in New York. Thank God, though, for all of that because it definitely helped prepare me for this."
News of Ari joining J.Coles Dreamville label in 2015 sent fans into an instant frenzy, as the Dreamville fanbase had long been anticipating the addition of a female artist to the growing conglomerate. But Ari says shes not quite sure the"First Lady of Dreamville" title fits her.
"It was just completely natural. So natural to the point where when people are like First Lady, it still feels weird to me," she says. "I dont really claim it. I kind of feel like Im a little sister. Everyone was super hands-on with the projectand big brother-ish and always guiding me and really just embracing me, as I am, and encouraging me to be comfortable with myself."
Having sadly lost a brother just a few years ago, Ari says the warm welcome from the Dreamville team was right on time.
"It felt really cool because I lost an older brother in 2012,so, to come into that and have that vibe with all the guys....it felt like it was God bringing all of these new brothers into my life so," Ari added. "It was really dope."
Although shes a fresh voice on the airwavesto some, Aris certainly no stranger to the music scene and her well-received 2016 EP PHO is living proof. Speaking on the creative process for putting the project together, she says it was less complicated than one might think.
"It was just as simple as me recording on a producer USB mic," Ari tells ESSENCE."It was like a $100 set up with a laptop. I came across thisguy namedDJ Grumble and I just really liked his beats because they were different. I felt like they spoke to me. There are a lot of producers that do all different types of beats but, every time I would try to write to them, it just seemed forced. With Grumble, his beats are just so soulful so, it just felt so natural. So, thats how "Cold Outside"happened, which was actually like years before PHO came out. And then later, I just kept writing to his stuff."
Like every other woman in and outside of music, Ari also knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of being in love. So when it came time to put a collective title on the music she created for her EP, she didnt have to look too far for inspiration.
"I mean, I just had an ex who just introduced me to a lot of different things. From cartoons like Adventure Time, to fashion, to Vietnamese food. And thats basically where it came from, because he would always take me to this Vietnamese spot called PhoReal in Charlotte. So, Ijust named it according to what all of my songs were about, which was him," she revealed."Plus, I wanted something cute and simple."
When it came time to work on PHO, Ari was pleasantly surprised by the hands-on approach from Cole himselfand the genuine nature of Dreamville President Ibrahim "IB" Hamad.
"In the beginning, when I was working with IB and the Dreamville team, I would talk about wanting to make these pop records,"she says. "When I first started speaking on it, IB told me, Be careful how you say that. Just make sure youre making records from your heart and then if it happens to blow up,those are the best records. And youll be proud of that. Those words were so helpful forme to hear and to meditate on.So, I think its sodope that they embrace real music. Soul, R&B and real Hip Hop."
Working with the teamhas also been a one-of-a-kind experience for the songstress that she describes as unlike any other shes had before.
"IB helped with the track listing. Hes so hands on and very passionate,"she said. "Cole is really awesome because he makes sure the world sees how hard the whole team works and howmuch of a huge role they play in the success of Dreamville and him.For my EP, Cole was the one whofought for La, La, La, which is something that IB wasnt too sure about. ButCole like was like, Nah, this is completely different. Shes really singing on this.So, it was really cool that Cole actually cared about that aspect and making sure that was highlighted. And then eventually IB fell in love with the song so, it all worked out. Cole also fought for "Backwood." I initially wasnt too excited about it, but then I thought, since Cole liked it and hes the one changing my life[laughs], lets just put it on there. Of course, I love it now."
"And then we had Ced [Cedric Brown]and he was just always there behind the scenes, just encouraging me. Ced is one of the producers/sound engineers and stage managers for Dreamville. Same with [Dreamville artist] Omen, of course, hes the one reason for all of this. Im just happy about all the different elements that went into putting the EP together.Imbeyond in love with everything thats on PHO as a whole."
Today, Ari is hard at work preparing for herupcoming performance at the 2017 ESSENCE Festival, where shell share the mainstage with music icons like Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan, Jill Scott, Monica and Jazmine Sullivan. In addition to grinding in the studio with her Dreamville labelmates (fans will be excited to know theres a particular completed record with Bas that may or may not be out sometime soon),Ari says she and her team have been working nonstop to take things to the next level for the performance. From the sounds of things,fans are in for a treat when she hits the stage this July in New Orleans.
"Im hoping to bring some raunchy, risky, soulful frankness to the stage, really," she says."I feel honored and I feel like it would be disrespectful to not be working hard every day to prepare for this. This is, so far, the biggest opportunity Ive ever had. Sharing the same stage as Chaka Khan and Jazmine Sullivan and Mary J. Blige like, Im just freaking dying, actually!" --
Grab your tickets now to see Ari Lennox light up the 2017 ESSENCE Festival stage along with the some of the biggest names in music this July in New Orleans!