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India.Arie defends hard-won optimism

Despite heartbreak, Grammy winner sends positive vibe in ‘Testimony’
/ Source: The Associated Press

When India.Arie broke up with what she thought would be her lifetime love, she was saddened, angry, confused and hurt — and spent the next four years unleashing her emotions through song.

But those who pick up her latest album, "Testimony, Vol. 1: Life & Relationship," won't hear any of the bitterness she once harbored. Instead, in what has become India.Arie's philosophy, she manages to find the positive, even in a devastating split. Instead of songs about a no-good man or falling into despair, India sings about the power of forgiveness, the appreciation of a past relationship and even learning to love being alone.

"If you don't learn your lessons, then you are only hurting yourself," says the 30-year-old singer, sporting a newly shorn haircut.

"For the sake of being a better person, I took that relationship and relationships in general and just looked at it from every angle for three years, and wrote a whole bunch of songs about it," she says. "I think when people write those songs that are really bitter and people are bitter, it's because they're dealing with the surface."

India's ability to dig deep paid off big commercially — it earned the Grammy winner her first No. 1 album debut last week, with sales of more than 160,000. In addition, "Testimony," her third album, has garnered mainly positive reviews.

Still, even some of the most glowing notices about her album contain a familiar dig about India — that she's a bit too optimistic.

In a particularly negative review, New York Daily News critic Jim Farber complained that "you can't get through a single stanza of her lyrics without being harangued with some lesson or encouragement, served up for our own good." Meanwhile, a recent article in Essence magazine pondered whether India was too uplifting for her own good, and quoted someone at a radio station saying while she'd prefer her daughter to listen to India instead of Beyonce, listeners didn't want to hear her message on the radio.

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The critique may be the only thing that can threaten India's positive vibe, which extends even to the jewelry she wears _ on this day, she was sporting a bracelet comprised of the definition of words like "wisdom" and "destiny."

"I keep reading these reviews of my album and they're saying that its optimistic and ‘How does she come out unscathed’ and they're like, real cynical, sarcastic about it," says the singer, visibly annoyed.

"I keep trying to explain to people, it's not about being unscathed. I'm not unscathed. That's the dumbest thing I ever heard. Obviously I've been heartbroken. We all know what that feels like," she says. "But the thing about it is that I chose to take the time to dive really deep to understand the lesson instead of sitting on the surface and blaming. I don't want to be bitter. I want to learn how to love better and better and better."

Understanding life's lessons has been a focal point of India's music ever since her debut album, "Acoustic Soul," in 2001. Its biggest single, "Video," celebrated the look and spirit of the woman who isn't prancing around in BET music clips, while the rest of the disc was an affirmation and celebration of the spirit within. It earned her seven Grammy nominations and eventually went double platinum, while the second album, "Voyage to India," went gold and earned her two Grammys.

India's success has been a gradual one. Songs like "Video" and her latest single, "I Am Not My Hair," have garnered some radio play, but she's definitely not the kind of artist who gets heavy attention from mainstream outlets — which is fine by her.

"It's cool to hear my songs on the radio," she says. "But for me, that's just a way to get more people to have the option of choosing my music. ... It would be nice to be played more, but my music speaks for itself. I don't have to be No. 1. No. 1 is nice, but ... I just want to be able to sing my truth."

Sylvia Rhone, president of India's label, Universal Motown, says India's debut atop the charts shows that "she has a very strong fan base and a strong audience, and it proves that it's not necessary to have a radio hit."

"I think it says volumes about a consumer that really does appreciate great music, and is not necessarily driven by disposable hit singles," she adds.

Besides, what drives India are the things that are not trendy, but everlasting. It's one of the reasons why she didn't put any angry emotions on her album, even though she was feeling them. Her frustration was temporary; the lessons she learned were permanent.

"I want my music to be a contribution and I want the people who love me on Earth and in heaven to be proud of who I am, and I want to be proud of myself, and I don't want to look back and say, 'Oh God, why did I say that?'" she says. "I want to always be classy and honest and I always want to have fun with music, and if I can't really express who I am through my music, then it's not really fun anymore."