Jon Batiste on His New Record and Growing Up Alongside Lil Wayne in New Orleans

A conversation with the Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and bandleader on the occasion of his latest album, World Music Radio.

Jon Batiste on His New Record and Growing Up Alongside Lil Wayne in New Orleans

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Jon Batiste makes everything seem effortless. The singer, pianist, and bandleader of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has a great and ingenuous smile, dresses beautifully, comes from a family that is musical royalty in New Orleans, plays several different instruments, and could charm the stink off a skunk. He’s even made the melodica seem cool.

But as Batiste explains, the long list of accolades—which include being named one of Time’s Most Influential People, five Grammy wins, and hosting and performing at President Joe Biden’s first state dinner—were the culmination of a long-term struggle and, repeatedly, his greatest successes have been paired with grave troubles. “If you look at my journey, it’s an insult to call it a rollercoaster,” he says. “It’s more than that.”

The same week he was nominated for 11 Grammys in November 2021, his partner, the journalist and New York Times best-selling author Suleika Jaouad, was diagnosed with a second bout of leukemia. They married three months later but didn’t honeymoon, because she had a bone marrow transplant the next day. The day after Batiste won a historic Album of the Year Grammy for We Are in April 2022, Jaouad went back into Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and he spent three weeks sleeping on a hospital couch.

She’s currently cancer-free, Batiste says, but he also makes it clear that there’s still plenty to struggle with. “It hasn’t stopped,” he says with an easygoing laugh.

Batiste puts a lot on his shoulders, as is evident from his ambitious and sprawling new album, World Music Radio, which attempts nothing less than the peaceful coalition of a United Nations of different musical styles. The album, which is narrated by Batiste in the fictional guise of a DJ, Billy Bob Bo Bob, has lyrics in English, French, Spanish, and Korean, songs that scramble up R&B, rap, jazz, gospel, reggaeton, and country, and guest artists from Colombia, Nigeria, Iran, France, Catalonia, England, and Korea in addition to rapper Lil Wayne, singer Lana Del Rey, the Native American music group Native Soul, and smooth-sax master Kenny G. The album credits are nearly as lengthy as the crawl at the end of a Marvel movie.

Although the success of We Are made him well-known, he’d been prolific even before its release in March 2021, amassing a catalog with five albums, four live records, eight EPs, the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the Pixar film Soul, and a few collaborative albums. He began to conjoin a variety of styles with the 2013 album Social Music, a title that has become a kind of mantra for him, to describe his ideal of music; soulful, fun, and accessible without sacrificing its thoughtfulness.

During an unusually heavy and philosophical 50-minute phone conversation from the Brooklyn home he and Jaouad share, Batiste talked about how Pink Floyd influenced him, why he wanted Kenny G on World Music Radio, what he learned during Black Lives Matter protests, and the origin of what he calls psychosis in America.

GQ: It’s pretty common to hear New Orleans musicians liken the city’s music to a gumbo with lots of different ingredients. That’s valid, but it’s not as precise as it could be. In terms of World Music Radio, the important detail about New Orleans is that it’s a port city, right?

Jon Batiste: Totally. The port city magic is real. It’s funny, because [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon was an influence on this record, less sonically and more via the conception of portals opening up within the narrative thread of the album. I think about port cities and portals as being synonymous. And with Dark Side of the Moon, the listener has to figure out the language—how am I being guided through these different worlds, and when is a portal opening up? The whole conception of a portal is one of the things that World Music Radio utilizes to convey a narrative.

Does the portal take you to New Orleans?

There is a specific moment where it does. I’m New Orleans to my bones, so I don’t ever have to intentionally go there. The rhythms I play, the DNA of Social Music, my whole approach to live performance, all of it is informed by a strong genetic code of New Orleans in the DNA of Jon Batiste. It’s coded in.

You’re guided through the album by Billy Bob Bo Bob, my alter ego. I, Jon Batiste, am not introduced until midway through the album. There’s a song [“17th Ward Prelude”] where we go to the 17th Ward in New Orleans. It’s a prelude to “Uneasy,” a song with Lil Wayne. We grew up three minutes away from each other. He’s a little older than I am, but we basically were in the same blocks at the same time. When he was 14 and I was nine or ten, he was a global star exporting New Orleans to the rest of the world. His music was ubiquitous. Me and Trombone Shorty formed a band a few years after that, and we were listening to him and being influenced by that.

