An interview with René Marie, the boldest, baddest face of Jazz.
interview by Richelle Kimble
This woman embodies the wholesome qualities and lore of an American leader. She’s audacious, confident and credible. She has lived through history and is influencing our future with her talent and valiance.
Behind her decisions lie adoration for herself, others, and her country. Staying true to your roots is her wish for everyone; that small integration has been tested and teased as she grew into the woman she is today. At 59 years old, she has overcame apartheid, a split family, a divorce and remarriage, has raised two boys, and launched her jazz career at the ripe age of 42, all while managing to stay true to her own tune.
Of course, being herself comes with challenges. She receives strong criticism for her valor, notably her stirring of America’s history of slavery and Southern race relations. Her decision to sing Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner at Denver’s State of the City address in 2008 triggered plenty of backlash, but she remained proud of her efforts to shine attention on bold issues in America.
Upon ending the conversation, I was appeased by her wisdom and pacified by her optimism. A spark incited within me to share her story. I hope words from this interview rouse you from life’s sometimes intrinsic slumber, as it did myself, and encourage notional thinking for higher competence.
WLM: What are your thoughts on being an American?
Rene Marie: It was being able to write that suite, The Voice of My Beautiful Country, and sing those patriotic songs in a way that reflected my own upbringing and experiences, that brought everything together for me. After singing that album many times, I feel very much at home here, very much at home.
Describe the first time you sang for an audience.
It was Halloween, and I was ten years old. I had just moved away from my hometown, and my parents were freshly divorced. I moved with my mom and my baby brother but left five other siblings and my dad behind, who was a huge musical influence. There was a Halloween party that was being held down the street. Everyone was invited, and there was a talent show. All the kids got up on the “stage” and said poetry or sang a song. I was standing in the shadows of all these other kids going up there, thinking about my dad and how much I missed him. I walked out there and to the upstairs deck. No one knew who I was. I sang, A House is Not a Home all the way through, and then I ran home. I didn’t stop for anybody to say anything to me. I couldn’t believe I had done that! I sat on the stoops of our porch, our little duplex that my mom had managed to pay for, thinking, “Oh my goodness, they were applauding. They liked me. And I sang the whole thing in key. I want to do this!” From then on, I had it in the back of my mind that singing is what I wanted to do.
What are you listening to right now?
I hardly ever listen to music. I love music, and when I hear it, I have to dance and sing to it. But in my home, I don’t listen to music. There’s always music in my head; original melody lines, sometimes an entire song of lyrics. When I listen to music, my own thoughts get blocked and pushed to the side.
Describe the meaning of your lip print tattoos.
Self-love, girl! I wanna have kisses all over my body.
I’ve been hearing older women talk about how they are ashamed of their arms, and they won’t wear anything sleeveless. I heard my mom say that about six weeks ago, and I was speechless. She’s 89, so I know what she means. But this all relates to the self-love I’m talking about. I struggle with this because I know that this culture’s view of beauty is often in the context of youth, and there’s something wrong with that. I don’t think I should have to cover up parts of my body just because I’m not a certain age and I look different than I used to.
I bought a dress for the Grammys – it’s sleeveless. But I keep hearing what people are going to say or think to themselves about my arms. And I don’t want to think about that. I just want to say, “f— you guys! I’m going to the Grammys.” I don’t want to give in to that Hollywood glamour, or whatever the hell it is that constitutes beauty. I never want to succumb or surrender to that. I want to walk on that stage and be proud of everything that brought me to that place, including my body.
Is there a story behind your hair?
I was Jehovah’s Witnesses for ten years. I wore my hair unnaturally straight during that time because I thought that was more fitting. People who wore afros were considered militants, so I straightened it to avoid that. When I left, I let it grow out naturally, and then cut it to about two inches. I kept saying I wanted to shave my head, so I did. And I liked it!
You know the story of Samson in The Bible? Well, my strength was opposite. My strength was the fact that my head was shaved. I felt like a stronger, more visible, viable life force. It sounds crazy, but I did. I felt more me.
What’s your favorite shade of lipstick?
The most blasphemous shade of red I can find (laughing). I want the heavy red!
What keeps you inspired?
I believe that each one of us is directly connected to universal energy. We have mountains within us and oceans within us. Knowing that and remembering it gives me some type of fuel that makes me break out with a smile on my face every day. I really do believe that no matter what is happening at any given time, it’s all okay. It’s more than okay. It’s exactly right. I do love life, and I believe that life loves me. It want’s to love us back. But we get so anxious about things, things that aren’t important. Like my arms showing. How trivial is that?
When you’re on the road, what’s the first thing you do when you get to the hotel?
I light my incense. We have a special brand that we burn at home. Even if it’s less for a minute when I burn it, it’s enough to remind me where my home is.
And when you come home?
Straight to my kitchen. I open the door to the refrigerator whether I’ve eaten or not. The kitchen to me is the solar plexus of the house.
What are your other talents?
I’m a champion nail biter (laughing). I can match heads with the best! I can juggle, and I’m a good storyteller. I can entertain children for days with stories. And I can tell tall tales – really crazy stuff – and I’ve gotten people to believe me. I enjoy cooking and gardening. I’m good at small landscaping.
If you could tell women one thing, what would it be?
In order to be yourself, risk everything.
I had a conversation with a young woman over the weekend that is an amazing composer and singer. She’s also a mother of a 13-year-old and three-year-old. She wants to do nothing but write and is having doubts about being a mother. The artist in me wanted to tell her, “You have to do this thing that brings you joy.” The mother in me was saying, “What about your kids!?” I believe deep, deep down, that we don’t have to desert our families if we feel that way, but we do have to nurture the thing that is burning within us; because otherwise, we desert our families anyway.
Risk whatever you have to follow the thing that lights you up. And find a way to love people in the doing of it. It doesn’t serve anything to serve small.
What’s on your bucket list?
I want to live in Italy for about three years. And I would love to see the aurora borealis. Go on a hot air balloon ride.
But as long as I stay true, I can be happy. We are all born with our own inner note, and once we are born, we really resonate with that inner note. We can see all the possibilities. But when we grow older, and try to please other people, that’s where we get off key. As long as I stay true to my inner note, I’ll be happy.
When she’s not editing for WLM and spending time with her fellow staff members, Richelle enjoys exploring, traveling, writing, reading, cooking, learning and playing.