Jon Batiste Is the Man Behind That Protest March with Music
Like a pied piper of soul, multitalented musician and The Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste attracts an audience wherever he goes.
If music existed in human form, its name would be Jon Batiste. Bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for the past six years, founder of the group Stay Human for longer than that, and player of 12 instruments (well, currently, unless he picked something else up last week), he is the musician for our times. Batiste has an uncanny way of metabolizing the moment, no more so than when he led “We Are — A Peaceful Protest March with Music” in the streets of New York City this past June. In a time of rage and darkness, Batiste, armed with a melodica and a smile, does his best to bring the light.
LAURA BROWN: I already admired you as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but the grace with which you led a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest this summer was striking. Tell me about your initial reaction to the protests after George Floyd’s death and how you were able to process it.
JON BATISTE: I find that we have a collective choice as a people to accept the truth or to live the lie. And in some cases, we have chosen to live the lie, which becomes a form of truth for a time.
LB: Sure, because you don’t question it.
JB: It gets to this point where it might as well be true. And we have power as humans; we’re always self-creating and making ourselves and our worlds what we envisioned in our mind. Our ideas are constantly becoming real life. So, my reaction was we need some truth tellers out here — and music has a way of uncovering the truth without words, without having to go too deep in the weeds of debate or dialogue. You can protest from a different perspective, without the dehumanizing impact of anger or feeling the need to prove your value. Everybody has value.
LB: You put on a smiling face on TV every night, although I’m sure sometimes you may not feel like it. How challenging is that?
JB: I find that the best face is the authentic one — the one that is the real you. That can be excruciatingly awkward at times because of the way people have decided to view Black Americans. Black America has been put into a box of thought and culture that is much smaller than the reality, and it becomes awkward when you step outside the confines of that. But I find that in times like this, the more awkward or uncomfortable, the better.
LB: In trauma there is the desire to retreat, but how do you buck yourself up? Does it help you to make music?
JB: I think more so than helping me, it’s who I am. I’m not defined by trauma, and I don’t think any of us are, but I think the best way to come through it is to go back home. You fly home, you go to a relationship that feels like home, or you go to a craft or way of creation. For me, it’s music and writing and dance and composition. They’re my internal creative home, my essence. I left Louisiana when I was 17 years old, graduated from high school early to move to the big city, New York. Home was something that I had to cultivate more intentionally. It was much easier when I was surrounded by my 30 cousins and uncles and aunts in New Orleans. Now, our country has become untethered from home a long time ago. So it’s not a question of Black American trauma or defining ourselves by that, but more a question of what, as individuals, brings us home and how we can share that with other people as a reflection of light within a dark time.
LB: How rewarding is it for you to make new music or score a film or do all the things you’ve been working on?
JB: Making something is the closest act of divinity that a human being can experience. Making a child, I’m sure is. I haven’t experienced that, but everyone talks about the feeling of seeing their son or their daughter for the first time. But just the idea of making something that was in your imagination, or seeing people cry to a song you wrote based on an experience, there’s nothing more magical than that.
LB: We deliberately didn’t talk before the election, given the ambiguity. How did you feel after the results came in?
JB: I had a sense of calm. I know that the things I did going into the election and the things I saw other people doing set something in motion in the universe. The result was almost predestined. It wasn’t a situation where it seemed as if people were in this dopamine-high utopia, which is what it felt like after [President] Obama was elected. We were collectively asleep at the wheel in a lot of ways. Besides creators like us, a lot of people weren’t in touch with what was happening in the culture.
LB: Creators read the room for a living.
JB: We live in that space. That’s why creators in any form are prophets. I led a protest in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and put my life on the line by deciding to go out and march. Ten thousand people in the middle of Manhattan, in a pandemic, followed my band from Union Square to Herald Square. People stayed out there until midnight. That let me know that this is bigger than me, and when I realize stuff is bigger than me, it allows me to have more compassion and empathy. And I was praying for everybody, really. Even for Trump.
LB: You went out there and managed to build a community with people you don’t know. That’s something you seem to do everywhere you go.
JB: My band name is Stay Human. Obviously, that’s something I’ve been touting for a while. If you can appeal to a person’s humanity, nine times out of 10, you’re going to get the best out of that person. Not saying everybody’s perfect or that we don’t all make mistakes and do things that are not a representation of our best, highest selves. But if you appeal to the humanity of people, over time, resolution will come. Ultimately, all we need and want is love and to be acknowledged.
LB: In The New York Times in June, Stephen Colbert said, “In the present darkness that constitutes so much of the national conversation, Jon, by his example and his spirit, gives me hope that I might do my job and maintain my own humanity. I believe long after no one knows who I am, the name Jon Batiste will be spoken with admiration.” I know you performed on The Colbert Report before you joined The Late Show. Tell me your origin story, and make it as romantic as possible, please.
JB: The first time Stephen and I ever spoke to each other was onstage at The Colbert Report in 2014. During the interview, there was a sense of comradery and kindred spirits connecting that I didn’t expect. He didn’t expect it either, I came to find out later. I had heard of the show but wasn’t an avid fan. He’d never heard my music, but we had the No. 1 independent album [The Process], and his producer, who saw us on tour, was like, “You got to talk to this guy.” So that’s how we met. There’s this moment in the interview where Stephen is saying things and I’m playing musical responses. It wasn’t rehearsed. We were on a vibe and were almost creating performance art. We became friends. Several months after my first appearance, he calls me and says, “I have this other thing I want to talk to you about.” And at the time I was already writing him a letter saying congratulations because I had heard about his new gig as host of The Late Show.
LB: That’s amazing.
