To Neo-Soul Legend Maxwell, Being Played At The Cookout Is The Best Award

In the late ‘90s, singer Maxwell broke onto the music scene in the midst of a renaissance in Black music. The “neo-soul” movement was gaining traction, with success by artists like Tony! Toni! Toné!, D’Angelo and The Fugees, and Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite came at just the right time to give him the opening to step into the gentry of neo-soul. The album wasn’t an immediate chart success but it did get Maxwell enough notice from important music publications like Rolling Stone and music channel MTV. 

Looking back, for any fan of Black music and particularly this era of Black music, it is hard to imagine that Maxwell’s first album was at risk of not being released and that anyone had challenged his artistic vision, including release of his MTV Unplugged performance, which came out as an EP instead of a full album. His artistry and talent is unquestionable. 

One thing is certain about Maxwell, and that is, his music is a staple in many households, (not just Black homes, though his core audience has been loyal) and the soundtrack of many celebrations from falling in love to having children. 

LEO caught up with Maxwell for an interview ahead of his Sunday, March 27 show at the Yum Center with fellow R&B legends, Joe and Anthony Hamilton. 

LEO: Tell me about the tour. There are so many amazing Black male voices on the same stage. 

Maxwell:  First of all, Joe, for me, he’s literally been the soundtrack of my life — before I even got my record deal and all that. Joe was out, and I remember buying his record and just going, “This man!” When he writes, his writing is amazing and his longevity is really incredible. And when I was asked about this tour and working with the Black Promoters Collective, which was another thing that I really wanted to do, especially after all these years of working with various companies, I think it’s important after so many years to give back to the community that has literally created and allowed me to be who I am now at my own leisure at time. Sometimes it’s almost like, “How can you go away so long?” and I’m like, “That’s what we call Black love.”

So, to see it in full motion and that it’s working in that way is pretty incredible. And then, Anthony Hamilton, I mean that voice like… it’s touched by God. I got my work cut out for me every night too, but I do my best to create a situation.  I think we get a nice well-rounded soul experience with us all together, you know, cause I’m a little bit of avante-garde and then Anthony just hits you with that “grease” you know. Then Joe is that classic R&B that I grew up with, that I think is now coming back a little bit. 

It’s a good feeling to celebrate the women out there, to celebrate the love of so many married couples, and so many boos. I see people in the aisles, like doing slow dances and kissing.

Any collaborations or singing on stage together?

No, there are no collaborations as of yet. I mean, I’d love to work with both of them on some level, but because we were just getting this thing going and our protocol is so ridiculous in terms of this COVID because we gotta make sure that people are safe. So we’re just trying to work on our show. Look, it’s been two years, and we’re just trying to get it in. I’m 48 out here and so I want to make sure that I get back into the flow, but everyone’s been really kind and patient. They are giving me a lot of reasons to just push forward and give my best. 

But we are all just having fun; there is no beef. There’s only love. 

Let’s talk about your music. Why were the cops going to come knocking in the song, “Til the Cops Come Knocking?”

(Laughs) Um, well, ‘cuz we making a ruckus. We’re making a major ruckus, so that’s the reason. 

You’ve mentioned singing at the White House. What was that experience like and did Michelle throw flowers or a bra? (Y’all I know Michelle ain’t going out like that but some of y’all do at concerts.)

No, no, no. It was a Christmas thing, and I remember doing it. I just couldn’t believe that I was going to the White House to sing in front of the cabinet and the — I have photos of this and it’s almost so surreal to me to see the former president and in my mind, forever president, um, and our first lady just sitting there watching and knowing the songs. And, they told me the story when they were in college, how they listened to my album, and you know, wow.

I had been gone away so long, it’d been six years or so, and I just got back into the swing of things and you know, glory to God, “Pretty Wings” really did its thing. Then I got to go to that house, and it was the only time that I went, and I know that he hosted many events with many people. But it’s one of the most memorable things. I mean, I have everything framed, the signature, it’s very gracious, the way you get like this plaque thing. It’s completely incredible. 

You speak about creating from loss. With the last two years being sort of that kind of global experience, a lot of loss and a lot of hardship, how has that really influenced your creative process, but also how you see things now as you look around to create?

As I was creating most of Night [his upcoming release], like when I was trying to put the songs together and this is before the pandemic, this was like on the heels of literally blackSUMMERS’night coming out in 2016, I had a different approach that I wanted to have for it. And then after the pandemic, and actually more so because of this tour, I realized that there’s a new thing that I need to do with this, to close this album, and it’s about love. I want people to have a good time. I want them to multiply. I want them to feel good because we’ve had so much strife, for many years and, I think everyone’s aware of the issues. Some people don’t really understand what the problem is, but they have to be living under a rock if they don’t. 

That’s why we came up with “Off” as the first single, even though “Shame” came out earlier. And that was just more about the social media. This is when there were actually no protections on privacy or anything like that. There was no two-step verification. So people could just go on your page and just write nonsense and then just end you. Rather than give the person the satisfaction of watching me squirm, I just add to the questions as I would answer them and not what was put out there by someone… a lot of Black people were targeted around that time.

