On September 25 at The Buckhead Theatre in Atlanta, hundreds of lucky fans will experience the soul and raw emotion of R&B headliner Jhené Aiko and her support act Ro James. As part of the Ford Front Row series, Billboard and Ford are bringing you closer to the artists you obsess over and the ones you should be keeping an eye out for. We caught up with Ro ahead of the action…
Ro, you were a military kid and travelled all over the place growing up. How do you think that influenced your sound?
R: “I was born in Stuttgart [Germany]. My family was from Panama. I’ve lived everywhere from California to Oklahoma to Indiana to New York to Georgia and every place has a different vibe and I take a little bit with me. When I lived in Oklahoma I got into rock and country. When I went to Hawaii I got into different types of music. All these different genres contributed to my interpretation of R&B.”
What are your memories of listening to music growing up?
R: My father was big on soul music so a lot of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. On my own I got into hip-hop and reggae: Biggie, Pac, Nas, Jay Z, Buju Banton and Bob Marley. Then rock music: Sting, The Police, David Bowie. I really got big into Prince.”
Do you remember when you started to realize that you had a gift musically?
R: “My whole family sings. When I was 10 years-old I remember my father telling me I have a voice. So I developed it. As I got older I appreciated the opportunity to express an emotion. I wrote poetry. I was about 19 years-old when I got into a real relationship. That’s what really started it for me.”
You’re based in New York, but there’s been a lot of migration West in the music industry. Do you feel like NYC is still a good place to have an arts community?
R: “New York has so much inspiration every day but the temperature has changed. It’s not as raw, rugged and real as it used to be but I have this love for New York that will never die.”
You formed a bond with Miguel on MySpace and wrote with him, among others. Was it always in you that you wanted to break out as your own star?
R: “I knew exactly what I wanted to do but I wasn’t ready. Being around other artists and putting in my two cents became my influence. Why not do this for myself? I decided that I didn’t wanna just be someone who just put out songs. I wanted to put out a project that told my story. I felt like I had to be so great in order for someone to pay attention to me. I didn’t wanna waste it.”
R&B was so oversaturated in the ’90s but you’re pushing it into the future. How challenging is that?
R: “For a long time R&B was looked at as a dead genre. But we’re bringing a different culture. We’ve listened to every artist from Bowie to Sting to No Doubt to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Timbaland to Aaliyah… We have no choice but to have a new approach to expressing themes of love in music. Miguel, SZA, Anderson Paak, Jhené Aiko – these are people bringing about their flavour. It’s coming back.”
R&B is about love but your music is more provocative; you talk about alcohol, fast cars, etc. Do you consider yourself a rockstar?
R: “100%! I don’t like to say ‘I’m a rockstar’ but that’s who I am. I don’t follow the mould.”
Are you working on a record right now?
R: “I am working on the next album. I can’t wait to share it at the top of the year. The first album ‘El Dorado’ was about my journey; where I’ve been, where I’m at, where I’m going. Since then I’ve been through a lot of things: breakups, losing friends, making new friends, learning how to be a father every day. I’ve learned a lot about relationships and how to be a better man. It’s going to be more honest.”