As a Grammy-nominated Producer, a 4-time Dove award winner, and a 4-time Stellar award nominated writer/producer, Antonio Neal has been inspiring listeners through his thoughtful approach in his music. Musically, Antonio paints on a canvas that can truly be called his own, from a palette of musical colors as vast and arresting as his own seemingly boundless imagination. Understanding that this is an artist whose singularly unique vision is as influenced by the sweet sounds of legendary ’70s soul crooner, Al Green, as it is modern, cutting-edge hip-hop, one gets at least an inkling that this is something altogether new, created by an artist clearly guided by nothing but his own inner visions.
Charles Clark: First of all, I’d like to say I appreciate so much you taking the time out of your schedule to talk to me today. So, thank you so much, man.
Antonio Neal: Thank you for having me, man.
CC: Oh, my pleasure. You know how we do! It’s funny that, technically, this will be the second time that I have interviewed you. The very first time that I talked to you was in the first year of the magazine, November 2009. You’ve been with the journey for so long, so thank you so much, man.
AN: Wow. Man, thank you for not quitting it, staying strong. I’m proud of you! Wow, this is amazing.
CC: Thanks, man! So, you already know how we do… The first question is the signature question: Who is Antonio Neal?
AN: I a man who is learning that I don’t know what I thought I knew. (Laughing)
CC: Well… That’s deep!
AN: That’s me right now. Yeah… That’s me.
CC: And is that an intimidating process or is that a process that you’re welcoming?
AN: Both… I think we all want to grow… Or there are things that we all want to unlearn in our life. And I think when we get to that point, it’s frightening, but we know that we need it to happen. So, I think it’s intimidating and I’m welcoming growing up … Or growing out… Whichever way you want to put it.
CC: So, in the process, what did you learn about yourself that you didn’t know?
AN: That’s a good question. I think I’m learning about myself that I’m a fragile person that needs community… That needs to be surrounded by people… I thought I was a strong man. But I’m strong because of my family, my community. So, I realize that now and I cherish that now.
CC: So, what is one thing that you learned about yourself that you didn’t like that you had to get rid of?
AN: A little anger. Yup… I had to deal with anger, man. That’s something potent. Especially when it comes to men and you realize that this is not just a moment; that this is a character issue that I’ve got to deal with. Once you realize that and confront that, and you decide to speak on it, how it affects you and people around you… That’s one thing that I really have been attacking, recently in my life.
CC: You have been quite transparent in your struggles as a man. How did you deal with the anger of that and push through the anger to rebuild your family?
AN: That is the million-dollar question. I think, sometimes, that we go into survival mode. I don’t really think that I’ve dealt with the true emotion of how I really feel about it. I think I dealt with making sure that my family was in a good place… You’re so preoccupied with making sure that your family is taken care of, how Antonio feels – how I feel about it as an individual… I really haven’t dealt with that yet. I’ve dealt with the situation and how things went down and my mistakes, my sins, my lack of wisdom… Whatever you want to call it… I think I was in shock for so long… Shock comes so we won’t feel the pain of what we’re going through. Shock kinda shuts you down so you won’t experience that. So, I think the shock of everything helped absorb the blow and I am [just] recently starting to find out how hard I was really hit. Because when you get in survival mode, you’re not thinking about anything else but your family and making it. And getting out of danger. So, I think it’s a process of accepting it and then, slowly letting your guards down to really deal with the aftermath.
CC: Do you think that you’re ready to deal with it? Because shock will absorb all of that but it hits you when you least expect it… Do you think you will get to a place where you can let go of all of that so that you can get to another level of wholeness?
AN: Yes… I think I’ll get there. I think I’m beginning to get there. I think I’m starting to let myself exhale. Part of the process is accepting those things. There’s part of us that doesn’t want to accept… As [men], we don’t want to accept failure… But for me, I think it’s learning to accept that I can’t change that and to accept my mess and say “this is where I’m at right now and look at what God’s done for me.” Look at how He’s sustained us. Look at what I’ve learned. He didn’t change the situation but He gave me strength to endure the situation with my wife and I. Not only was that happening on the side of the physical things, but also spiritual things and the domestic things of my family were getting exposed and also, God restoring, reconciling things in our life. So, it’s been a whirlwind of a lot of things, but I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad I’m learning. I’m glad I can humble myself now and just try to be a servant. Through all of this process, I think that I am learning again…how to be the next level of a servant. I’m the head of my home, but at the same time, I’m a servant of my home. I take my leadership as trying to help better the people around me, not to push myself up.