I think Denzel went through his thing, and he had never really endorsed a certain person. And so it was confusing a lot of people and that people were a little bit aware that, you know, like right now I got three fake pages and literally the page is Maxwell with a blue check but people are scamming out there. 

So it’s a little frustrating that you’re not protected by the company that’s making so much money off of using you, but everyone has somewhat caught up, as you probably know. And, now I just feel like, um, everything is going to have to be about this love situation and how we got through and, you know, ‘can I get another drink?’

I just feel like I just want to give people a good time, and I want them to feel that love again. And I think that this tour is really inspiring me in that direction.

People are really dying for an outlet…

I’m grateful that for so many years, I can still be a voice out here. There’s so many great voices that I really love, that I respect so much out in the music world and, for me to see the tradition of soul music continuing and evolving…it’s… and to be a witness to it and to be able to still be maybe relevant to a degree. I’m not sure if I am or not.. cross my fingers and hope and pray, you know? 

You are. 

I’m just grateful to be in the same space, to share the space, and just more than anything, to just make things pleasant again. Things have been… so if you could write anything, please write this: I just want things to be pleasant, ‘cause it’s not always pleasant.

I get it. I don’t watch TV news for this reason. 

Sometimes they drum up so much more nonsense to get you engaged in things that are unpleasant. I like to know the truth. I want to know what’s going on. I want to be aware, but you know, I don’t want to get into this back and forth. But at 8 billion people in the world, it’s like 10 billion bots in the world at the same time, you know? So we don’t know who’s real, what’s talking, who’s responding, we don’t know. 

I’m just grateful because we cut through all that nonsense every night.

 You came out when there was a big awakening in Black music in the ‘90s. So much was happening particularly at the end of New Jack Swing. How important was it then for you to be a part of that, but now to be able to continue sharing that music and offering something unique because you definitely have a unique voice in Black Music. 

Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s a huge compliment for you to say that because, in the beginning, people didn’t really see it that way. I really had a bit of a complex, but I wasn’t gonna overdo it and try too hard, you know, like if you think I’m Black enough, cool. If you don’t, you don’t. 

It wasn’t listeners, you know, they just said, “Hey, I like it.” And that’s the most important part. 

I don’t know if you know, but there’s generations in the house. It’s not just a certain group that I am. It’s like ‘90s babies, ‘80s babies, ‘50s, ‘60s, mean it’s incredible. I would have never, in my wildest dreams, been performing to an audience that is pretty much generations of people and all kinds of races. Asian, Black, Brown, white in the house, all collectively together in unity. For me, with all the news and everything, it’s a beautiful sight to see everybody in that zone. 

OK last question, What has been your favorite award?

Oh wow. I’m going to get metaphorical. You ready? 

Yes

It’s the award of being, having been in every cookout, or at a cookout at a given time, or at any given time during the summer. To know that your music is played during block parties, that’s the award. People tell me stories and they say, ‘We got married” or ‘My first date was at your concert in 2001, when you, and ‘Licia…”  I mean, Alicia Keys. They’re like, seeing me 20 years later and ‘We have kids, and they’re here tonight to see you, because we tell them every time, we met at the concert’ and I get pictures and I get letters and then I’m like, ‘Wow.’

To have that effect is better than any award, because awards have to do with politics sometimes. So like if you know the right person, if you’re singing the right song or singing someone’s song… whatever it is.

Listen, I love my NAACP joints. I mean, my Soul Train ones are amazing. These are shows that I watched, and these are organizations that were protecting me from harm, from physical harm.

I love the accolades, but I’m not defined by them because I really truly believe that being even considered is a gift. I truly believe that, ‘cause [inaudible] all the songs that people really like the most, they were nominated. They never won an award, but it didn’t have anything to do with it. Didn’t stop this moment that we’re talking about right now.

I try to give people a healthy sense of that. I know a lot of artists get really mad about it and I’m like, ‘Guys, you got to calm down, man. I’ve been nominated 14 times and only won three. I’m cool.’

It should be more kind of engaged with the service of music. You’re here to serve. You don’t have to like, get. You’re here to serve. If people are paying money, streaming your music, buying your t-shirts. You’re good. Don’t worry about these awards. Just for perspective, it’s just like, ‘c’mon guys, you’re like part of like 1% of the world that gets to do this, gets to do what they love. I mean, here you are, you’re an incredible journalist. Not many people get to do what they love. 

After I faint and recover, we then compare notes on family reactions to career choices and I promise that I will wave at the show or throw my sister at the stage. 

Thanks Maxwell!

Happy Women’s Month. Celebrate yourself.  

Yes, he said it, and it’s official. Come see Maxwell play the Yum Center with special guests Joe and Anthony Hamilton this Sunday, March 27. Doors open at 7 p.m.  Tickets available via Yum Center Box Office or Ticketmaster

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About the Author

To Neo-Soul Legend Maxwell, Being Played At The Cookout Is The Best Award

Erica Rucker is LEO Weekly’s Arts & Entertainment Editor. In addition to her work at LEO, she is a haphazard writer,  photographer, tarot card reader, and fair to middling purveyor of motherhood. Her earliest memories are of telling stories to her family and promising that the next would be shorter than the first. They never were. You can follow Erica on Twitter, but beware of honesty, overt blackness and occasional geeky outrage.

@@feralnegress

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