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Raheem DeVaughn: Socially Conscious Soul

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Raheem DeVaughn: Socially Conscious Soul

Raheem DeVaughn: Socially Conscious Soul

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GUY RAZ, host:

Here in Washington, D.C., the U Street Corridor, about a mile or so from the White House, was once known as the black Broadway. The clubs that lined the streets hosted names like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and D.C. native Duke Ellington.

Now, these days, U Street is still a center of nightlife in the city, and on Friday and Saturday nights, live music flows out of packed clubs and bars on that street.

And it's there where R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn got his start.

(Soundbite of song, "The Greatness")

Mr. RAHEEM DEVAUGHN (Musician): (Singing) You got a twinkle in your eyes. Baby, if you like to fly, yeah, no straightness, it's your greatness. You got a smile that shines like the sun, so baby don't let no one never steal your greatness, your greatness.

RAZ: This track is called "The Greatness." It's off Raheem DeVaughn's new record titled "Love and War Masterpeace" - and that's peace as in world peace. Critics have compared his voice to Marvin Gaye's, and if you hear this record, the parallels become even sharper. This album deals with themes of inner city violence, war, unemployment, and, yes, even love.

Raheem DeVaughn is here in the studio with me. So glad to have you.

Mr. DEVAUGHN: Thank you. How you doing?

RAZ: I'm doing great. Talk to me about the concept behind this record. I mean, I should describe that it's two discs actually. I have it in front of me here. One of the discs is called The Love Side and the other is called The War Side.

Mr. DEVAUGHN: Mm-hmm. "The Love and War Masterpeace" is just that. I feel like we're all in a place internally where we're trying to master our own peace. You know, right now, our country, we're in a state where you might go to work and come home without a job. The school systems, like, everything's kind of pretty crazy right now, you know? I just wanted to make a record that captured the moments, you know what I mean? But also, it's uplifting at the same time.

RAZ: And in a few moments, I want to ask you about R and B and sort of tackling political themes. Because R&B, you know, we often think about R&B and love and romance, but there's a track on this record that is really very much part of this sort of theme you're exploring. It's called "Bulletproof." And this song has been compared to Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues."

(Soundbite of song, "Bulletproof")

Mr. DEVAUGHN: (Singing) Some will die over oil, kill over land, charge you for taxes, and blame Uncle Sam, read you your rights and charge you for nothing, now, who's really gangsta, and tell me who's frontin'? Murder your sons, ravage your daughters, here, overseas and across those waters. Tanks and missiles, bombs and grenades, inject your land with guns and AIDS...

RAZ: The lyrics are really heavy in this song: Murder your sons, ravage your daughters, here, overseas and across the waters. Tell me about what drew you to writing political lyrics?

Mr. DEVAUGHN: You know, I feel like as artists and producers, bottom line we make message music. You have to determine what your message is going to be. And if you're not able to do that, then, you know, dealing with the record company, you know, major record companies, recording companies, if you're not able to define what you're going to be, they will define it for you.

RAZ: This is your city, Washington, D.C. You grew up in the suburbs outside the city. Your dad, who didn't live here - lived in New Jersey - he was a pretty successful jazz cellist, and your mom was a distinguished civil servant. She worked at the Justice Department for most of her career.

I read in an interview that you credit your interest in R&B and soul to your mom's record collection that you used to listen to when you were a kid.

Mr. DEVAUGHN: Oh, definitely - Earth Wind and Fire, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye.

RAZ: I mean, a lot of kids when you were growing up, were probably listening to hip-hop.

Mr. DEVAUGHN: Which I did too. You know, I had my NWA moments; I had my, you know, Public Enemy; I had Prince. It's pretty diverse. You know, between my mom's record collection and my father's musical background, I think it's something that was always instilled in me that I feel like deep down, it's something I wanted to do.

RAZ: And there's actually a song on this record. It's called "Superhero," and I don't think I'm wrong to say that it's an homage to your mom.

(Soundbite of song, "Superhero")

Mr. DEVAUGHN: (Singing) Mama had a car, mama overtime to put clothes on my back. Mama's son was first. She straightened me up good when I got off track. Mama risked her life, damn near died to push me out. Umpteen years later, here I stand. Look, mama's little boy done became a man...

I put it together for her for maybe, what, two years ago. It was a Mother's Day gift. For Mother's Day, all she really wanted me to do was just, like, hang out. And she said, yo, I just want you to go to church with me, you know? We'll spend a day together, go get something to eat. When we pull up to the church, church house Sunday morning, I had the CD in the car. I gave her the card. So, we're about to get out. I said, yo, you didn't open your card.

So, she opens the card. The CD's in there with a little note and everything. She pops in the CD. So, by the time, you know, she's playing the record, she starts crying. Like, by the end of the record, I'm crying, like, you know? And, you know, being an only child, it's challenging sometimes through our relationship. And also being who I am now, because it's like almost you have to, you know, give your child to the world, you know what I mean?

RAZ: I'm speaking with R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn. His new record is called "The Love and War Masterpeace" - and that's peace as in world peace.

There's something really curious and creative on this record, and every few tracks, we hear an interlude, spoken word, by Princeton Professor Cornel West.

(Soundbite of song)

Dr. CORNEL WEST (African-American Studies, Princeton University): For eight years, we've been living in a political ice age where it is fashionable to be indifferent to poor people's suffering. Indifference is the one grace that makes the very angels weep, and yes, that era is coming to a close...

RAZ: That is Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton. I think he makes about seven appearances on this album. It's a very, very cool idea. How did it come about? How did you get Cornel West to do this?

Mr. DEVAUGHN: I met Dr. West about four years ago. I look at him as a mentor and scholar, of course, and all that. But more importantly, I feel like Dr. West has an infectious spirit. I feel like he has a type of voice that when he speaks, people want to listen. It's like that E.F. Hutton commercial, you know?

And I'd heard him do some spoken word, you know, in the past, and I just thought it'd just be a cool idea. I asked him would he would be willing to come in and hear the album and hear the records. And then we started going to work. You know, he went right in, no paper, no pad. He did his, you know, straight spoke from the heart.

RAZ: Raheem DeVaughn, when some people in this building found out that you were coming in, I all of the sudden became one of the most popular people in the building because they wanted to meet you. And let's just say you carry the difficult, painful, impossible burden of being a sex symbol. And a lot of this record is classic R&B. I mean, it is about love.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. DEVAUGHN: (Singing) Baby, my body (unintelligible), we can lose control, (unintelligible). Sit back, (unintelligible) in the palm of her hands...

RAZ: So, this sounds, I mean, sort of thematically closer to what R&B tends to be about, about love, about romance. Do you think in your core it's what your sound is about as well?

Mr. DEVAUGHN: Oh, definitely. Like, I'm as much of a socially conscious brother as I am, oh, man, of the flesh at times. I mean, I enjoy making love songs. It's something to bring people together. But I'm big on substance. Once again, it's not to just make music but make tasteful music, make timeless music.

RAZ: That's R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn. He joined me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. His new album is called "The Love and War Masterpeace." It's out now.

Raheem DeVaughn, thank so much.

Mr. DEVAUGHN: Oh, thank you guys for having me. I look forward to coming back.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. DEVAUGHN: (Singing) (Unintelligible) check up for me, I need to see how I am sometimes, how I am sometimes, and I will stand up high, I will stand up high. 'Cause you're always in this heart and mind, forever to be...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

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