The Creative Genius Behind India.Arie’s Rise: An Interview with Anasa Troutman
19 Jul 2015
Anasa Troutman is a powerhouse in the music industry—an industry that’s always been about selling the next record, not necessarily promoting positive messages. A nonconformist, Anasa bucked convention to create a place for music that championed love in a space where songs about sex, money and drugs dominated the airwaves. After crashing and burning in a career she was passionate about, she gave it all up to move in a completely different direction. Disillusioned, she never planned to return again. That was, until India.Arie called…
Tell us about yourself and your company.
My name is Anasa Troutman and my company is called Eloveate. It’s spelled in a nontraditional way because we seek to elevate the importance of love through art, culture and creativity.
We have our own projects, and also work with other artists to help them innovate the way they do their work so that it’s larger in scope, and deeper to align with the vision and values of a world where love is king.
What inspired you to take the route of entrepreneurship?
I don’t know that I could say I was inspired to become an entrepreneur. It’s just the way I’ve always been.
I remember having a conversation with my father as a child while we were walking through the grocery store, and he said to me, “You know the days of working for a company for 40 years are over. By the time you become an adult, the workforce will be very different. You’ll be able to have multiple careers, do multiple things, and work in multiple places; you’ll be able to do whatever you want to do.”
Because of my upbringing, I didn’t start life with the mindset of growing up and figuring out what my job was going to be, or feeling like I needed to have the right education. I was always taught that I was capable of doing whatever I wanted.
But when I saw that what I wanted to do didn’t exist, I figured, I would just make it up on my own. So it’s really my parents fault because they’ve always told me I could do whatever I want to do and I believed them. I have the most awesome parents in the world.
Why a career in the arts?
That’s also my parents’ fault. I grew up watching them merge their politics and their spirituality through culture. They’re very Pan-African: my Dad played African drums and my mother was a dancer. I was the kid who had to do Black History reports in the summertime.
My parents made sure my sister and I grew up proud of who we were—not in spite of the fact that we were Black and female, but because we were Black and female. Culture, politics, spirituality and liberation were all one conversation in my household and community. It became a part of the fabric of who I am.
Talk to us about how you’re bridging the worlds of art, culture, social justice and politics to create change.
When I was younger, I started a record label. I was in the music industry for several years before I got burnt out and realized that not everyone wanted to do the same thing I was doing in terms of using music to change the world. I came to understand that the industry was not structured to work that way. Most of it was focused on oppression and violating people.
I became disillusioned and left the industry. I quit and moved away, leaving all my clients to spend a couple of years just healing from the heartbreak of the reality of the world. (That’s funny, I never realized that until now: that I was healing from heartbreak.)
So many of us don’t realize that sometimes, you have to go through that process of heartbreak and healing in order to truly find your purpose. What was that process like for you?
It’s like being a noodle in chicken soup. When you are immersed in a particular culture, you can’t get away from it. The only way to be able to make a shift is to actually take your noodle; rinse it off; squeeze it out; and, put it in a different soup so that your noodle can absorb the nutrients and flavor of a new environment.
So I had to shut down the life that I had lived, because it was too painful. It wasn’t worth staying in that space. I moved somewhere else, met new people, did new things, and sometimes did nothing. I had to find joy in life again. I spent two years doing that. Luckily, because of the work I had done, I had money saved up and figured out how to live with very little overhead.
When I started to feel good and come out of my funk, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who had followed my work as a producer in the music industry. He told me, “You know, that thing you do for artists? I want you to do it for this guy who’s running for President.”
I was like, “No! I don’t believe in politics. I’ve never even voted before. Politics suck!”
But he was deep into politics and he was someone I trusted. He told me that the guy he wanted me to work for was different. So I agreed to meet him and flew to Oakland, CA.
The guy’s name was Dennis Kucinich—a Congressman from Ohio. He had been a Congressman in Cleveland for years and before he decided to run for President. He was the most progressive, liberal man I had ever met. And it wasn’t like he was an aspiring politician; he was a blue-collar, Midwestern, older white man who had been in politics his entire adult life.
I saw that he was an actual public servant who had a crazy progressive agenda (he proposed the U.S. government create a Department of Peace) that I’d never heard anyone in politics talk about. And I thought, “Maybe I need to take another look at this.”
His constituency at the time was mostly older, white, wealthy women. But he knew that he couldn’t be the President he wanted to be without diversifying his base. I accepted [the challenge] and it became my job to redevelop the Congressman’s marketing and messaging.
