Maxwell Challenges Standards of Beauty Through 'Shame' Video, Talks 20th Anniversary of 'Embrya'

Horacio Hamlet


On Wednesday (Oct. 17), Maxwell delivered the video for his latest single “Shame,” a track that defies the standard definitions of love and romance. However, the music video brings a far deeper message. The visuals, co-directed by Maxwell and writer/director duo Bush Renz (“Kill Jay-Z”) tackle the omnipresent subject matter of how the mainstream views beauty through a singular lens.

The video shows beautiful black women with their faces covered in veils, emphasizing shame among women of color (and men too). For Maxwell, the goal was to honor beautiful black women from all walks of life and serenade them with his poignant track. The single appears on Maxwell’s long-awaited upcoming sixth studio album NIGHT, which will complete the trilogy he first began with 2009’s BLACKsummers’night. Below, Maxwell discusses the upcoming album with Billboard, along with the “Shame” music video concept and how his second studio album, Embrya, was a slept-on classic that still echoes in the world, 20 years after its release.

The video  for “Shame” is beautiful. You had mentioned it was inspired by the “Freedom” video, but also adding the extra step of challenging beauty standards, specifically through symbolism. The women’s faces being covered by veils -- can you talk about that?

I just feel that the veils represent the shame that I think a lot of black women feel about their beauty -- about their features and about their place in society. So I think the veils play a pretty big role with that. It’s interesting because even though the George Michael video in terms of “Freedom” plays into it, it’s Aretha Franklin that plays a big role -- particularly her song [“Think (Freedom)”] where she does sing, “Freedom! Freedom!” and how that freedom played a role in not only women’s liberation but in all people who are marginalized on some level and have been held down, be it African-American, be it people of the LGBTQ community, be it anyone whose voice hasn’t been given the right or given the space or given the platform.

I just wanted all people who feel that they’re veiled in some sort of shame or veiled in some sort of compartmentalized experience to unveil themselves and to let their face be known and let their stories be known. And that’s kind of what the video is about.

Then there’s this one part of the video where you’re veiled and I think there’s an interesting point to that of how the standards of beauty also play into men. I mean, we see all these videos of guys getting hairlines tattooed on them and doing all of these things that we sometimes ignore when it comes to men and their own self-standards.

Yeah, you know, interestingly enough, there’s this veiled character that’s always following me and it’s almost like my doppelganger person. The character that plays this veiled figure is Adonis Bosso -- who I don’t know if you know just had a beautiful son with the very beautiful [model] Slick Woods. I actually knew him a year and a half before. It’s funny how God and the universe and coincidence, and lack thereof, plays into it and how moments in your life come into play.

Here he was on set and I had no idea. I was like, “Oh, wow, does this mean that you’re doing this today?” And he’s like, “Yep, it’s me!” So in some ways, it’s like me being veiled -- he was the mirrored image of the experience of shame for me. I guess my marginalized experience sometimes comes from many things: being from a multi-heritage experience with Haiti and Puerto Rico, doing soul music, coming from Brooklyn, being a Caribbean second generation immigrant, not necessarily being embraced by the music industry initially because I didn’t grow up in the church in the South singing gospel music, you know what I mean? I mean, I went to church! I went to many churches: I went to Baptist churches, I went to Pentecostal churches, I went to Haitian churches in. Haiti.

So you know, religion has always been a very interesting thing because I have so many friends who are Jewish, so many friends who are Muslim and who practice so many different faiths so even though at the core I do celebrate and identify as a Christian, I do believe in a more spiritual aspect to faith. Leave it up to me to use the word faith when we talked about George Michael. [Laughs] But I’ve always been respecting and honoring everyone’s right to believe what they believe because I always feel like, as the Google documentary video points out, all faiths are pretty much unified. Religion has always been used somewhat as propaganda to create war and create separation amongst people, and so I think that that’s how that played in in terms of my unveiling.

I have to tip my hat off to the wonderful, amazing team of directors named Bush Renz. They did “Kill Jay-Z,” they also did the amazing video for Khalid [“Love Lies” with Normani]. They’re about to do an amazing movie, which I can’t speak much about but it’s amazing, so get ready for that! This is their last video. They’re not doing any more visuals/videos anymore.

Wow, really?

Yeah, they’ve been fans -- particularly Gerard [Bush]. He was such a fan of how I like to shape shift and how I came in from Embrya and I started with Urban Hang Suite, which was completely shelved and totally not understood. Then it was released and it became this thing and I went to kind of shift gears with Embrya -- that was met with mixed reviews. Now 20 years later it’s a certified classic and there are so many people who call me up and tell me, “This is my favorite song!”

We were living in an era where critics were kings and queens and could basically tell everyone what was good and what wasn’t good. Now we live in a different age where people can make their own choices via the streaming world of Spotify and iTunes. Of course they’re all over the world, so hit records are different here and they’re different over there. So it’s more of a groove than sort of a vote that makes something what it is, and it takes a lot of time for a lot of songs to actually become No. 1 now. There’s no real organized system that can guarantee that an artist is a certain way or become a certain type of artist as it was before.

Embrya was definitely slept-on.

I remember that time when Embrya was completely abandoned and this whole neo-soul thing, which I felt like all of a sudden it was this grassroots, underground movement of kids like myself in their 20s who loved hip-hop and appreciated hip-hop for how it sampled so many of those old records, and we wanted to actually be those old records as new kids. It became a trend. So in 1998, when I unveiled this album with all these strange titles and colons and sub-text titles, people were scratching their heads and wondering well maybe it’s because I don’t have an afro anymore and that’s why things aren’t so great. It became a marketing thing and not a creative thing.

Now when I look at records and I see so many artists out here who have these very specific titles that are very unique and very uniform. It wasn’t something that was done in 1998. That was the era of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, JAY-Z’s Hard Knock Life. So, it was very disappointing to me. It made me question myself, question my intuition. But years later, it’s nice to feel the validation -- especially when we’re on tour right now. We have a moment when we play these songs, and I’m so surprised at how many people tell me, “When Embrya came out, it got me through college!” It’s almost like they want to let me know, “You weren’t wrong. You were just being an artist; you weren’t trying to be a formula.” That’s a nice feeling to have after all these years.

Now when I listen to Embrya, I can hear so many things from SZA to Miguel, The Weeknd, to whatever. And they come up to me and they’re just like, “Bro, thanks for putting out Embrya!” That’s a nice feeling.

So now you’re completing the trilogy of BLACKsummers’night with NIGHT. It’s been a long time coming.

Yeah, it’s been 10 years! “Shame” is the first song from that and “Shame” basically speaks about our current state of interaction and how we interact in relationships and how relationships have become skewed by the social media era. The suicide rate is so high today because so many kids are not strong enough to withstand the comments -- which I call opinions. So it’s like, “Shame” the song -- particularly the second verse -- speaks a lot about not looking at those comments and not looking at these things and not jumping to conclusions through this lens of the digital era.

Will you be touring the next album?

I’m basically touring now. I’m on my 12th show -- 50 intimate nights all around these theaters that I used to go to. I cut my teeth on these theaters, and I wanted to come back and debut the song “Shame” and just reconnect with people who actually started with me.