CC: For over a year now, I have been witness to a journey of you trying to become a healthier individual. It has been so inspiring that it has been a life-changing experience, even for me. I had to settle some things in my head to become a more disciplined individual to what I put in my mouth to nourish myself. I had to learn that I was an emotional eater. I was a person who ate for comfort, not all the time because I was hungry. It was the one thing that I controlled that made me more comfortable. So watching your videos about you juicing and what you ate and the transformation from the “old” Antonio – if you don’t mind me saying that – to the “new” Antonio has helped me in the last few months to lose 43 lbs. So, first of all, thank you. I believe that our lives are ministry. How have you benefited as a minister?
CC: Yeah… I believe that our lives are a ministry. How have you benefited as a minister? How do you think the life ministry of Antonio has affected other people?
AN: Yeah, I agree. I think hearing stories like yours and from many other people that have hit me and my wife up from around the world… Man, it’s just overwhelming. To know that I did not want to share that journey with anybody publicly but knowing that I needed to… When I started airing about my daughter’s eczema clearing up and my wife’s posts going viral… People just started seeing. It wasn’t about what I was talking; it was about what I was doing and people seeing the change in my life. I wasn’t preaching to anyone by my words, I was ministering by my life. People were starting to see the difference, the fact that I was serving people. It all goes back to serving, again. It just opened up another opportunity in my life to serve people. That was it… My life became a story of hope and serving other folks and giving folks the opportunity to see that they could see some improvements in their lives even if they didn’t think they had the strength to do this, but they do. We all do. We just sometimes need an example and for some reason, the Lord chose me to be an example of that. It’s amazing.
CC: One of the things that you’ve instilled in me over the last seven years that I’ve known you is to be a servant… But to be a transparent servant because someone needs to see it. Not always you speaking it, but you just living it out. So, I wish that more people did that.
AN: Yeah, man.
CC: You had kinda not done music in a while. So, what’s up with the music, man? Where you been?
AN: Well, I put something out in 2008 called Live, Laugh, Love. I did something in 2014 called Welcome Home. And then, recently, [I did] I Am America. So, I haven’t put out a project every year, but I have put things out. I have not been out there just hustling as an artist because that got old. That got tiring and I just wasn’t feeling that world anymore. And I think a part of my evolution and some of the things that we’re talking about earlier in this conversation, is that I was going through this transition. What people knew me as was a Gospel artist but I’m not really a Gospel artist in the sense of the traditional word. I’m a Christian man. I’m a disciple of Christ who’s an artist. But I’ve never really felt comfortable anywhere. I got released from EMI because it just wasn’t working out in that system the way I was. They told me my music was three or four years ahead of time. I’m on the album cover with a guitar and everybody’s looking at me like I’m crazy… Now you’ve got all these artists out there with a guitar…
AN: But people don’t remember in ’05 when I did that. [P]eople were looking at me like I was crazy, but now, that’s a part of it. I was one of the first to be part of that revolution of change, but nobody remembers me doing that. This process that God has had me on, this process, this journey, has been going on behind the scenes and now it’s given me an opportunity to speak with this new and – I won’t say improved – validated thing from God, which is not just doing Gospel music but talking about things that [are] going on in our country… I’ve been working a lot with the National Parks Service, doing things for civil rights… So, it’s a lot going on, but it just looks different and it doesn’t look like Gospel music industry, but I’m still doing music. A lot of people didn’t know that… because I’m not up under the same uniform as I was before.
CC: Is there still a Gospel music industry? Most artists are releasing their stuff as independent artists with distribution deals… Is that the new wave, that everyone is basically going to be an independent artist?
AN: Well, we can’t say everyone, but I think that because of digital distribution…it’s about your individual brand. So, when you look at that, do you really need an industry to pay for music? Now, even with music production, the cost is so low, you don’t need a label to put up $200, 000 to do a record. You can do a record for much cheaper than that. You don’t need a label for that. If you’ve got a name and you know the people behind the scenes for marketing or a strong booking agent, there are a lot of things that you don’t need a label for. I don’t really know what it is… I think we’re becoming like Europe that they are just putting music out and whatever your message is, that’s just what your message is and people don’t really care. On the Gospel music side, a lot of the music has been broken down and it seems like it’s just a bunch of award shows.
CC: It seems like they keep honoring the same people…
AN: Well, Gospel music is a niche market share and they are trying to hold onto that niche market.
CC: So, tell me about I Am America. I told you it reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too, Sing America”. What was the genesis of I Am America?
AN: I Am America wasn’t planned. We had just finished up a love project I was about to put out with my partners at Studio Cafe called Not a Love Song. It was around June or July and all of these songs started pouring out of my heart with all of the shootings and all of the protesting… all of the discord…all of this stuff… And I had already kinda been in this headspace. The Lord started allowing me to write music on what the government has been doing and what people are doing, especially underneath the radar, to bring some of these things to light. So, I had already been in that headspace and then I attended an event for one of the largest lynchings that had ever been in the state of Tennessee… For the last year, I’ve been in this space [thinking about] what we – Black people in this country that we helped build – have been going through. So, I think that with all that’s been happening in our country – the good and the bad – those songs just started escaping my heart because I needed a way to deal with the history of what had happened and the current things – what IS happening – and how we just seem to be just losing control. I just had to let go and say how I was feeling. That’s how the songs just started pouring out.
CC: So, when the listener is done listening to the whole project, I Am America, what do you want them to come away with?
AN: That they are American. That they are a part of this country… That they need to take ownership… That we need to stop wrenching our country… That you matter… That I matter… That this is us. That we can’t do anything without compassion and empathy and love and forgiveness… We can’t do anything with a mob mentality, no matter who we are… That we’ve gotta love one person at a time so we can have conversations with each other. I hope that it will open doors for us to sit down with people that maybe we disagree with and figure out how we can right things. Some things are a conversation away and some things are a couple of generations away but we can’t stay in anger. We’ve got to get on the same page so we can start figuring out how to make this place what it’s supposed to be. Where do we go from here?
CC: Okay, I’ll take that. But I’m gonna add something to that. Just by the very title, I Am America, it’s almost a declaration that we should not only take stock of what’s going on, but we should also speak up.
AN: I think if you listen to what I’m talking about in the music, I want people to hear that I’m saying we’ve got to stand up. I mean in our homes, how we treat one another; how I raise my kids; I address the dreams that I have. How I can look at situations and bring healing to it and not allow it to keep us divided. I have a lot that I say in my music. I don’t get on social media and say a whole bunch; I feel like my job is to use music and media and film and books to speak to people through stories. A lot of people don’t know how to deal with it and don’t know what to say about it. I think I Am America gives a voice to those people.
CC: I love it. So, what’s next for Antonio Neal?
AN: Right now is next. I am working on the I Am America project with my team. We’re about to get on the road soon. Traveling, doing music and message events around the country. I’m working on a couple of small things underground. We’re hoping to get our music into TV and film and apps. So, there are a lot of things that are really at the cusp, on the tipping point for us. So, we’re working in our lane, working really hard to get the message out… I’m really thankful for your platform and giving me this opportunity… And we’re [looking to] do radio and all of that. Our job right now is to knock on every door we can to give people the opportunity to hear us. We want to have those conversations with different cultures sitting in a room talking about how we can impact the places and spaces that we have influence in. That’s what I want to do. [W]ith my music, as long as it’s speaking to people’s hearts, as long as love has an opportunity to get in there, as long as people can see that I’m trying to speak life – and live life, most importantly – I feel great about it. I feel grateful that I have music that will get a chance to be embraced by many peoples.
CC: Well, sir, I thank you for this time. I really appreciate it, Brotha.
AN: Again, man, I just appreciate what you’re doing; I love what you’re doing. I’m just excited that you’re still here being strong.
CC: Thanks, man.