“It feels too good to be back home,” Ari Lennox tells a sold-out crowd at U Street Music Hall on an unseasonably warm night in January. The show was her fifth in the area in as many months since releasing her debut EP “Pho” in October. But for the past five years, she’d been away from the place she called home.
Like many of the DMV’s rising generation of breakout singers — Grammy-nominated crooner Gallant and futuristic vocalist Kelela among them — Lennox got her big break outside the District. She’d just started a job at Public Storage in Charlotte when she was contacted by Dreamville Records, a label founded by rapper J. Cole and his manager, Ibrahim Hamad. It was a moment aspiring artists dream of: a trip to Los Angeles for a few studio sessions with Cole, who was working with fellow superstar Rihanna at the time. Still, she hesitated.
“She was excited, but at the same time, she was kind of making excuses about her new job . . . I was kind of confused,” Hamad said, recalling their initial phone call.
“I didn’t [care] about that job,” 25-year-old Lennox admits. “Really, it was the plane. I’m still getting over that. I get mad religious when I’m in the air because it’s so supernatural to me. It was my first flight in a long time.”
She wound up taking a Greyhound bus back to Charlotte to avoid the stress of another plane ride. That gave her plenty of time to reflect, but also worry. She felt that Cole didn’t seem excited about her, and she was unsure if she’d made the right impression. Hamad was immediately convinced, though.
“Those couple of days in the studio, seeing her writing and recording on the spot, I knew this is something different,” said Hamad. “This is true, raw talent.”
Whether out of necessity or by happenstance, many of the area’s artists ultimately leave to pound the pavement in New York City or Los Angeles. In R&B, especially, the need to tie oneself to a place
is virtually nonexistent; home towns are simply footnotes to bigger stories. Nevertheless, Lennox takes great pride in being from Washington, a city that was home to singers such as Mya and Amerie, whom Lennox cites as major influences. She says it’s an honor to be from what she calls the “coolest city in America,” crediting it for toughening her up.
D.C. “teaches you how to hustle. I remember trying to be popular as a singer here — it was so hard,” she says in the green room at U Street Music Hall. “I’d be at these different clubs passing out my business cards and fliers. Then the club would end, the light would come on and all my business cards would be on the floor.”
The old “you never know who’s watching” cliche has turned out to be a recurring theme in her life. It was the case for DJ Komari, who met Lennox when they were both students at Wilson High School (one of several schools she attended). Before he became her DJ, his earliest memories of Lennox were of her voice in their 11th-grade music class and of her and her fliers around the clubs. It was also the case when Dreamville rapper Omen stumbled upon her music via the Internet.
Lennox’s ascension is a testament to both perseverance and the tangible impact of technology. In the music industry, the Internet can become a real-life representation of the tortoise and the hare. Going viral yields immediate results — a fan base that rises exponentially within days and, in some cases, can result in a record deal. But many artists who lean too heavily on that method find themselves with short-lived fame; viral isn’t always viable. Conversely, there’s sustainability in the slow build. In this way, Lennox has found a perfect home with Dreamville.
J. Cole may be the quintessential example of what organic success in the Internet era looks like. He released a slew of mix tapes that eventually earned him a deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation label in 2010, and all four of his albums since have held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart.
Though still early in her career, Lennox has followed a similar path. She began uploading covers to YouTube and, later, original songs to SoundCloud. Her covers garnered some attention, but not enough to book any serious shows. In 2013, she released her “Ariography” EP — a seven-track showcase of her majestic voice and candid songwriting. This EP eventually caught Omen’s ear and inspired him to reach out for a collaboration that would lay the groundwork for her introduction to Cole.
“At the end of the day, I was getting really close to quitting,” Lennox confesses. “I was starting to accept that maybe I’m just going to be a SoundCloud singer, and that’s when Dreamville came and saved me.”
That frankness conveys throughout every facet of her presentation. Her onstage and offstage appearance is casual and natural, though there’s an undefinable star quality that makes her stand out in a room. She’s poised and graceful; the anxiety she talks about is all but invisible to onlookers. Her aesthetic is one that’s undervalued in an industry that prizes glammed-up versions of a woman’s sexuality.
“People come in and tell them they have to look super-sexy or dress like this or dance like this,” Hamad says. “Sometimes when people see that, they don’t recognize that. They don’t know that person. Those people are not in your everyday lives.”
Certainly, relatability plays a role in Lennox’s draw. It feels easy to connect to her in music, and as she’s found her voice, she’s found the courage to be a better version of herself. “There are other things about a woman that’s sexy, like her intellect, what she’s saying, the natural beautiful coils that spring out of her hair, what she stands for.”
One of those things she stands for is unadulterated self-love and making music that reflects that. Her “Pho” EP encapsulates the multidimensional experience of womanhood in a language that alternates between profane and politically correct sensuality. She’s found relief in the Dreamville method that encourages its artists to make the music they want to make and not the music that “works.” If a chart topper is in the cards for Lennox, it will be on her own terms.
“They instill in us that the best feeling is making a song from your heart that just happens to take off,” she says. “It’s the best feeling when you’re not trying too hard for it. It’s a blessing.”