'Dust Off Your Wings': Tiny Desk Contestant Britton Smith On Pride And Potential | WGLT

'Dust Off Your Wings': Tiny Desk Contestant Britton Smith On Pride And Potential

Oct 11, 2020
Originally published on October 14, 2020 10:19 am

Imagine being able to lay down your burdens and fly away from Earth — to a place of harmony, where discrimination is left behind. That dream is the basis of the song "Blackstronauts" by Britton & The Sting, a standout entry in this year's Tiny Desk Contest. Britton Smith, who wrote the song, tells Weekend Edition he wrote "Blackstronauts" while thinking about one particular burden: the need for affirmation.

"This song is a reminder to get away from the noise of needing people to say, 'Yeah, you're great,' and just know that you were put on Earth for a certain reason," he says. "It's up to you to realize that power and fly with it — and try your best to dust off your wings whenever you need to be reminded of how special or powerful you are."

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Smith says this message is especially important for Black people. "I want us all to put on our freedom suits and fly together," he says. "I want everybody to be able to do this, but particularly my Black brothers and sisters."

In "Blackstronauts," Smith sings of his coming out story and his relationship with his mother. "I grew up gay, Black, in the South and in the church," he says. "They teach you in the church in the South to be so proud of your Blackness in American history. ... However, there was this other thing, a part of me that was not treated with that same type of affirmation and pride."

Smith says he wrote "Blackstroanuts," at his altar in his home in Harlem; he says he does his best writing there. "I have books and candles ... I often pray in the morning there, and I sing and I shake my body. I stretch, I release and then things come out that are the truth," Smith says. "I find such clarity and such authenticity and such joy and such pain; the fullness of humanity by myself at my altar at the house."

Apart from performing with Britton & The Sting, Smith has appeared on Broadway in the show Be More Chill and co-founded an anti-racism nonprofit called the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. Smith says the organization is "geared toward dismantling the systems of racism within and outside the industry," as well as broader issues like mass incarceration and police brutality. Storytelling through art is a motivation and a throughline in Smith's life, especially right now.

"In this moment we have been positioned to really share the truth," he says. "People are listening in a way that I'm excited about."

Elle Mannion contributed to the digital version of this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Imagine being able to lay down your burdens and fly away from Earth. Doesn't that sound nice right about now, traveling to a place of harmony, a place where discrimination is left behind? That's the theme of the song "Blackstronauts" by Britton and The Sting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKSTRONAUTS")

BRITTON AND THE STING: Let me see you lay your burden down. Are you going to fly to the moon with all that? Yeah. Let me see you lay your burden down. Down...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Britton Smith's song was chosen as a standout for this year's Tiny Desk contest, and he joins us now from Los Angeles. Welcome.

BRITTON SMITH: Hey, Lulu. I'm so happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am so happy to have you. That song has just cheered me up, let me tell you (laughter).

SMITH: Yeah. Come on. Come on. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about the song.

SMITH: Yeah. It's so nice to be able to, like, revisit this song and see what the power of music does. So I wrote this song about a year ago. So I was thinking about, what is the thing that I need to lay down to be able to fly to my most authentic, most full self? And I found out what that thing was. And this song is a reminder to continue to, like, get away from the noise of needing people to say, yeah, you're great. Just know that you were put on Earth for some reason. It's up for you to realize that power and fly with that and try your best to dust off your wings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKSTRONAUTS")

BRITTON AND THE STING: (Singing) Am I big enough? Am I strong enough? Am I wise enough? Am I brave enough? Am I good enough? Are you going to fly to the moon?

SMITH: I believe that if everybody, particularly Black people who are my folk, my family, my tribe - if we all were able to have a medicine pill like this song, to lay down our burdens, we would be all on the moon. And I believe that the moon, like, represents this, like, limitness place, a place of endless possibilities. And what does the world look like if everybody Black is free, liberated in a way that only at this moment looks like a place not on Earth?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKSTRONAUTS")

BRITTON AND THE STING: (Singing) Your mind is ready. It's ready to fly. If you're feeling heavy, I bet you know why.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's also, though, about your coming out story and your relationship with your mother.

SMITH: Yeah, a part of my affirmation is, you know, I grew up gay, Black in the South and in the church. And so they teach you in the church in the South to be so proud of your Blackness. However, there was this other thing, a part of me that was not treated with that same type of affirmation and pride. So I had a lot of shame and guilt and all these things that a gay, Black person growing up in church may feel in the South. And so my mom has gone through a long journey. But there have been moments where I feel I wish she would have had this song 20 years ago so that she could be more open in her ability to see me and my full self.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKSTRONAUTS")

BRITTON AND THE STING: (Singing) When I'm at the moon, will I have to leave? Will I be laughing and having fun? When I go up, will I mess it up? When I go inside, will I lose my mind?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Talk to me about, like, the process of actually writing this song, coming up with the words because it works on a whole bunch of different levels, this song.

SMITH: Right. I tend to write best when I'm at my altar at home. I have a space in my apartment in Harlem. I have books and candles, notes that I have, secrets to myself that I write out loud so that they can get out of my body. And I often pray in the morning there. And I sing. And I shake my body. I stretch. I release. And then things come out that are the truth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I feel like we all need an altar like that.

SMITH: Come on. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you've appeared on Broadway in the show "Be More Chill." And you're also a co-founder of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about what that is.

SMITH: Oh, man. It's a 4-year-old nonprofit that is geared towards dismantling the systems of racism within our industry and outside of our industry and, like, systems of, you know, mass incarceration, police brutality. And so we figure out, what is the relationship between arts, policy and law? And then we get those individuals in a room together. And we share stories. And we create art that targets the policies that perpetuate the systems. So telling a story of racism, of microaggressions and sharing the stories to the people who may be perpetuating these stereotypes and may not know on all levels of power and policy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's powerful.

SMITH: Yeah. And, like, in this moment, people are listening in a way that I'm excited about for change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Britton Smith. His song "Blackstronauts" performed by Britton and The Sting is one of the standout Tiny Desk contest videos. You can see it on our website npr.org.

Thank you very much.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKSTRONAUTS")

BRITTON AND THE STING: (Singing) Yeah, yeah. I need you to lay... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.