“I'm comin’ up Lord, although my burdens sometime they press me down, but if I can only keep this faith I’ll have strength just to run this race; I’m lookin’ for my starry crown.” — “Rough Side of the Mountain” by Rev. F.C. Barnes
The Georgia elevation where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in 1915 and that played host to a pro-Confederate flag rally in July of this year has somehow managed to become something for everyone. For families visiting from every country, it’s a nice tourist attraction. For workout warriors of every age, it’s a challenging hike and run. For people of every color who are just stressed the fuck out, it’s a calming meditation space. For being such a massive immovable object, Stone Mountain is pretty fluid.
But on this misty late-summer morning, fluidity isn’t its strong suit. Rain from the night before and overcast skies have made this place a slippery slope. The climb to the top is doable, if you’ve got the right footwear and your senses are keen. However, if you're trying to walk up this wet mountain with worn soles and extra baggage, you’re busting your ass. Repeatedly.
Singer-songwriter India Shawn has made this hike before, and she knows what the summit looks like. Even though she admits that patience isn’t her strongest virtue, she appears to be in no real rush to get there. If she walks too fast she may miss something, whether it be a bird to observe or a twig in the path to avoid. But she also knows that if she walks too slow the hike will become more agonizing with every step, eventually making her consider stopping and turning around.
“Yes, my legs are killing me,” she laughs, with a sigh right after. She’s been in the gym doing weight training and yesterday was leg day. The discomfort can be viewed as a test of will and strength. Or it can be a sign to go sit your ass down somewhere.
But with the heavy rains looking like they want an encore, sitting in puddles or walking downhill in a storm are not options. Plus, she isn’t out here alone. She has her manager, Paris “PK” Kirk, and a small camera crew in tow, all of whom woke up at 4:30 in the morning just for her. India isn’t stuck in the rain yet, but she can’t turn back either.
Raised in West Covina, Calif., India grew up the youngest of four in a single-parent household. Her mother worked as a medical transcriber and moonlighted as the praise and worship leader at their church. When India was turning 16 years old, the family got bored with L.A. and decided to move down South.
“We packed up everything, sold a lot of stuff, hopped on a plane and left,” says India. “It was really random.”
Shawn landed in Atlanta in 2004, during the height of the crunk era. Her new classmates at North Springs High School all dressed like extras for a Crime Mob video; guys in tall tees to their knees, girls in dresses way above theirs. Although India and her family were now calling Georgia home, the events that followed were straight out of a Hollywood script.
Just months after settling in, India was walking through a Best Buy parking lot singing to herself (Mya, “Fallen,” if you were wondering). She was singing just loud enough to be overheard by a guy who offered to take her to a studio and record. She accepted, and that night, he introduced her to the man who became her first manager. They hit the ground running.
When India was turning 16 years old, the family got bored with L.A. and decided to move down South. “We packed up everything, sold a lot of stuff, hopped on a plane and left.”
Instead of being in class, India was in and out of studio sessions and label meetings. While her classmates were trying to find reasons to leave school early, she had real reasons to do so, like singing the national anthem at Georgia State basketball games.
“My high school career was a blur,” admits India. “I don’t even think I have a picture in my senior year yearbook.”
Despite all her extracurriculars, India did finish high school and enrolled at Georgia State in 2006 to study sociology and non-profits. Still balancing her budding career with school, India formed a three-woman songwriting team named Full Circle with her sister Jazmyn Michel and friend Kesia Hollins. In moving around, the trio forged a working relationship with producer Hit-Boy and began writing reference tracks to his beats. Hit-Boy took what he was hearing to his boss at the time, hitmaker Polow Da Don. Impressed by what he heard, he signed India and her squad to a publishing deal with his company, Zone 4, through Universal. With a road to riches and fame looking like it was laid out right in front of her, India quit college and moved back to Los Angeles.
India found herself in studios working with and writing songs for Diddy and Dirty Money, M.I.A., Monica and Chris Brown. She was in the studio with Dr. Dre coming up with hooks for the Detox album that’s never coming out. But even with the high profile placements, she didn’t like the feeling of neglecting her own music.
“I really didn’t like that time of providing the service of songwriting,” she says. “When you’re writing for other artists, you are providing a service until people want your style. I didn’t like that I couldn’t have as much input.”
There was one time when she did have input, but not the kind she liked. Budding pop princess Keri Hilson was going for some edge with her 2010 sophomore album No Boys Allowed, and India, by way of her pub deal with Zone 4, was enlisted to write on it. She lent her pen to the album’s most controversial song “The Way You Love Me.” Lines like, “Fuck me, fuck me, it’s the way you fuck me,” and “I got the kind of pussy that will keep you off the streets,” raised eyebrows, considering the source. The accompanying glam porn-ish video sought to raise a little more. To date, the video has 15 million views on Vevo, but Vevo doesn’t surface the number of those views that happened on mute. Which is fine by India.
