Interviews January 31, 2017
Courtnee Roze

On the heels of her collaboration on Beyonce’s Lemonade screening, many people are talking about Courtnee Roze. Hailing from Harlem, Courtnee is one of the few leading female percussionists and bandleaders in New York. She leads an instrumental fusion/percussion-driven band, Courtnee Roze: The Musical, that presents a unique, rich and energetic blend of monologue, rap, jazz, funk, Afrobeat and live dance. On Jan. 17, Courtnee brought her good energy and positive vibes to the Afropop office as she sat down with Nenim Iwebuke for an interview.

Nenim Iwebuke: Thanks for joining us today, Courtnee.

Courtnee Roze: No problem.

I know you are a real busy lady, so coming down here to meet us in our office is cool of you.

For sure, for sure, I always do it for the culture.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Well, my name is Courtnee Roze, I’m a percussionist but I’m also a songwriter, bandleader as well, I have a production called Courtnee Roze: The Musical, which I founded. It's about my life story so it's tied to dance, song and dance, rich African grooves, you know, rap, monologue, things like that and I actually started putting on the production at Joe’s Pub, so they were the first to pick the production up. I played percussion on J. Cole’s Billboard single, “Crooked Smile.” I also played with Cirque du Soleil, and I just worked with Beyonce in L.A. and a lot of, a lot, a lot of things [Laughs] but the gist of it is that I play djembe, conga as a percussionist.

Courtnee Joes pub

Tell me about your work with Beyoncé ?

It was phenomenal, it was a surreal moment, she’s amazing, not only is she amazing, her team is amazing, like the energy! I like being around that type of energy and I can tell that it comes from her and it trickles down. The energy is amazing!

I was in L.A. with her, we did the Lemonade screening and that was phenomenal, and then I was at the Barclays Center with her. Big shout out to B! She is so dope.

And how was it, working with J. Cole?

Awesome! I played percussion on his Billboard single, “Crooked Smile,” and Grammy-nominated album, Born Sinner. It was amazing working with him. He’s another dope artist; I’ve been fortunate to work with humble and amazing artists, I will say that. Big shout out to J. Cole.

I know you play djembe and congas but I noticed you play more djembe, how come?

Yeah the djembe is my first instrument, from the age of 7, you know, that’s my baby.

You said from the age of 7, so what got you into playing the djembe?

Well, actually, my mom. She’s a pathologist now but she’s a dancer as well so she used to dance for the LaRocque Bey School of Dance Theater, the oldest dance school in Harlem. It’s not there anymore but she put me into the art, she would dance and I would drum and I just never left so at the age of 7 I was playing djembe and congas.

So djembe and conga are your main instruments?

Yeah, djembe is my first instrument and conga is actually my second.

What was the first tune you played on the djembe? 

4/4, 6/8 rhythms, I’m a little old school so now to see people hop on a djembe is strange for me because I used to have to play the bell to keep to timing, that’s one of the most important things, I used to have to play 6/8s, you know, and keep it, you didn’t like it but it paid off. You know, djembe was the lead instrument, and you really couldn’t play lead instrument unless you have a foundation of the music, that’s the way my brain operates.

Besides your mum, who else in your family was musical?

I just learned that my grandfather played the sax but I haven’t seen any video footage or anything. I found a hundred-year-old sax at home in his storage so that’s how I knew, but other than my mum, not many.

So who are the musicians you admire? You definitely have some people up there that you look up to.

Yeah, James Brown is one of the people that I admire so much because I’m an entertainer as well, if you see my stage show I don’t just play music, and Michael Jackson is on the top of my list as well because he’s an entertainer, I love Fela, ummmm… who else? Every time they ask me this question I have a long list, then when I’m being asked on an interview I’m always like ummmm… [Laughs]

Those three guys had a lot in common. 

Yeah, a lot of influence, and that’s what I teach my band, I call it the James Brown way.

That’s dope, I saw some live performance of yours, where you did James Brown’s “Gonna Have A Funky Good Time.”

Yeah, that’s my favorite, it gets the crowd involved, you know, that whole thing.

So these musicians you admire, do they influence you as well or you have some other musicians that really influence your style?

Well, James Brown influences my style, in the band they always make a joke and be like yo’ that’s Miss James Brown, because I’m also strict with music, you know, because of the love I have for it, and you know I’m an entertainer, a lot of people just play an instrument, you know; I rap, sing, dance, you know, James Brown is a heavy influence on me right now.

Some musicians tell me that they see instruments they play as a medium to communicate with some other realm, maybe on a spiritual level or something like that, what do you take on that?

Well, the djembe is a part of me, without that I don’t think I will live happy, you know if my spirit is down all I have to do is put the drum on and hit and that’s it, like my spirit is up automatically, I’m very surprised by that often because I’m like, what is it about this music, about this drum when I hit it, you know, and the audience once I hit a few beats it’s like O.K., oh my! You have my attention, so the djembe is definitely very spiritual for me as well, it controls, it controls me, usually people control the instrument, the djembe actually controls me, so if I didn’t have it I don’t know what I would do, its actually a part of me.

