On India.Arie's new song, "Cocoa Butter," she sweetly sings of a love that nourishes past scars. It's a signature Arie track with a positive message wrapped in a tender groove that made news of a backlash over the single — her first in more than four years — disturbing.
The controversy? The single's artwork. On it the 37-year-old poses with her tresses in a towering head wrap, legs peeking from a short dress, and her skin, possibly glistening from the song's titular product, glowing.
The photo was trending on Twitter in March as commenters mulled her "lighter" complexion and issued a rash accusation: Did the singer — long praised for Afro-centric anthems such as "Brown Skin," "Video" and "I Am Not My Hair" — have her skin "bleached"?
"I was completely taken off guard," Arie said by phone from Atlanta. "[But] that conversation belongs to the black community. It's not TMZ fodder. I'm still trying to figure out how to wrap my words around my feelings about it."
"Part of it was serendipity," she continued. "They were talking about 'Cocoa Butter' and seeing my picture and talking about my album. When I left the scene four years ago I was struggling to get people to know I had an album out."
Though the singer's glow on the cover is the result of what Arie calls "magnificent lighting," a great deal of that radiance came from finding the self-acceptance she's struggled with during her decade-plus career. She channeled those feelings into her fifth album, "Songversation," which comes out June 25.
When the Denver-born, Atlanta-based musician, born India Arie Simpson, arrived on the scene in 2001, she helped rejuvenate contemporary R&B with deeply personal songs about love, spirituality, politics and self-love steeped in an acoustic-driven mix of soul, R&B, jazz, folk and hip-hop.
Arie instantly became a critics' darling and a torchbearer for a new class of neo-soul singers that included Alicia Keys and Jill Scott. But after "Acoustic Soul," was shut out at the Grammys despite seven nominations in 2002, Arie's spirit was broken, and she started feeling the pressure to fit into a landscape of easily marketable R&B divas.
"I'm not a straight-down-the-middle artist. There was a lane cut right out for me because people were interested, but that lasted a couple of years," she said. "If I were not a black artist but I was still singing, playing guitar and singing ballads that are spiritual and cerebral, I'd be easier to market because people accept that from white female singer-songwriters faster."
As Arie "walked the line really carefully" between satisfying label expectations and her own artistry, a handful of albums followed — some sturdier than others. She eventually crumbled after 2009's "Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics," and considered leaving music.
"I always felt like — I mean I was told, really — I couldn't go too far with the productions because it didn't appeal to black radio," she explained. "It wasn't until I decided I was going to do what I wanted to do or I was going to quit that I empowered myself. I took my power back."
Though Arie's hard-earned confidence makes "Songversation" an inspirational, even iridescent listen, the album didn't come without conflict. The recording sessions were spurred by the demise of a previous album, "Open Door," a passion project with Israeli singer Idan Raichel. ("We couldn't agree on the business terms at all," Arie offered. "I had to take a deep breath and say, OK, let's just not do it.")
Arie said that because "Open Door" "reeked" of ill feelings toward her career, she purposefully opted to not channel hurt feelings over scrapping that album into "Songversation." Instead she crafted the album she'd always wanted. It's her same guitar-steered soul, but inflected by an eclectic mix of sonic elements from her travels, especially in the Middle East. And the lyrics show Arie at her most personal.
"I will no longer be defined by what someone else believed I am," she sings on "Soulbird Rise." "Now that I've dropped the weight/ I'm light as a feather."
The singer will test out the new material and her renewed confidence when she plays at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday as part of the weekend's Playboy Jazz Festival. But Arie isn't concerned about how she fits on the eclectic bill.
"This is the best time of my life because I feel free. Even when it's hard, I still feel free," Arie said. "I'm having hard times based off what I want to be doing. Before it was just hard times trying to figure out someone else's vision for my life."
The 35th Playboy Jazz Festival
Lineup: Saturday: George Duke with Jeffrey Osborne, Naturally 7 with Herbie Hancock, Angelique Kidjo and Hugh Masekela, Robert Glasper Experiment, Gregory Porter, Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band with Lee Ritenour, "Ole Coltrane" James Carter and Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Band, Pedrito Martinez Group, Phil Woods, Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble.
Sunday: Sheila E., Bob James with David Sanborn, India.Arie, Trombone Shorty, The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Taj Mahal, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, ELEW and the JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble, LAUSD Beyond the Bell Jazz Band. Hosted by George Lopez.
When: 3 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., L.A.
Cost: $20 to $160