Bilal talks Prince's legacy and the future of protest music in the age of Trump

Bilal talks Prince's legacy and the future of protest music in the age of Trump
Source: AP
Source: AP

"Sage" might be too indulgent a word to describe Bilal, but "low-key visionary" or "the man your fave calls to help get their hooks right" will suffice. 

He's lent his talents to some of the year's groundbreaking albums, including Common's Black America Again, Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered and Mac Miller's The Divine Feminine. This year, the R&B luminary — a member of the once-dominant Soulquarians collective alongside the Roots, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo — also took on a new distinction as one of Prince's most-studied prodigies. 

He saved BET's ass after the channel threw shade at Madonna's Billboard Awards Prince tribute, implying their Prince tribute would be superior. The BET Awards came through offering several artists' interpretations of the Purple One's work, and Bilal undeniably shined as one of the brightest.

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Bilal's perspective at the end of 2016 feels valuable. We've watched legends rise and fall; we've watched political music go mainstream, but fail to actualize its most immediate goal, stopping Donald Trump. His music has long engaged with these issues and iconic figures, always resonating with some of Prince's same seeming contradictions: reverence and sexuality, political fervor and joy. His 2015 album In Another Life and "Satellites" video offered quiet but potent condemnations of police brutality and the ways in which society perpetuates poverty.

In advance of his Wednesday set at GOOD Fest, a livestreamed concert event raising money for the Southern Poverty Law Center, we connected via phone to talk the highlights and tragedies of the year, and how the future must rise to the occasion in helping the world heal.

Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Barnes: The GOOD Fest seems like an awesome opportunity, supporting the Southern Poverty Law Center. Tell me about what it means for you to be supporting that organization right now?

Bilal: It means a lot to be supporting anything having to do with social rights and social justice right now, and really bring love. Truth to power is what I'm all about.

"Truth to power," what does that mean to you?

B: I've heard it around. A good cat named Tariq Nasheed in his documentary Hidden Colors, I remember hearing it off that.

It's just really bringing awareness to all of the things that are going on, the ways a lot of innocent people have been targeted and injustices have come about through practices that have been going on a long time, unchecked by everyone. That's what needs happen. 

It can't just be one group of people attacking the injustices happening to them. Everybody who lives in America should be able to see the injustices happening to a certain group of people — be they black or Native American or Mexican. Everybody should rally for everyone and fight for them.

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I've been struggling with this since the election. I feel in a sense we saw some of the limitations of political music and what it can do. Countless artists took a stand for "love against hate," literally the way the battle was framed, and yet "hate" still won. What do you make of that? Do you feel there's hope for politics in music being a force going forward?

B: There's always going to be hope, because we're always going to be a people. At the end of corporation and this system, the thing that makes it all work is a people. It doesn't take me any way or another, other than the fact we have to galvanize the basic principles of a people — and music is part of that expression.

That feels a major part of the subtext of what this election was attempting to decide: What is America? Who is an American?

B: I've said it's a melting pot before, but someone told me a melting pot just melts everything into the same. But I'd say it's a melting pot and a soup [laughs]. 

So many people don't know the history of how this country came about. And now that we've grown up and come to the place where we want to help the rest of the world with our newfound maturity, we have a history we dare not address — unless it's through cinema. Let's get that straight, before we want to talk to people in power or this great nation. There's a lot of shit in the garden. 

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Where do you think this conversation is going to come from? What's it going to look like?

B: It's the same thing you tell an addict: They have to accept that they're an addict. Anybody that wants help has to accept that they need help. At least accept that they're not facing something. It's denial, and some people won't come out of denial without being shaken. 

I feel like that's the fundamental flaw of so much of the political art this year: It didn't have enough of that confrontational edge that you're talking about, actually making people face the state of things.

B: I mean there was some, but the problem is that music doesn't reach... I don't want to say it doesn't get a lot of looks, but Common's album did, T.I.'s album and what Solange has been saying, even Kendrick [Lamar]. 

I think more people just need to look into what they think they know. We're in the information age, there's very few things about what the media tells you that you need to take at face value. You can research a lot of these things on your own and make an educated decision about what you see. I think people just hear stuff and they just go with it.

I feel like it happens on both sides.

Absolutely. I think that's one of the major things with the election, everybody had a poll and a stat that can't be verified — whose stats are the respected stats? And we've got to discern somewhere inside of us whether we want to believe that shit. It starts at a personal level. 

But you can see it now: media, political leaders going with what they think the masses are going to go for. There's really not a lot of original thought.

Music feels like one of the places where there still is.

Yeah, man and it'll always be that way. Whether that style of music is what corporations will make popular or not. These expressions will always be there.

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It feels like an easy response to say "2016 is the worst year ever. It's all terrible." I've kind of appreciated some people trying to push back on that impulse, saying: "You all say that every year. Let's just regroup and calm down." Where do you fall on that? Do you feel 2016 has been an especially noteworthy tragedy, or where does that sentiment come from?

I feel 2016 was a big year of endings. Some people view endings as the worst shit ever that could possibly be. I think for art, we lost Bowie, we lost Prince, incredible musicians. There was a change of guard.

There's a lot of old concepts that are on their last stand. And when people are on their last stand they'll fucking get desperate and do anything. I don't know what the hell that desperate act is going to be. But there's definitely a lot of new ideas that the old will have to face. I don't know how they will. A lot of times it's just war. Who knows?

You mentioned Prince, I thought your tribute at the BET was one of the best this year. I've got to give you props for that. What did he mean to you as an artist?

Prince ushered in a whole new wave of sound, a whole new wave of sound than we even hear today, in terms of his relationship with electronics, songwriting — and in business. He brought a whole new integrity of artists manning the whole ship, and really fighting for that control. On a lot of different levels I feel he was an innovator, and fearless. He did it all so seamlessly and with a simple song.

As part of that new guard, what's your next move?

I guess finish this independent film and independent movie. I've been delving into acting a little bit. Now, I'm about to go and start recording on my music. 

I've been working with a new concept with more an electro-jazz band kind of thing, not really vocals. A cat Yuki Herado, a musician I've known for a long time, incredible Moog and keyboardist, and an incredible guitar player, Randy Runyun. They're kind of New York cats. Yuki's finally getting acclaim, though. He played a bunch on the new A Tribe Called Quest record. I'm all music; that's always going to be the thing. That's the way I see the world.