My favorite moment on the record is when Lil Wayne says, “That’s that New Orleans in me,” and right away you shift into playing rowdy barrelhouse piano, as if the words “New Orleans” sent you into a fit.

Yes, yes, yes! It’s that deep-rooted.

It’s not a conscious thing. That doesn’t mean there isn’t intentionality. The threads are so tightly woven together that if you were to theorize it retroactively, you’d be able to find these connections. That’s the gift of something being so deep within your artistic ownership—you don’t have to consciously construct it for it to be constructed.

Did the construction include a blueprint, before you began recording, of using an array of musicians from around the world?

It just happened. Discovery is always going to be greater than invention, in my book. I’m always trying to discover things in real time and understand what the thing is telling me.

But going into it, I wanted to make something that reflected the state of pop music the way I saw it. There were so many different ways I could go into that endeavor, and the one that was the most natural evolution of my whole vision of Social Music was to think about World Music.

It’s a horrendous term! There’s this atrocious idea that, okay, you have America and Europe, and then everything outside of that is lumped together as one thing. All of Africa, all of South American and Latin America, all of Asia. Let’s put it all in a pot and call it “World Music,” and it’s “othered” times 1,000. Yet in the last ten years or more, the artists from those cultures that are “othered” with the World Music terminology are some of the most impactful and arresting popular artists in the world.

World Music was the idea that started the process. I went to Shangri-La [Rick Rubin’s iconic recording studio] in Malibu for a month and made stuff with friends of mine, and also some new friends. That led to 100-plus song ideas that led to the real foundation of the album.

When I listen to We Are, I hear the smooth and sophisticated New Orleans of Allen Toussaint, but I don’t hear the crazy New Orleans of Eddie Bo or Professor Longhair. Do you feel like on this album, you got a little closer to the “ratchet” side, as Billy Bob Bo Bob calls it, of New Orleans?

It definitely is more of a sonically ratchet record. Just when you think about those frequencies, in terms of the sub, the snare, the approach to how to make something rattle a speaker. We Are is like going to a boutique and getting something handcrafted and handmade. This record is more like you’re going into something that is a state-of-the-art design factory.

What do you hear in Kenny G’s music that his detractors don’t?

He plays so differently on this album, I must say. I haven’t heard him deal with [chord] changes and harmony in that way on any of his records. I was honored for it to be something he was willing to stretch and do.

When I was coming up as a musician, I wasn’t listening to Kenny G as much as I was listening to other saxophone artists. But in terms of World Music, I read something about him that blew my mind. In China, he’s got a song [“Going Home”] that plays at the end of every workday. There’s something about his sound that resonates deeply with different cultures around the world. That makes him a preeminent candidate for an album that is trying to challenge the definition of popular music, using World Music as a prompt.

What is it about his music that makes it resonate with non-Western cultures?

He’s committed to it, the same as when you hear Professor Longhair play “Big Chief.” Kenny believes in what he’s playing. Other artists who play that way might be dumbing it down or doing something disingenuous. That’s not the case with Kenny. Also, I’m casting a movie with this album, and there are moments when I need to cast someone who moves the story forward. It has to be someone who is believable in the role.

In “Be Who You Are,” you sing about having love for everyone, including Republicans, you specify. In Romans 12:9, it says “Hate what is evil, cling to what is good.” Isn’t it okay to hate Republicans?

We can have ideological debates, and within that context you may discover that oh, the person who says they love everyone doesn’t agree with the toxic ideologies of certain political parties.

And for me, that shouldn’t void the baseline of love that I have for humanity. That shouldn’t cancel out my ability to love my neighbor, which is also a part of the New Testament. If I can’t discuss that and disagree with you but still love you, then I’m losing an element of my humanity.

If I can’t fight with you tooth and nail about the future of this country, fight with you about what’s best for us collectively, and also have love for you, there’s a problem. There’s a moral fabric that’s missing, if we’re fighting against people we don’t care about.

You also sing “I’ma fill them shoes” in “Be Who You Are.” Whose shoes?

The shoes that we’ve been talking about! When you study the great philosophers and thinkers, there’s almost a double track of two arcs that their legacy tends to curve towards. There’s the present tense, the issues of a time and a place, and then there are the more spiritual points of views, oftentimes rooted in one of the three main religious practices. Those are big shoes to fill. [laughs]

It’s much easier to walk through life as an artist and as a leader with influence if you make things very black and white. I think you’ve got to be in the messy gray area. “I’m a fill those shoes” is a gray area, as best as I possibly can.