So if you don’t play the djembe for a while, you feel sad or moody, right? 

Yeah, I do and my mum always knows, she’s like, you need to go play music, that’s why I don’t take long breaks like I need a vacation, and sometimes my hands are bothering me but I don’t take long breaks, a week seems very long, two weeks seems like a month, you know, without playing.

And how often do you practice?  

Ummm… I don’t really practice at home, you know, because of the neighbors, you know, the djembe’s shout is kind of loud so I put a cloth over it or something like that and practice. But most of the time I’m playing so much that I get to practice a few hours before rehearsal or a few hours after depending on the time or when rehearsal is starting and depending on the gig I’ll get to play, so I practice often, not every day but, you know, what I mean.

Do you teach?

I do, I teach young children, that’s my favorite; Last summer I taught at H.I.A., they were special-needs children, they have behavioral issues but they just love that drum. I had their attention and I was sad when the program ended, they were sad as well because, you know, especially for troubled teens I don’t know, you know, I feel like its a special thing, especially when they are attentive to this instrument and they remember everything I taught them. And so we used to have things in class, I’m like “you guys don’t remember” and they are like, “yes I do, the djembe comes from Africa, this is goatskin.” They were very intrigued by the drum, I believe drums save lives as well.

Do you have any plans of reaching out to the kids?

Well, you can’t because it's-- [Pauses] I tried but you are not allowed to reach out to them personally, hopefully they create another program or I bump into them.

How do you balance music with other obligations like family, kids, job?

So just to clear the record I don’t have any kids, not yet, so the djembe is my kid. I always try to figure out if I had a kid am I going to take my kids on tour? I think I’ll put music kind of close first, so that balances everything out. I call it my other life, sometimes it gets a little crazy, you know, like laundry, and, you know, things like that look a little crazy but, you know, I have to realize that you have another life as well not just music, so you have to balance things, but my mum comes to the most of my shows and my little sister, so I see them often, you know, so it balances it out.

Well, as soon as all gets better with your career other people will be paid to do some of these chores for you.

Yeah, I hope that happens soon.

You are one of the few very good female percussionists and bandleaders I’ve seen. I’ve been to many shows and I’ve seen so many male percussionists but hardly come across female percussionists. How is it for you in the industry?

Hard! I was just speaking about that, it’s challenging but was more challenging when I was younger because I didn’t know what was happening, I thought you were just supposed to be accepted.

CourtneeA female playing djembe was not accepted at first; “You know all females are not supposed to play the djembe,” so they said. And then when I found out about the history of the djembe, that the women actually brought the djembe to the men, I was just like, "Oh wow! So that was actually a myth,” but its still hard because it's male dominated and then on top of that when you can really play well it really looks like “what are you doing?” “Where did you learn that from?” So it's still hard now, I mean I think I ignore it now because I’m just like, I’m Courtnee Roze, like, I know what to do. I know how to navigate and I keep it humble but I still know that I put in a lot of work in this industry so now I’m, you know, maybe its happening now but I just ignore it, I’m too busy doing too many other things, you know, but it's very hard in the industry being accepted especially on that drum, you know people call me a powerful woman on the drum so it's a little hard, it happens but I ignore it. [Laughs]

You know you are a role model to many ladies out there.

I’ve heard, I’ve heard, that word "role model" is huge, I’m honored to be that.

That’s some big responsibility.

It is, it is, I don’t really take it as a responsibility I just continue to do what I do, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s a responsibility! You know when people say role model they say responsibility but I just think my real responsibility is to the future to leave that legacy for that little girl, you know, when people tell her she can’t do it or that little boy, when they say you can’t do that they say, yes I can, because Courtnee Roze did it!

What’s your advice for people that say they can’t make it?

When I hear superstars say this, I used to be like, oh my God! Here they go, here they go, but it's true, you have to keep going, you can’t allow anybody to tell you what you can’t do, you know, a lot of people told me what I couldn’t do and I’ve been there done it all. I’ve done Carnegie Hall, a black woman on stage, on percussion at Carnegie Hall. So never let, ever, ever, ever let anybody tell you what you can’t do because breaking barriers I think I can attach it to my name, because I’ve broken a lot of barriers and that’s God’s honest truth! So keep going, keep pushing, you know, things get hard but you have to step over those hills and just keep pushing past them and keep going.

Can you describe your journey and hustle and how you got here?

I have to give the hustle to myself and to my mum, my mum has helped me out with a lot of things, not only financially but just a lot. You know she inspires me because she’s a hustler, she’s a pathologist and she’s a dancer, she teaches dance class, she teaches swim aerobics, so my mum has been a huge part of my journey. When I couldn’t pay the band she would be, like, well, here’s 50 bucks extra, you can pay them with that, you know what I’m saying, so my mum is… [Pauses] I have to give all of the props to her and the Creator, you know, He makes things happen, when you don’t have, the next day you have you are like, oh my God! So I always give praise to the Creator no matter what because I would never be here.

