The belief or even assertion by many artists that their job is to speak to the times in which they live is being vehemently backed up and on display these days. Needless to say, there is much to say, challenge and chronicle in the face of the grand adversity 2020 has unearthed or unmasked, as is the case with the habitual racial injustice and heinous killings experienced by people of color in America. What artists have produced has taken on many forms – rage, sorrow, frustration, confusion and more. When accomplished vocalist and songwriter Marlon Saunders was last interviewed here in 2016, his track, “The People Are Ready To Dance Again,” in true artist form, was a much needed lift of spirits and hope in response to the abundance of “hate, anger and fear” that he then maintained lives amongst us. It was also an astute suggestion to get your good times in especially since the track dropped Nov. 10th 2016, the day after the presidential election. Let that marinate for a moment.
Saunders has returned again, reflecting times that unfortunately haven’t changed much for the better or for many at all, with the haunting track, “Dark Day.” Far from the jubilant groove of “The People Are Ready To Dance Again,” “Dark Day” is a true, soul-stirring, and stark rendering of what’s happening to black lives at the hands of racial hatred and discrimination, helmed by Saunders with an assembly of voices capable of evoking church-like fervor.
So grave a place our society is in by Saunders account that he poignantly submits in the track, “Wonder if Jesus sang the blues.” As he explains in the release for the track, “The idea of Jesus singing the blues, for me is a very powerful image. It allows the mind to imagine Jesus having a dark hue that is not European. The senseless killings of black bodies, hoping conversations could be shared with the idea of honoring life…all black lives.”
In the wake of recent tragedies – those that serve as reminders of the change that is overdue – the protests, outcry and conversations suggests awareness is heightened and change will begin. We’ll see. However, It’s good to know those like Marlon Saunders are on the job continuing to shine light on the need. B.C.
It’s been several years since singer/songwriter Marlon Saunders was featured here on ISPYSOUL, first as part of the soulful, eclectic clique, JAZZHOLE and upon the release of his acclaimed and successful solo debut project, Enter My Mind. As solo artist and as part of Jazzhole he was a solid contributor to the then burgeoning and vibrant independent soul movement. By that time Saunders had also already become an established session and touring vocalist with an equally impressive resume that boasted the likes of Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Sting, Barry White, and Lauryn Hill to name a few. Add to that being tabbed to be a part of the imaginative vocal ensemble Voicestra created by the phenomenal vocal genius, Bobby McFerrin and it was clear Marlon Saunders was becoming a fixture on the music scene one way or another.
So flash to present day and imagine the delight when wind and then the eventual release of a new song and video from Saunders called The People Are Ready To Dance Againemerged. The funky, soulful, joy-inducing jewel is an ironic, and timely assertion in the aftermath of one of the most contentious, volatile, pivotal and downright craziest presidential elections in our country’s history. As Saunders explains at the top of the video, the song was already inspired by the challenging times many face around the world – The recognition of the “hate, anger and fear” that lives amongst us and the need for something to “shift our thinking, shift our minds, shift our spirits and lift us up.” But Saunders himself didn’t know it would serve as an even greater clarion call to many once the results were in.
“It’s funny,” says Saunders, “because when I was going back and forth with the team about when to release The People Are Ready To Dance Again. In my mind, I wanted to release it on November 1st and Adolfus Amissah, who did the video, had to go out of town and he said ‘you know brother Marlon, I’m not going to be able to get it back to you by the 1st’ and I was mmm, I really want it on this date,” Saunders laughs. “So he said, what about the 6th and I said nah, it’s too close to the election. People aren’t going to be paying attention to something then, you know? And then I just kind of backed away and meditated on it and thought and it kind of came through and the spirit was like, the 10th, and I called up the people and I said, it’s gotta come out on the 10th because either way we’re going to need to dance! You know the spirit just had its way in the end.” Needless to say, as daunting as the future may seem to many, the song, video and Saunders’ performance in it will, if only for a few minutes, make a great case for you dancing the angst away. And by the response he’s received it’s doing just that. “I have to tell you, from the very first day, even up until now, the emails, the texts, the phone calls, the responses and the sharing of it online has blown my mind,” says Saunders. “People saying ‘I was in despair, someone shared the song with me. It lifted me up, thank you so much.’ That’s a blessing in itself.”
The release of The People Are Ready to Dance Again may seem like a return to the scene for many familiar with Marlon Saunders, but in the immortal words of hip-hop legend LL Cool J, “Don’t call it a comeback” because he has indeed been doing impressive things on the scene over the years. His voice has and continues to be heard on stage, the small and big screens as he continues to get steady session and touring calls from an array of top shelf artists and media entities. Saunders also appears in the hit Disney film, Enchanted singing opposite actress Amy Adams the Academy Award-nominated song, “That’s How You Know.”
