Spike Lee was the mentor of Kyle Bell in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020 - 2022. Photo by Arnaud Montagard / Rolex
Jon Batiste
Photo by Louise Browne

Jon Batiste: “I’m a link in a chain”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Jonathan Michael Batiste
DOB: 11 November 1986
Place of birth: Metairie, Louisiana, United States
Occupation: Musician, bandleader

Jon Batiste's new album We Are is out now via Verve Records.

Mr. Batiste, do you believe in magic where music is concerned?

Definitely! I think there's something that we can’t explain in words, which is why music is so powerful. It is the universal language. There’s something about sound and the transference of energy through sound that can't really be put into a science — I mean, of course, you can get a science to it up until a certain point; I've studied music, rhythm, harmony, theory, all different aspects of music for many years, but I still approach it like a child because I think the deepest, most impactful stuff in music can't necessarily be explained scientifically. And that is, to me, the definition of magic.

What kind of deep impactful stuff are you talking about?

Well, for many of us, we can get discouraged by life. Music is one of those things that gives you an opportunity to have a release. The tension that you carry can be channeled into something that connects you to the thing that's bigger than us: the creator who created everything that has any form of inspiration and love and light in it. That's what connects us all. And that's joyous! It makes you realize that even after death, there's something that is greater than us — and things like music and art point to that. It's a spiritual practice every day to stay connected to that ultimate source, to feed the divine parts, and to starve the other parts.

“I consider myself a truth teller. I think there's joy in the truth of things.”

That positive, optimistic energy really comes through in your music.

It's funny because I would not consider myself to be an optimist! I would consider myself to be a truth teller, a realist. I think there's joy in the truth of things. Optimism comes from this place where you want to always see the bright side of things. But I think the place that I'm coming from is that the overall truth is bright, you don't have to see the bright side in everything. You just see the truth.

But positivity is nonetheless a key ingredient in the music from your native New Orleans — things like Mardi Gras, brass bands, ragtime, and certain types of jazz all foster a celebratory mood.

Yeah, of course. When I think about New Orleans, I think about what I call social music. Music was a part of the fabric of everyday life, it was a part of the community, of everyday existence for many centuries before it was just deemed as entertainment or as a commodity. And in New Orleans it still is! There's music when people are born, there's music when people pass away, there's music for many different parts of everyday life that's not to buy or sell. Growing up in New Orleans gave me an opportunity to experience that.

Because of your family’s deep roots in music?

Right, I come from one of the key musical families in that tradition. It's a heritage, a lineage that I was able to represent on my album We Are in a very authentic way. Family gatherings with celebratory music, that's a huge part of the black community. I mean, you think about black social gatherings, cookouts, church functions — if you just look at black people for the last 100 years, whether it's the spirituals that were sung and then adopted into the Civil Rights movement, or even in towns of Jim Crow and the times of slavery… They weren't singing to see the bright side of things, they were seeing the greater truth that even though their humanity was being stripped from them, deep down, they have worth. So, there's always been some form of musical celebration.

In that respect, do you think that music can change the world?

I think music has already changed the world in so many ways! It has helped us to not fully descend into madness. Even as entertainment it’s allowed people to process emotions and inspire thoughts. It’s given genius creatives the fuel that they need to event the thing that changes the world, goes out in and uplifts this community or that community. So I think it already has. And there's a lot of moments that are unsung!

Like which ones?

Like every time that Mahalia Jackson sung before, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, or every time they were on the bus going from one town in the south to another town in the south, and you’d hear the choir of protesters just break out into a song that just 50 years prior to that their relatives, their ancestors, were singing while enslaved. That kind of thing is so deep, you can't even put words to it. And that transfers to Aretha, and to Whitney, and then to Beyonce. So when she sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at Coachella while backed by HBCU marching bands… That’s an example of that manifesting. There's so many moments that don't seem as significant as they actually are to people.

“To smile in the face of so many things that are going on, and for it to be a genuine, authentic smile, I think it's a form of protest.”

You’ve had your own role in all of this, too — last year you lead several peaceful music-centric protests during the Black Lives Matter marches.

When I was out in the streets, that was a time where there was a great outcry from the black community. And in the 2016 election, there was over 100 million people who didn't vote; there was also a great sense of apathy going into that election, that landed us with the administration that we had. There was also a lot of corruption, a lot of mistrust, a lot of anger and division. So for me to go out and play music, and to say the things that I was saying with the music behind it was such a different vibration! And that frequency helped to remind people that there's more to what's going on, it helps connect them back to the self. And hopefully that vibration continues to resonate, and helps people to have more nuanced conversations.

Those performances often ended up with people singing, dancing, and celebrating, which isn’t something that is always associated with protest.

I think joy is a form of protest! Times where people are protesting is generally based on this belief that something is stripping them of humanity, stripping them of their rights to be free. And if something strips you of your right to be free and to be joyous, that's the most inhumane place a person can be. So to smile in the face of so many things that are going on, and for it to be a genuine, authentic smile rooted in a belief that that is the truth of who you are and the truth of where we can go, then I think it's a form of protest.

And what about for you? Is music also an act of resistance for you on a personal level?

I think for me it's more an act of manifesting the depth of what's inside. You have so much in you that is hard to figure out, especially when you're younger. So how do you express all of this value? We naturally want to connect with each other, we want to share all of the things that we have within us. That's a part of being human. So, for me, it's been a great honor to be able to show people that through my music, I can inspire, uplift, and ultimately help them to connect to the thing that's within them. I'm a link in a chain.