How Jon Batiste’s Music Can Help Us ‘Hold On To the Light’
Jon Batiste’s We Are was named the Album of the Year in this year’s Grammy Awards. The album is a musical exploration of Jon Batiste’s roots, influences, and life as a New Orleans native living in America. As the “we” implies, Batiste believes his success is not his alone. He credits God, his family, fellow band members, and other musicians’ influences for making him the artist he is. After being nominated 11 times for Grammy awards and taking home five trophies — the most of any artist that night — the world is learning more about who Batiste is.
Batiste was born into a musical family with four generations of New Orleans musicians ahead of him. His father played bass in a band with seven of Batiste’s uncles. Raised in the Catholic Church, Batiste still considers himself a devout Christian. When accepting the award for Album of the Year, Jon said, “I like to thank God. I just put my head down and I work on the craft every day. I love music. I’ve been playing since I was a little boy. It’s more than entertainment for me, it’s a spiritual practice.”
On “Boyhood,” Batiste features PJ Morton and Trombone Shorty and reminisces about growing up as a young Black kid. With shoutouts to New Orleans staples like Master P’s No Limit Records, the Pelicans, and the Saints, Batiste croons, “Basketball under the treehouse / Too short to catch a rebound / Maybe that wasn’t my callin’ / But you could still see me ballin.’”
Batiste’s true calling as a musician was clear from an early age. Batiste attended St. Augustine’s Catholic High School, an all-boys school known for its marching band. He transferred to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts from which he graduated. Batiste featured St. Augustine’s Marching Band 100 along with the Gospel Soul Children Choir and others on the title track, “We Are.” In the chorus, Batiste sings, “We are the golden ones / We are the chosen ones.”
St. Augustine’s Marching Band 100 also makes a cameo in the music video for “Freedom,” which won a Grammy for Best Music Video. Dressed in a metallic pink suit, Batiste and choreographed dancers light up the screen with joy as the infectious tune blares. In an introduction to the song, a woman named Mavis describes what freedom is to her: “Freedom to me, is the ability for men and women / All created equal / To speak, think, and do — or not do — what you want.”
Choosing to pursue music after high school, Batiste earned degrees in jazz studies from Juilliard. There, he established the Stay Human band with classmates, and they became known for their musical virtuosity and signature street performances they called “love riots.” In addition to performing in subway stations, New York City streets, and global tours, the band performed on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central in 2014. The following year, Stay Human was hired as the house band for The Late Show with Steven Colbert — with Batiste as the band leader and musical director. Suddenly, as a pianist, composer, and a band leader, Batiste was starting to look a lot his favorite jazz artist, Duke Ellington.
“Cry,” is an emotional offering on We Are that won Batiste Grammys for Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance. In the hook, Batiste sings, “Why sometimes does it seem like all I want to / All I wanna do is cry / cry.” Reminiscent of Negro spirituals and Blues ballads, “Cry” is a heartfelt lament for the wrongs in society. At the end of the song, Batiste clarifies the cry is for the “loss of innocence,” the “struggle of the immigrant,” and the “wrongful imprisonment.”
Social issues are not the only struggle in Batiste’s life — he is also in the midst of a health crisis with his wife, Suleika Jaouad. Batiste and Jaouad first met when they were teenagers at band camp and formed a lasting friendship. Eleven months after graduating from Princeton, Jaouad was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 22. During her nearly four years of cancer treatment, she wrote a New York Times column, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicling her experience as a young adult with cancer. A video series of the same name earned Jaouad an Emmy award. In one column, Suleika wrote about Batiste and his Stay Human bandmates surprising her in the hospital and cheering up the cancer ward with an impromptu performance in her room. Years later, Batiste and Jaouad began a romantic relationship.
Jaouad published her 2021 memoir about her experience with cancer, Between Two Kingdoms. In November of that year, she learned her cancer had returned and was more aggressive than the first time around. She and Batiste had less than a week to pack up and relocate to New York City for her to start chemotherapy. On Jaouad’s first day of chemo, the Grammy nominations were announced, and Jon received 11 — the most nominations for an artist of all time, other than Michael Jackson.
Shortly after, the couple married in a private ceremony the day before her bone marrow transplant in 2022. For the couple, it was an act of defiance. As Batiste stated in a CBS interview, “The darkness will try to overtake you, but just turn on the light. Focus on the light. Hold on to the light.”
In Batiste’s Grammy acceptance speech, he said, “I believe this to my core: There is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it most. It’s like a song or an album is made and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.”
In the same CBS interview, Jaouad described how Batiste turned to music to reach and comfort her when she was in the hospital after her bone marrow transplant. Due to a Covid surge, Jaouad had to recover in the hospital alone. So, Batiste wrote her new lullabies every night to fill her room with “healing properties.”
In the upbeat, “I Need You,” Batiste sings about love. “In this world with a lot of problems / All we need is a little loving / Thank you, thank you, oh you make me / Thank you, thank you for your love.” Based on their relationship, the couple has a deep well from which to draw when it comes to love, affection, and commitment.
After winning at the Academy Awards, the Grammy Awards, and the Golden Globe Awards, — just to name a few — Batiste will showcase his virtuoso composing skills and genre-melding symphonic work when he performs “American Symphony” at Carnegie Hall. In the meantime, We Are is a great album to play on repeat to help to get to know Batiste and the deep well of humanity that he’s tapped into.