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EXCLUSIVE: India Arie Talks New 'Cocoa Butter' Single, Addresses Skin-Lightening Rumors

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Photo Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

On one hand, India Arie is excited people are talking about her again after a four-year hiatus. The release of her new single "Cocoa Butter" has garnered positive reactions from fans.

On another, the Grammy winner can't fully comprehend why she's making headlines for all the wrong reasons after being accused of lightening her skin on a new album cover released last week. "I'm happy to say I have not bleached my skin," she tweeted, later telling ESSENCE.com, "I'm still digesting all this and I'm interested in carrying the conversation forward."

ESSENCE.com spoke with Arie—who's currently putting the finishing touches on her album—about "Cocoa Butter," her reactions to the skin-lightening accusations, and her upcoming album SongVersation.

ESSENCE.com: Your first single in four years, "Cocoa Butter" is getting a lot of love.
INDIA ARIE: The song is really about the heart and how to heal when something hurts it. It sounds like it’s about a man, and on some levels it is, really it’s about being healed. [Laughs] I realize I sing about that a lot, but I’m always on that journey of wanting to be better. I had another album called Open Door that I was working on, but after spending many, many years on it, I voluntarily shelved. That was a hard thing to do, and it hurt a lot. So when my writing partner Shannon Sanders sang the “Cocoa Butter” concept to me, I had just recently found that place of healing inside of myself, and I said, ‘That is so me, I want to sing that song.’

ESSENCE.com: The release of the single cover caused quite a stir with many people accusing you of bleaching your skin. Were you shocked?
ARIE: I’m still digesting that and gathering my thoughts because one of the things I learned about myself in the past four years is that if I ask God to be a person who is heard when they speak then I need to be clear about what I’m saying. I just feel like this is something that people have inside of them that they’re projecting outward. I don’t feel a need to defend myself, but I do feel a desire to continue this conversation because it’s a real cultural pain in our community. If it weren’t, the conversation wouldn’t be this big right now. Nobody talked about if I am too muscular or if I fit into a beauty ideal—you know that’s been a conversation about me all these years, too. Nobody talks about that because that’s not the conversation to have. There is a misperception about this, a very profound misperception, but it'll all be cleared. 

ESSENCE.com: Could it be because of an assumption that a brown-skinned woman like you or I must want to be lighter?
ARIE: That’s not my thing. There are things about myself that I wouldn’t mind changing. In my younger days I may have questioned why this or that, but it was never ever my skin tone. That’s why I sing about loving my skin so much because I really do. I always wished I were darker like my dad. I don’t have a conversation about skin tone, which is probably why I missed why it would be such a huge conversation for people. It has never been my thing. I know the conversation very well as someone coming from a Black family with all different shades and the colorism there, but that's a whole other conversation.

ESSENCE.com: You haven’t been in the spotlight these past couple of years. Was it voluntarily?
ARIE: On one level it was by choice. On another it was—you know, that feeling where you just know what you need to do but it’s not necessarily what you want? It was kind of that. It was also by choice because I know the consequences of not listening. There was a lot of healing that I had to go through on so many levels in my life. I felt like my life was distorted and I was living somebody else’s life. My health would not let me go any further with it so I stopped and really started looking at myself. I knew that there were things within myself that I had to look at in order for me to become the person that I prayed to God to be. Taking time off has been the best thing I have ever done. It was hard, but it felt good. I like the fact that people ask where I’ve been because it means they’re wondering, but I want them to know I’ve had a beautiful four years and I’ve grown so much.

ESSENCE.com: Speaking of Open Door, many of your loyal fans were waiting for that album. Is that completely over?
ARIE: I can’t say I’m completely done with it because who knows what God has in store, but I definitely moved on for my healing and to be able to do this project. But the concept of what Open Door was all about, the new album Songversation is still all about that.

ESSENCE.com: SongVersation is a great title choice. Tell us amore about it.
ARIE: "SongVersation" started as a performance concept. I wanted to create an environment where I could be more of myself on stage. What I mean by that is singing is obviously what I do, but a lot of times I have more that I want to say. I created SongVersation for people who wanted to be able to speak and sing. We have a talkback session where people can ask me questions or say wahatever they want to say. As an album, SongVersation, it really is an album that I want to spark conversation with. There are world music elements in there that come from wanting to be a part of the world. I got to travel and gather sounds from Turkey where I worked with their most important star, Sezen Aksu, wh helped lend a lot of the Middle Eastern sounds that you’ll hear on the album.

Arie's 5th studio album SongVersation will be released on June 25.

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