Algebra: The Real Math

There seems to be no end to the musical talent coming out of Atlanta. Where urban legends are made and trap muzik is played, the Peachtree state has become a mecca with bragging rights to some of the most gifted singers, songwriters and producers in the game. True to form, the newest member on her […]

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There seems to be no end to the musical talent coming out of Atlanta. Where urban legends are made and trap muzik is played, the Peachtree state has become a mecca with bragging rights to some of the most gifted singers, songwriters and producers in the game. True to form, the newest member on her way to represent Atlanta’s elite roster is Kedar Massenberg protégé, Algebra.

After singing background for many acts including Monica and Bilal, Algebra – her given name – calculated her moves to become more than just the silky voice that played the back. Soft-spoken but determined, she taught herself how to play guitar and proceeded to hit Atlanta’s open mic circuit. Eventually, Kedar found her and signed her as the first act to represent the revamped Kedar Entertainment Group.

She recently took her show on the road as the opening act for both Kem and Keyshia Cole, and continues to touch audiences with her raw talent. Her voice is reminiscent of India.Arie with the spirituality of Badu, but she clearly remains an equation all her own. Alternatives took some time to vibe with Algebra about embarking on her latest musical voyage. Alternatives: What do you remember to be your first introduction to music?

Algebra: My mother singing. My mother is a singer, songwriter. She’s a musician – just growing up around her and my great-grandmother. My mom said she used to sing to me while she was carrying me so that’s probably what it is.

AHHA: Do you recall when you decided to make a career out of making music?

Algebra: Yes I do. The way that I was raised – I couldn’t do a lot of things on the weekends. Like I couldn’t wear pants, and stuff like that, so in order for me to get the opportunity to do anything, and not do the things that my mom wanted me to do, I joined the gospel choir. She’s a minister so she was like, “Yeah!” I kind of finagled my way into doing stuff like that. When I started taking it really, really serious? Around eighth grade, going into high school – I went to a performing arts high school.

AHHA: Now were you able to listen to secular music?

Algebra: Yeah, my mother loved music. She was very open-minded about music. She’s one of those people that good music is good music regardless of where it’s coming from. Now I don’t want you stripping, doing none of that, but if it feels good and it makes you happy and makes you feel emotional, sad, whatever, then its good music. It wasn’t a strict church background or upbringing. It was more like this is The Word – you have to know this. Before you can sing this R&B song you got to be able to sing this. If you’re gonna decipher through this R&B song, secular, then you have to be able to tell me what this gospel song means. It was real.

AHHA: Some of your first work as a professional was as a background singer. Did that experience play a role in your decision to try your luck as a lead singer? Or was being a solo act always the agenda?

Algebra: It played a big part in it. I’ve done groups before. I’ve done background with people before. I never had a desire to just [be in front]. It just evolved into that. I mean I love doing background. I still do background for some of my friends now. If Rashaan Patterson calls, “Algebra, I need you” – I’m there.

AHHA: Who would you say were some of your earliest musical influences?

Algebra: Besides my mom, I know I have to keep bringing her up. I was brought up on quartet music. The Harrison Gospel Singers – that would be very, very underground for the gospel world. The Spiritual Horizons. My mother listened to a lot of Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Earth, Wind & Fire, funk music – she was heavily into that because she’s a bass player so her thing was a bass line. I was there! She loved it. I got more into Nina Simone the older I got; I relate to her so much.

AHHA: What, or who, would you say inspires your songwriting?

Algebra: Sometimes I don’t know where it comes from. I mean I know where it comes from. Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and be like, “Wow, where was I?” Sometimes I just don’t know. It’s honest, I do know that, but I won’t remember what mind frame I was in. I have to say God. I never force it.

AHHA: You had the opportunity to work with two-time Grammy-nominated songwriter, Bryan Michael Cox, who has worked with some of the best in the industry.

Algebra: [smiles] Yeah! That’s my buddy.

AHHA: How would you say that experience contributed to your songwriting game and/or the depth of your album?

