Jon Batiste on His New Record and Growing Up Alongside Lil Wayne in New Orleans

Jon Batiste on His New Record and Growing Up Alongside Lil Wayne in New Orleans

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Jon Batiste on His New Record and Growing Up Alongside Lil Wayne in New Orleans
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Jon Batiste makes everything seem effortless. The singer, pianist, and bandleader of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has a great and ingenuous smile, dresses beautifully, comes from a family that is musical royalty in New Orleans, plays several different instruments, and could charm the stink off a skunk. He’s even made the melodica seem cool.

But as Batiste explains, the long list of accolades—which include being named one of Time’s Most Influential People, five Grammy wins, and hosting and performing at President Joe Biden’s first state dinner—were the culmination of a long-term struggle and, repeatedly, his greatest successes have been paired with grave troubles. “If you look at my journey, it’s an insult to call it a rollercoaster,” he says. “It’s more than that.”

The same week he was nominated for 11 Grammys in November 2021, his partner, the journalist and New York Times best-selling author Suleika Jaouad, was diagnosed with a second bout of leukemia. They married three months later but didn’t honeymoon, because she had a bone marrow transplant the next day. The day after Batiste won a historic Album of the Year Grammy for We Are in April 2022, Jaouad went back into Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and he spent three weeks sleeping on a hospital couch.

She’s currently cancer-free, Batiste says, but he also makes it clear that there’s still plenty to struggle with. “It hasn’t stopped,” he says with an easygoing laugh.

Batiste puts a lot on his shoulders, as is evident from his ambitious and sprawling new album, World Music Radio, which attempts nothing less than the peaceful coalition of a United Nations of different musical styles. The album, which is narrated by Batiste in the fictional guise of a DJ, Billy Bob Bo Bob, has lyrics in English, French, Spanish, and Korean, songs that scramble up R&B, rap, jazz, gospel, reggaeton, and country, and guest artists from Colombia, Nigeria, Iran, France, Catalonia, England, and Korea in addition to rapper Lil Wayne, singer Lana Del Rey, the Native American music group Native Soul, and smooth-sax master Kenny G. The album credits are nearly as lengthy as the crawl at the end of a Marvel movie.

Although the success of We Are made him well-known, he’d been prolific even before its release in March 2021, amassing a catalog with five albums, four live records, eight EPs, the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the Pixar film Soul, and a few collaborative albums. He began to conjoin a variety of styles with the 2013 album Social Music, a title that has become a kind of mantra for him, to describe his ideal of music; soulful, fun, and accessible without sacrificing its thoughtfulness.

During an unusually heavy and philosophical 50-minute phone conversation from the Brooklyn home he and Jaouad share, Batiste talked about how Pink Floyd influenced him, why he wanted Kenny G on World Music Radio, what he learned during Black Lives Matter protests, and the origin of what he calls psychosis in America.

GQ: It’s pretty common to hear New Orleans musicians liken the city’s music to a gumbo with lots of different ingredients. That’s valid, but it’s not as precise as it could be. In terms of World Music Radio, the important detail about New Orleans is that it’s a port city, right?

Jon Batiste: Totally. The port city magic is real. It’s funny, because [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon was an influence on this record, less sonically and more via the conception of portals opening up within the narrative thread of the album. I think about port cities and portals as being synonymous. And with Dark Side of the Moon, the listener has to figure out the language—how am I being guided through these different worlds, and when is a portal opening up? The whole conception of a portal is one of the things that World Music Radio utilizes to convey a narrative.

Does the portal take you to New Orleans?

There is a specific moment where it does. I’m New Orleans to my bones, so I don’t ever have to intentionally go there. The rhythms I play, the DNA of Social Music, my whole approach to live performance, all of it is informed by a strong genetic code of New Orleans in the DNA of Jon Batiste. It’s coded in.


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Jon Batiste on His New Record and Growing Up Alongside Lil Wayne in New Orleans

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