I think of you as a guy who has been building a platform for a while, so that he can have a louder voice. I can imagine you, after the Grammys, saying, “Wow, that’s fantastic! That’s so fulfilling! Okay, now what?”

Well, you’ve got some insight. [laughs] I feel like I need to build the environment and the scenario in which my ideas can be of best use to people. It’s not that I don’t feel honored or grateful for things I’ve been able to do, but there is something else that we’re building towards. If I could turn it off, sometimes I feel like I would, but I think that’s kind of how I’m built.

Are you building towards a political career?

I don’t really think I’ll be in politics. But what makes you say that?

Part of it is your inherent likability. You talk about a lot of thorny topics, including race, but people like you for it. That’s the sort of quality somebody could use to start a political career.

Folks in my camp have said that to me. But there is not a real opportunity, as the political sphere stands today, to have nuanced conversations. To get into a broken political system would potentially be more counterproductive than to operate outside of it.

The most public I’ve been as an activist was post-George Floyd’s killing. Being in the streets at that time and being in the middle of that conversation was eye-opening, in terms of how myopic we have become.

You were involved in a number of Black Lives Matter protests in the spring of 2020. Did it open your eyes to anything else?

It opened my eyes to this fact: the reason we collectively aren’t reaching our full potential is because we have yet to accept the original sins of this country at its founding. It’s the truth. If we don’t accept the origin of a lot of where our trauma and psychosis is coming from, then the issues we’re trying to solve in the present tense will just be surface bandages to deep wounds. Being out in that environment was a very visceral realization of what the state of our collective trauma has led us to, and what phase we are in, in terms of accepting that in order to then overcome it.

Let’s talk about that original sin. Here’s why I feel a sense of despair, in terms of race. There are people in this country who want to talk about race and white privilege. Then there are people who, as soon as you start talking about race, say, “Why do you have to make everything about skin color? It’s divisive.” We’ve barely even started the conversation, and there are people who want to end it.

Yes, absolutely. And not to harp on it, but just the idea of radical love as a conversation starter, a way to coexist in fierce disagreement… We disagree on 99% of everything. The one percent we agree on, let’s love each other through that and negotiate the rest of the 99%. The ability to do that takes such hypersensitivity and emotional radar, so much attunement to so many things at once. I don’t think we have become capable of understanding what I’m saying when I say “radical love.” ‘Cause it’s not what you think it means.

So what is radical love?

Well, which definition?

Your definition.

My definition of it comes from my faith as a Christian. But also, the reason I asked you which version of it is because I’ve learned from so many of the great practitioners of radical love outside of Christianity, like the incredible mystic traditions from the perspective of Buddhist enlightenment. The range of what exists in the literature of this is deep. People have dedicated their lives to excavating the meaning of how to walk in this way.

People just look at the aspirational aspect of radical love and look at the faith practice of it, and how toxic and poisonous certain communities of faith have been. We’re in the same sort of spiral. It’s a feedback loop of skepticism, hatred, disbelief, and disenchantment with any sort of idea other than one that leads to a clear metric, which is most commonly monetary.

So if that’s the alternative, then I’m choosing radical love. If you get deeper into it, it’s actually impactful, if you pair it with a deep level of intelligence and you have wisdom. You’re not just wishing upon a star. Who wants to live like Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi? That’s some big shoes to fill.

From a distance, it looks like you have the world on a string. What are the impediments in your life?

Well, so much of life is internal, speaking about radical love and self-love, and the idea of those being synonymous. Outward success does nothing to the internal world of an individual.

Internally, there have been a lot of things I’ve had to overcome. When I’m creating and decidedly not accepting the external definition of success, you realize wow, what matters to me most is this wild journey I’ve been on.

I left my family in New Orleans at 17 and came to New York, in a situation where I was pretty alone. I had a belief about myself that most people who met me didn’t see. It’s an athletic feat of life, for someone to see you and not see the thing that you see in yourself. It can make you not believe in yourself. There’s a disbelief I saw in my early years—and also in recent years. [laughs] I have a lot of incredible opportunity and privilege, but I’m also dealing with the same stuff everybody is dealing with.

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