few young singers from the nascent “new school” of conscious soul possess the grace, maturity, strength and determination of amel larrieux, whose epic solo debut infinite possibilities places her in a musical niche all her own.
drawing on a wealth of influences from jazz, hip-hop, gospel and funky r&b, and with flashes of middle eastern, west african and indian ethnic styles, amel has crafted a veritable concept album that explores an endless range of promise and potential…lyrically, musically and personally. reflecting the title she chose, infinite possibilities symbolizes a challenge, not only to herself but to the self-limiting and thus incomplete definition of what is commercially identified as black music and art today.
“i’m not worried about labels,” amel says when asked about the term “progressive r&b,” which has been applied to many of today’s artists. “some folks need them for clarity. but the definition of ‘black music’ should be looked at. if everyone knew how many kinds of music could technically fall under this category, its use would be more justifiable. but most people just don’t know.”
“what’s really disturbing is that many artists are making forms of black music blues, rock & roll, jazz, soul, but for some reason their music is not categorized as ‘black music.’ so i wonder, does your skin color determine what category you’re in? in the end, it doesn’t really matter what anyone calls it. label it, that’s fine–i just keep makin’ ‘amel’s music.'”
amel already had adopted this unapologetic and confident stance a few years back as lead siren and co-writer for the new york-based duo groove theory. a collaborative effort with ex-mantronix member bryce wilson, groove theory was described by one fired-up journalist as “…a quick fix for even the most diehard of soul junkies.” groove theory’s eponymous debut album for epic eventually went gold on the heels of the smash single “tell me,” which broke the top ten on the billboard hot 100 and the top five on the r&b charts before being certified gold in october 1995. amel’s voice and writing also attracted the attention of former sade guitarist and programmer stuart matthewman, who recruited her for two tracks on his group sweetback’s epic album in 1995.
“that whole time was an eye-opening experience for me,” amel says now, “because it taught me a lot, not just about making music but about the business itself. even today, dealing with the business part of it…even dealing with the music part…it’s not exactly a battle, but there’s some kind of insinuation that somehow i can’t write or produce myself because i’m a woman. writing and singing are directly linked in my case. i couldn’t imagine doing one without the other.”
“but i’ve learned from my family not to let things like this get to me. it’s extremely real, it exists, and it can really break your spirit down if you don’t believe in yourself as a person and already like what you do.”
true to her convictions, amel co-wrote and co-produced the entirety of infinite possibilities with her husband laru larrieux. “i ‘n’ i” can probably be singled out as an anthem for her creative approachone that is based as much in spiritual devotion to self and family as it is in the hoped-for up-lifting of others. over tabla rhythms mixed with a lilting funk beat and an infectious melody, amel paints a world where “they cannot define beautiful to me/someone else’s eyes don’t see what i see.” the song has its inspiration in the words of a fashion editor who when asked about the scarcity of black cover models said she knew of very few who were “pretty enough”–a statement amel found disturbing, to say the least.
“one thing i would hope that people would get from this song is that being individual and being yourself is fine. it’s what god gave you and no one can take that away from you, and as soon as you try to live up to a standard, then you’re doing an injustice to yourself and to your creator. you are yourself for a reason, and someone telling you something different is just not cool.”
this feeling of holding fast to one’s individuality wends its way through “shine,” another dreamy, funk-laden tale of broken promises and their inevitable redemption through inner strength and faith in experience. “get up” bounces ahead over a warmed-up fender rhodes and a warning that “all you got’s your pride” when it comes to dealing with negative people. compare these to the jazzy, jungle-inflected “down,” which amel begins in a husky lower register portraying a road-weary vulnerabilty akin to nina simone and concludes with nearly arabesque trills. it’s clear that this woman’s talent for vocal expression extends well beyond her 26 years.
amel attributes much of this to her experiences being raised in an artistic and creative family, and her exposure to music as diverse as jimi hendrix, miles davis, and ricki lee jones, to name only a few.
“i grew up in manhattan in a building called westbeth, which is an artists’ building in the west village. there were artists coming from all overfrom uptown, from wyoming, wherever. my mom is a professor of performance studies and a dance critic. she was an avant-garde performer before i was born, and still did some poetry reading when i was young. she would take me to all the shows she had to critique, and i truly loved them. i myself danced for 12 years.”
“i basically grew up around my parents’ artsy friends, played with their children, and all of us were from various racial and economic backgrounds. i just go the best experiences, the kind that continue to inspire me. i can even remember being taken to a smoke-filled village vanguard to see don cherry play when i was about eight years old.”
in starting a family and raising her own children, this nurturing and supportive atmosphere has remained just as crucial. “even if” is a poignant and tender gospel-tinged ballad written for her daughter, while “makes me whole” is an equally inspirational and personal ode to someone very special.
“you just have to start crying, it’s like that kind of emotion,” amel says, referring to the spiritual lift she can get from her music. “i feel like music does that for me more than anything else. it’s totally spiritual and driven by a sense of devotion, a sense of giving something good and uplifting to the listener.”
amel’s drive to stretch the expressive capabilities of music has strengthened her resolve to change what she sees as an increasingly difficult environment for young people in search of a direction. “as a people, we have overcome so many injustices and yet still be so artistically prolific,” she says. “we owe it to ourselves, and most importantly to our kids, to start taking responsibility so that they’re aware of how much overall greatness and depth they come from and are capable of.”
“that’s also why i chose infinite possibilities as the title. i have to remind myself about what i’m here to do…i know that i only want to bring inspiration and love and good things to other people, and it’s just now that i’m starting to learn who i am. so infinite possibilities is for me to remind myself: you’ve got to live what you write.”
and with that, amel larrieux laughs almost self-consciously–perhaps at the realization of yet another truth she’s learned along the way.