André 3000: An Exclusive Interview
He called us this morning to talk about making protest t-shirts, the renewed power of marches, life during the pandemic, and more
André 3000 has been making beautiful art since he was a kid — most prominently as one-half of OutKast, the epochal hip-hop duo he formed in Atlanta with his high school friend Big Boi. Yesterday, André released a limited-edition collection of t-shirts, on sale only through tomorrow, 100% of the proceeds from which will go to benefit the Movement for Black Lives.
The shirts are emblazoned with slogans that trace back to the summer of 2014 — in the aftermath of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — when André made 47 custom jumpsuits, emblazoned with such phrases, that he wore onstage during an OutKast reunion tour.
This morning André called up BLACKBIRD SPYPLANE to talk to us about the new shirts, life under quarantine, finding hope in the wave of antiracist protests spreading across the world — and also feeling rage, sadness and confusion, too: “It’s this perfect, ugly, nasty, beautiful feeling that I can’t describe,” he says. “But it’s so necessary.”
André’s original jumpsuits on exhibit at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2015
Blackbird Spyplane: Where are you right now?
André 3000: “I’m in New York — I came here for a couple days but I’ve been mainly stationed in Venice Beach during this coronavirus thing.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You included a statement with the new t-shirts: “Something very important is happening all over the world and it is happening to all of us. How does it make you feel?” So let me ask you, What’s happening all over the world, as you see it, and how does it make you feel?
André 3000: “It’s kind of twofold for me. For one, I’ve been knowing for a long time that this is a long time coming, and that things need to be set straight and questioned, and the questions are coming to a head. But I also see the damage and destruction when it comes to people’s businesses and livelihoods, so I’m torn. You know, some looters might be taking advantage of the situation for a pair of Jordans or a phone, and that pisses me off — but, you know what? It might have made things happen, so you can’t be mad at it.
“I feel like, marches, in the ‘60s, they worked, but over time they might have lost power. The opposition figures out the trick, and they figure out how to deaden it. Honestly, I lost hope in marches — until now. I saw it working again and I said, ‘Whoa.’ The thing is that, for it to work, people have to turn out, and now it’s kind of the perfect storm because corona had everyone at home, and we had nothing to do but react — and people wanted to be outside. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse: If everyone was at work right now, going about their business, the protest turnout wouldn’t be anywhere near as high. But it’s been a long time coming and it came to a head right now.”
Blackbird Spyplane: It’s so important that you stress how what’s happening “is happening to all of us.” We’ve gone so fast from a moment of dark, history-making connectedness — we saw how a virus can travel from person to person across the entire globe — to a moment of history-making isolation, with people alone in quarantine, to the current moment of history-making connectedness, where people are taking to the streets in the hundreds of thousands in the name of solidarity.
André 3000: “That’s right. It’s affecting all of us — things like classism and money separate us, but this sets the record straight. Of course there’s still injustices, in terms of testing and health care. I guess we’re seeing how bad it is, but that’s the point: this makes every one see it clearly. I love that part of it, because it’s making everyone respond in some type of way. You get to see who you really are.”
André’s IG post announcing the new shirts
Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve talked about how you were once diagnosed with a disorder that made you fear being around others — you’ve also talked about how the only thing that “brings you out of it is other people.” How has quarantine been — and have you been able to attend protests?
André 3000: “I’m an only child, so I’m used to being alone, by myself. Even in OutKast I was alone a lot. I’d be alone producing and then hook up with Big Boi. So I’m mostly a loner, but the thing that’s changed for me these days is I’m unable to see my friends unable to connect and touch people.
“I haven’t gotten out to any protests, to be honest. I would love to be out, but I haven’t been: personally, I felt like I wouldn’t want to risk the virus at all. I saw a lot of rappers getting pressured by people, with fans saying, ‘You need to be out here, where are y’all,’ but you have to think about it: How much of it is just for the people to say, We saw a celebrity there? What if your favorite rapper goes out — I’m not even talking about me, ‘cause I’m from the ‘90s, but the kids’ favorite rapper now, say they go out and catch corona and die? Were they more effective and valuable to all of us at home writing music, and doing what they do best?”