“I really didn’t like that time of providing the service of songwriting.”
“I don’t talk about it,” says India, whose publishing company's name is Nuns With Attitude, a name given to her by Dr. Dre. “I’m not a prude, but that song, I wasn’t in love with. Something didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t even want credit for it.”
India is taking credit for her most recent EP, Outer Limits, though. Co-written with and entirely produced by James Fauntleroy, the album’s been labeled “experimental R&B,” but it infuses everything from dance to folk. There are songs about mermaids and hooks that borrow from Ron Burgundy quotes. There are lyrics you’ll find yourself singing along with the second time you hear them, and there are others you may have to look up on Genius to decipher. This is R&B music that makes you want to think and feel, not just drink and fuck.
“Sometimes I just want to write a dumb ass song that’s the biggest song on the radio,” says Shawn. “But I have this thing in me that says ‘No, that’s not for you.’ Maybe that makes me who I am.”
“I actually care about what my family thinks. Maybe that’s a bad thing. I have that little voice inside me: ‘Are you going to be able to take this to your mom?’ I don’t want to be embarrassed about anything, I want to be proud.”
India’s manager PK is an ambitious fellow. He’s a genuine conversationalist and you get the sense that he feels like he can learn something from every person he meets, but he does have subtle ways of saying “Yeah, I knew that shit already.” He talks very matter of factly and names names. Not in a disrespectful fashion, but simply to draw a clear example.
For instance, in the middle of the Stone Mountain hike, PK is queried about India’s image and why they haven’t uploaded tons of content and music. He pulls out his phone and asks, “Have you seen that Post Malone video?” The video in question is one of him dancing around in tight denim shorts and a leopard print bandana singing “Why don’t you love me?” Since then, subsequent videos of the new star committing other offensive acts (including using the N-word) have surfaced, and some music fans have their fangs out for him.
“We aren’t just going to be uploading random things to the Internet,” he says. “That stuff never disappears. If we’re going to be on the web, we are not going to embarrass ourselves.”
PK’s been in management for a minute, but steering an R&B singer's career is him switching his style up. He managed a rap duo called Da Replacementz when he was a student athlete at Clark Atlanta University in the mid-'00s. He believed in the group so much that he used his student loan money to press up their mixtapes. He interned at both Ludacris’ Disturbing Tha Peace label and with DJ Drama’s former DJ collective The Aphilliates. He worked his way up to becoming head of A&R at DTP and is charged with, essentially, keeping Chris Bridges the movie star relevant as Ludacris the rapper. He’s also of part of Ebony Son Management, the firm that manages Luda and Big K.R.I.T. and has had past clients including Jeezy and David Banner.
A native Atlantan, he has both seen and been affected by the city’s constant musical shifts. When he first got into the music industry, albums (and mixtapes) were selling and checks were getting cut. Now, mixtapes are getting downloaded and checks are getting chased. Even though Atlanta has churned out its fair share of R&B stars, LaFace is a distant memory, and the city is clearly identified as a rap capital.
But when PK talks about music, he rarely mentions the genre. If you run into him, it’s likely to be at a lounge or an underground dance party. You’ll only see him at a concert or club if it’s work related. He isn’t necessarily disenchanted with rap, but he does seem to enjoy his time away from it. He is creatively and intellectually challenged by India’s trajectory.
“I wanted to bring her over to Ebony Son,” he reveals. “But people weren’t really moving on it. I wanted to get my vision and her music out, so I started doing it myself. I started the company for her, pretty much.” He named his firm Propel Management.
“I like venues with a stage where people know they are coming to a show,” India says with a smirk to dilute some of her bluntness. “I don’t like these networking venues where people are just getting off of work and drinking and talking. It’s hard for me. You don’t love me enough to stop talking right now?”
PK had known of India since she was in high school, but their professional relationship didn’t develop until around 2012. Almost from the moment she landed in Atlanta, India earned a reputation as the girl no one knew what to do with. Urban music industry people wanted to mold her into the next Brandy, but the music she wanted to make was more like Nelly Furtado’s. PK watched as India hired and fired people who never quite got her. One day she reached out to PK asking if he could connect her with show promoter Fadia Kader, who was booking a Jhene Aiko show in New York City. He put them in touch and voila, India was in business. From there, small favors and looks led to PK gradually taking on an official management role.
