Pop

Pink Sweat$ Talks R&B's Comeback, Nashville Living & Industry Biases: 'Leveling Out the Playing Field Is Important'

Pink Sweat$
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Pink Sweat$ performs during the Governors Ball 2021 at Citi Field on Sept. 25, 2021 in New York City.

When Pink Sweat$ stepped foot on stage at the 2021 Governors Ball in New York City, the pressure was on. "This was the first show I've ever been nervous [for]," he tells Billboard. "I had so much music that I never performed before because of the pandemic, so you got a whole year with music out and you never got the test the energy in real life."

For his first major performance since the pandemic, the R&B and pop singer-songwriter was decked out in his signature tone of baby pink. He performed heart-searing renditions of songs like "Honesty" and "At My Worst" to a sea of eager fans, at one point hopping on the drums, as his glistening pink teddy bear chain bounced in unison with his head full of curls.

Sweat$, born David Bowden, is a genre chameleon. The 29-year-old Atlantic signee achieved great success during his decade as a songwriter, penning tracks for artists from pop to country. After making the switch to artist himself, Sweat$'s warm and fuzzy aesthetic (dubbed "soft af" by Sweat$ himself), became a direct reflection of his genre-blending music and sentimental lyricism.

Now engaged to his sweetheart, JL Bunny, and gearing up for the upcoming Pink Moon Tour, Sweat$ caught up with Billboard after his Governors Ball performance to chat about everything from talking money among singers, to his "old-fashioned" grandmother's stance on his love for all things pink.

What was it like getting in front of an audience like this, for the first time in a while?

The performance was amazing. It was exciting, it was exhilarating, it was spiritual. It was a beautiful moment getting back on stage and feeling all the energy coming at me.

Do you like watching other acts at festivals or just doing your own set and dipping out?

I always like watching other people's shows when I come to festivals. A lot of artists don't watch other people's sets, but I like to hop around because I'm borrowing from everybody. I'm new as a performer. As a songwriter, I feel like I laid a lot of groundwork -- but as a performer, I'm still learning every day. I just saw Cordae's set, it was fire. I want to see Aminé. I just saw Billie Eilish yesterday. Kehlani's performance was crazy. Just seeing people connecting through live music again -- man, it's so beautiful.

You left Los Angeles and relocated to Nashville. What's it been like moving from one music capital to another? 

Nashville is awesome. I feel like I get a lot of good energy as a songwriter from there. [In L.A.], I feel a little lost, honestly. It's easy to get lost in the sauce there. I'm a humble person, where I like to walk around and feel normal. Sometimes you're in LA and it's like, "Oh! You're Pink Sweat$!" I appreciate that, but I also don't ever want to get like a big head like I'm somebody important.

When I'm meeting people [in Nashville], nobody is running their resumé to me. They might just mention that they're a songwriter. It's also a lot more affordable for a lot of people. So you don't have that tension, whereas in L.A., everybody is there on a dream. Day by day you're trying to make it. Obviously I went to LA with the same thing in mind, but it's just tough when you're on the other side.

Your debut album, Pink Planet, solidified that you don't fit neatly into one sound. What is your stance when it comes to genre categorizations?

Genres matter to a lot of, people but I truly believe that there are special artists in this world who just master creativity. I throw myself in there because I spent a decade being creative [and] not worrying about being seen. When I'm writing a song, I'm just making a song. I'm not making an R&B song, I'm not making a pop song -- and where they may land, they may land. The biggest thing that I try to leave people with is that the genre is not what's important. It's about the market value and the market share from those genres.

What are your thoughts on where R&B sits in relation to pop music?

A lot of people are [becoming] aware of the biases in the music industry and I think it's slowly changing. Right now if you're Black and you want to be considered anywhere near a pop star, you have to be rapping. It's like, "OK, I can't sing?" I just think leveling out the playing field is super important. R&B is definitely making a huge comeback -- and shout out to a lot of the women who are leading that, because it was struggling for a while.

But at the same time, the market value is different. When you have a pop artists and an R&B artist, you can put their houses next to each other and nine times out of 10 they look different. In the '90s, R&B was pop, but you always had to "cross over." Look at Boyz II Men, one of the biggest groups of all time, they had to cross over. What does that even mean? I still don't know.

But that's America. It's normal, but at the same time, nothing happens without someone speaking out and not just bashing people. I don't think it's these white artists' intention, I just think people have to recognize when the playing field is uneven and speak up. It's like with civil rights: It takes both sides to collectively come together [before] we see the equal amount of pop stars and opportunities to be a pop star [across races].

Speaking of the '90s, an element of your artistry that feels like that era are your lyrics. While we had sexually explicit music in the '90s, we also had popular R&B songs that were based in verbal expressions of love. Why do you make music that's so in touch with feeling and emotion, in a market so saturated with explicit lyricism?

Because I already got paid. [Laughs.] Nah, I'm just being funny. But honestly, I'm not gonna lie, that's probably really the reason. For a lot of artists, when you make money from your art, it creates more freedom. You're not worried about what you're going to eat tomorrow. You say, "F--k it, I want to make a love song." That's why you notice artists start experimenting more, the bigger they get. They already got their money and they feel confident that their market share is right where it needs to be.

I think in the music business, amongst singers, talking about money needs to be more important. You always see rappers saying, "Yeah I'm getting the bag," and it's not about bragging. When you see people getting money, you're like, "How can I learn from them?" We don't have a lot of artists in the singing field -- whether it's pop or R&B -- talking about money, it's always quiet.

I remember I was talking with Cordae and he was talking about stocks. It was like, "Man, this guy is not just a rapper -- he's making himself intelligent outside of that field so that he can have a longevity and I appreciate and respect that." But a lot of times as singers, we don't talk about money.

You've spoken about growing up in a very hyper-masculine, religious community, how did you get comfortable sporting pink and fluffy teddy bears? Was your community accepting of it?

My grandma, she's so old. Very old fashioned. She's like, "what's going on with all this pink stuff? You in the illuminati?" [Laughs.]

It took me experiencing life and experiencing the world to change my mindset. You get to a certain age -- for me, post-high school, I was just like, "Yo, I have nothing to lose by loving people." At the end of the day, whatever someone's race, religion, sexual [identity], or beliefs [are], it's not that important for me to be judging people. It's like "Oh, give me a hug, love you." You just get kicked down so many times and when you finally get in a position where you feel peace, you just want to share that with others.

That's something I hope people encounter when we speak or they pass me. Like,"Man, he just carries peace with him."