Blackbird Spyplane: We’ve marched a few times and even though it’s overwhelmingly positive, it also feels absolutely strange and stressful to be around that many people.
André 3000: “People screaming and touching! And when you scream there’s projectiles in the air. And yet, even with people knowing they could get the virus, they still turned out! So either they were really bored or they were so angry they said fuck it and went out anyway.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Most protest slogans are super direct, for obvious reasons: “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice No Peace,” “All Cops are Bastards,” “Defund the Police.” A lot of the phrases you put on your shirts are more abstract — more like invitations to ruminate…
André 3000: “So, to put it in context, all these slogans were made during the OutKast tour in 2014 — I wanted to find something to keep myself excited each night, because I didn’t have new verses and new songs, and it felt weird to play old songs from 1993, so I said, ‘Let me put these thoughts on my suits.’ Some were serious, some were silly. Just random thoughts like me admitting to loving fruit snacks! But also this was summer 2014 so with a lot of these suits I was responding to Ferguson in real time. So it was fun and serious and sad and everything. But they still make sense now — they ring even truer.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You make a point of noting that the shirts themselves were “made ethically” in L.A. by Everybody.World. A crucial component of global antiracist thinking is realizing that, around the world, the exploitation of working people disproportionately affects black and brown people.
André 3000: “Absolutely.”
Photo by Jason Nocito
Blackbird Spyplane: What does “made ethically” mean in this context, and why was that important to you?
André 3000: “Actually, a year and a half ago I met with the owners — it’s a woman-owned, woman-run company in L.A., and the cotton is recycled, so I sat with them and picked their brains and I felt good about that company. You’d have to look at their books to see what ‘made ethically’ means specifically, but they seemed to be doing great work in L.A., making great product and their hearts were in the right place.
“Making clothes over the years, learning about the industry, I’ve flown to China and Italy to see the sourcing for the things I’ve made, and every day I’m looking for better ways to make it make sense, because honestly a lot of these clothes we’re making aren’t necessary, so we have to find the best way to make these artful goods. We’re not in Alaska where we need to cover ourselves to survive — these are fashion. So we need to find ways to make the footprint smaller. For instance, I’m learning how much water it takes to make a shirt and I never knew that. I used to think, ‘How could clothes hurt people?’ I had no idea.”
Andre’s U.S. Army jacket featuring a photo of his son, Seven Sirius Benjamin, as a two-year-old amateur pianist. Photo by Andre.
Blackbird Spyplane: Since you were young, you’ve worn things that you created or modified yourself. This newsletter has a special focus on unique garments, objects, and artworks — is there a unique garment you cherish that carries a special meaning for you?
André 3000: “Ha, you put me on the spot, but yeah, I’m actually looking at a military jacket right now — an army green US Army jacket I’ve worn for years, and it’s tearing more and more. But on the back — you know how in the middle of shopping malls sometimes they have kiosks where you give them a digital picture and they put it on a t-shirt real fast?
“So, 20 years ago we were on tour during OutKast and I had a photo of my son, who was 2 years old at the time, and I got these shirts made at a mall. I don’t remember where. And a couple years ago I found one of the shirts in my basement and took it to a seamstress — she cut out the picture of my son and sewed it on the back of the jacket. It’s a photo of him tiptoeing over to a piano. So I wear it and love it, and I’ll be out with him, and now he’s 22 and taller than I am, and people will see the jacket and say, Is that your baby? And I say, Yup! He’s right here!”
-André 3000’s new protest tees are here
-The Movement for Black Lives is here
-Recent Blackbird Spyplane roundups of antiracist-solidarity shirts & artworks are here and here.
-Everybody.World is here.
-Opening photo of André via Broken Record.