Sheila E wants new album will be force for change

Kevin C. Johnson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


"Iconic: Message 4 America" by Sheila E.

The last couple of years, while working on two different albums, singer-percussionist Sheila E. realized she had to shift gears.

One of the albums was a dance record; the other was an album she felt compelled to make after longtime friend Prince died in 2016. (They were frequent collaborators, and he’s credited with transforming her career.)

“I was doing the dance record, and it was just about done,” she says. “It was fun, and I wanted to get it out. And then Prince passed away. I just shut down and started writing another record after his passing.”

Juggling those projects while watching the political climate, Sheila E., 59, figured “it was time to stand for something.”

“I couldn’t release a dance record,” she says. “That didn’t make sense. I couldn’t do the other record, either. There was too much going on.”

So she stashed those projects and refocused.

In response to what she calls a presidential administration of “lies, discrimination, prejudice and institutionalized supremacy,” Sheila E. has released “Iconic: Message 4 America,” in which she re-imagines a number of classics by the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Beatles and Parliament-Funkadelic.

Sheila E. participates in the BUILD Speaker Series to discuss her new album, “Iconic: Message 4 America” on Monday in New York.

She hopes the songs work as a force of positive change. The set includes “Come Together” featuring Ringo Starr, “Everyday People” featuring Freddie Stone, “Jesus Children of America” featuring Israel Houghton, “JB Medley” featuring Bootsy Collins and “One Nation Under a Groove”/“Mothership Connection” featuring George Clinton.

The album also includes “America,” her remake of a Prince song that now features Candy Dulfer, and “Funky National Anthem: Message 2 America.”

“I needed to get a record out now,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘How can I get this done?’ I began listening to music from the ’60s and ’70s — songs that are still relevant.”

Rather than call what she has released an album of covers, she believes it makes a statement.

“These songs were important to me growing up and are important to me now,” she says. “Lyrically, this is what I have to say, though I changed a few words here and there.”

Choosing the songs for “Iconic: Message 4 America” was a big undertaking. There are many that fit the bill.

“I made a list of 40 songs,” she says. “I said, ‘I know I can do this one, I know I can do that one. Which songs can I do justice to?’ ”

She knew she had to include a Beatles song.

“That was first on my list,” she says. “I also wanted to do ‘Come Together.’ I just remembered growing up, seeing the Beatles on TV for the first time, screaming and thinking they were so cute. They changed pop music, brought their own thing to it creating something that had never been done. And they wrote a lot of songs that touch your heart.”

“Inner City Blues,” immortalized by Marvin Gaye, is full of lyrics that speak to her upbringing, as well as about policing and gun control.

Civil rights activist Angela Davis is featured on “Yes We Can Can,” originally recorded by the Pointer Sisters. She’s known Davis for years.

“I kept in touch with her off and on. She was important to my life and still is. We’d been on someone else’s record together, and I told her to write something I can start or end a song with or put inside a song. I’m happy she did.”

Sheila E. performs several of the new songs in her live show, including “One Nation Under a Groove” and “Everyday People,” “Inner City Blues”/“Trouble Man.” She also will deliver classics such as “The Glamorous Life,” “A Love Bizarre,” “Holly Rock” and “The Belle of St. Mark.”

She says part of her “ministry” at her concerts is about love.

“Love unites people. Hate divides people,” she says. “There’s 5,000 and 10,000 people at the shows, and it’s like a domino effect with people turning around and saying ‘I love you.’ It’s so powerful.”

The album is notable: It’s the first time Sheila E. has appeared on the Billboard charts in 26 years. She didn’t realize that fact until it was brought to her attention.

“I had a discussion with the team, and someone asked me the question,” she says. “I didn’t even think about it until they said we charted. It’s cool. You never give up. You always strive to do your best and hope someone notices.”