The vivid red walls and matching décor are, for the moment, the least admired artistic statement inside Collective Studios in Oak Park, MI. B.o.B, eyes hidden behind sunglasses with his back pressed firmly against the mixing board, stands silently while music from his new album Strange Clouds speaks for him. Sitting to his right facing the board in a swivel chair is B.o.B’s manager B.Rich, who spins himself parallel to his platinum-selling client to address a room cluttered with attentive on-looking CORE DJs. “This next one, ‘Both of Us’, is the song he did with Taylor Swift,” he advances. A second later a DJ inquires audibly, “Why did he do a song with Taylor Swift?” B.o.B remains silent, leaving himself completely unguarded from opinions as B. Rich invites all present to “let us know what you think after you hear this.”
Born Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr., the multi-hyphened Grand Hustle/Atlantic Records artist found his place among recording industry elite by capitalizing on his freedom of expression. A nonconventional hip-hop star with the air of a gentlemen jazz singer, the Atlanta native rhymer openly waves a flag unifying himself with any artists who proudly represent the First Amendment.
Soul Train: This might be an unusual first question: Are you familiar with the character Captain America?
B.o.B: Yes… [Leans back in his chair, then smiles] I am familiar with the character Captain America.
Soul Train: He’s been widely admired since 1941, so, for generations. But what do you think draws people to this character? Is it his super abilities or his struggles with dealing with feeling out of place?
B.o.B: I think it’s the feeling of…feeling like who he was before gaining his extraordinary abilities and rooting for him because there’s still a part of him a regular person can connect with. And he connects with the side of the regular person that wants to be extraordinary. I think that’s the undertone in the character.
Soul Train: Cap got his abilities from a lab-created super serum. Where did you get yours?
B.o.B: Strange clouds! [Laughs]
Soul Train: [Laughs]
B.o.B: Music is something that’s always been in my life. Talent is one thing, but it’s the passion that fuels it. There’s probably an athlete out there somewhere in the world as talented as LeBron James but he may not have the passion and drive LeBron has. I think it boils down to that.
Soul Train: Critics rave about what you’re capable of doing and how you do it. But do you ever contemplate why you were given the abilities you have?
B.o.B: I think it’s a two-way street between the origins of the universe and whatever chain-effect created me. I had to agree with the universe to be me; at the same time, the universe had to create me.
Soul Train: So like Cap, once you realized what abilities you’d been given did you struggle with how you were going to use them?
B.o.B: There have definitely been moments in my career when I’ve been like, ‘Man, do I really want to go through what it’s going to take?!’ And you really DON’T know what it’s going to take! [Laughs] When you’re an aspiring artist you don’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t know I’d end up in the position I’m in; and not necessarily how far I’ve gone, but necessarily where I am on this road. It’s a continuous process and a continuous journey.
Soul Train: Do you deliberately try to be thought-provoking?
B.o.B: I don’t… I think really I’m trying to continue to be myself. I think society conditions you to be more reactive than proactive. I think, naturally, humans want to be proactive. We’re living in an opposite society; it’s a constant internal battle between what you feel things should be like as opposed to what things are like.
Soul Train: Have you written anything that made you feel like you were being too articulate?
B.o.B: Usually when I write something and I’m being articulate and being… [Pauses] When I’m being articulate about certain things that might be accepted by the general masses I understand it’s only going to hit a select few who can comprehend what I’m talking about. [Laughs] I can speak different languages. Not necessarily country languages and regional languages, but cultural. I speak to different people who are into different things.
Soul Train: Okay, give us an example of the types of persons you can communicate with differently.
B.o.B: Well…You could be a type of person into clubs and night life, or a type of person who listens to the radio on the way to the football games every Friday, or a college student or anybody. I let myself become what is natural to me.
Soul Train: B.o.B, how much do you value your common sense?
B.o.B: My common sense is my most valuable asset! That’s pretty much what you’ve got when you’re navigating on the river of life. You never really know…and you can’t know what you don’t know! That’s the crazy thing about it; you have to gain it through experience. Or at least through somebody telling you or giving you a heads-up. I was fortunate to get the heads-up, and even want the heads-up.
Soul Train: How much of what you can do as a musician was trial and error or simply using your common sense with the instruments made available to you?
B.o.B: Well, people don’t see that most of the time what an artist does is trial and error. If you look at the Wright Brothers, how many times do you think they failed before they flew the plane…one time?! How many failed attempts did it take to fly one time? And it wasn’t even a long flight! [Laughs] As an artist you get huge buckets of product just to get the cream of the crop.
Soul Train: So where does your common sense play into that selection process?
B.o.B: There’s a quote I always say: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it’ll think it’s stupid its whole life.” With that said, I have to just make what’s natural to me. Genius is something that’s not necessarily made from scratch, but taking something that already exists and making something new.
Soul Train: My friend Seth Arnott – he’s a school teacher – wanted me to ask you how much of a role music in school played in you becoming a performer and how do you feel about schools canceling music programs?
B.o.B: [Sits up straight] I don’t think schools should cancel music programs! If anything schools canceling programs just means that they’re trying to remove more and more of what will inspire you to be a free person, and experience something outside of just being conditioned! If that’s the case, is school only about being conditioned??! What created sound created the universe, energy and motion. Music is life! It’s an interesting thing that they’d want to cancel music. I think as a society it’s something we have to be proactive about changing. We can’t just…just…for lack of a better term, keep bending over and taking it. If we are supporting the systems that are at play, I feel like we are responsible in the circle of this relationship of what goes on. So I strongly disagree with removing music from school. I was in the band, and I still had the freedom to join the band or leave the band. It wasn’t forced upon me. Having the option is necessary.
Soul Train: Okay B.o.B… Captain America uses a shield. Would you say your intelligence protects you? And are you at a point now where you feel strong enough to let your guard down?
B.o.B: You know, there’s something about letting your guard down that keeps you protected. But at the same time I don’t think intelligence alone can protect you. I think wisdom is a shield more-so than an actual shield. A shield can hurt you just as much as it can protect you. So for me, I feel like Captain America’s shield was a shield of wisdom, and wisdom is combined with intellect and experience. You could perceive it that way. And then knowing when to know what to do with your shield and when to put it down is another thing as well. [Pauses] AND you can use it as a skateboard! [Laughs]
–Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, is an acclaimed entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker and visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.