By Isoul Hussein Harris
“My career is a dare to be yourself,” Cee-Lo Green told me over a decade ago. As a supernova, he was at his brightest, and we sat down for a lively conversation that has remained with me over the years. Green is a rare breed. He is correct in his boast: his career has been a disruption of groupthink and a meditation in individualism. Like the best pop culture characters, his brilliance is rooted in style. Not fashion, but style. Cultural critic Susan Sontag, best known for her 1964 opus Notes on Camp, declared that “style is a means of insisting on something.” Well, Cee-Lo insists on everything.
He sings soul, gospel, R&B, Country; and more; He raps. He produces. He is a solo artist, and a member of two critically and commercially successful groups: the Atlanta-based, alternative hip-hop collective Goodie Mob; and the futurist-soul duo Gnarls Barkley with Dangermouse. He is also known for his other global chart topper “F*&k You,” but let’s remember that he was also one of the original judges on NBC’s gargantuan hit competition reality show The Voice. He produced “Dontcha”, a pop confection written and originally performed by contemporary wunderkind Tori Alamaze--a Black woman--that was quickly appropriated by the nearly all-white group, The Pussycat Dolls, featuring the almost famous Nicole Scherzinger. He partnered with Lauryn Hill and performed at the Superbowl with Madonna. Whew. And that’s just the short list.
I always found the existence of Cee-Lo to be the most interesting aspect of his artistry. I first met the him in the early aughts in Atlanta, at the beginning of my career as the Editor-in-Chief of the lifestyle weekly Rolling Out. It was at an Outkast event celebrating the release of their greatest hits album, Big Boi and Dre Present...Outkast (in 2012 Big Boi revealed that Cee-Lo was almost an original member of Outkast). His conversation was remarkably elevated in a galaxy far, far, away from the current Gen-Z militancy of self-identification. “Crazy”, the 2006 Gnarls Barkley debut single, made Cee-Lo a mainstream star, and solidified my longstanding suspicions: this guy had layers.
He was born Thomas Decarlo Calloway. His stage moniker is an around-the way abbreviation of his middle name: However, Cee-Lo is also the name of a game played with six-sided dice. There are some constants, but the rules are unfixed. At the risk of drawing an obvious connection: similarly, standards occupy no space in Cee-Lo’s Willy Wonka-esque world. His sonic and visual aesthetics are as undefinable as they are recognizable. When I asked him how he managed to be multifaceted and authentic, he responded with an almost righteous indignation. “I resent the insinuation that there is only one way to go about doing anything,” Cee-Lo replied.
His star dimmed a bit in 2012 amid sexual misconduct allegations which prompted him to quit The Voice (he pled No Contest to a felony charge of providing Ecstasy and received three years of probation). “Everyone [has]...my deepest, sincerest apologies for...any ignorance, any ill will, anything,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m just glad that it’s behind me now. I’m so glad for it.”
2020 was muted by the pandemic, but Cee-Lo turned up his volume by releasing two stand out projects: the countrycore meets old-school soul album Cee-Lo Green is Thomas Calloway, recorded in Nashville; and the reunion with Goodie Mob, Survival Kit, the group’s first album in seven years. Clearly, his creativity never ceased, nor his audacity. I believe the writer e.e. cummings captures the crux of Cee-Lo: “The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” With that in mind, it makes sense that Cee-Lo said to me: “I am always prepared to...protect my right to be.”
The following is an edited, condensed version of our original conversation. While it may have been over a decade ago, Cee-Lo’s perspective on life is quite insightful and relevant now.
Isoul Hussein Harris: Cee-Lo, what is real talent?
Cee-Lo Green: Patience. When you have real talent you don’t have to hustle the game. It’s a short distance between creator and consumer.
You told me that people are your passion. In what context?
I am partial to people. Art is often introverted and misunderstood. When you make the transition to professing it, it was not about me reveling in how different we were, it was about finally getting the opportunity to say this is what we have in common.
You started in a group, where you quickly became a standout. Was that an issue?
I was an individual in a collective effort. I am a team player, however. I don’t have ego. But I do have an agenda, which is broadening the scope of Black music and Black artists and what we are able to be.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by everything that has happened and everything that has not. A lot of my idols are alive and well and many of my actions are an appreciation. I want them to see themselves in me. Everyone from Billy Joel and Elton John to Bobby Womack and Al Green.
What is your strongest childhood memory?
Feeling alone and exiled as a child. I remember saying to myself then, “You are on your own, you know that, right?”
Your parents were both ordained ministers. I know that you were especially close to your mother. How were you affected by your mother’s death?
My mother’s death affected me...positively. My mother is alive. I am the one who died. My mother was paralyzed in an accident. There was one time when she was growing a little sore from sleeping on the side of her body and I was asleep. I woke up and heard her calling. The nurse was not there. I was a little irritable with her. I remember her saying to me: ‘Lord knows, If I could do myself I would.’ I wish I could have allowed that to transpire in another way. [That may be] my greatest regret. Maybe this is a little closure to the whole situation.
What inspired your song “F*#k You?
I was inspired to write ‘Eff You’’ because…my agenda is anti-establishment. If you look at the Grammy performance with what is now known as the ‘The Royal Peacock” outfit, you don’t wear something like that to fit in. You wear something like that to tear some shit down. I was recording my album Lady Killer and the label was not liking anything and we were not moving forward with a first single. The day we recorded the song, Bruno Mars had the idea for the record. It was entitled to “F*ck You” and the hook was only in place. Someone sang it to me and I was like, “Yeah…”. I did it to be spiteful and ridiculous. I thought the label would hate it. Who would have known it was what they would love.
Why did you become a judge on The Voice?
It’s all about being well-rounded. And doing what would usually be impossible.
Finish the sentence: “In this world, I am…”
A miniscule. I am a spec.
Once again. “I want…”
To be pleasing in the sight of my Maker.
Why do you continue to create?
I want black artists to carry on like the Rolling Stones, The Eagles, and Pink Floyd. I want to do music that allows me to act my age and grow old gracefully. I keep going because I have ideas that have not even transpired yet. I will be an old man by the time I am done.
Do you think people in your past are jealous of your success?
Jealousy is probably too strong of a word. Jealousy and envy are like HIV and full-blown AIDS. You can live with envy, but jealousy will kill you.