When critics talk about musician Ari Lennox, they use words like "classic" and "timeless" to describe her soulful R&B sound. But it's been a long road to this recent breakout success.
After years of grinding independently by uploading her music online and working odd jobs like driving Uber, the 28-year-old became the first female signee to J. Cole's Dreamville label in 2015. With the release of her debut album, Shea Butter Baby, earlier this year, audiences are showing up and showing love for the other side of Lennox. That means frank songs about today's realities — from being broke or moving your first place to figuring out where you stand in relationships that aren't so clear cut.
Lennox's grandmother was one of the first people to recognize her talent, but even with that encouragement, the Washington, D.C. native says that she's always grown up feeling like an underdog.
"I always wanted to solo at the church and they didn't ever give it to me. But eventually they did and I froze. But then I killed it," she explains. "I just feel like that kind of just followed me all throughout my life. I've always kind of been slept on a bit."
Lennox says she grew up on the music of John Legend, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo just as much as Coldplay and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. This mix of cross-genre influences helped to shape her sound into something distinct in the R&B field. "I just wanted to sing like all of them and I think somehow like my voice kind of matured into this," she says.
It's Lennox's voice matched with vivid, relatable storytelling, like on the song "New Apartment," that connect with fans her age who are going through similar milestones.
'I think there's this narrative that the world just wants to hear about simple things or just extreme like sadness, 'Oh, I've just been broken up with' or something like that," she says. "I think that's why it's hard for people to realize, 'Oh I could talk about the fact that I had a dog once.' Those are some of the most beautiful songs ever."
It's still surreal to Lennox that she has fans all across the country singing her lyrics back to her on tour. She's happy that songs like "Static" and "Broke" are giving other people an outlet for their emotions and says she sees what her fans are getting out of her music.
"I think a lot of people just feel free," she says. "They feel like they're living their best college life or like their best independent grown woman life like experiencing their own place for the first time or just being able to relate to dating someone who doesn't have that much money and it's just like, 'Well, I don't care. I love you.' Or just rockin' their curls and knowing, like, it's beautiful and natural is beautiful."
Lennox spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about her ultimate goals for her music, Uber driver horror stories, her dreams of "retiring" in Washington, D.C. and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link.
Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to the digital version of this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears here to talk about refugees who resettle in the U.S. They often have to begin their lives all over again. They must learn the language, find jobs. And on top of all of that, some have to learn how to drive. And as NPR's Meghan Coyle reports, that can be a challenge, especially for women from countries where they were not expected to.
MEGHAN COYLE, BYLINE: Samar Sukar left Syria for El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego. She's happy and relieved to be living in this safe, sunny neighborhood. But there's one thing that's been pretty hard to get used to - she doesn't have a car or a driver's license. This is a typical California suburb. It's not designed for pedestrians. It takes 30 minutes to walk her 7-year-old to school.
SAMAR SUKAR: My young daughter, Lana - every time, I say, I don't like to come here to America because you don't have a car. We have to walk a long time. I feel tired (laughter).
COYLE: Sukar, her husband and their two daughters walk everywhere. It can take an hour to get to the store or the doctor. When Sukar was living in Damascus, she took the bus to school, where she worked as a teacher. Her husband had a car and did the driving for the family.
SAMAR: Transportation in my country is very easy to get them and very cheap. You have not to pay a lot to go anywhere you need.
COYLE: But then the war came to Damascus. Sukar could hear gunfire and see explosions from her home. Her daughters stopped going to school - a good decision because it was hit by a bomb. It was so dangerous that the family couldn't leave their house. They fled to Jordan and then eventually to the U.S.
UNIDENTIFIED DRIVING INSTRUCTOR: Pass the light, then change here.
COYLE: On a sunny Monday, Sukar is behind the wheel of a white Kia, navigating the California traffic. The local chapter of the nonprofit International Rescue Committee helped set up the lessons. She studied English in college, unlike her husband. So she's the first in her family to get a U.S. driving permit. Sukar sits up straight in the driver's seat. She never dares to take her hands off the wheel or her eyes off the road, even when her instructor tries to demonstrate making a turn with his hands.
UNIDENTIFIED DRIVING INSTRUCTOR: Stay on this lane and make a left hand.
COYLE: She drives by shops with Arabic writing on their signs, Middle Eastern restaurants. Iraqi and Syrian refugees have been moving to this neighborhood for decades. This is her seventh driving lesson, and she's getting more confident.
SAMAR: The first time I start driving behind the wheel, I wasn't very comfortable (laughter). For now, I feel comfortable. And I hope I'll pass the test.
COYLE: Sometimes her husband comes along.
SAMAR: Every time he say, Samar, be careful - Samar, go right, go left. Samar - every time he give me instruction, but he feel very happy. He say, I'm proud of you.
COYLE: He can't resist doing a little backseat driving even though he can't read the street signs. But his wife is the one in the driver's seat, holding the keys to her family's new life in America. She hopes to drive her kids to school and get a job translating. Then she wants to take her children to see the country they now call home.
SAMAR: My daughter, Isra, she says, mom, I'm here, and I want to see every state here, every city everywhere. She - her dream is to go to Disneyland.
COYLE: The next day, Sukar takes her driving test. I call her to check in.
You passed it. Congratulations. How does it feel?
SAMAR: I'm very happy.
COYLE: And the International Rescue Committee received a car donation, which they gave to Sukar and her family. For the first time in years, Sukar finally leave the house when she wants.
SAMAR: I can go everywhere, and anytime I want, any day I want. I feel freedom.
COYLE: It's not just a new vehicle. She's also acquired a core American value - cars equal freedom. Meghan Coyle, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.