When the topic of neo-soul – the fusion genre of ’70s soul and contemporary RnB – crops up, one imagines an afro-ed, kente-covered man, crossed-legged in a yogi position. Dwele (short for Andwele Gardner) relaxes backstage at the Jazz Café, sporting a coiffured afro, replete with a flash of grey; he is about to practice for the first time with his band for the European tour of his fifth album, Greater Than One. The Grammy-nominated Detroit singer believes he and his fellow neo-soul artists have been stereotyped “ever since the start of neo-soul”.
“I think that’s because the neo-soul artists that got the most shine, they were very very earthy,” suggested Dwele, alluding to the likes of Raphael Saadiq, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott. As noted trailblazers of the birth of neo-soul in the 1990s, they intended to be liberating, closer to lost African heritage and ethical values and away from Western ideals. Dwele said: “I do have an earthy side to me. I’d be wrong to say that I don’t. I enjoy a tea in the morning. I enjoy burning my incense and kicking back on a wicker chair. That’s cool, but I have another side to me.”
Dwele’s upbringing in the Motor City of Detroit, where a high unemployment rate plagues the home of Motown, is crucial to his identity. “I try to be a positive thing coming out of Detroit,” he said, his frame hugged by a ‘Detroit vs Everybody’ hoodie.
“People seem to be scared to come to Detroit and that’s not the Detroit I know. I love my city and I see a lot of change in the city starting from Downtown Detroit reaching out into the neighbourhoods. But they don’t like to talk about the positive things in Detroit because it’s not good for ratings.”
Dwele turned to music after his dad was fatally shot when he was ten years old. Describing his father, Dwele said: “He actually taught me a few things with music before he passed on. I felt that if I continue on with music, that was a way to keep a part of him with me and it was also a way to express myself.”
Perhaps such early experiences contributed to a certain level-headed reaction to the music industry; he avows he never pursued music for earthly pleasures. “Music was just what I did. I wasn’t doing music thinking that, I’m doing this so I can travel the world with music. Music is what I love, it’s what I needed to do.”
His childhood musical influences affected the sounds he makes today. “I was raised on the soul music, the Marvins, the Donnies, the Stevie Wonders, Hip Hop. I got into jazz at an early age too, so I would say that my style is a mixture of those three elements.”
He spent several years on the Detroit music scene before being signed, spending time at The Shelter, a club frequented by famous musicians like Eminem. When an opportunity rose to take a step forwards in his career, Dwele figured that “I’d love to do this anyway, to see if it’d mature into anything. It was the ‘right place, right time’ type of thing.”
His judgement was spot on: the talented singer-songwriter-producer and musician signed to Virgin Records in 2000 and has since been Grammy-nominated. He worked with the rapper, Common, on his Grammy-nominated single, The People, with Kanye West on his Grammy-winning “Flashing Lights” and on ‘Ye’s recent Power single. He hints that more collaborations are in the pipeline, but stays stays quiet about which artists are involved.
Despite the dramatic events of his youth, Dwele draws insight from a bourgeois upbringing, as private school boy. He remarked, “When Obama became the president, that was the first thing that popped into my mind – they have to change the text books now.”
“It was actually in the textbook that we learnt in order to be the president, one of the necessities is that you were Anglo-Saxon. So basically, you were taught as a youth, there was no way if you were black that you could be the president.”
Although he “wouldn’t call [him]self a superpolitician by any means”, Dwele has a clear perspective on the effects Obama has had on the American political landscape. He said: “I like what that meant for us. I feel like what he’s doing right now in the White House, a lot of people aren’t satisfied with it, but I don’t see how you can be satisfied with somebody who’s only had four years when the country has been run into the ground for the past eight.”
His Greater Than One album has a certain ’80s vibe – ironic, given that our interview took place on the afternoon of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Dwele sided with those who believe that hard times make good music. He said: “I feel like sadness is one of the strongest emotions. Through sadness, I think the most in-felt music comes from. In the States, the ’70s were a hard time for our people and a lot of our best music came from there.”
Unlike other artists willing to flaunt their private lives, Dwele turned quiet about the personal struggles he faced; there was “some good, some bad” over the period between his fourth album W.ants. W.orld.Women (W.W.W) and his current work, claiming that “you can find the positive in every situation”. Concluding in optimistic fashion, Dwele suggested that difficulties can “at the end of the day make you a better writer; it all gives you something to talk about”.
His opinion on British artists? Slick Rick and Adele are the first two to roll off of his lips. Dwele’s advice to young British artists is to take the independent route in 2013: “Stay diligent, find out what sets you apart from everybody else and accentuate that. You can promote yourself now, based on social media and writing. Write until the wheels fall off!”
Follow Dwele on Twitter @Therealdwele.