Ari Lennox wonders what her life would be like if her parents had listened to Korn.
“I just got into Korn a couple years ago,” she explains. “My life would’ve been so different if my parents listened to Korn. That would’ve been fire!”
Instead, Lennox grew up on ballad singers like Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and Mariah Carey. In the end, those influences worked out for Lennox and are prevalent on her debut album Shea Butter Baby, which was released earlier this year. Carey’s music, in particular, struck a chord with the singer-songwriter.
“Something about Mariah Carey’s songs really had me wanting to sing high like her,” she explains, her face and voice reflecting the dreamy memory. “I remember just feeling like a girly princess in the house, just dancing and singing my heart out to reach those notes.”
Lennox’s own debut evokes the sexy soulfulness of her favorite Carey songs, and the journey to releasing that album started just as Carey’s own career took off.
Born Courtney Salter and raised in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Lennox credits her musical talent and growth to her three grandmas. “Grandma Holly told me at three years old that I had a voice of an angel, and I just never stopped singing,” Lennox says. “Grandma Mills told me I was always writing under her porch.” Those early songs, written around the age of four, weren’t saved, but she does remember being a “scary tyrant,” forcing her older sister to sing them with her. Lennox remembers most vividly the first one she wrote: “It’s My Turn,” a Britney Spears-meets-Spice Girls pop tune about it being her turn to play a game at the arcade.
“The content was completely different back then,” she jokes.
Finally, Grandma Salter always played episodes of Live From the Apollo, and Lennox would try to imitate the on-screen belters. “Three different grandma experiences. It strengthened me. They all played a part.”
Lennox’s earliest performances were in the church, doing solos though it took some time before she was given those opportunities.
“I felt like the church kind of slept on me a bit,” she says. Her chance came around age eight, when she “started getting more soul.” In school, she was part of the step team and mostly focused on dancing, which would showcase at talent shows.
For one show, however, she diverted. She decided to sing Carey’s version of “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” which proved to be a formative experience.
“I remember singing my heart out. My eyes were closed the whole time,” she explains. “When I open them, there was this white lady in the front. She had her hands over her ears. … That’s how I knew I really liked singing because it didn’t matter.”
Lennox’s relationship with rejection ebbed and flowed through her early career; it was something she experienced frequently as she came up. In 2008, the summer before her senior year of high school, Lennox auditioned for American Idol but didn’t make the cut. The experience caused a shocking chain of events: that night she smoked weed with her cousins and “completely freaked out,” so much so that she had to be taken to the hospital. She stopped smoking after that, but a similar panic attack arrived a few months into the school year. She believes her intense weed-induced attack had triggered some type of panic disorder.
“I think, deep down, I realized, ‘Oh shit, life is real. You’re in 12th grade. What are you going to do after this?”
After college, she explored the possibility of becoming a certified nursing assistant, but she decided it wasn’t the right fit for her. Instead, she put her all back into music. She used Facebook and YouTube to promote herself, and the negative comments ended up influencing her as well.
“I learned very quickly what people like to hear and what people didn’t like to hear,” she elaborates. She cites one video in particular that she made, where she expressed anger toward John Mayer calling his penis a white supremacist.
“Everyone was so mad at me! People that I didn’t even know! They were coming to this video and bashing me for it,” she says. “I saw what content was making people angry and what content was making them like me.”
Offline, she was performing at open mics around Washington, D.C. and auditioning for other reality singing competitions like Making the Band. The audiences didn’t always “get” her. “Maybe my voice wasn’t strong enough,” she wonders. Lennox remembers being booed one night at New York’s Village Underground when the emcee asked for the singers to attempt to hit Beyoncé’s notes in “Love on Top.” She was the last one called to the stage after several attempts before her.
“I was like, ‘No one should sing Beyoncé other than Beyoncé,’” she says, laughing at her own bluntness. “I didn’t mean it in a shady way!”
Lennox thought about quitting often. When she finally did get signed, it was to a “terrible person” that she felt had manipulated her. Around 2011, after she had separated from her old contract, she took on the stage name Ari Lennox, inspired by the character Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, and released music independently to SoundCloud. Eventually, she caught J. Cole’s ears, who signed her to Dreamville. For Lennox, the timing was cosmic.
“I lost my brother David in 2012,” she says. “I gained a brother in [J. Cole], multiple brothers in the Dreamville team.”
Still, signing to a contract isn’t a one-way ticket to success. The grind continued in the years leading up to Shea Butter Baby. “It was a struggle,” Lennox admits. At one point, she explains, Cole wanted her to tour before releasing her album which she pushed back against. “I said: ‘I am not a scam artist! We are not gonna do that!’” She won that battle.
Before it was released, her aunt and grandpa passed away, making the album’s creation “bittersweet,” as she describes. “I wanted them to see it,” she says solemnly. But that’s the game. That’s the shit with this industry because you don’t know when your project’s going to drop. It has to drop at the right time.”
Still, Lennox wouldn’t change a thing. The artist she is now is much more developed than the one she thought she would a decade ago. “I thought I was going to be in a whole bunch of wigs,” she laughs, thinking back to some of her YouTube hair experiments. “I thought I was gonna be a straight lace front chick, or a Cee-Lo soul girl. I always imagined having so much energy on stage, versus me being somewhat chill, soulful R&B”
But that doesn’t mean the style isn’t completely off the table. “Maybe I was wearing the wrong lace front.”