One Joint with Ro James
With the debut of his first album, El Dorado (2016), R&B singer and songwriter Ro James immediately collected a Grammy nod; his song "Permission," received a nomination for Best R&B Performance that year. James is writing and performing the kind of R&B we haven't quite gotten enough of since Jodeci and Ginuwine seduced us, and he has, as he told me, “had a lot of sex,” a notion that comes through confidently in his soulfully raunchy music: it's Ro-mantic. James asked to meet at Crosby Collective Studios, where he was busy recording music for his sophomore album due out soon.
Alyssa Shapiro: What’s important to you?
Ro James: My friends, a lot of them are artists, too, so their careers are important to me. My daughter, her name is River—I’m a water sign.
AS: Are you into astrology?
RJ: Somewhat; I’m really into my own. I base my knowledge of other people’s astrological sign off of the relationships I’ve had. I know Geminis are pretty out of pocket. Are you a Gemini?
RJ: You know how I knew? Because I walked in and was like, oh, she’s cool, I like her. For real, Geminis have a cool energy, but then when you get the other side of them, you’re like, yo! I’m a Scorpio, so it’s like… the energy is great, you get both sides.
AS: So you are into astrology! More on that later. Tell me about the first time you got high.
RJ: I have some bad stories too. But I was with my brother, and it was Thanksgiving, and I really didn’t want to be in Indiana for Thanksgiving. He was like, ‘Listen, we’re going to smoke before we go in,’ and I looked at him like, you smoke?! I never knew. I was about 20. I had tried it when I was 16 and I didn’t get high, like fuck that shit. So it was the best Thanksgiving ever. The food was so amazing. Everything was entertaining.
AS: And you’ve had bad experiences?
RJ: I was trying not to use paper, and I was going to smoke out of a glass pipe. I was laughing and I chipped my tooth! This tooth right here [points to gold tooth].
AS: Looks like you turned it into an opportunity.
RJ: My family’s from Panama. A lot of my aunts and grandparents have gold teeth, mostly open faces. It’s part of Panamanian culture. My mom was always like, ’No, that’s the ghetto, you don’t get gold teeth.’ But I really wanted it! I said, ‘You’re raising me right! I’m not a hoodlum. I just want to do it.’ So When I finally chipped my tooth, I saw it as the golden opportunity.
AS: Nice one.
RJ: It’s a part of me now. I forget it’s there. It was probably seven years ago.
AS: You write all your own music, right? What’s your favorite lyric you’ve ever written?
RJ: To this day, everyday I plug my phone in, this song comes on first. "A.D.I.D.A.S." I see your face when I close my eyes/ When you’re away I write stories about you in my mind/ ‘Cuz this love is one of a kind/ All day I. It’s poetic and it’s real for me. I wrote the music without even writing the words, I closed my eyes and heard the guitar chord. I went in the booth and just felt. I was thinking, oddly enough, about my last girlfriend when I was writing it. We wasn’t even together yet. She was my muse. It was like, ‘You’re amazing. At the same time, you’re fucked up! I love you and I feel like I want to be the one to help you and save you.’ And that’s the thing, we can’t save other people. I had to learn that myself.
AS: Are you still friends?
RJ: Nah. Not possible.
AS: Favorite lyric that someone else wrote?
RJ: As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving/ and the rosebuds know to bloom in early May/ just as hate knows love’s the cure/ you can rest your mind assure/ that I’ll be loving you always. Amazing. Stevie Wonder. It made me appreciate real love and meaning and being inspired by the feeling somebody gives you, versus just being like, I’m about to write a hit! What’s going to get somebody to feel it?
AS: You moved around a lot growing up; how do you make a new space feel comfortable?
RJ: I sage a place. Of course. But that’s natural.
AS: Not for everyone.
RJ: That’s true, I have to remember that there are a lot of people who don’t do that. It’s like, you don’t?! My aunt taught me to preserve my energy and protect my space, be conscious of my thoughts and how I think and what I say. We’re friends with a lot of different people, we meet a lot of different energies. Some people just aren’t for us. There are people you get around and you feel like, ‘Yo, hell yeah! We’re Voltron!’ It taught me to be discerning of that. What’s good for me?
AS: How do you protect yourself when you’re on the road, meeting so many people every day? And you have to be nice to everyone.
RJ: I’m solid. Being a military kid has allowed me to be able to adapt to every type of person. Going to these new places is cool — until people get weird. But I like to meet new people and talk and exchange energy, that’s what I’m there for. My first tour, I made sure that I was able to do that in my meet-and-greets. They got crazy, but it was important to me—
AS: Crazy how?
RJ: Girls would grab my dick, pull me into them. They’d be like ‘Can you wrap your arms around me,’ then they’d push. Their boyfriends would be right there! Offer me money for sex. Crazy shit.
I’ve had a lot of sex in my life, so it’s not like I’m thirsty. I stay solid. My parents instilled that in me. About your heart and being a good person. What you do is going to come back to you. What you sow, you reap.
AS: Did being nominated for a Grammy shift your writing process at all?
RJ: On my first ride out, I got a nod. So I have to stay consistent and put out great music that’s true to me and explains who I am. Because that’s what they’re paying attention to.
AS: Your lyrics are frequently sexual. How do you get your parents’ judgement out of your head? Particularly coming from a religious background.
RJ: My mom loved listening to Whitney, my dad was into old school music. But then when I was about ten, my dad got into church, he threw all that shit away. So then it was John P. Kee, Daryl Coley. I would listen to it in the backseat because I had no choice. It was their voices that I really appreciated, and I would emulate. That’s what taught me tone. My dad was like, ‘You wanna listen to anything else, you can listen to Stevie Wonder, or Marvin Gaye, or Otis Redding.’ I was like, aight. I tapped into Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder. Their voices, their tone—it was poetic, so passionate. It reminded me of gospel.
I’m a Scorpio. So it’s a lot of sex, and thoughts of sex, and imagination. And then I heard Jodeci, and I was like, ‘This shit is dirty!’ Prince. When I first saw Purple Rain, it changed my life. It made me think, ‘I don’t give a fuck, I’m writing this shit!’ It inspired me to write what I feel. I believed it. I could relate.
AS: Has your belief system shifted since you’ve grown up?
RJ: Absolutely and not really. I’ve always been a rebel. I’ve always been wild, doing what I want to do. But church was definitely a big part of my life; my father was a pastor. We was in church a lot. I grew to hate it only because I heard stories of pastors taking advantage of the people in the church they’re supposed to be helping… It made me a little bit jaded.
But what I did take from it is how to be a good person, how to believe in god, and how to tap into myself. And that’s faith. That faith can go through anything, not just church. I have faith that I’m gonna get this Grammy— and you really believe that, it’s not about the Grammy but it’s about the energy: This is going to be my greatest work, every time.