To watch Dwele's videos, you might think the neo-soul singer is naturally outgoing: he wears slick, fashionable outfits and moves with cool, measured confidence. He's worked with Kanye West — those are his languid vocals on the chorus on 2007 single "Flashing Lights" — and he's seen a Grammy nod for a re-imagined Earth, Wind, and Fire song, "That's the Way of the World." He seems to take the spotlight in stride.
Yet when Dwele — born Andwele Gardner — got his start a decade ago, he was a more bashful performer: "Why are you acting shy?" his mother asked at the time. "You're a ham!" The kid who would cut up at home, goofing off and recording commercials with his younger brother, turned out to have a touch of stage fright.
So, the 36-year-old singer, who performs at the Neighborhood Theatre on June 22, came up with an alter-ego — one more OK with the attention. "Rocky Ashton is that guy that you either love or you hate to love," he explains. "He's a turned-up individual, pretty much."
The Rocky Ashton solution reflects a pattern to Dwele's life and, indeed, his success: whatever has come his way, he's been able to both survive and draw strength from. He still lives in his native Detroit — a city regularly presented as a cautionary tale of societal breakdown and the place where his father was shot and killed. Yet he's positive about Detroit: in fact, he makes sure to film all his videos here.
"There are certain parts of Detroit that are run down and abandoned, but there's a beauty in Detroit," he says. He's in the city, in fact: he's home during a brief tour break, and he's just picked up his brother from the airport. "I don't know when it happened, but at a certain point in time it became much more popular to speak about the negatives of Detroit."
The city has been the butt of apocalyptic jokes for at least the 10 years Dwele's been touring, so he tries to show the sides of the city documentary cameras typically overlook. After all, Detroit was the birthplace of Motown — one of the 20th century's most significant pop music institutions.
"Because there was Motown, our mothers, father, aunts and uncles, they picked up music, they gravitated toward music," the singer explains. "And that's why there are so many musicians in Detroit, because we came up seeing our elders doing it." His own mom — a retired teacher — also sang. And his late father — a doctor — used to play the drums and organ in church.
Yet his dad was also murdered outside of the family home when Dwele was 10. The singer has no qualms with talking about it — after all, it was so long ago that it's simply become a fact of life. His dad, though, bought Dwele his first organ and taught him his first chords. Music, then, is an active way of keeping his father's spirit alive.
"After he passed, I thought that was a way to keep a part of him with me, by continuing on with music," Dwele says. Music became therapeutic and, eventually, an everyday thing.
Today Dwele plays multiple instruments and has collaborated with more musicians than he can name off the top of his head, from jazz artists like Boney James to rappers like Common and Kanye. He worked closely with the late J Dilla — "every producer's favorite producer" — and garnered valuable lessons in production from what amounted to an apprenticeship. Years later, and Dwele is still learning — from every collaboration, he says, comes a lesson.
From Kanye, Dwele realized that less can be more. When Dwele worked on "Flashing Lights," he recalls going into the studio and doing his usual — layering harmonies and inserting little flourishes ("Dwele-isms") in the hook. "That's cool," Kanye told him, "but I'm trying to rock stadiums with this song." So, everything got cut but the basic melody — the idea, and the lesson, was to give big arena audiences an obvious hook to latch onto and sing along with.
But today he's home in Detroit, enjoying a welcome reunion with his brother before he returns to the road. And he seems to have found a balance between being Dwele — the calm, easy-going guy who lives for his art — and the perpetually turned-up Rocky Ashton. He knows when to don flashy clothes and be a cut-up and when to sit back, listen, and learn. And he seems to have lost his shyness.
"I used to be, but I'm not so sure how true that is now," he says of his old bashful nature, and laughs. "My little brother says, 'Negative, you are not shy anymore.'"
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