“When you strip away the outside clutter, you can see all the inside clutter that you still need to get rid of”
Editor’s note: As part of our ongoing editorial coverage of GOODFest, we’ll be chatting with an artist from each of our five shows about the intersections of music and activism as it pertains to them. Check out our complete GOODFest coverage here.
With a career spanning genres and decades and collaborations with luminaries Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, and Erykah Badu, you might expect singer Bilal Sayeed Oliver, best known as Bilal, to have more of an assured swagger to him. Instead, the humble musician focuses inward in his search for further inspiration and leaves the distractions for the rest of us.
Bilal chatted with GOOD as he rested before his performance in the final GOODFest show, being held at the Ace Theater in Downtown Los Angeles.
GOODFest: A lot of your work seems to find inspiration from unlikely or underappreciated sources. How or where have you been drawing inspiration lately?
Bilal: Right now I’m trying to let the natural Earth speak to me. What I’ve been doing is turning off the TV, turning off the radio, and just listening to my own thoughts for a change. I find myself doing that a lot. Just unplugging. With so much stuff going on in the media and in the world, refocusing my mind and spirit is so helpful.
I guess you could call it meditative. I’m getting into the silence.
I used to have this problem where I’d need the TV on just to rest. I would notice that I had all this shit on as I drifted off to sleep. So I made the conscious decision to turn shit off before I go to bed and learn to appreciate the quiet.
Is it ever alarming or scary when you’re in those contemplative moments alone with nothing but your thoughts?
You know what’s scary? You notice just how much worthless bullshit is in your head from the media. You start thinking about all the things that you put a lot of energy into that you don’t even need.
When you strip away the outside clutter, you can see all the inside clutter that you still need to get rid of.
I can only go by my experience as an American, but we’re bombarded by so much outside influence. There’s always something trying to get to you.
And if you actually lose your phone? You feel like your life is over. How many people these days choose to turn their phone off rather than it simply dying? For a certain amount of time each day my phone is just not on.
I was just in Canada and I didn’t have my phone and I was so reluctant to switch on my Wi-Fi because I was enjoying the clarity of mind I was having in that moment out in the mountains.
Do you feel artists have any sort of social responsibility, given the platform they have and the general public’s regard for them as truth-tellers?
I do. Do others? Maybe not. It’s up to the person.
When you have a lot of people coming to check up on what you’re up to, that automatically puts you on some sort of elevated platform. What you do there really shows who you are.
I’ve always been into consciousness, so that what my platform is gonna be. But at the same time, I’m not going out and saying “I’m a leader.” I just want to put out positivity in my music. But it’s not because I have an obligation to.
It’s like with an athlete. They can play the game, but because of the volume of people coming to that game each week, you already have an enormous platform. And when you add in corporate influences and they become a spokesperson for that company’s product, the athlete is suddenly endorsing all that corporation’s values to a degree. So you have to be careful about the statements you make.
As an artist whose career has taken a lot of twists and turns, what advice do you have for someone who may be hitting their first or hundredth major roadblock on their own creative journey?
Just stay true to yourself. As long as you can keep a personal barometer and be honest with yourself and not try to follow others. You can’t hold yourself up against the success of others or look for the same results.
It’s your path, nobody else’s is going to take the same route. So just recognize you’re unique and that everyone has their specific thing to be done.
Be patient and try to catch yourself in those moments when you begin to covet what others have.
It’s really about the trip. So make sure you’re doing what you need to be doing to stay on that path. But if you can’t enjoy the journey that you’re on ... At the end of the day, that’s all you get. It’s your life.
And turn off your phone.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.