by Len Lear
Not that people want to hear about your problems, but every job or profession has its pluses and minuses. Some obviously have more pluses, like being a movie star, and some obviously have more minuses, like being a coal miner. When it comes to being a reporter, there are lots of pluses, like meeting new, interesting people all the time, and there are some minuses, like deadline pressure and contacting certain people to get information but who do not respond to emails or phone calls. When you read a quote in a newspaper article, the reporter does not usually write that it may have taken a half-dozen calls and/or emails before one was finally returned.
In June, for example, I began trying to reach Bilal, 35, who grew up in Germantown but now lives in New York City. Bilal (birth name Bilal Sayeed Oliver) has been gaining a national reputation with his music, which has been called “neo-soul” and whose album, “Airtight’s Revenge,” has been called a blend of jazz, hip-hop, electronic, rock, soul and blues.
According to information readily available on the internet, Bilal first encountered live music at the Philly jazz clubs, where his father would sneak him in and hide him in the closet. Now, more than 20 years later, he’s the main attraction at some of those same clubs, winning fans with his distinct, emotive vocals.
Bilal grew up in a religiously mixed household, his mother being a devout Christian and his father, a Muslim. Bilal showed obvious musical talent at a very early age, becoming choir director for his mother’s Catholic church at age 11, performing in the city at age 14 and becoming classically trained in opera while a student at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he graduated in 1998.
In the late ‘90s, he appeared on records by Common, Guru and The Soulquarians (a musical collective that included Common, J Dilla, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and more), and in 2001, he released his debut record, “1st Born Second.”
Bilal appeared on projects by other artists of both high profile and avant garde, while recording and developing his follow-up set to be released on Interscope Records. The final result, “Love for Sale,” according to one writer, was an album that “included live instrumentation and a vibe completely new and different from its predecessor. However, his anticipation was shot down after receiving disapproval from Interscope.
“Unwilling to start from scratch, Bilal continued to push his LP. However, near the album’s completion, the album was leaked in its entirety on the Internet. Interscope shelved the album indefinitely, hinting that it saw little commercial potential in it. The event sent Bilal into a period of distress, and he was considering quitting music; however, ‘Love for Sale’ received over half a million downloads on the Internet, and Bilal began touring, despite a proper release of the album.”
Bilal was scheduled to have a CD release party on June 30 of this year at World Café Live for his latest album, “In Another Life.,” so I called World Café Live before the CD release party to try to arrange an interview. A club spokesman gave me the email address for Hans Elder, who we were told was Bilal’s rep. I emailed him but did not receive a reply. A day or two later, I emailed him again. Still no reply.
On July 2, however, I received an email from a Shy Ferguson, who wrote, “I am Bilal’s publicist. Hans informed me that you wanted to send some questions through for Bilal to answer for the Chestnut Hill Local. Could you send the questions my way for Bilal to answer?”
I proceeded to email a list of 16 questions to the publicist, including one about the “Love for Sale” controversy. It has now been two months since that exchange, and I have not received a reply from Bilal, despite more reminders sent to Shy Ferguson. In our last exchange, she wrote, “Knowing Bilal he probably does want to give you the interview because it is from his hometown, but I am doing my best to get a hold of him … I can understand your frustration with playing the waiting game, so if you want to post the story without the interview, that is fine, but please know that I am really trying to get this completed for him.”
While Bilal has not had the time in the past two months to answer my questions, he has definitely shown energy on stage. On Aug. 20, he performed with a quintet at Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St. According to the Inquirer’s reviewer, A.D. Amorosi, “Throughout his 90-minute set, the singer was a dervish, a man possessed. Between the free, jazzy riffs he sang and the wild improvisations of his band, there was cohesion and connection.”
According to another local music writer, Patrick Rapa, “Bilal’s always had a weird streak … Nobody does it like Bilal” (in the Aug. 20 issue of the Philadelphia City Paper).
More information about Bilal at www.facebook.com/OfficialBilalPage