We did a hip hop tour and I took him to all these clubs around the country. It was incredible. I would take Dennis into a club and people would look him up and down, like “What is he doing here?” Then he would go up on stage and talk. By the time he was done, people would be chanting his name. And I was like, “Whoa! This is something.”
It was powerful for me to see because I realized, although I had built a record company thinking I had to depend on other people and their creativity to do the work I wanted to do—I saw that my own creativity was driving a transformative conversation. I could actually apply my thoughts about creativity and culture in a political space without having to deal with the craziness of the music industry.
That experience changed the way I saw my work. It changed the way I saw my life. It changed the way I saw my mission. It was everything. And it put me on a course over the next several years to [become more involved in politics. I learned everything I could about the process and sought out opportunities to learn more.]
At the end of it, I said, “I get it all. Now what does that mean for me? What do all these pieces add up to?”
Shortly after, I got a fellowship and was gifted three years in an incubator in Oakland to explore what I believed about the power of art and culture in a political transformative conversation.
My deep love for culture, music, and for all people came together over those years. After that fellowship, I wanted to do something [with all the knowledge I had gained]. So I thought I would just spend the rest of my life doing workshops and teaching artists how to change the world.
How did you leverage all that experience to work with India.Arie—one of the most soulful songstresses to ever grace the stage?
The first time I saw India.Arie perform, I broke down in tears halfway through the first song and I thought, “That woman is special and she has something.”
A few months later, I had a friend approach me and tell me, “My best friend is amazing. She’s a singer and she wants me to manage her. I don’t really want to, but I think you’re smart and I think you understand art, and I think you should do it.”
At that point, I had only started the label in my head and not in real life, but I said, “Sure, I’ll meet her.” He introduced me, and I was surprised to find out it was India!
That was the thing that pushed me from the idea of the record label being in my head, to now being in real life. We worked together for several years. I put out her first recorded music and took her on her first tour. The work that we did is the reason she was signed to Motown.
When I quit, and closed my company, we remained friends. Around the time I was finishing my fellowship, I learned that India was also in a transition. She had left the music industry and moved to Seattle. She, too, became disenchanted with the industry and the way she felt like she was being treated.
After some time, she realized she had never tried to do her career the way she wanted to. She figured she would give it one more try and go all out before she gave it up altogether. She called me and said, “So you know I fired everybody and I was thinking that I should try it my own way. But I don’t really know what to do and I need you to help me.”
And I told her, “l love you so much and I believe in you, and…absolutely not!” [laughs]
What made you respond that way?
My first go-round in the music industry sent me on a three-year journey to heal. I had found a way to express the things I wanted to express creatively and didn’t need the industry to fulfill my mission.
Besides, I was scared. That’s the real answer: I was scared. I remembered how hard it was the first time. I had lost so many friends and felt compromised in so many ways. People were mean.
It’s important to understand we were creating music that was different for that time. Those days, Lil’ Kim was dominating on the radio. We would go into record stores and play India’s music and they’d ask, “What is that?” And I would respond, “It’s a guitar.” Because nobody was playing real instruments. Most people were not writing the kind of songs that the artists I was working with were writing.
I had to learn how to run the label, run the management, figure out the PR, book shows, and pretty much do everything. I was a person who lived in fear and didn’t know how to accept help. I took on way more than I had to. All of those things together made that time in my life very difficult, and very painful, and very scary. And when India reached out to me to help her re-launch her career, she was actually asking me to step back into that space. I was not having it.
Do you think you had healed in terms of going through a process to find other ways to do what you loved, but then realized you hadn’t quite completed that healing because of your reaction to her request?
Absolutely yes! I didn’t even realize that until I finished the final phase of healing. I took a moment to step back and think about it and realized, “Wait a minute. I’m actually not afraid of it anymore because I’ve become a totally different person.” I had gone through so much on my spiritual journey, I felt like a different, more confident, more connected person.
So once the initial shock of her request wore off, I had to ask myself, “Why are you acting like that? First of all, this is your friend who you love and believe in, and who is asking you for support. Number two, she is the only modern artist who’s made it in the industry whose entire music catalogue is about love and healing. And number three, this is what I need to scratch that itch I’ve been having to apply all the theories I developed in my years away from music.”
So I told her that I wouldn’t say “no” but wouldn’t give her a full “yes” either. What I would do was come in for a few months, help her rebuild her team, help her create a strategic plan, and then I would politely step out and go back to the life that I had built.
Doing it that way allowed me to safely re-enter the space. I figured her team would be the one to deal with the dragons [in the industry]. I wasn’t dealing with the dragons. We worked like that for a long time. We even hired another manager to work with her. I was in the background supporting him and giving him direction.
