FEATURES Echelon The Seeker Makes ‘Actionable Art’ With A Broad Sonic Lens By Briana Younger · February 21, 2017

Echelon The Seeker

In the era of user-friendly digital music tools, composition, it could be argued, is an undervalued art. It’s rare to find an artist skilled in the pen-to-page aspect of music creation, while also refusing to be hemmed in by its limitations. Echelon the Seeker is that kind of artist, and his music reflects that accordingly. It’s structurally sound; the space and the instruments that occupy it—including his voice—are all carefully considered, making his work an immersive experience.

Raised in Frederick, Maryland—a suburb central to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore—the 28-year-old born Jason Sellers was drawn to music at a young age. His older and younger brothers were his first bandmates in a household that he says encouraged exploration and creative expression. He learned the art of composition formally as a music major at Oakwood University, a small, religious, historically black school in Huntsville, Alabama. Classical music underlined his education—he counts Igor Stravinsky as one of his biggest influences—while secular music and pro-black iconography fed his soul.

At just 10 tracks long, his eponymous solo debut follows its lead character, Echelon, as he pursues truth and information. The journey is full of messages of uplift and self-empowerment, set to a score that ranges from cinematic ’80s pop-rock to dreamy R&B. The EP is a crash course in the liberative politics that make Sellers who he is as both an artist and a person. We met in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood to chat about his debut, his responsibility as an artist in troubled times, and creating actionable art.

How did you come up with your stage name?

Being home schooled and raised in a Christian home, my mom always told us we’re supposed to be looking for the truth. She used to say, ‘We’re truth seekers Jason, that’s what we do.’ I think at the point that I was writing a lot of the material, I was trying to do better in my life. I’d gone through a lot of stuff. I’d been looking to go higher in a lot of ways. And so I used the term “echelon”—Echelon the Seeker, searching to go higher, searching for the truth.

What initially drew you into music and what has kept you there?

I think initially, it was just curiosity. I was, like, six and started playing on the piano. It’s the only thing I’ve been doing consistently throughout my entire life. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a neurologist. I found out I don’t like blood. My mom took me to the hospital with her; that was a no-go. I’ve just been playing; it’s the only platform where I can get my ideas out. It’s been cathartic for me. It’s fed me the most.

How has your artistry changed over time—either the way you think about it or the way you approach it?

That’s a hard question for me, because I’ve always written from the same place. I’m always writing to get something off my chest. I think the difference now is I’m able to pinpoint what I want to say more directly. When I was younger, I was writing in reaction. Someone would make me upset, and I’d just go write something. Now that I have a little more tools, I can phrase it better. I can say it more eloquently or less eloquently. I can do things purposefully, which is really nice.

The way you’ve described your college experience sounds like quite a time. What is life like at a historically black Seventh-Day Adventist school?

Oakwood was crazy. Oakwood is the only place you can play in church. Especially being a music major. It made me “well-rounded,” I guess. You have to put quotes around that because I don’t really think being well-rounded is a thing, but you try. You do your best. I’d never heard groups like Take 6 before, or the Aeolians—they’re these choral groups that do all these dense harmonies. Growing up on Stevie Wonder and Prince and then listening to that and adding that to the pot. Then you have to do your Brahms homework and your Chopin homework at the same time. It all gets in your head.

HBCUs kind of teach you to rebel against the canon. In music, a lot of that is rooted in classical music—Brahms and Beethoven. As a music major at a religious HBCU, is classical music still the baseline or are you playing, like, Prince compositions?

At least when I was there, Oakwood was definitely—it’s an Adventist school—it’s full-stop classical music, like ‘Don’t be doing all that stuff.’ I listened to everything in my house. While I was there, I was spending a lot of time pushing that envelope. I remember one time, for one of my composition recitals, I composed a jazz piece. The department head at the time, who’s a very good friend of mine, was like, ‘What would’ve happened if the president walked in on your recital? You would’ve been in trouble.’ I think the exposure allowed the program to broaden its horizons and see that it’s OK. We can do jazz music. I don’t know what they thought was going to happen, but exposure can smooth a lot of things over. Exposure can broaden people’s minds. Oakwood is one of those places, but I do think they have a jazz program now.

For you, what are some of the connections between spirituality and music?

For me, they’re one and the same. I couldn’t separate it. In the same way I couldn’t separate my reality as a black man from my writing, I can’t separate the reality of my faith from my music. It’s all in there. I think writing like that creates honest experiences for other people, even if we’re in different places. I’m being honest about where I am, and I acknowledge that we don’t have to be in the same place. I think people respect that, and I respect that about other artists. That’s why I’m not afraid to listen to everybody.

Your EP is fairly abstract in its musicality. As someone who is formally trained, how do you balance making something that fits within the traditional confines of music, but something that also exists outside of curriculum and outside of things that can be taught?

This is my problem. I try not to approach it from a technical aspect. Any time I walk into a building, I hear music playing on the elevator and I analyze it. But I try to craft my melodies so that they’re visceral. I try to craft so that people are like, ‘Yeah, I know what’s happening here. I don’t feel lost.’ I also try to push in other areas, maybe some of the musical setting or my layering—my friends say I over-layered some of the tracks. It’s a really difficult thing to balance. If you can make a memorable melody, someone might remember your song. They might hum it a little bit, and that’s where you get somebody. The melody is key, and then you can push in other areas, which is what I tried to do with the album. I tried to take it from R&B to a classic rock feel to some hip hop feels in there.

What was the moment you knew making this art was something you were meant to do?

