Q&A: Brian McKnight – The Miseducation of Music

“Do I ever cross your mind…anytime?”

For thousands of fans, and pretty much anyone that has heard Brian McKnight’s recently released song “If Ur Ready 2 Learn”, then that answer is yes: Mr. McKnight has crossed your mind several times.   With a distinctive smooth mellow voice that has taken us through yearning for that one that got away to expressing the way you feel about the one you love, Brian McKnight’s music is timeless and continues to be a staple on romantic playlists.

Recently, McKnight has been under fire for going beyond his usual love song repertoire and venturing into explicit waters by releasing the song “If Ur Ready 2 Learn.” Needless to say it’s caused quite a stir in the music industry and on social networking sites, but he’s not letting that slow him down. He’s staying busy performing across the country.

McKnight isn’t just a singer; he’s a songwriter, producer, and a musician that can play multiple instruments. He’s an artist that has sold over 20 million albums, received multiple Grammy nominations, and is the recipient of American Music Awards and Soul Train Awards just to name a few.   Soultrain.com caught up with the soulful crooner in between shows to discuss why he says people should form their own opinions about music and where he thinks the industry is headed.

Soul Train: It’s been said from many people, whether its fans or the artists themselves, that real music needs to make a comeback. What do you think “real music” embodies?

Brian McKnight: Having a chance to look at the aftermath after the silly song that I wrote called “If Ur Ready 2 Learn,” I’m not sure if there is anything that can be done to make a comeback even happen, to be perfectly honest. Very few of us when we were teenagers were listening to the music that our parents listened to. Although my children do listen to music that I listen to, they also listen to other stuff that’s out there and have no problem with the music that’s out there today. It’s very difficult to have an opinion on where it’s going, and what to do because music has really become disposable. It used to be that music was the soundtrack of all of our lives.

Soul Train: Well would you say that R&B is dead?

Brian McKnight: I don’t think that it’s dead. It’s probably at Stage 2, and Stage 3 would mean that it’s dead, (laughs). I would say it that way. Look at when KISS FM went off the air in New York, that’s just the beginning. After being in radio, I know that radio is not there to promote music; it’s there to sell advertising. Unfortunately when a couple of people that listen to that music come forward it’s very difficult for advertisers to advertise because they don’t care what the music is, they just care what the ratings are. So that’s the red flags that we’ve seen in radio, so it makes things very difficult. So now we all stood by and watched the bottom drop into the basement…don’t be mad if people who you like are swimming down in those depths. We all have a responsibility here.

Soul Train: Now you’ve brought up the song, “If Ur Ready 2 Learn,” that seemed to cause a lot of controversy. Were you just trying to throw it out there as an experiment to get a reaction?

Brian McKnight: Not at all. On Twitter, I put all kinds of stuff out there at that time to 40,000 followers. We talk about everything, and people who know me, and have seen me on the road, they know how I am. They have no qualms about the kind of guy that I am, they aren’t just sitting back listening to songs that I wrote 15 years go and thinking that is who I am, that’s only part of who I am. Now, when I did this, I really thought that the only people that would respond would be those that follow me that would have something to say about it. The song wasn’t that big of a deal, it’s just like the stuff that’s out there today. So people said, “If you just change the words and this and that,” but I told everyone that it was an adult mixtape. Somehow people decided to overlook the fact that I gave a disclaimer saying in the beginning it was an adult mixtape. However, they took it to mean that it was the way I was going to do music from here on out.

Soul Train: Do you plan to release an adult mixtape?

Brian McKnight: We shall see.

Soul Train: Now some of the fans were mad, claiming they were no longer fans, and they were turning their back on you. So how do you reel them back in and show them that you’re still the same Brian McKnight they have always loved and admired?

Brian McKnight: Now it’s like being on the freeway and looking at an accident on the other side of the freeway, there’s rubbernecking going on. That’s all this was. People don’t care. They don’t. Every show that I’ve done since then is just like every other show I did before that. Was I concerned at the time? Yeah, but then I said I can’t be worried about people who only want to jump on the bandwagon just because there’s something to say. I don’t think that the song was really a reflection of me, as much as it was a reflection of everyone else and what they think and their own insecurities. Really, what did I say? I said this could be one of the most clever songs that I’ve ever written. It’s a song being sung by a girl’s vibrator telling her that she needs to learn how to pleasure herself before she can get any man to do it. That song is way different compared to some of the songs out there talking about beating it up and wait until you see this and that. They didn’t listen to the song, that’s the part that hurt me. First, actually listen to it and try to be objective about what I’m saying as opposed to saying I shouldn’t be saying these things. First you have to listen to the words, people don’t give anything the benefit of the doubt, and all they do is put it down. At the end of the day when I really looked at it, I said you know what; they need to put all that aside and just start thinking for them selves just a little bit. They’ll find out they really aren’t that mad. Try it out, I mean there’s no reason to be that mad, and don’t take yourself so seriously. The problem is people sit in their dark rooms with their blogs or, in this case Twitter, and now here’s their opportunity to be famous, and here they are on my timeline, then I’m trending worldwide. That is hysterical. (laughs) At the end of the day, how many of those people could have written this song? None of them.

