This afternoon I have the honor and privilege of speaking with one of my inspirations, the founder of my favorite band, blog and tweets: ?uestlove. I’m interviewing him for a musical and scholarly project I’m working on called Freedom Suite. Freedom Suite is a jazz and hip-hop mixtape from my band, The Beast and jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, hosted by Grammy-winner 9th Wonder. It features a ton of progressive musicians including, Suede (of Camp Lo), Rapsody, YahZarah, Applejuice Kid and Kooley High, as well as inter-generational dialogue between jazz and hip-hop musicians including: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Gil Scott Heron and (smile) ?uestlove. The story behind how I became acquainted with Minister Love is almost as interesting as the project itself. Check out this article I wrote for the News and Observer, describing the unforgettable weekend that culminated in meeting one of my heroes. It’s called, One Incredible Weekend. Enjoy:
I will never forget Earth Day weekend 2010. It was an action-packed, music-filled, family affair where I went from being center stage at a music festival in rural North Carolina to being backstage at a Roots concert on the National Mall.
It all started Friday at the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance outside Pittsboro. Shakori is always a great time. You can’t go wrong with four consecutive days of listening to more than 50 bands on 75 acres of rolling hills and grassy meadows.
This year’s festival was particularly special for me because my wife, Kathryn, brought our son, Justice, and our 15-day-old daughter, Stella, to see my band, The Beast, perform. After an exhilarating (and exhausting) one and a half hour performance, I devoured a plate of delicious organic vegetarian lasagna and a Nutella-and-strawberry crepe before heading over to the dance tent, where 12-piece salsa super-group Orquesta Gardel was entertaining a crowd of hundreds of hippy salsa dancers.
Six songs into their set, lead singer Nelson Delgado invited me on stage to debut a new arrangement of our bilingual hip-hop/salsa anthem, “Translation.” Composer Eric Hirsh (who is the pianist for both The Beast and Orquesta Gardel) had written a high-octane extended arrangement of “Translation” specifically for Shakori, which allowed for more interplay between me and the Gardel vocalists. It was a remarkable performance and easily one of the best Shakori Hills experiences I’ve ever had. After Gardel’s set I headed home for some much-needed rest. The weekend hadn’t even started yet.
On Saturday, I joined The Beast again for an incredible performance at the North Carolina Museum of Art. It was their grand reopening and there were a ton of people who came out. We played a fun 45-minute set in front of friends and family. My dad brought Justice to come see the show. It was great to see him dancing to my music among a diverse, multi-generational crowd of enthusiastic North Carolinians.
I had intended to return to Shakori Hills on Saturday night to catch some amazing bands including Durham’s Hammer No More The Fingers, Raleigh’s Inflowential and Bela Fleck, but fate had other plans for me. You see, earlier that day I had received a text message from a cool old-soul named Richard. Rich is the manager of my favorite band, The Roots. He informed me that I would be joining him on the steps of the White House in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day with the legendary Roots crew. So I left the North Carolina Museum of Art, ran home, showered, changed, packed, kissed the wife and kids and jumped on 85 North.
I arrived in Baltimore at my sister, Maya Freelon Asante, and her husband MK Asante Jr.’s house just before midnight, crashed, and hit the National Mall around 9:30 a.m. the following morning. I linked up with Rich around 11 a.m., at which point he hit me with the look of a lifetime: a backstage pass. Yeeeeees!
Rich walked me to the Roots’ lavish tour bus where we talked black music, culture and politics, and he introduced me to the band. I spent the entire day hanging out with The Roots while they rehearsed with Joss Stone, John Legend and Sting. I was eating cheese burgers two feet away from Jesse Jackson and James Cameron. And I got to stand on stage and watch in awe as the legendary Roots crew captivated a crowd of thousands of Earth Day fanatics. Over the course of the day, I ran into several friends that I hadn’t seen in years and established new friendships, most notably with Rich and with Ahmir – the drummer/co-founder of Roots, better known as ?uestlove.
The excitement continued after the concert, as I returned to Baltimore to kick it with my beloved siblings. There was much to celebrate in the Asante household. Maya had been in Madagascar for the previous two weeks, installing her brilliant artwork in the U.S. embassy there. That week, MK received word that he, at 28 years old, had earned tenure from Morgan State University. Meanwhile, I hadn’t seen either of them since their niece Stella was born. So we exchanged stories and congratulations over take-out Vietnamese and a bottle of drank.
Monday morning MK and I hit the basketball court before I jumped on the road back to North Carolina. It was the perfect end to one incredible weekend.
Look out for Freedom Suite this fall. We just tracked rhythm section last week. It’s going to be an incredible project.