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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Gregory Porter Gregory Porter

Gregory Porter’s World of Music

The jazz and R&B recording artist made a life-changing pivot at SDSU and learned it’s smart to keep yourself open to all opportunities.
By Aaron Burgin

“That was an amazing experience that took me to New York, but it all starts at San Diego State.”

Three decades ago, a 6-foot-5-inch teen from Bakersfield came to San Diego State University with dreams of becoming the next great Aztec to play in the National Football League, but within months a shoulder injury derailed that goal. 

Thirty-one years later, the teen – Gregory Porter – has become an internationally acclaimed jazz and R&B recording artist and two-time Grammy award winner, recently nominated for his seventh Grammy for his 2020 album “All Rise.” Last year, Porter performed for NASA before the launch of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission. 

Porter’s path to stardom is firmly rooted in his time at SDSU, where his passion for music and theater was reinvigorated following the end of his football career. 

Porter (’97) spoke with Aaron Burgin in March before the Grammy Awards about his time at SDSU, his latest Grammy nomination, the experience of singing for NASA and advice he has for both college students and his 8-year-old son, Demyan.

You’ve been nominated for seven Grammy awards over your career. Your latest nomination (Best R&B Album), where does it stack up for you?

This one is the most surprising, in a way, because musically I always consider myself a jazz singer that uses all of the cousins of jazz, all of the music from the Black diaspora of music. But this one, I am very proud of the group I’m in the category with. Some of my other songs I was up against Beyonce and now I’m up against John Legend, so it’s always a surreal thing, but magical. (Editor’s note: the Grammy went to Legend, for “Bigger Love.”)

Let’s take it back to 18-, 19-year-old Gregory Porter, you’re ready to start your career as a football player, you have that really bad shoulder injury, you stay in San Diego and your mother encourages you to consider music and make that pivot. What was that time of self-discovery like for you and, in terms of changing your life course so dramatically, what was that experience like for you?

It was a really difficult time in my life. I had the shoulder injury, and my life as a football player changed. I wasn’t that anymore, but fortunately I was able to keep my scholarship. But I wasn’t an athlete any more, and my mother had breast cancer, so quite frankly those years were some of the most difficult and watershed moments of my life. 

I had to think of my foundation in a different way. My mother was so important to me that I couldn’t even see life without her, and she was dying and I wanted to let her know that she did a great job in raising me. And so I was trying to let her know that I am going to be a good guy and go out and get a job and be simple and normal, and she said, “Don’t forget about your music. It’s the best thing you do.” She encouraged me to be risky and to go out there and apply myself in music … so I started doing jam sessions downtown with (jazz trumpeter) Gilbert Castellanos, and there I found my musical family. But there was also a theater group at San Diego State called “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a Black theater group, and that was where the acting bug was rekindled. 

Right after college, it wasn’t the jazz stage I rolled into immediately; it was theater. At the San Diego Repertory Theatre I got into a piece called “Avenue X,” and right after that I got into another piece called “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues” and that one I rode all the way to Broadway.

That was an amazing experience that took me to New York, but it all starts at San Diego State. My music career starts at San Diego State, because it was in the music listening rooms where I checked out everything that Nat King Cole had ever done. I checked out everything that Lambert, Hendricks and Ross had ever done – Joe Williams, Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure. They had all those records at the music listening library. There were rooms that were designated for music majors. I wasn’t a music major, but I lied and said I was to check out all those records. 

It was an extraordinary time, a lot of growth and a lot of “shedding.” Musicians talk about shedding, spending time with the music, considering the music and learning a lot of music. I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. I just found music as a great comfort to me, and I was doing it. 

I sang a lot on campus. They had a lot of step shows, and so I performed there and at a lot of the programs that the Afrikan Student Union had. I was either singing the national anthem or the Black National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson) or some song that was in my scope, so my nickname on campus was “Luther” because people thought I sounded like Luther Vandross. 

So if you were a student who comes into SDSU with this idea of what they’re going to be and they’re forced to come to a decision to make a change, what advice would you have for them?

Be ready for change at this point in your life. It’s even something I will apply to my son (Demyan). He’s just 8 right now, but you know, at 18, 19 years old, even earlier than that, some people think that you're supposed to know what you want to do for the rest of your life. And you might be smart to leave yourself open. Yes, have goals and have dreams, but leave yourself open also to your talents and your particular skill set. 

I think that whatever field I would have gone into I would have enjoyed and would have been successful at it, but something that I had a real innate gift and a real talent for, I had to surrender to it, and that was music. 

So I would just say to young people, work hard at your choices, but also be open to what chooses you. Music chose me; I didn’t have a choice in a way. 

You mentioned your son, who is 8. How has being a parent changed you and how you think about your future and that of African Americans in America and of our society?

I’m enormously optimistic and patriotic about my country in maybe a different way than people might think. Patriotic in the way that I see the strings and strands and patches that my people, my family have added to the fabric of the flag. I see my grandfather and I see my grandmother and my mother’s work and even beyond that I see them in the foundation and the fabric of this country. So I don’t dismiss that part of feeling ownership and patriotism in that way. 

That faith, that love has been shaken the last couple of years – personally and in a larger way – because there is so much going on and so many surprising things that are happening. I was so surprised at the level of disrespect that came from the highest offices in the country. I was so surprised at the level of acceptance of bigotry, racism, misogyny and disrespect. 

I hope that we as a people and as a country can come back to just that level of general respect for people. No matter where you’re coming from, you have to show respect because we all have strands and patches that make up the fabric of this country. We all have contributed. 

I think about that for my son: What are we leaving him? Who are we leaving him? I thought that idea of being openly racist had died years ago, and I thought my son wouldn’t have to confront that so it challenges me. It challenges my spirit. It challenges my writing. What am I going to say to him after I’m gone? What did I say to him that will help him get through the seeds that have been planted and are going to  continue to grow? I have to prepare him to be ready and to understand his value and his worth are determined by the things he does, not the outside world. … You have self-worth and self-value and know who you are, and be a strong man.

I’m saying it in my music, like “Don’t Lose Your Steam.” I’m saying it to him and in many of the songs that I write. 

Last summer you were chosen to perform “America the Beautiful” during NASA’s broadcast to the countdown to the launch of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission at Cape Canaveral. This came after your single "Concorde," an ode to space exploration. Where does your love for space travel come from, and have you had a chance to become more involved with NASA or JPL since the performance?

Well, NASA has invited me to the launch site in Florida, and I will take my son once we have the opportunity, once the pandemic has subsided.

Here in Bakersfield, Edwards Air Force Base is really close and, depending on the weather, space shuttles would often land here. I had experiences with that, and I remember in my childhood if a launch was happening during school, we would stop what was happening and bring in the TV so we could watch it. It was just a really big thing in my childhood. 

In putting together this record (“All Rise”) there are even songs that didn’t make the record that talked about ascension and space travel. NASA had caught wind of that, and they invited me to perform. I did a bunch of interviews with them, and it has been a fabulous relationship and it’s one of those things that you’d never think that you’d do. 

Talking to astronauts and them playing my music in space, these are some dreams I never knew that I had, you know, it’s crazy.