Soul Train: Exactly.  So like you were saying, people didn’t really listen to what you were saying in the song.  With music in general these days, do you think that’s the problem, people are more focused on the song’s beat and maybe a few words here and there but they don’t actually hear what is being said?

Brian McKnight: Yes, absolutely. Where this came from is I was in the club after a show and the song that was playing was so derogatory towards women. I was standing at the bar and a woman standing beside me was singing every single word. So I asked her if she even knew what they were saying and she said she just loved the beat. So like I said, people don’t care. I remember back in the day, if there was something they didn’t like on a television show, they would be out there picketing about it to get it off the air. Those days are over and now anything goes, which is crazy. There are very few things now that you can do to get people to turn off the music. Look at Chris Brown, he was ostracized. Now look at him, he’s right back, maybe even bigger and better than he was before. Look at R. Kelly.  He was caught on film–and that’s my boy, I’m not saying anything bad about him–but folks forgive and say well, we expect this from him and give him a pass. So I think wow, is that how you live your life? Then people come back and say to me, “Well Michael Jackson wasn’t like that.”  I say “Well, he was on trial several times and you were okay with that”, then it’s like oh okay well that’s different. (laughs) But that just goes to show you how people are. It’s whatever is wrong for right now that they have a problem with. If you’re going to have a problem, then have a problem, but I told people that my song wasn’t going to be for everybody and you don’t have to listen to it.

Soul Train: Do you think that social media is an advantage for people trying to go the indie route versus chasing the big record labels like people did years ago?

Brian McKnight: I think the only thing that is going to save music is if artists take control of their own music and their own lives. The idea of saying, “Oh I have a deal with Warner Brothers or Sony,” well, all they’re going to do is rape you. Someone said on Twitter that they no longer buy CDs because artists make too much money, and I thought ‘Wow, is this the mentality we’re dealing with these days?’ Now days if you can’t sell any records, what do you think your royalties would be? Now, if you can sell those records straight to the consumer, then you’re able to see the dividends from that. It’s like having a job. I don’t have a deal right now and I don’t want one. Like for example, I put that song on iTunes and I can actually see in my account how many people are purchasing it and I’m not waiting 18 months to get paid, or having money deducted for plane rides, limo rides, promotions, you know, but that’s for an established artist. It’s harder for the new artists. Social media is there and you have all these millions of people on there. Most artists don’t want to put in the work. People have their own lives, and they are not going to come and find you no matter how much you think they are. You have to go and find them and put yourself in front of them. That’s the one thing this song did show me, that if I’m not right there in their face, they are not going to be thinking about me. They won’t think about me unless they happen to have my music on their I-pod or go to a station on Pandora. You have to be actively pursuing your art.

Soul Train: What is your favorite Brian McKnight song?

Brian McKnight: I don’t have a favorite. I write them all, and it’s like I have to get it out of my system. Every now and then I’ll go on my timeline on Twitter to ask my followers to quote their favorite lyrics that I’ve written to see if they’ve been listening. It’s kind of fascinating some of the songs that they choose, because it’s very rarely that they pick lyrics from the more popular songs. I tend to think that I’m a pretty good lyricist, and sometimes I think when I’m trying to be clever because I think I’m smart (laughs) that it may go over someone’s head when I say things but there are actually people that get it, and that is more important to me than anything else. That’s the part that I always had to really work on, I mean I can always play and I can always sing, but coming up with these words and melodies, I mean being a writer yourself, you know, if there’s something that you’re really proud of when people get it, there’s no feeling like that.

Soul Train: That is definitely an awesome feeling when someone gets where you are coming from and the message you are trying to get across. Let’s switch gears and talk about the McKnight 360 Foundation. A lot of artists say that the youth are suffering since music isn’t being taught in schools that much anymore. How will your foundation help?

Brian McKnight: I am really just getting started with it, but it’s for those kids that are discouraged, but they are talented and may not have an outlet, or they don’t have the opportunity for a scholarship to pursue their musical dreams. I’m going to be able to help them. If I can provide that for one student per year in the beginning or 5 or 10 students, then it’s worth it.

Soul Train: What is your favorite Soul Train memory?

Brian McKnight: There are very few times when I was a kid that I could look on television and see someone that looked like me. If there was someone on television that was black at that time, they were playing the drug addict or criminal. As wonderful as The Cosby Show was, I didn’t know anyone like that, but I did identify with the people on Soul Train. You got to see your favorite performers, artists, hear music, and see the girls and all the different outfits. It was like you were watching something you weren’t supposed to. (laughs) It was a part of the culture. It was a done by a black man, Don Cornelius that you could easily identify with, and wanted to be like, with the smooth voice, afro, and everything.

Soul Train: When you are long gone, what would you want Brian McKnight to be remembered for?

Brian McKnight: Hopefully when it’s all said and done, I would love to be remembered for writing a couple of good songs. I realized that after Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston died that people really don’t care. They are onto the next thing. So, I can’t really worry about what’s going to happen when I’m gone, because I’m not going to be here. It would be nice if people still played my songs.

Follow Brian McKnight on Twitter @ItsBMcknight and check out his website at www.Mcknight360.com.

-Shameika Rene’

Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, or her own site, www.themofochronicles.com. She’s also a special guest contributor on The Social Hour on Urban Soul Radio. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.



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