A lot of eyes in the black community will be on this Sunday’s 90th Academy Awards. Thanks to films Get Out and Mudbound, several black folks are in the running for a coveted Oscar on the movie industry’s biggest night.
One such nominee is the song “Mighty River” from the Mudbound soundtrack, which is up for best original song. It’s performed by Mary J. Blige (who is also nominated for best supporting actress—there’s no hateration in this here dancery), which means that it is entirely possible that she could land on the stage and do that Mary dance where she steps in staccato and does her hand wave on the way to the podium. This needs to be a thing.
What the nomination of “Mighty River” also means is that Raphael Saadiq—who, for my money, is the most underappreciated R&B artist of all time—is now an Oscar-nominated musician. As the composer and co-writer of the song, Saadiq could possibly knock out a Mary dance of his own should “Mighty River” win.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to the most famous of the Tonys about his career, the Oscar nomination, what he listens to when running and how he manages to show up in all the spaces the bougie black folks are congregating in.
(Also, he read the article about being underappreciated and knew it was me who wrote it. I can’t stress enough how awesome it is when people you’re fans of read the things you write about them, remember them and talk to you about them. Mama, I made it.)
[Editor’s note: The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.]
On whether he gets excited at being nominated for awards and accolades like the ones he’s getting for “Mighty River”:
Some of them, though I’m grateful for anything. It’s cool to be honored, but I like to keep my head down and enjoy my life, and if honors come my way, then I appreciate them.
I’m such a fan of music and not feeling bitter of getting the accolades. I know how good I am. My peers know how good I am. Honored that anybody would listen to me, so there’s no peer pressure to be great for the sake of my legacy.
On never being boxed in musically and managing to be involved in so many recent projects that have caught on with the black community, like Insecure and Underground:
I’ve always stayed a fan of music and act like the last project never happened. It allows me to take chances. To stay fresh and pick music for Insecure, for example, I keep my ears to the street. Again, I’m a fan of music. You know, we toured with N.W.A back in the day as a band, and I used to talk to and hang with those guys. [Ice] Cube told me back then that he was going to do movies. We’ve done it all.
On Instant Vintage, one of the best R&B albums ever released, and “Ask of You” as one of the most representative songs of the ’90s:
With Instant Vintage, you know, I never wanted to be a singer. I was always the bass player, never the lead singer. I wasn’t scared to be in the front, but it seemed like a lot of work. I learned that from being in gospel choirs and quartets and my experience watching people. I was trying real hard to not be a solo act. For instance, I left the Tonys when I did “Just Me and You”; it was my first solo record, though the label required it to be credited as Tony! Toni! Toné!
But in order to keep making music I had to do a solo record. I was in a lonely place, never having done a solo record, and wondered how people would take me and the music. I wondered if I’d be successful or if the critics would tell me I needed to go back to the group. When I did “Ask of You” for Higher Learning, I required that they use my name. Basically, Instant Vintage was me making my Here, My Dear [Marvin Gaye] record.
On Lucy Pearl, another classic, and the use of Hunstville, Ala., HBCU Alabama A&M University’s band on the record and whether he attended and met Dawn Robinson there:
[Laughs.] That was a joke. I never went there. One of the folks in the band did and he was the connection so we brought the band in for the album.
On working with Solange on A Seat at the Table and if they knew they had a pivotal album on their hands:
We knew A Seat at the Table was special, but we didn’t know it was gonna hit people until it got out. Solange was so into editing and producing. You know, you don’t have to try to be hot, just try to be good and that becomes great, then becomes legendary. It’s OK to think about being good. If you’re good, it reaches people, and that album became a vessel for folks who have day jobs and work and are trying to figure out life.
Oh man, I listen to old school, to new school. Artists like Chocolate Milk. Neil Young to Al Green. And Minnie Riperton. I love Kamasi Washington, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne. I love hip-hop. Like [Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s] “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).” When I was a kid I wanted to be a kid who played at the fire hydrants in New York, like in Harlem. I loved brownstones. Songs like “They Reminisce” remind me of brownstones and the feel of hip-hop. I run to Wu-Tang. [Laughs.] My favorite artists are Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo.
I’m working on a new album. I recently changed management, so hopefully I’ll have an album out by the end of this year. It will feature lots of styles. I’m leaning more toward a heavy bass-line album, so it will be a more fun record.