Their first project together was India’s debut album, Origin. India, with a sour taste in her mouth from her songwriting experience, was looking to redefine herself as an artist. PK had a thirst to prove himself as his own entity. The album was released November 13, 2012, with a party that same night at Bar One (a now closed restaurant that was owned by Peter Thomas of Real Housewives of Atlanta fame). The event prompted warm-blooded Atlantans to brave the winter cold and pack out the venue. Origin gained traction online with dozens of music blogs singing its praises, saying it reminded them of golden era ’90s R&B. Come to find out, I was the first person to post India's music online. I didn't know it until PK told me while I was writing this piece. That season the media looked at India’s genre and saw a youthful, hopeful energy. One of Origin’s standout tracks, “I’m Alive,” later appeared on Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron compilation.
What was supposed to happen after Origin was more demand and acclaim for India. But what actually happened were spot dates in Atlanta’s hard to navigate R&B waters. See, to rap in Atlanta is almost as easy as breathing. All you need is a microphone, four walls and more than two people to watch. But singers need mics, sound checks, good acoustics, stages for their band, stage lighting and seating for an audience who might not have come out to dance. The truth is, in Atlanta, there aren’t that many venues for an up-and-coming R&B artist to be seen and heard.
“It’s tough,” says PK. “I see so many artists and managers try to make venues. It may be a restaurant and the sound isn’t that good. We have such a huge music mecca here in Atlanta but there is an issue for R&B artists—they don’t have a place. They’re at a disadvantage. We still have the talent, but there aren’t a lot of outlets.”
PK has tried to work with and around this problem. He’s had India perform at actual venues, like the R&B friendly Vinyl, and the sometimes urban, but most times death metal, Masquerade. She’s also sung for crowds at eye level inside decorated photography studios and swanky lounges. India has no issue letting you know which one she prefers.
“I like venues with a stage where people know they are coming to a show,” she says with a smirk to dilute some of her bluntness. “I don’t like these networking venues where people are just getting off of work and drinking and talking. It’s hard for me. You don’t love me enough to stop talking right now?”
PK, who briefly promoted R&B showcases in the city, occasionally lobs the idea that he will eventually open his own venue to give R&B a permanent home. Taking into account that he started a management company just to manage India, there’s nothing saying he won’t try and open a spot just for her to have residence somewhere.
We’re just over the halfway point of the climb up Stone Mountain and it hasn’t gotten any easier. The steep incline coupled with the thinner air has brought the small talk and laughs amongst India and the crew to a minimum.
The quiet doesn’t seem to bother India too much. She’s not a woman of many words anyway; she parcels out just enough of the right ones. She greets you with quick welcomes that don’t wear themselves out by lingering around. In group conversations, she offers her two cents and keeps the rest of her thoughts to herself. When you ask her a question, her answers don’t trail off, they simply start and stop, most times abruptly.
She employs that same succinctness in most of songs she writes, too. Only one track on Outer Limits, ironically titled “More Or Less,” extends past the three-minute mark. Most of the songs on Origin hover around the three-and-a-half minute mark too. In a social landscape where people’s attention spans wane after 140 characters, it’s fitting. But, in India’s head it’s poetry. From “Mermaid Song”:
“First it’s sad, then it’s beautiful
When you get hit and left
And a cute paramedic gives you CPR
’Cause you ran out of breath
Memorizing his number was easy to do
911, it was super cool”
“Her songwriting ability, it connects with people,” says PK. “I think that’s one of the big differences, besides her having a good voice and looking nice, the fact of what [she’s] saying and how it connects to people.”
India has a voice that floats over acoustic guitar just as well as it does over funk bass. But so do Brandy, Lauryn Hill and the late-Aaliyah. She has a face made for magazine covers and the modelesque stature to match. But so do Rihanna, Beyonce and Sade. But none of these names are often credited as songwriters. Hell, some of them have been accused and sued for stealing credits. Even though India collaborates, the lion’s share of the words she sings come from her pen. You’re not going to find a roster of names in her album credits. After the time she spent toiling to write songs for other people, using words she would never, India’s desire to speak for herself has become a non-negotiable.
“All of my songs are real life,” says India, who has called out ex-boyfriends by name on record. “I haven’t got to that point where I’m in character.”
That point looms though. When you spell out “music industry” one of those words is longer, and that part often overshadows the other. India’s name rings a couple bells in Atlanta, but her buzz could be louder. To help out with that, PK planned a week of club and media appearances as she released RE-WERC, a collaborative EP with Atlanta-based DJ collective WERC. The project features India singing remixes of songs like the aforementioned Post Malone’s “White Iverson” as well as some of her own. RE-WERC and the promotion around it were designed to introduce India’s music to every pocket of Atlanta’s music community. On Monday she was hosting my party at Department Store, a weekly event where local celebrities are DJ for the night, playing to motley crew of night owls. On Tuesday it was PK’s weekly mixer The Living Room, where music industry types kick it. Then Spin Wednesdays, essentially a pizza party for grown-ups. And finally, on Thursday, it was the official RE-WERC release party meant to bring the dance crowd out.
