The galaxy-spanning World Music Radio is a genre-bending joy ride.
Jon Batiste doesn’t just join a Zoom call. He explodes on — the most ecstatic entrance. An entrance that genuinely makes you feel special, like you matter. "Hold on to the light," Batiste sings in a soothing full-force falsetto, followed by a "YES!!!"
It’s moments like this that prove Batiste (known to say "I love you, even if I don't know you") is joy personified. It’s a joy that carries over into his music. He writes songs with lyrics espousing that we are all "real magic," like "Be Who You Are" from his newest album World Music Radio — out now.
Born to a large family of legendary New Orleans musicians, music is part of Batiste’s DNA. Michael, his bassist father, is one of seven siblings in the Batiste Brothers Band, and also performed with Isaac Hayes and Jackie Wilson. His mother, Katherine, made sure he could take lessons with the great Ellis Marsalis Jr. and go to jazz camps, even when they had limited means.
"I was always a mix of a late bloomer who was very advanced,” says Batiste, 36. “I was around music, but didn't start to play any instrument until I was 8 or 9.” When he was 11, he switched from drums to piano. “Some of my peers had been playing piano since they were 3, so that’s why I’m a late bloomer.” By the time he was 15, he was performing professionally and playing multiple instruments, including the melodica and saxophone.
"I was already a musician, felt I had talent, and had advanced in the craft of studying music,” he shares. “But the purpose of the music and why I was a musician really didn't start to dawn on me." That is, until a few years after he had moved to New York and was performing with his band, Stay Human. "Afterward, someone came up to me and told me what my music had done for them," recalls Batiste. "And they’d had this marathon of difficult things and tragic happenings." That same night, another person shared with Batiste how his music helped them heal.
"It was days and days, months and months of people coming up to share,” says Batiste, who calls creating and playing music a spiritual practice. “I have countless stories of people telling me that the music was lifting them out of some of the darkest things. It helped them not to lose hope."
Batiste considers that a turning point in his life and life’s purpose. "It was God saying, ‘Look at all of these people giving you evidence of why this is what you should be doing right now,’" he recalls. "That's when I started to put it together and realize [being a musician is] much bigger than me or my talent." That sense of purpose grew and grew. “It's become more and more of a survival mechanism for me in a world that's severed by division,” he observes. “You're creating, healing others and yourself — connecting to all of this ancestral wisdom.”
Sometimes, like when he was a student at Juilliard, his inner compass was at odds with what was expected of him. As he explains, there was pushback. “I was very much a disruptor in the Julliard ecosystem for doing things like playing on the subway with [Stay Human],” says Batiste, who holds both a bachelor's degree in jazz studies and a master's in music from the prestigious school, and is now a member of its board. ”Even just being from the South in this very European classical environment, I didn't blend in.”
He stuck to his instincts and inclinations and leaned further into being himself. "It led me to see that once rewards did come, I understood their value,” he says. “It's not overnight, but ultimately it's easiest for you to be who you are, because you don't have to try to make yourself into something that you're not. If you stick to that, you'll find that rewards will come. Even if it's not today.”
A virtuoso playing and composing jazz, R&B, hip-hop, roots, classical, and soul, in 2022, Batiste was nominated for 11 Grammys and won five, including Album of the Year for his sixth studio album, We Are, and Best Score Soundtrack for Disney’s Soul with collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The trio also won BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Oscar awards for their work on the film. This was all while he was still working as the music director and bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which he left in August 2022.
In his moving Album of the Year acceptance speech, he humbly said, “I believe this to my core: There is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it most. It's like a song or an album is made and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.”
Last month, Batiste released an album that is sure to be the necessary salve for many people: World Music Radio, a beautiful and layered mosaic of songs — a delicious gumbo of jazz, R&B, soul, pop, reggae, classical, funk, and more — that takes listeners on an epic journey of introspection and self-discovery.
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The narrator, Batiste’s “alter-ego,” Billy Bob Bo Bob, leads listeners through a pastiche of eclectic songs from intoxicating melodic ballads to dance tunes. “The joy of creating World Music Radio was taking something that was in my imagination and true to my soul, and making it a reality,” he says.
Batiste began to forge World Music Radio last year, when he holed up for a month in Malibu, California at the famous Shangri-La music studio, owned by producer Rick Rubin. “It's a great place to create. I was living at the studio and working 24/7,” says Batiste. Whenever he felt the creative urge, he could go into the studio and record. “I had musicians, producers, and other artists coming in and out of the studio. It was a very fertile, creative time. There was no judgment of what I was making, or really any direction, other than to follow the muse of wherever the creative process would lead me.”
