Rahsaan Patterson
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Electric Midnight: An Interview with R&B Trailblazer Rahsaan Patterson

From piloting the transcendent rhythms of house music with Quentin Harris on Heroes & Gods 2.0 to conquering music industry politics, R&B trailblazer Rahsaan Patterson thrives in his own groove.

Heroes & Gods 2.0
Rahsaan Patterson
Shanachie Entertainment
5 November 2021

Take me to the moments when you’re on stage singing, standing in front of the microphone, the lights dimmed in the audience, the spotlight’s on you, and the audience is hanging on every note. What sensation goes through your body?

I don’t know if I could articulate what goes through my body. I just know that when it gets good like that and the surrender happens, I’m traveling. It’s interesting. I’m traveling and being informed and surrendering to spirit and it’s very cosmic. It’s like a spaceship taking off and then getting past that layer around the earth and breaking through it and then you’re just coasting in space. That’s what it’s like. My intention is to always get to the place where I can soar and detach from the room. I want to soar because it’s beautiful out there. It’s so great out there, so the sooner I get there, everybody else gets there.

How did 12-year-old Rahsaan feel about singing?

Twelve-year-old Rahsaan loved to sing. That was the age when I knew I could make a career out of it, literally at 12. I remember standing on stage, we were doing one of the concert numbers for Kids Incorporated and we were switching cameras around. I remember saying, “Oh I can do this for a career. This can be my life. I can make money and sing.” That’s when I was like Okay, I’ll sing. I’ll be a singer and I’ll make records.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be, like most kids. You think “doctor, lawyer, firefighter”. I had those thoughts for a minute but then I was thrust into the world of entertainment before I could even really figure out what I wanted, which also made it interesting throughout the years as I was further developing as an artist and discovering myself. Part of me felt like I didn’t get a chance to decide what I wanted to do. It was not a choice that I had in the matter. I just ended up here.

Because I had the ability to sing and I was supported so well by my family — my grandmother who made me sing in church, and my sister who made me sing in a talent show that got me to California — it was never anything I said I wanted to do. It was other people that said, “You do this well. Go over here.” That is part of, for lack of a better word maybe, the nonchalance that I have in how I may be perceived with my career and how I navigate it because I’ve been blessed enough to have opportunities and people who have guided me, walked with me, and helped me, but it was also something that I didn’t desire really. I just knew that I sang at church and I sang in the house and I liked music, so I had to learn, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do”.

Now of course there’s the idea that subconsciously I created all of this, or came here from another lifetime with this intention, but as a child, I remember feeling “What the fuck am I doing here?” It was chaotic. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do or how to manage any of the stuff. Having that be my life, I’ve grown to know that the universe will provide for me always and because I have the gift to sing and make music and write, that’s what I can do to sustain a life. And it’s great and it’s fun, but at 12, while I was having some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, I realized you can make this a job and this can be your career.

Rahsaan Patterson
Photo: Christian John Wikane with Rahsaan Patterson by Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

I was so touched when you wrote “To be young, gifted, Black, and gay” on Facebook a few years ago because it connected me to the younger version of myself who would have been thrilled to see that statement. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, not knowing any male artists that identified publicly as gay, was an interesting experience because I wondered who I could relate to. Who is singing my story? I’d love to know how you arrived at a place where you said, “This is who I am. I’m not trying to fit your expectation of who I should be.”

I was raised in a family where we were allowed to be who we are. We were loved and respected. That’s what mattered. We were taught to know that we were gifted and special in that sense. God and the universe has conspired in your favor, so know that. I heard it, but then my life started to show me the way it was true and afforded me opportunities that a lot of people don’t ever get to experience.

In terms of sexuality, in terms of my freedom to express myself how I wanted to, even through singing and how I sing, there was pushback and resistance, but I wasn’t unfamiliar with that. It wasn’t like I was born in the Bronx and not called “faggot”, so I knew already what it was like to be put in a little area and criticized and made to feel different. Pushback from record companies and radio programmers — and people that have their own issues and were unable to see me for who I was without me needing to be the next brother that made that song over there or that video over there — wasn’t unfamiliar, so it didn’t bother me. [laughs] It didn’t prevent me from still being who I am and doing what I needed to do: singing the songs and writing the songs that I needed to write.

