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Esperanza Spalding on Creativity, Inspiration and Hip Hop

Twenty-seven-year-old Grammy award winner Esperanza Spalding is not only an amazing vocalist and musician, but also an inspiring public speaker. After a recent performance, she sat down to share some of her thoughts on music. Here are a few gems from that talk.
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Twenty-seven-year-old Grammy award winner Esperanza Spalding is not only an amazing vocalist and musician, but also an inspiring public speaker. In support of her latest album, Radio Music Society, Spalding will be going on a world tour and she decided to gift a special group of fans and friends with an hour and a half long dress rehearsal at the Florence Gould Hall Theater in New York. Spalding is a passionate and accomplished musician and that was evident in how easily her lithe arms commanded the upright bass and how confidently her fingers strummed her latest instrument, the electric bass, in a way that rockstars would envy. Her long gown, delicate shoulders and voluminous afro all kept in time to the rhythms spun by Spalding and her 11 bandmates.

After an amazing performance that garnered a well-deserved standing ovation, Spalding spent 30 minutes answering questions about her craft, her process and creativity in general. Spalding also talked about her philanthropic efforts. Five dollars from each album sale goes to a human rights organization called Free the Slaves and on Earth Day, the young artist debuted a special sand animation video which is in support of the Amazon Aid Foundation. Her endearing almost shy laugh was sprinkled throughout the conversation as she spoke from a chair on stage. The talk, which with the addition of a projector and a few slides could have been a TED Talk, was a real treat--especially for the artists in the audience.

Here are just of a few of the gems Spalding bestowed upon her fans:

Translating an idea/emotion into a song:
"Some aspect of nature is trying to talk to us busybody human beings and we're not listening. The ideas for the songs are pure emotion that is diffused enough that so many people can connect to it on different levels and add their own storyline to it."

Learning from failure:
"Failure is where you have to get really creative. It's easy to do what you know. You start getting really creative when you have to start digging into things that you're terrible at. The process of growing is a process of constantly being uncomfortable.

"The reason I put electric bass in this project is because that's not my strength yet. I make mistakes and I learn from them. Failure is everything. One of the most valuable things I learned recently is that being an artist is not about being comfortable. What it really is about is gaining more awareness of what's out there and what's possible. As soon as you have enough of a foundation of what you know, you stand on that and reach for the next phase. So if you're a totally uncomfortable, miserable artist, that's great."

Courting inspiration:
"You have to stay on it. Keep working ion it. Steven Pressfield says that when you sit down to create, you feel like you're walking into the pitch black woods and it feels scary. You don't know what to do next. He says all you have to do is take that first step and the next step and then you keep you keep doing that, the muse alights on your shoulder to light the way. It might sound woo woo, but basically that's what happens, no matter how obscure or vast it seems, you just keep stepping into it."

Turning an idea into art:

"In the moment, the act of creativity seems miraculous because you have this amazing database of material. It's just so vast that you don't know how to express that moment. You can't intellectually know because it's so intuitive. The idea comes as intuition in this diffused image, so you're looking for the pieces that will make it real, but the only thing I can say is 'stay on it.'"

Appreciating the creative process:
"My hard drive crashed recently and I had years worth of compositions, ideas, sketches, fragments, and audio fragments. I lost it all. But you know what's crazy? It still counts. The process happened, so that got me somewhere. The creative process still counts."

Working with Q-Tip and other hip hop artists:
"It was great working with Q-Tip and I'm definitely interested in collaborating with anybody when there's something to be created. I would love to find a way to instrumentally bring out the beauty of the craft of hip hop. I think it gets lost a lot. The craft is incredible. What jazz musicans do instrumentally with the language of sonic, non-verbal sounds, hip hop artists do with poetry. Totally unbelievable.

"There's a TED Talk of a cat scan of a jazz musician improvising and an mc freestyling. The same areas of the brain light up, but in the MC's brain, the visual cortex also lights up. It's almost like not having the instrument allows something else to kick in. There's a stigma that MCs aren't musically educated, but you just can't equate hip hop to other music forms in that way."