Algebra: Well, I’ve been knowing Bryan for a long time, and he’s one of the producers that have believed in me for a long time, even before the Grammy’s, before the accolades and the recognition. He’s a music lover himself and I would always tell Bryan I didn’t want the records that he gave everybody else. I wanted what he did when he shed – and by that I mean when he’s just by himself and getting into the groove of things. He didn’t want to do that but for some reason like a month went by and he did it. And it’s easy to work with him. He’s a good guy. It’s very balancing for me because he’s Hip-Hop, he’s R&B, he’s jazz, like nobody would ever know but he can really play jazz. He’s really good. And me, learning so much, I think we bounce pretty good off of each other. A lot of people will hear some of the songs that he’s done, they won’t know that Bryan did it, because he’s just one of them kind of guys.

AHHA: In the early days of your career, you did the ATL open mic circuit? How did that experience help you prepare for the real deal?

Algebra: It prepared me for loneliness – for being alone. The open mic circuit was all about doing cover songs. I’m the worst at doing covers, because I never remember the words, and I end up freestyling over somebody else’s song. [laughs] But it kind of forced me to learn how to play guitar and write my own songs and really go out there. It humbled me a whole lot. It’s always something bigger than what you’re bringing to the table so it helped.

AHHA: How did you connect with Kedar?

Algebra: Motown. He was over at Motown, and I would not sign that paperwork unless this guy heard me, and understood me because, of course, I’m playing the guitar a little bit. The way I look or dress, it’s not necessarily mainstream and very glammed out. It’s very relaxed and comfortable. So going to any other label is like, okay, well we already have another India, we already have another Lauren, we already have another Erykah, Jill, and that’s not what I do. But he heard me and he understood that, and that was key, and I don’t think anybody else would. Even though now we’re not at Motown, but I still believe that he gets it. I mean he coined the phrase ‘neo-soul’, so he understands what I am and what I’m not, and not a lot of people in the music industry would’ve understood that.

AHHA: Kedar is responsible for the start of some incredible careers: Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Chico DeBarge. As a rookie in Kedar’s camp and first release on the new label, does the fact that the bar has been set so high set off intimidation or motivation?

Algebra: Motivation! That’s great. It’s always a problem, especially with female artists, there’s a competitive spirit, or a competitive thread. It’s kind of like Kedar is their ex-boyfriend, now he’s my boyfriend now. It’s not that! It’s so not that. He’s responsible for them, and he kind of guided their careers and it’s a very big…it’s a respect factor. If it wasn’t for Erykah then there are a lot of things I wouldn’t be able to do. If it wasn’t for India[Arie] – D’Angelo as well. And a lot of other artists: Chico DeBarge.

There’s just so many other soul artists, but unfortunately Rhythm & Blues has been turned into this fashionable thing. If you don’t have the straight hair, it’s very typical, and I’m not downplaying anybody, but at a certain point in everybody’s life, you change. You know what I mean? I had a perm. I loved my perm but at one point in my life it’s like I have never known the texture of my hair, and I got some nappy stuff. [laughs] But just to know that you give comfort to yourself and it’s not about religion or spirituality. It’s about you finding you and finding your person. So I think with Kedar – he found these artists, he kind of molded them, but he allowed them to do what they do. He manages Joe, and Joe is mainstream R&B – but at the end of the day, this is what this man does, and nobody can do a Joe album. Nobody.

AHHA: Records, tapes or discs you could not live without?

Algebra: Okay, where do I start. I cannot live without my Nina Simone collection; my Donny Hathaway collection. I cannot, cannot live without my Bilal records. I cannot, cannot, cannot live without my John Meyer. [whispers] I cannot live without him. I love you, John. [laughs] Young Jeezy, of course. And I cannot live without my [gospel artist] Kim Burrell records. She’s phenomenal. Once you hear her, she’s what every female R&B girl wants to sound like. She’s kind of like the equivalent to – I wouldn’t say the equivalent, but she kind of came up under the direction of Karen Clark’s parents of The Clark Sisters family. Not even the way she sings, she just has a ministry in her songs. I think I love her more for her songs than her voice.

Donny Hathaway, he could just hum and I’m gone, but it’s something in the way that they give it and what they say, it means so much. Nina Simone, when she’s singing cover songs, it’s how she’s singing it, not even about the way she’s singing it, it’s how its projected through her.

AHHA: What would you like people to take away from this project?

Algebra: No matter what it takes, define what your purpose is. Whether it’s the music, the song, situations – that should be everybody’s mission. I just kind of preach that a little bit in my music just by giving my situations and how I feel. And know that change is inevitable; you’re gonna have good times, bad times. Think outside the box no matter what – and don’t be so judgmental. [laughs]