Ari Lennox is glammed up for her first live performance in front of a crowd in over a year. Her makeup is beat to perfection, her acrylic nails travel long enough to extend her reach a few inches and her deep blue dress and wavy hair are both giving body.
But don’t get confused. She’ll still keep it real.
“I’m taking these muthafucking shoes off,” she announces to the crowd two songs into her set. “’Cause I ain’t falling down and busting coochie.” Like Patti LaBelle, Fantasia and other Black women artists who came before her, Ari’s barefoot performance taps directly into the soul of the music.
Ari is in her element. Fans and followers know her to always keep it real. She lets her quirks fly freely, whether she’s asking her viewers if she needs to cut more lace as she puts on a new wig on Instagram Live or making a lustful, Pokemon-inspired song.
On June 15, the Washington, D.C., artist hit the stage for her first in-person performance since the beginning of the pandemic. The show was a part of Crown Royal’s Generosity Hours series, in which the brand committed to donating $100,000 to help hospitality workers in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City as the city recovers from the effects of COVID-19.
“I’ll say that it’s very therapeutic, because this is what makes me happy — singing,” she told HuffPost of her performance after the show. “And it’s been hard singing for only cameras and not people, so to see people smiling and jamming with me, it just feels so real and surreal.”
All eyes have been on the artist recently as she’s gone through one hell of a transition in the last year. Fans have taken notice of her glow-up through her health journey, style and new music, which has largely been features with other artists lately, including with Queen Naija for “Set Him Up” and Jazmine Sullivan’s “On It.” Ari’s on her grown shit.
“I feel like I’ve tapped into self-love and like doing things that make me happy. Growing up, I always wanted to be that girl at school that dressed nice every day. But I just sometimes was too depressed to do so, or things like that,” she said. She recalled an encounter on D.C.’s U Street with a person she described as “a clairvoyant” who encouraged her to wear more dresses and gowns. She said it was something that stuck with her, especially when preparing for live shows.
“It’s just been exciting turning 30 and just really tapping into that sexiness,” she said. “I’ve always been sexy, but I just always wanted to just be glamorous more often.”
Ari, who celebrated her birthday in March, said that while 30 has been full of affirmation and self-love, there’s also been low points. Her 19-year-old cousin, Houston R&B singer Jaelyn “JaeRene” Chapman, died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver in April. Ari dedicated her show that night to Chapman. She said her death has reshaped her outlook on life.
While she’s been healing and dealing with lots of change over the past year and a half, Ari has been leaning into her truth more. Sometimes her truth comes out through her music, other times it appears on her refreshingly candid Instagram Live streams. She’s decided to pick her battles wisely and focus on things that bring her joy, including uplifting those who look like her.
She often makes it a point, during her shows and on social media, to celebrate Black features — especially noses, lips and hair — that are often deemed undesirable.
“That’s sad how society can make us feel like less than. That’s just so fucking sad,” she said. “Because it’s just like, why is only a certain type of look celebrated more than another? I just don’t know why it’s such a big deal. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is that scares people from Blackness.”
Through her 2019 debut album, “Shea Butter Baby,” she’s been able to hold space for that kind of celebration. The album takes the listener through 12 tracks that echo the experiences of Black women, from relationships and situationships to moving into a new apartment.
“I wasn’t chasing anything less than who I am,” she said of making the album. “I did want to create a space where Black women feel seen, feel heard or where they can just be free and be safe in it — and work through their traumas and things like that. So yeah, that’s why I want to really take my time with the second album because I don’t want to just produce some weak ass, soulless shit.”
Though she hasn’t announced a date for her forthcoming album, she plans to continue to stay true to herself and her sound. She said she’s felt pressure to make music that’s “of today,” referring to what’s trending.
“I want to stay authentic to me. I want to keep neo-soul alive in my albums. I want to be as proud of my music as I’m sure D’Angelo was proud of his music and Erykah Badu and Tweet. They never folded. Ever. I want to just always neo-soul to the core,” she said. “I don’t want to run from that, run from what inspired me to create that. So yeah, that’s what I want to be able to say, like, ‘She’s an authentic Black girl that never folded.’”