If there was ever a time for Andra Day’s powerful single, “Rise Up,” it’s 2016. With its belly-stirring vocals and ghostly choir, the song has become a beacon of hope, spreading a message of perseverance in an incredibly tumultuous year. “All we need is hope/don’t forget we have each other,” Day blares out on the now certified gold track.
When: 9 p.m. Nov. 18
Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
The lyrics have become an anthem for Black Lives Matter and performed for Mothers of the Movement (a group of women who lost their sons to police or gun violence) during a special presentation at the Democratic National Convention in July, following appearances at the White House, on CNN’s “Heroes” program and A&E’s live broadcast, “Shining a Light, A Concert for Progress on Race in America.”
“I wanted it to be something that was uplifting; my hope was that [the song] would encourage people,” says Day of penning the track for her debut biographical album, “Cheers to the Fall,” which came out in mid-2015 and was nominated for best R&B album at the Grammy Awards.
“There’s a lot going on culturally and socially right now that I think needs to be talked about, and as an artist I’d be remiss not to bring up what’s going on in our society socially and politically,” she continues, recalling her own youth growing up in the rough neighborhoods of southeast San Diego where many of her classmates were involved with the Bloods gang.
“I just had no idea the bigger meaning the song would take on, but I’m grateful. I think it’s grown me as a person spiritually and emotionally, and continues to remind me that what you do in music can change people’s lives and affect them in a real way.”
Day admits that “Rise Up” took on another tone for her personally when she wrote it, and was “sort of what I needed to hear in the moment” after years working at a number of odd jobs and releasing a series of covers and mashups on YouTube to finally find her footing in 2010. A friend of Stevie Wonder’s former wife, Kai Millard, saw Day performing outside a pastry shop in Malibu with just a microphone and some speakers. A video exchange later, and Wonder had gotten on the phone with Day to discuss how he could work with her.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect timing,” she admits. “I was in a tiny box of a studio apartment that I shared with my mom and here Stevie was talking with me about my voice and the way I wrote and the old jazz records we both loved.” Day studied jazz and classical music at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and took many of her current stylistic cues (both vocal and fashion-wise) from singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne, which have set her apart in a crowded room of pop stars.
Wonder soon introduced Day to her eventual producer, Adrian Gurvitz (who also worked with CeCe Winans), which led to a stream of influencers that had their hands on “Cheers to the Fall,” including Questlove, Raphael Saadiq and the Dap-Kings; even her music videos attracted the talents of Spike Lee and M. Night Shyamalan. In the year-and-a-half the album has been out, “Cheers to the Fall” has become one of the biggest debuts of an artist since Adele’s “19,” drawing comparisons to Earth Kitt, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse and Beyonce.
Day is currently working on its followup — and introducing a few of the tunes on her current tour dates — which she says will focus even more on relationships and her roots growing up in southern California. “I’m just very inspired by what’s going on now but also feeling rather nostalgic,” she says. “In this past year, I’ve been able to connect with people from every walk of life, and the one thing that people want and desire no matter wherever they come from, no matter what struggles they have, they just want to be accepted wholly for who they are and feel like they are worthy of love and valuable, and I can relate to that,” she continues.
“It’s made me very aware and empathetic and want to be part of their story in a positive and almost spiritual way. More than anything my journey has made me very aware of how far my reach can possibly be if I use my platform and voice for change.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance music writer.