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India.Arie believes in music's power to heal, transform and transcend. And though the grooving, funky and bluesy moments might disguise it, this notion serves as a spiritual underpinning for much of her Motown debut, Acoustic Soul.
"We've all heard of someone being woken up from a coma by a song or certain songs that make people cry or be happy," Arie says. "Sound has power and words have power, and I think when you put them together, you have somebody like Stevie Wonder. He is the first person I knew that made me feel that way."
As a child discovering music through Wonder, a young Arie often took his records off the stereo so that the beauty of the songs could sink in. With her own music, Arie has struck a similarly emotional chord for listeners: Her songs work as remedies for her and for her audiences.
Acoustic Soul finds the R&B artist -- a Denver transplant now based in Atlanta -- at a place in her life where she is confident about who she is and the direction her life has taken. She comes across as self-assured and bold, but not vain or egotistical -- qualities that collide with much of the me-centered fare of her female pop contemporaries. Arie exudes a healthy self-image on her hit single, "Video," in which she uses her name in the chorus as a lyrical hook: "No matter what I'm wearing, I will always be India.Arie... /I'm not the average girl from your video, and I ain't built like a supermodel/But I learned to love myself unconditionally because I am a queen." And in its critique of the common sexist depictions of women in contemporary media, the single's video is an antidote to much of the skin-revealing fodder on MTV or BET. Rather than puff up for the camera, Arie proudly states that she "don't need your silicone, I prefer my own, what God gave me is just fine." Whether she meant to or not, the 25-year-old songwriter has created a modern-day empowerment anthem for her female fans.
Yet despite the self-assured stylings that run throughout "Video" (and all of Acoustic Soul), the track's success has taken the singer somewhat by surprise. She wrote the song for herself, she says, and had no idea that so many people would relate to its lyrical content.
"I didn't feel like I was writing something that was going to be important to people," she says. "I was writing something that was important to me. I had to get it out. All my life I've been different -- like, I had a deeper voice than everybody, I'm more muscular than everybody, more shy. I never fit in -- in school or church or anywhere I ever went. It has less to deal with growth than how I feel about myself."
For too long, the singer felt troubled by what she perceived to be physical inadequacies. The size of her nose, for one, tugged at her feelings of worth. "For hundreds of years, it's almost in your blood not to love the way you are, but we all know that it is our goal and job to get better generation after generation and to heal certain things. We can either let it stay or work on healing it. I want to be someone who accepts my nose. In my family, especially the women, we all have the same nose. My mom and her five sisters all grew up in Memphis -- you can imagine what kind of self-image they had. But I don't have to be that way. I choose not to. It's not like saving the whales, but it's important to me."
Since Acoustic Soul's release, Arie has become a sort of self-styled champion of the feel-good movement: In concert, she often appears on stage with a T-shirt (designed by her mother, Simpson) with the words "Love Yourself" emblazoned across her chest. Though she says she didn't set out to be a role model of personal fulfillment, she is now a beacon for those seeking to counter the negativity of popular music and media.
"I hear stuff every day," she says. "I've had people who cry -- people who talk about how they use it in their workshops for girls. I see a lot of people with tears in their eyes -- not because of me, but because of the song and how they feel like it speaks to them."
Arie recently received the blessing of the grande dame of self-improvement via an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the program that has raised the profile of many recording artists (and authors) by injecting them into the living rooms of millions of women. On a recent episode titled "Women Who Sing," Arie joined Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Mary Mary and Yolanda Adams in a showcase of female artists. When Arie finished, Winfrey had this to say: "We love that song. Not only do we love that song, we love you for writing that song. We needed that song."
Apparently, the Chicago talk-show host isn't the only one who thinks so: The album has charted gold (500,000 copies sold) since its release last April. Arie has also been nominated for three Billboard Music Video Awards and two Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, for Best R&B Soul Album and Best New R&B or Rap Solo Artist. She was also nominated for an MTV2 award at this year's MTV Video Music Awards.