It didn’t work because I came to understand that, just like she’s uniquely suited to be an artist I would work with, I’m uniquely suited to be the manager she would work with because of the things we both believe in.
Her greatest challenge had always been that the people she worked with were conventional wisdom industry folks. They didn’t want the same things she wanted; they wanted to sell as many records as they could.
Not to say that she didn’t want to make money, but what was more important to her was staying true to the voice of her spiritual beliefs, her value system. The album sales and the money came second. That’s rare in the music industry.
Over time, working with her again, I got to see who I had become. And even though I was in some of the same situations as before, I was no longer that scared kid. I was now a grown woman who had healed and who had confidence, and who didn’t have any scabs to pick anymore.
After that revelation, I started launching other projects. I’d had all these ideas for years, but had always been afraid to pursue them because I didn’t believe in myself. I’m now coming up with my own projects.
What is one of the greatest lessons you learned in the process of healing?
Life is full of disappointments. People have expectations and aspirations, and many times the things we want don’t happen. The way to live a happy and fulfilled life is to be courageous, and to be honest, and to be full of love at all times, because life can be very defeating if you don’t know how to get back up–or if you don’t love yourself enough to try.
You have to learn to live in this world and still be able to find hope and find joy. And then learn to be loving enough of yourself to get up again, and try again. You can always make a choice to be scared, but I’ve done that before, and it’s miserable.
I realized that if I’m going to be alive, I need to figure out a way to be happy because I’m planning on being here for a while. Most people are walking around unconscious, not knowing how to be kind to themselves.
What would you say to women who are afraid to pursue their dream because it looks impossible or unrealistic?
I would ask them how that [fear] is working for them. Those who are afraid and are stuck because of fear (and there are times that I still feel like that myself), I would ask them to consider that there’s another way to live.
And consider that the passion and the ideas you have are not there spontaneously or by accident. Consider that the dreams you have, and the desires you have, and the passions you have are there because they’re actually your destiny. They’re calling you to who you’re supposed to be. When you deny those things, you’re denying your true self and you’re living someone else’s expectations and someone else’s life. Why would you want to do that?
I spent many years running from pain and I don’t feel like running anymore. When you start to feel that discomfort (because discomfort is the only thing that ever creates change), you’ll finally be able to say enough is enough. And then, just start to try.
When I decided that I wanted to be myself, the first thing I experimented with was my hair. I changed my hair color to the color I really wanted it to be so I could see how it felt to have one little thing be an authentic expression of who I see myself as.
But you don’t have to write a manifesto. Just dip a toe into authenticity. You don’t have to dive into the sea of authenticity and self realization. Just dip a toe in! And I guarantee you that you will be rewarded because it feels so good to honor yourself that way. When you get feel that feeling, you care less about what other people think. It’s easier to get over other people’s opinions.
The other thing I want to say [about fear] is that it’s harder if you’ve already had your heart broken. The first time I started a label, I just jumped right in. I was 22 and excited and felt invincible. I had a “S” on my chest and pumped my fist in the air and said, “We’re about to do this!”
But when I was in my 30’s and was asked to be a part of it again, I said “Absolutely not!” It took me a good four years to be able to fully say that I was healed and could see this was my destiny.
Then when you get to your 40’s, something magical happens. You really stop caring what people think. And that’s where India is right now–she turns 40 this year. The best times in her career are happening now. She’s also a lot clearer and more vocal about how she wants to do things.
Her company is called Soulbirds, and we are a building an online community for those who have been touched by her music. She wrote a book called Songversations: I Am Light. It talks about her being accused of skin bleaching in 2013. The book starts out addressing those accusations, but turns into a spiritual manifesto on how to heal and not take other people’s opinions to heart; how to define your own self-worth and your own beauty, and live a truly happy life. We also launched the Soulbirds app at the Essence Music Festival where people can download the book and music for free.
The goal and the vision for the planet is that we will all be self-actualized and self-loving; because when you have those feelings about yourself, you have are less inclined to hurt other people. You understand we’re all connected.
And I know that sounds eutopic, but that’s who I am at my core and I think that, ultimately, that’s who we all are if we peel back the layers of pain, and isolation, the fear of judgement, and fear of being alone. Really what we all want is to connect with each other. And that’s the power of India’s music; it allows people the space to connect with themselves and then be able to authentically connect with other people.
That’s what we need on this planet: to acknowledge and celebrate and practice connection to one another so we can stop all this craziness and create a culture of love.
Images courtesy of Anasa Troutman/Eloveate and www.soulbird.com
Have you ever found yourself running from the very thing you were most passionate about doing? What helped you rediscover your gift?