I’m not a conformist. There was nothing in me that would go against myself. Absolutely not. Sitting here thinking about it I’m like, Who does that? Who can live with themselves after that? I don’t have to do that.

When I think about the time frame in which my first album came out and the pushback that I was getting all because of how I was emoting, okay? They would try to present it like, “Listen, all you got to do is this and then you can …” You’re kidding me, right? I’m not doing that. I just was singing how I was singing, walking how I was walking, and it didn’t fit into the disguise that a lot of people wear. There were probably opportunities and prices that were paid by me for not conforming, things that were taken away, but again what’s for me is for me.

That’s not to say there weren’t compromises that were made, like working with Soulshock & Karlin for “Do You Feel the Way I Do” (1999). It’s not necessarily what I wanted to do, because they were the hot producers at the time, but I was like, Okay I’ll go to the studio. What does it hurt? You go to the studio, you listen to a track. You like it? You write it and sing it. Cool, so that’s what I did.

Then they call me in to write for Chico DeBarge. I write a song for Chico DeBarge [“Give You What You Want”]. Chico DeBarge comes out with a song very similar to mine at the time, which for me was like: “Why did I have to go in there in the first place … because now my song comes out after and it’s like I’m following what y’all did with him!” I’m not a trend person like that. I did that and it was fine and the song was cute and people like it. Chico was nice, totally, and it’s another song in my discography, but that was a compromise that I made.

Those things happen but conforming to what people need for you to be to sell a record and be liked by the masses was crazy to me. One thing I knew: not everybody’s gonna like me, period, and that’s okay. The industry at the time was very much like we got to do whatever we need to do to get people to love this person, this artist. I was like, Y’all are crazy because y’all know that’s not true, right? You know that’s not gonna happen and everybody isn’t gonna be a Michael Jackson. Everybody is not gonna be a Prince on that level of stardom and fame. Everybody’s not aspiring to be that — that’s the first part. You can’t make me. You can’t create me, so what are we doing here? I thought y’all were just putting my music out. [laughs]

It’s a lot, and it’s painful at times because you’re dealing with people who don’t really care but they’re in positions of power and can affect how you’re moving and doing the thing. I was never the person that was like “Okay, I’ll do it”. I don’t have to. If you’re mad about it? Okay, next. Now what? Whatever you think you’re taking away from me, you’re actually giving me more inspiration because I am an artist and I can turn it around and I can put it into art.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t lonely in there when you’re the only one. Then you see others but they’re not acting like they’re a part of the team. It felt kind of lonely in there but it was what it was and I wasn’t unfamiliar with feeling loneliness either and, with time, that turns into solitude and peace.

Before the interview, we were talking about representation, especially as a young performer on Kids Incorporated. When did you recognize that your presence on television actually influenced and mattered to a whole generation of children coming to terms with their own identity?

As far as recognizing the significance of having been on TV as a little Black boy when there weren’t many of us on television, that didn’t come until I was in my 30s because I had gone through a period where I was embarrassed with the show. It was corny, for me, to look at. Then I remember when I hit puberty and what that felt like. My voice was changing and I just was depressed, so I was unable to know it at the time of working on that show, about how it was impacting Black youth first — being represented on television. Then for creative children, artistic children to see another child who loves music … I didn’t get that. I also didn’t get the representation for queerness, the freedom to just express yourself in that way. I didn’t get any of that until I was in my thirties.

Once that started to be revealed to me, I was learning the importance of myself. I was learning what that means because when you suffer trauma and abuse as a child, you have to grow into self-worth and that can take a long time. I had been on that journey, like a lot of us have, for my career, throughout my whole life, but in my thirties was when I started to make sense of it, and begin the work of seeing myself for who I am and being able to further honor my own gift.

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of your solo debut. What would the Rahsaan Patterson of 1997 say to the Rahsaan Patterson who just realized Heroes & Gods 2.0?

You did it! You did it. Period.