JB: He asked me to do it. I said yes. I was 26 or 27 and only doing independent music. There were so many record deals on the table and music-industry people saying, “We want to make you a star.” That was where I was trying to go, but then this TV thing came about. I was just like, “Oh, well, I love this guy. I don’t know what this gig is.” I wasn’t looking for the bandleader position on The Late Show, but it felt like everything was moving to bring us together. Obviously, I said yes, and the rest is history. It’s 1,000 shows as of yesterday.
LB: Stephen was hosting the show from his home for months, as were you. Through the pandemic and the protests, how much did you actively discuss how you wanted to make people feel?
JB: I follow Stephen’s lead. He calls every so often to check in about how I’m feeling on the national conversation and what things I want to bring into the light. At the beginning of this [Trump] administration, he said, “I’m going to take a stand in a way that is going to bring a lot of [attention], and as a part of the show and as my partner on the stage, you should feel inclined to voice your opinion and be who you are in this, even if it’s not always aligned with me.” That mandate has been what has gotten us through this time. As things happened in the country and impacted the Black community, I had things that I wanted to voice on the show because of the way they affected me personally. Or even at home, I had a tragedy before the pandemic when Kobe Bryant died. I knew Kobe; he was a giant to me. The day he died, I was with Kanye [West] at the Sunday service. We were in the area, 10 minutes away.
LB: That day? Oh, no.
JB: [Stephen] asked, “Do you want to talk about Kobe?” When we talk on air, we have real conversations. Sometimes it’s about what we’re doing for Thanksgiving. Other times it’s about Kobe passing away. Or it’s about, “This is what’s happening in the world. I’m going to go out and protest.” It’s a network. They don’t really want me to go out and protest during a pandemic when there are race riots going on and police are killing Black men. CBS doesn’t want me to be in the street protesting.
LB: They want you comfortable at home having a nice dinner.
JB: Yeah. And I told Stephen, “I have to do this.” And no shade to the other hosts, but that’s what makes Stephen Colbert incredible. He is a one-of-a-kind performer who has a perspective based on his skill set: his understanding of trauma, his intellect, and his ability to be funny while also speaking to the national conversation. It’s his humanity. There’s nobody on television — or in the world — like him.
LB: I want to talk about another powerful man: your grandfather. He ran a postal union in New Orleans?
JB: Yes, it was incredible.
LB: Obviously, I want to hear about his influence on you musically, but it must have struck you recently with everything going on with the USPS. Tell me about him and what he’s made of this.
JB: My grandfather David is amazing at this point in his life. He’s 85 years old and runs 2 miles every day. Still keeps up with everything that’s going on in the world. He’s my last grandparent left. He comes from such a lineage of fighters. I think about my family and my birthday on Veterans Day.
LB: What a legend. Does he call you up on your birthday?
JB: Yes, speaking to him fills me up, because he’s fought for so much. I save a lot of his texts. We’re building a new house in Brooklyn, and I’m going to frame them. For me, they’re milestones. Not necessarily career milestones but stuff that feeds into who I am and who I want to be. That really is something that reminds you, “This is home.”
Stevie Wonder has also been calling me for the past three years. We talk for an hour or two, and I’ve recorded our conversations. He is one of my heroes. I met him a few years ago when he was doing the Songs in the Key of Life tour, and we played the national anthem together before the 2016 election. From there, we kept in touch, and he’s been this light for me. So, on my birthday, he calls and we just kind of go through, “What do you want to do with this year? What’s your feeling?” And he told me, “Don’t let anyone or anything take your joy away.”
LB: OK. Just a really basic question: How many instruments do you play?
JB: Hmm, 12? I make music out of whatever I’m inspired to make music out of. I picked up a few instruments in this quarantine era. It’s been great, actually. It’s really special to have that channel. I hope it never goes away, but while I have it, I’m just fortunate to be able to pick up instruments and make music.
LB: What’s the song that brings out the 8-year-old boy in you?
JB: “Oo-De-Lally” from Robin Hood. It’s the bear-in-the-forest song. [Starts singing.]
LB: On top of your musicality, you have style in your bones. As a teenager, what were you buying?
JB: I like looking at people who are living everyday life and are dressed for the occasion. And then I elevate that to the stage. Cowboy chic, I like that. I take “farmer” and tailor it. I think about the colors of the jumpsuits or sweats worn by steelworkers, or when you go to the South, workers at the dock. Find that and put that in Technicolor. At the protest, I had some camouflage overalls, but then underneath I had a Hugo Boss button-up shirt. And I did this collaboration with Coach — it’s a trenchcoat, but then you got Basquiat paintings on it.
LB: So rad.
JB: That, to me, is the vibe. Basic Americana blue jeans and a white shirt but with a dope chain that’s ’80s hip-hop. It’s all stuff that resonates with you or your lineage; none of it is you fitting into a style. I grew up from generations of farmers in Glynn County, Ga., on my father’s side. Thinking about six generations of farmers and the people in my family who were in the military. They served in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam War. So you get camouflage, and when you wear it, it resonates how you feel. It’s not wearing you. Because look at me, they would never have dreamed that I would be up here doing [this], and I’m wearing these things.
LB: A sense of occasion dressing doesn’t have to be flagrant or show-offy. It’s honoring, and it’s joyful. What’s the last thing you got that made you go, “Ooh!”?
JB: Those camouflage overalls. I’ve been living in a rural part of the state with this culture of fishing, and those are made to be standing in the middle of the river. But I had them with a pair of bronze Jordan 1s.
LB: What are you ambitious for in 2021? What do you want to put out there?
JB: I actually wrote down a few of the guiding principles of 2021 for me, and they are, “Be present, be progress-oriented, be spirit-led, be intentional, be disciplined, and be in service to the forgotten.” It’s a practice I do when my birthday hits [in November], because it’s leading into the next year. So, funny enough, I was prepared for this question.
For more stories like this, pick up the January 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Dec 18th.