I think that moment came after college. I’d graduated. I’d spent way too much time and money on college. I was depleted mentally. I had a band before, and different stuff had happened with that. I was just tired of trying stuff and it not working, and observing things in my community, observing things in the world and not being able to write about it—not being able to say anything about it because of being too afraid of offending someone. I was sick of being repressed. I was like, ‘I’m going to get this off my chest. I’m going to write the music I want to write and be unapologetic about it.’ It took a long time to get it all out there financing it by myself. It took three years of consistent money and time.

When you were creating the EP over the course of those three years, what were you listening to and reading? What kinds of things were you letting in?

Carter G. Woodson’s book, The Miseducation of the Negro. I’d read some Marcus Garvey manifestos. I think my mother tried to raise me as a Black nationalist. I really do. Especially in Frederick, they had to do it like that. I was digesting a lot of pro-Black stuff—trying to get in contact with something that I felt like I was missing. At the same time, I was listening to lots of Niki and the Dove, and Little Dragon. Lots of Frank [Ocean]. KING, I love them a lot. A lot of older artists too, like Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, lots of Billy Joel, a lot of Queen—especially for some of those bigger rock tracks. I watched a lot of movies.

I’m glad you said that. So much of it feels cinematic and big.

Especially for this album in particular, I was ambitious. I was young. [laughs] Just all the sounds, all the layering, I was trying to make a movie score. I listened to Rocky. Especially on a song like “Tyranny,” I really designed that to sound like a Rocky movie score.

In describing this album, you wrote: “Not only are the makings of this project nurtured through musical theory and composition; it is the soul of black livelihood that compels the desire to express the findings of one’s soul and distribute the artifacts globally for all to inquire.” Can you expound more on that?

Music is universal, you can’t get away from that, but I wrote this music with a focus on trying to inspire black minds—trying to help our community, our people, see that we’re not single-faceted. We can do whatever. We’ve been proving that, but we should be trying to break further out. It seems like there can be a stigma with black artists—we have to be hypersexualized or into whatever. The way I grew up, in the country with lots of open spaces, that wasn’t a part of my life. While I love hip-hop and it’s dear to me, I couldn’t identify all the way with the struggle, so I had to find other ways to identify. In Frederick, that’s easy to find. I’ve been called ‘nigger’ more times than I’d like to admit. So it’s a matter of really understanding those struggles aren’t really separated based off location, but if you can tap into the imagination and the psyche and break that free, there’s nothing you can’t do. Truth of the matter, when it comes to the arts, the sciences, philosophy, we’re leading in that. We need to recognize that in ourselves.

What would you say is the role of your music in that respect?

As a black artist trying to inspire other black folks, you have to promote self-worth first. In particular, the song “Life” comes to mind. That song is really talking about making decisions. I could talk all day about some of the poor decisions I’ve made, but the song is basically saying you can make a bad decision, but you can come back from it. You give people self-worth—that’s a dangerous person, a person who knows what they’re worth. You can’t tell them nothing. That’s why Donald Trump acts the way he does—he thinks he’s important. He holds himself in high regard. Granted, I think he’s using it in a negative way. But you give someone self-worth, you give them the tools to be positive, that’s a dangerous brother or sister, and they’re going to do something. I hope people receive some healing from it, man. In that right, this music is for everyone. If you see something and don’t like what’s going on, this music is for that. It’s a point of resistance. It’s to bring solidarity.

Obviously, you feel a level of responsibility to lean in and engage with the world and current events. Do you feel that applies to every artist or is that just the burden you’ve chosen?

I’ve had lots of arguments with my friends about this. It’s either art for art’s sake or art for propaganda, essentially. I personally believe—being a classical artist, we believe art for art’s sake. But I think if you see something, you’ve got to say something. Maybe that’s one of the ways I’ve grown. Especially as a black artist, a lot of us have been conditioned into what’s popular. I’m not really here to knock what’s popular. But I do believe what they do has an impact; we can see it in our kids and we’ll see it in our grandkids. If you’re not saying anything, you’ll have an entire generation creating empty art. If we’re not saying anything worthwhile, just giving people feel-good experiences without making any deposits into their psyche, it basically just creates a vacuum for people to take advantage. And now we don’t have the tools to resist. So I take the responsibility pretty seriously about making sure we’re saying something with the art.

At the same time, there’s a level of escapism that we require. Self-care is real. What is the balance of the ‘turn up’ with the, ‘Yeah, but we need to be saying something’?

My goal is to do both. I think there’s a way to do both. This is something I’m still exploring, to be honest. Maybe I can’t make you feel as good as whoever, but maybe I can make your head nod. Maybe I can make you move a little while I give you this truth. You’re definitely not going to be bored. If I’m to be critical, I think a lot of artists who have a lot to say have done a poor job of reaching the people that just want to escape. They inject everything with a lot of weight so then the music feels heavy. People want to know the truth without feeling like they can’t do anything or like they’re too weighed down. It’s a balancing act, but it’s definitely achievable. And you don’t have to be inauthentic when you do it. It just takes time and intentionality. You have to care.

You tweeted recently about “actionable art.” For you, what does that look like?

It’s a muscle that I don’t think we’re used to exercising yet. Actionable art means you have to go out and do something other than just move. It looks like going out and saying something. It looks like going out to your neighbor and making them aware. It means expanding your horizons, putting yourself in places you haven’t been before. Listening to music maybe you haven’t listened to before. It can be very uncomfortable, scary even. A lot of us view civil rights and history as something that’s happened in the past and not something that’s happening now. Actionable art means you’re constantly aware and constantly looking, and that can be burdensome sometimes. That can be very tiring, but it’s necessary.

Briana Younger

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