“There is a disconnect between music industry people and the underground,” says PK, explaining the whirlwind schedule they created. “I’m trying to make sure we are touching all of the people because the music can connect to everybody. Why alienate some of the people?”
“I don’t see it as indie versus industry,” offers India. “I see it as more of a circle, or spectrum, rather. I feel my gift and curse is the ability to adapt. I can do gospel music, folk music. I can go anywhere and do anything.”
India is and isn't interested in where she falls on Atlanta's spectrum. She cares about becoming a respected singer, and she resists the idea that she has to become a branded commodity to get there. The word Maybelline surfaces a couple times between her and PK, but that's down the line. India is uncomfortable. In the hook to the title track on Origin she sings, “Are you ready?” As her profile continues to grow, it almost sounds like she was singing that line to herself.
“I’m trying to revert to the old me where I did what the fuck I wanted,” says India, venting about having to be conscious of what she wears in public and the songs she puts in her set lists. “Watching the industry has made me kind of follow this set of guidelines. You have to have a certain brand.”
“It’s fucked up,” he admits. “[The industry] is made a certain way. You’re pretty, you look like a model, it’s not your fault. You can wear clothes that others girls can’t fit into, why wouldn’t you?”
“It shouldn’t be about that, it should be about the music,” sighs India.
“I get it,” says PK. “But let’s also look awesome.”
It’s barely 7 a.m. and India arrived at the top of Stone Mountain. The view isn’t the most majestic in the world, but it’ll work. Up here the outcroppings are decorated (or defaced, depending on how you see things) with the magic marker signatures of other people who made it. There are etchings left behind by couples whose current relationship status is a mystery. It makes you wonder why some people climb mountains in the first place. Is it because they genuinely enjoy the journey? Do they get off on looking down on people? Maybe they do it just to say they did it and leaving evidence behind is their way of proving something? Who knows? This mountain is many things to many people. India can kind of relate.
“Growing up, I felt this need to please people and adapt to environments,” she says. “I think that kind of plays into my desire to access different crowds.”
As you look over the horizon, the city’s skyline pokes out in the distance. The greenspace around it reminds you that even though this place has produced much of the music the world moves to, there's more than Atlanta. When you listen to India’s music, you get the sense that she’s aware. Don’t get it twisted though, Atlanta is her home. She was discovered here. Booked her first show here. Recorded her first album here. She’s going to school here. She left to work in Los Angeles and came back here. But still, she knows there is a world of people she hasn’t reached yet.
“I do want to be global,” she says. “But I don’t think of that stuff too much. I try to be natural as possible.”
India may not have noticed, but she made new fans at the peak. As she sang her lyrics to the sky, a couple of people stopped what they were doing to admire. No one bothered to interrupt her. They simply looked from afar, nodded, smiled and walked away. It’s moments like these that both India and PK are learning to appreciate and to capitalize on more. Sure, an Instagram like, Facebook share and a retweet are good, but there’s nothing like a smile from a real human to let you know you’re doing something right.
“My fans are music lovers and music makers,” says India. “People who love harmonies and cool changes in songs. They can tell that I put real time and energy into it.”
Some are fans for other reasons. On an afternoon before one of the RE-WERC promo events, a guest of her studio engineer and producer Prem Midha paid her an awkward compliment.
“Your songs make me fall asleep,” she told India earnestly.
“Um,” India laughs with a little embarrassment and a lot of tact. “Are you trying to say I’m boring, like, I put you to sleep?”
“No, no, no! I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, it puts my mind at ease.”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s a good thing.”
“My mentor Chaka Zulu always tells me the lesson is in the work,” says PK. “You can’t skip steps.”
The morning rains have returned and now all time and energy is being put into packing up and safely getting off this mountain. Here’s a reminder in case you needed it: walking down a mountain in the rain is scary as hell. If you slip, the same rock that’s there to break your fall is probably going to break your arm too.
India is walking down with the same ease and patience she had walking up. If she’s having any problems, she’s not showing any signs. The grace with which she has handled the hike and the rain that came with it is akin to how she’s run her career thus far. She’s navigating as best she can. She thought she would get to the top by working with platinum-selling pop stars, but it wasn't her way. She took a breath and started up again, going after that elusive “starry crown.” And now she has a partner in PK, somebody to clear the path, keep her focused and remind her that mountain climbers are a special people.
“My mentor Chaka Zulu always tells me the lesson is in the work,” says PK. “You can’t skip steps.”