His emergence as an experienced and successful vocal contractor and conductor no doubt bolstered by his work with Voicestra, as co-founder of soul/jazz vocal ensemble Sepia, and being a veteran vocal instructor, have lead to major looks with artists like vocalist Sam Smith and the dream opportunity for many artists, touring with the incomparable Stevie Wonder for his recent legendary, Songs In the Key of Life tour, an experience he simply and aptly calls “the icing on the cake.”
There were chance encounters with the renowned artist over the years – a time while Saunders was working with Sting and Wonder showed up at the session – and a time in passing when he was part of a tribute to Wonder some years later. But he had no idea he’d later, actually have the chance to work with him by way of a referral from a colleague and the key, preparation. “I was originally called just to contract for the New York gig,” recalls Saunders. “We got up there [in sound check] and Greg Phillinganes, the musical director was like, ‘You need us to go over the parts?’ and I said no we got em, because before we went I made sure we rehearsed and had everything together. And he [Phillinganes] goes. ‘You don’t need us to go over it?’ And I said, nope. ‘What about the lyrics, you’ve got that?’ No we’re good, I said. And so we started and the moment we started Stevie raises his hands and goes ‘Okay, that’s great.’ So then I got the call the next day and they invited me to join the tour.” Says Saunders of the opportunity, “You kind of just look up and say God, God, God, thank you. It was just a blessing. You know one of those things that just, everything works out as it’s supposed to work out. And working with him and having him trust me, was just phenomenal. Just to be able to spend time with him and to be able to reach back and help young artists that are coming in as well as some of my peers, being able to pull them into the gig and to tour and to share that time and to create a family from that. That’s a blessing. That’s really, really a blessing.” And he adds, almost needless to say, “And to watch the master at work.”
That experience as much as all the others throughout his career are the kind that have enabled him to do something he always desires, which is to not only grow at his craft, but to also mentor and share his experience with young artists coming on the scene. “If it’s space in the place that may be new, where I feel that I can learn from that opportunity that’s always a good thing,” says Saunders. “When I got the call to work with Sam Smith that was an amazing opportunity for me to contract it, but what it did was it allowed me to hire young singers that were coming into New York and allowed them to be a part of something that just kind of started from the ground up when he [Smith] came into New York and watch him take off. Then they were connected to that and from that be able to get into the music business and then move, which is a great thing to be a part of. And to be mentoring them the same way that Tawatha Agee, Fonzi Thorton, and Darryl Tookes, all of them mentored me when I came into the industry. Now it’s time for me to do the same.”
And creatively, the approach has stayed the same over the years. “When I’m working on something, particularly when it’s for me, I just have to be motivated from the things that kind of resonate with me. And for me, that sits within that soul context. That soul context for me is just kind of there. You know, I love the music, I love the references, I love being able to interweave that with some jazz influences and of course, gospel influences. Then on top of that I always want to be able to or I try to at least, give the lyrics some type of message of hope or some type of message of an experience.”He continues, “I love the idea of being an artist. And being able to celebrate that experience without any other reason except that it’s an experience that’s beautiful and wonderful and needs to be celebrated.”
When asking Saunders of a moment in his impressive career that stands out thus far he points to one that caught him quite off guard while at the same time revealing a desire had unknowingly been achieved. “A lot of times you’re putting the music out and you’re trying to hustle and your hope is it’s reaching people,” says Saunders. “I remember I was actually in New York and a girl came up to me and said, ‘You know what? I listened to “Inspiration” [from Enter My Mind] and it saved my life’ and I just thought, wow. Wow. It stopped me and made me think, like wow, people really do listen and people are paying attention and people are connecting and that was really just magical.”
Now that’s he’s got the solo artist hat back on Saunders will be following up The People are Ready To Dance Again with another song he’s planning to release in the new year that celebrates soul music and will, he hopes work toward convincing folks that “soul music and black music is not dead. Is not gone. It’s still here.” And as for this past election and the times ahead? Saunders believes it will and should awaken all people, but artists in particular. “What I’m hoping is this will be the impetus that will allow us to really, really, really create music that speaks for what we’re seeing, what we’re being a part of. This is a great time for us to really have some social meaning and bring about messages so people can have hope.” Marlon Saunders is indeed dancing again. Are you ready to join him?
copyright ISPYSOUL 2016
Learn more about Marlon Saunders, his music and the other projects he’s a part of go to Marlon Saunders.com