“The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society – the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists – by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and can not allow any consideration to supercede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being.” This stirring quote by James Balwdin is one that is embodied and imbued so lovingly in Elliott’s work.
Elliott Skinner is a Brooklyn based artist out of Plano/Dallas, TX. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Elliott for about 5 years now. We first met back in 2013 during a performance with John Clayton at Berklee, way back when. He is an artist that inspires me on a daily basis, and I consider it a privilege to be his friend. He is truly someone who understands that the work he brings into the world is ultimately bigger than him, or any of us. The following questions were posed to Elliott back in March 2021, after I had moved out of NYC for about 6 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been about 6 months since I’ve last seen you/been able to give you a hug! Miss you brother! Now, my first question for you. Do you feel as if you have grown at all creatively, or even emotionally, since our last meeting?
In the past 6 months, I don’t know, I think I’ve felt a lot of ups and downs. Especially after a year like this, after there being so many unknowns and struggling to figure out how to do work in a market that doesn’t exist- it’s been hard. My main job before COVID was touring and since 2020 I’ve had to shift my focus a lot. I’ve gotten more into producing and that world has been super revealing. I love diving into and creating a sonic world. Almost feels like creating a room that doesn’t exist and what the room sounds and looks like has endless possibilities. I think getting into creating this way has definitely affected me emotionally. The past year or so I’ve felt stuck a lot. Finishing records and putting out songs felt so far into the future, but realizing I can create my own records and worlds has given me a freedom that I haven’t had before. Feels like I’m finally starting to move forward.
In what ways has that growth changed your perspectives of the world you live in?
The ability to express freely is super important to me. I think I grew up in a community or a social construct that I didn’t feel like I fit into, so to be able to express with no restrictions was always a dream for me. I think we live in a world of constructs, and as we get older we have to break apart those ideals and build our own. That reconstruction becomes our identity. How we move through those changes and those decisions define ourselves as individuals and as a society. Last year after George Floyd was killed and it seemed like the whole world was becoming aware of issues that us black people have been aware of from our birth, my emotions were all over the place. I started listening to James Baldwin talks and I found that really centered me. He talks about “the artist’s struggle for integrity” and how the artist or, in his words, ”the poet” is the only person who knows the truth about us. These ideals have always lived inside me- tryin to create music that affects people’s minds and opens their souls. I feel like now my focus has become clearer and I only want to create music and spaces that are welcoming for all people to express themselves fully- to understand themselves fully- so we can understand our societies more and take action to dismantle the constructs we’re born into and build up a new form of ideals and community that push us forward.
Do you find that being an artist is more of a responsibility than a career path?
That’s a hard question. As much as I hate “the industry” and know, for me, music making is a spiritual, sacred process, I know I also have to think like a business person. I know I have to pay rent each month. There are things that weigh on you professionally that you have to deal with, so I think it’s both. I think where the responsibility lies is where your art is coming from. If you’re making music that is compelling and relatable and true to yourself, then getting large amounts of people to listen will come in time. I think as kids we’re fed this idea of what being a successful musician looks like, when in reality, a professional music career looks like many different things. Artistry is also something that comes in time. Really understanding yourself to the point of creating authentic music takes time. I think it’s important to not let your career ideals or financial constraints warp your art because then you start making music for those reasons and it becomes more about you being seen by the industry than us seeing each other as people. Art is the expression of the human experience and I think as artists, we have to dive into what the human experience is and create from that curiosity.
Do you have any difficulties digging deep, entering into those sacred places within yourself, when you are creating?
I said before, as an artist and a business person, there are different things that weigh on you. I think that weight can make it difficult to create sometimes. And not even just that weight, but the ability to be vulnerable with yourself and with others can be really difficult. Shit, life is difficult enough, but I think diving into it helps. We have to be active participants in our lives. Sometimes there are things we don’t want to face, but we have to and as artists, the need for us to create gives us an avenue to face those feelings. I wish everyone had this need to express- maybe we would all feel closer to ourselves and each other.
Do you believe art is a necessary tool/weapon towards liberation?
ONE MILLION PERCENT. Art is the way we understand our deepest selves and I think that is our only true freedom. I think we’ve shifted into a world where the public perception of art is through the lens of entertainment. I think it’s important for artists to move away from goals of celebrity and turn inward. Into themselves, into their communities. I believe artists have a lot of power and if we use that power to dismantle the ideals that bring societal struggles, we can be a force for the better and not cogs in an industry built on people’s want to escape these struggles.
There is a quote by W.E.B. DuBois that I heard in a presentation by Lauren Williams, a brilliant Detroit-based designer, researcher, writer, and educator. “all art is propaganda and ever must be…” Would you say that your work resonates with said quote?
Black people’s expression has shaped how we see our society for centuries. The stories told from fields to jazz clubs and living rooms to stadiums have shaped our understanding of our experience and has created a path for everyone to understand their past and future. We’ve delved into our struggles and expressed that pain through blues and rock and hip hop. I think black art as propaganda is inevitable. Our experiences are the story of revolution and when that is put into vulnerable art, you get a peek into the soul of our people. This is true for all artists and cultures, but when it comes to the vast black American experience, a common thread is the need for our full identities to be seen and understood. Just that need is political, so when we act on that expression, it becomes a threat to the status quo. As a black artist- as a black person, I’ve had to dig and understand myself outside of the constructs I grew up in- what people told me I should be, how I should act, the types of music I should know or make. Breaking those tropes and ideals of what we should be is a backbone of black art.
What does community look like to you?
Community looks like a group of people being fully vulnerable with each other. I think that can look like many different things. Different walks and colors and styles, but to be seen and not judged I think is a basis of loving someone fully and we all want to be surrounded by people who see us. As I’ve gotten older, and I’m only 26, I’ve realized that my community or the people I value in my life have looked different over time. I feel like I’m still building my “community” but my focus right now is gaining intimacy and connection with the closest people in my life and going from there.
When you create, do you find that your music is almost like your own personal therapy or does it have a different effect on you entirely?
For me it’s definitely therapy. That feeling of singing in a room full of people, literally vibrating all on the same wave- is cathartic. I think it’s one of the most human feelings. Our need for expression and the telling of our feelings and stories is what built our evolution. It’s what connects us to each other. Writing for me is a whole different matter because I think at times it can be therapy, but other times it can be a lot of work. That digging is a lot of work, but it pays off when you feel that genuine connection. The most therapeutic feeling I’ve had is at shows- it’s like church. That higher level of connection between everyone is tangible. That feeling is one I strive for in every song and every performance.
Do you find yourself wanting your music to uplift others/bring people together?
Always always always. This is my main goal. If I’ve said anything in these answers, it’s that music is an avenue for connection. Growing up, music was my avenue for expression and I’m still figuring out how to express freely outside of music. I used to think that music was my way of connecting to people, but I’ve realized I really want that to be a personal thing. Connection and vulnerability. I want it to move through my life and then into my music. I want my music to bring me closer to myself and I want my music to bring people closer to themselves.
Music Artist Elliott Skinner @elliottskinner
Photographer: Harold Julian @haroldjulian
Creative Direction, Stylist: Paco Lampecinado @pac_creative
Interview: Samuel Ogoe Jr. @thecanteenkilla