Tell me about day one when you decided to become a musician.

So let me tell you the truth, I was broke, I was sitting in the house, I was just a freelance musician, I was playing gig to gig to gig, you know, and playing with different bands is a great experience but the thing is, that I learned you have to wait on your money so really it's, when they are going to call you to hire you? When are they going to pay you? You know what I mean? So it was just one day I got tired of that, you know, I got tired of being broke, I got tired of sitting at home waiting for gigs, so I’m like, I always wanted to build my own band, “so why don’t you do it now,” and I had about 40 dollars I think in my bank account, and I was like, I’m going to schedule a rehearsal and I got the cats that said they always wanted to play with me, and I was like, I got this rehearsal, I got like two hours, “You guys want to play?” and they were like, “Yeah we down,” and that’s how literally the musical started, like with 40 dollars. I was like, “how am I going to eat, after the rehearsal?” “How am I going to eat?” but I was like, “I have to do this,” I had to do something, my spirit told me!

So to you are there any advantages or disadvantages of being a woman in an industry dominated by men?

I don’t think there are disadvantages, I think it’s more of advantages maybe. [Laughs] No disadvantages, I would say, the advantages of being a woman is that you stand out a lot, I don’t have to play two beats, you still get noticed on stage, but the powerful part is that I really know how to play, you know, what I mean. [Laughs]

That requires a lot of energy, do you exercise?

Yeah, definitely I exercise, I take Bikram yoga, that’s one of my favorites to keep up my stamina on stage, you know, a lot of musicians that I know don’t work out but for me my body is not built like that, especially like I have to workout especially with getting older and keeping up the speed of your hands and jumping around on stage and singing, you don’t want to be out of breath, you want to give a great performance, and you want to give the audience the best version of you! You know what I mean, you don’t want to be slacking on stage, I don’t!

As a bandleader what do you when one of your musicians messes up?

Well, I always had this thing, you could see it on my face, so I try to fix it because I’ve caught a lot of footage with me making a face, so I had to cut, slice and paste because you can actually see the expression on my face. But my thing is also I’ve learned as a little girl from LaRocque Bey, and from James Brown and from others is that if you mess up, you have to mess up good! Like you can’t let the audience know that there’s a mistake, so even if it's off you have to keep going. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve brought to the culture, when I say culture I mean bands, because you have to realize that a lot of bands, musicians, they don’t entertain, so as soon as they mess up they are looking around and they’re stopping, and I wasn’t raised like that. LaRocque Bey was always an entertainer: if you mess up keep playing, if you fall, get back up don’t look around; I had to teach musicians that, like if we mess up, we are going to mess up on a good note! [Laughs] You know what I mean, we are not going to mess up and try to fumble and figure out the rhythm, and you know, keys keep going until drums catch on, drums keep going until keys pick back up, guitar keeps going, but you know, you keep the head bobbing, keep the energy going, I mess up on stage but nobody will probably ever know it. [Laughs]

Is there something you would like to add to the music industry?

I would say diversity; I would like to keep and bring this drum to the forefront, bring this djembe to the forefront, not to take this drum as a game, that’s what I want to add. Everybody thinks “I can play percussion,” people don’t pick up a guitar and just say I can play guitar, I can play the horns, but what I do see in this culture is everybody picks up a drum and just think they can play the drum. I take this very personal because I’ve been playing percussion since I was 7 and not only that, my technique is out of the window, it's phenomenal, so I can hear if a percussionist is not a real percussionist, if your technique, your hand, your bass, your slap is not really on point I can hear it. So I just want them to take this instrument serious whether it be congas, djembe, get a teacher, you know, not any teacher, but get a recognizable good teacher and learn, read on the instrument as you would do with a bass, or drums or guitar; why not with a djembe or conga, so that’s what I would want to add.

So what are your goals?

Well, my goal is to get this production, my musical to the forefront, because I think people need to know my life story and how I got here, also to have people play in the musical, to have auditions for it eventually. Eventually if I don’t have to touch a drum and my production can keep going, that’s like my dream; I always want to drum but, you know, just to get this production up and running and continue to play with the best artists in the world.

What are your future projects?

I have a project coming up on Feb. 4, at the Brooklyn Museum, we'll be there from 5 to 6 p.m. I also got inducted in the Pub Club at Joe’s Pub, so now I have a residency there as well.

Do you have any materials of yours, your own recordings? 

I have the music written but I haven’t recorded yet because of the funding, so I’m going to get the funding and at least record at least two or three songs, and because I’m a perfectionist, and people have a million studios in the world, and they would like to record me for free and things like that. It has to be a great sounding recording, like it has to really sound good, ready to be played in the clubs, so I’m not ready to just record to record, its not good to rush great things and I see that with myself, with my career, I didn’t rush it!

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Probably changing the game, I mean, I’m already changing the game, I’m probably one of the most recognized female entertainers, not just as a percussionist, but as one of the best female entertainers in the world, that’s where I see myself.

That’s so dope! Thanks for coming.

Oh, you already know, thanks for inviting me.

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