“I’m not gonna sit around and waste my precious divine energy trying to explain and be ashamed of things you think are wrong with me.”
Without having to arrive in an egg, without having to don Betty Rubble’s Flinstonesque leopard print costume, and without having to shake her as$, Esperanza Spalding stunned most of America and nabbed the Grammy on Sunday night for Best New Artist.
In March 2009, thanks to my grrrl Laini who at the time worked at The Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, I had a ticket to see Esperanza Spalding up close, live and in person and so I’m proud to say I’m not one of the stunned. It’s hilarious (and sad) to see how many folk this week are asking, ‘Who is Esperanza’ because I had been hearing so much about this ingenue from Portland, Oregon even way back then. So to answer the question, not only have I heard of her, but I got my wig blown back by homegirl two years ago!
And let’s not get it twisted it’s not like Esperanza has been holed up in some cave with her bass and a jar of Afro-Sheen. She’s performed for President Barack Obama, twice, once in the White House and also at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. She was asked by Prince himself to perform as part of BET’s tribute to him just last year and later opened for him while he was on tour. The 26-year old Afro-Latina was even featured in a Banana Republic ad, but I guess Black girls with big afros in knee-length knit dresses don’t get the shine that green-eyed Russian girls in nylon bikinis seem to swim in!
I remember. From her first take, Esperanza had the sold-out multi-generational audience locked-in her cross-hairs and we just swayed mesmerized by it all. She was accompanied by a 3-piece band and scatted like Ella Fitzgerald except her riffs were sunnier and her shifts crisper like she hadn’t yet gone through the muck and hurt that had shaped Ella’s vocals. I was even moved to scribble some notes down that night. I wrote: Esperanza is to jazz what Mos Def is to hiphop and Amel Larrieux is to R&B– they offer effervescence to the dense soulful mix. Her spin is energetic, ethereal and easy breezy.
And did I mention that when she plays the bass, which towers over her petite frame, her whole body moves in exhortation. Her hips sway from side to side, her fingers work the strings like strippers work the pole all awhile her feet are steppin’ a serious salsa formation. This is especially true when she plays “Cuerpo Y Alma” and “Precious.” And yo, Beliebers, you better thank your Gleeked-out prepubescent booties Ranza didn’t get on stage Sunday night and do her interpretation of “Wild As The Wind” cuz y’all woulda been shook right into maturity. With her body slumped over her bass like a washer from back in the day over her washboard, Esperanza closed her eyes and started playing and singing. Her body was a rod of current that would at moments erupt and burst into snaps of notes that sizzled with electricity. She had me. By the time she started spitting in Portugese with her spirited rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Zingaro,” I recognized that I was witnessing a superstar in the making.
So who is Esperanza? She is a wake-up call to mainstream successful artists that think they have it all in the bag because 106th & Park and MTV don’t ever stop playing their videos. She’s an infusion of hope and determination to jazz heads and independent music artists struggling to get their music out to wider audiences. With Q-Tip producing her next record Esperanza is on track to being a best kept secret that everyone will know. If you don’t know, now you know. Check her out at The White House: