AZA is a first-generation American who grew up in Trinidad before living in a number of different states on the east coast. He is a multi-instrumentalist who is deeply rooted in the experience of music from the African Diaspora. He engaged in formal studies of jazz music in college and as a Ph.D. student was awarded MIT’s Emerson Scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music and has released multiple projects of his original music.
He teaches music and mindfulness as tools that help enhance empathy, social justice, health equity, and wellness. To that end, he co-founded Renaissance Entertainment LLC, a company that operates at the intersection of music, science, and community building to promote a culture of wellness.
He attended North Carolina Central University, an HBCU, for college as well as the Harvard/MIT MD Ph.D. program. He currently does research and provides clinical care as a resident in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University.
Who is AZA in your own words?
AZA represents the journey of self-discovery. It’s about always returning back to the core of who we are and what we are here to do no matter the cost or odds.
You said that the overall messaging of “Taking Off” is to tell the story of breaking out of the monotony in life to achieve greatness by focusing on things that fulfill your life. What are the things that fulfill your life the most?
My life is really fulfilled by staying true to my identity, loving my family and friends, creating meaningful community, making music, and using science and medicine to help people.
Talk me through your creative process.
My creative process is very variable. I have transitioned most things in my life to be very much in flow with some rigidity as needed. Sometimes the process will begin with me just sitting at the piano and playing with different ideas until something sticks or resonates. With a song like Taking Off, my primary producer T.wav$ will send me an instrumental, and on first listen I’ll know whether or not there is a connection with where I’m currently at.
When there is a connection, it doesn’t take me long to write the song. The main elements of “Taking Off” happened within a couple of minutes of hearing the instrumental, with some lyrics being edited and updated before I recorded the final audio. Now that we have a good studio set-up, the recording and initial mixing happen pretty quickly as well. Then we’ll send off the pre-mixed audio to our engineer in Boston who then mixes and masters the final version.
Renaissance Entertainment LLC is a company that you co-founded. It operates at the intersection of music, science, and community building. How do music and science coexist together? Do you find a connection between the two?
I think that fundamentally science and music are all about discovery, creation, and communication of information. Music is mathematical at its core because it’s all about frequencies and waves so one can approach music in a very scientific way and that’s a part of what I am doing with my research efforts.
In addition, the creative platform in music gives you a chance to experiment which is the heart of scientific discovery. At the same time, great science, even its most academic, rigorous context still requires creativity and improvisation. It requires a certain level of artistry to imagine something new and figure out how to create it or discover it.
Following my previous question, what does music mean to you?
Music is a powerful force for expressing my internal world to others. It is a therapeutic intervention for me to process my emotions and change my mood. It gives me a platform to explore the vibrational roots of life and consciousness.
It might sound weird but physics tells us that everything in the physical world is in some state of vibration, and our experience of music and sound is directly a result of vibration in the physical world, so I think there are some profound questions about life that music can answer through understanding and experimenting with the principle of vibration.
Sometimes I can get very nerdy about this stuff, but really it always comes back to the aspects of music that can’t be defined scientifically but can only be experienced.
How many instruments do you play? What instrument did you learn to play first?
I’ve played a few different instruments over the years including the bass and drums, however, these days I really focus most on piano and vocals. I would say the voice is usually our first true instrument and I started learning to sing at a young age. However, my first real music lessons were for piano. I also took drum and bass lessons and have learned the basics of a few other instruments.
Is there any artist that influenced your sound?
There are a number of artists that I draw inspiration from. Just a few are Bob Marley, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Kirk Franklin, etc. I grew up with exposure to a bunch of music from across many genres and I take inspiration however it comes.
Can practice be the connection between music and mindfulness?
I think practice is definitely one big connection between music and mindfulness. They are both ways of exploring our reality and the more your practice or dedicate time to studying, the deeper your understanding goes, and the more you are able to do with the process. They also are both very natural ways of being able to impact and modulate your own mind and tune in to your emotions.
As a resident in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University, what’s your opinion on how music influences people’s minds?
I think it’s now clear both from historical data as well as from more modern western mechanisms of analysis that music can have profound effects on brain activity, mood, cognition, and behavior. I think music should be used as an intervention within psychiatry because there is already evidence that it can enhance the benefits of some of the approaches we already use. In addition, we know that music can serve as a stimulus to aid mindfulness and relaxation.
Do you have any new projects that you’re working on at the moment?
I am working on a few things in music and science. I have a new single called “Go Slowly” that will come out soon and shares my thoughts on how to survive in this time that can be pretty scary for some of us. I’m also working on an upcoming album Super Space with T.wav$. Taking Off is the first single on this project. I have a few science projects going on too. One I’m really excited about is the Music and Mindfulness study which is researching how music and mindfulness might work together to enhance social connectedness and lead to better stress management.
Link to the song: https://tidal.com/browse/track/147240713