By the end of his time at Shangri-La, which has also played host to Adele, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, U2, and Metallica, Batiste had more than 100 song ideas, choruses, and melodies, each compelling in their own way. “My collaborator, Ryan Lynn, says that I'm a binge-creative. I'll go through incubation and then it'll be this outpouring of creative energy in a relatively short period of time,” says Batiste.
After leaving Shangri-La, Batiste continued to work on the album with musicians around the globe. World Music Radio features — and this isn’t even a complete list — Lil Wayne, the K-pop sensation NewJeans, rapper JID, Colombian breakout Camilo, Kenny G, Native Soul, Nigeria’s Fireboy DML, and Jon Bellion (who also produced the album with Batiste and Lynn).
As he was completing the new album at his house in Brooklyn, the idea of having Billy Bob Bo Bob narrate came to him in a midnight epiphany. “Billy Bob Bo Bob happened from my subconscious mind and then was born into reality. He is my ultimate creative manifestation in the most idealistic sense of the creative process,” Batiste explains. “I aspire to him when creating and living as a human being.”
Batiste describes Billy Bob Bo Bob as an "interstellar DJ” — someone tapped into our highest frequency. “He’s a purveyor of the vibes and a curator of that frequency,” says Batiste. “So, when you're listening to him, he's a master of ceremonies in the sense of guiding you through the album and also showing you how all of the different things come together.”
Whether it’s with World Music Radio or being a mentor to students at Brooklyn Music School and Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra, Batiste's message continues to be that something magical happens when you are truly yourself. When you are the most authentic, that’s when you are most creative.
"Kids are the future and our greatest resource, and we should mine their genius. So that they can eventually lead the way for us,” he says. "We should invest in fulfilling all of the incredible things they have within them.”
As he sees it, our job as humans is really about giving young people the resources and support to nurture their skills. “At a certain point, it no longer is about us leading the way," he says. “And the best way for us to understand that is when we are leading the way to invest in the future.”
Who is your celebrity crush?
Wow. Oh, man. That’s a tough one. I remember my crushes as a child. When I was a kid it was Mary Tyler Moore. I used to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show. You remember that show? I thought it was amazing.
Who is your favorite villain?
Either Venom from Spider-Man or Killmonger from Black Panther.
What is the first album you ever owned?
The first record that I ever owned was Michael Jackson's Dangerous. The cover looks like some kind of wild carnivalesque tapestry or artistic presentation. I loved the song “Jam.” Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan were both in the music video and played basketball and danced together. It was phenomenal. Also, I love “Remember The Time” and the video with Eddie Murphy and Iman in Egypt. My top three favorite Michael Jackson songs are "Who is It?,” "Stranger in Moscow,” and “Scream,” which he did with Janet Jackson. Or maybe “Earth Song”?
Name one place you've never been to, but always wanted to go?
India. I'm excited to go there and play a concert with the musicians [there].
Is there an outfit you regret wearing?
I was performing for a concert for 50,000 people and my pants split during the first song. I did the performance and nobody knew. I covered the split the entire time by my body motion and positioning.
The outfit was fire and incredible. Tuxedo-type pants and a sequin shirt that had a rich tone. All of it was amazing. The lights hit it in a great way, but it hadn't been doctored enough for the type of movements that I do on stage. I’ll go from playing 12 instruments to dancing and singing. And the pace of the show goes through the whole range of human emotion. So, you really are having an athletic experience. Not just me, but the audience, as well. What we didn't account for at that time was: Can the pants hold up?
When was the last time you cried?
On stage at my concert last week. I was performing a song that I wrote, titled “Butterfly.” [Batiste wrote Butterfly for his wife, Suleika Jaouad Batiste, a bestselling author and founder of The Isolation Journals.]
What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?
Probably, consistently, I am watching something on YouTube or praying. On YouTube, I go into deep dives of all sorts on any number of things. It’s incredible how much you can find and really deep dive into.
What is your favorite bagel?
If you were required to spend $1,000 today, what would you buy and why?
I would buy something nice for my wife, like some jewelry.
Can you describe a memorable dream?
Wow. [Laughs.] I dreamed that I became the president of the United States. It was a wild dream. And I was a huge success.
If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?
My slogan would be, “Once in a lifetime.”
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