Some people are visionaries.
The ways in which singer-songwriter Shelita Burke is able to think bestows upon her the honor of being one of those visionaries. Her scientific brain enabled her to write code at the tender age of eight, leading to a career as a software engineer. Simultaneously, Burke’s creative mind allows her to not only invent music in diverse and unique ways but also to envision novel methods of attracting enthusiastic followers. Her ingenious techniques––which have allowed her social media metrics to outstrip the stats of major celebrities—have turned Shelita Burke into a hot commodity. It seems everybody—including MIT and SXSW—wants her secrets.
What is it that makes such a rarefied individual tick? How has the independent Burke, without the aid of traditional industry muscle, been able to achieve unmatched attention? In this incisive interview, the analytical entertainer offers her innovative thoughts on songcraft, connecting with an audience, and how the intersection between technology and art will inevitably reshape the industry for generations to come.
Music Connection: Congratulations on making number 14 on Billboard’s Next Big Sound chart.
Shelita Burke: Thank you. I’m also number 24 on the Heatseekers Chart.
MC: It’s amazing that you’ve been able to achieve so much outside the traditional music industry. What is it about the way you perceive the world that allows you to try new things?
Burke: I always understood that I’m growing up in a different world than people before me, so I have to create new pathways. My pathway doesn’t work for everybody, but it will inspire people to use similar tactics and pathways to get to their goals.
MC: You’re both right-brained and left-brained. Is that something you’re born with or can that be taught?
Burke: Every human being has right- and left-brain capacities, but a lot of people don’t reach that potential. I truly believe we all have one brain and the more we fulfill our passion and dive deep into what we want to do in life the closer we get to that synchronicity between left and right brain.
Every human being has that capacity. It’s just we’re told we’re not good enough. We’re told we have to do these 9 to 5 jobs. We’re told to not aim higher and not take risks. But I don’t believe that. I believe in taking risks. I believe we can think beyond and greater of ourselves.
MC: Of all your techniques and hacks, which has been the most successful?
Burke: There’s no hack for connecting to an audience. The more authentic you are the more you can connect to other human beings. So the biggest thing I do is actually very simple––it’s about humanity and connecting to other human beings. My ability to do that is just my ability to not be distracted by all the noise around me and focus on my vision, which is connecting with humanity through music.
I love being on stage and delivering messages to my audience that they can connect to. Not every artist enjoys doing that, but I do. That translates in a big way every time I’m interacting with my audience because I have something I authentically love to do.
MC: But you’ve come up with new ways of connecting with people. Scott [Page, of Ignited Network] told us how you used Lyft to get on drivers’ playlists. Should artists come up with new ideas themselves?
Burke: As artists, we’re creative. As artists, we have the ability to create new perspectives. I see everything as a blank canvas. Any goal I have, anything I want to do with my music, I see as an avenue to create. Everything I do is art, whether it’s marketing, talking to fans, playing on stage… I see all those avenues as art.
So going around in Lyft cars to get people to download my music was just one avenue to connect to people. My mission in life is to connect to as many human beings as possible. Not just people living today but generations after. I want to touch trillions of people. I want to touch people who colonize Mars. I want my music to live forever. And that’s not going to happen if I’m not out every day moving molecules and talking to new human beings. And the more I get out there and spread my music to new people the more I connect.
MC: Do you make a conscious effort to think creatively about the industry?
Burke: I look at the industry as a space that needs disruption. Through blockchain technology and innovative thinking, we’re going to get there. Disrupting the music industry is inevitable because the old model isn’t working anymore.
MC: On our podcast you stated that you write at least three songs a day.
Burke: Three to five songs a day.
MC: Wow. Do you recommend other songwriters do the same? Is there value in everything you write? How much never gets used?
Burke: What you put your attention on grows. Sometimes, I’ll write a song that I throw away and three months later I’ll play it for my producer, Marcus Bell, who produced the Special - EP. I’ll play it for him and he’ll be like, whoa, what’s this?
That’s how “Penetrate” happened. I didn’t hear the potential in that song, which is why it’s great to have collaborators and people who see beyond your vision. No matter what you’re thinking, there’s always someone who can think bigger. Marcus was like, no, we should develop this song, so we did and now it has millions of plays. The public loves that song. And I love that song now, too.
MC: Tell me about your songwriting technique. Do you start with a lyric? A chord? An image? How long does it typically take to write a song?
Burke: It varies. Some songs literally happen in three to five minutes. Some songs take months and months.
Before I called you, I was at Coral Tree Café ordering food and heard a melody in my head that I had to record. So I got on my phone and did that. That’s why I was late calling.
It happens in spurts. I’m constantly trying to connect to conversations. I like to go to cafes because I like to hear other people’s conversations and be inspired by how they’re communicating. I’m not taking the words they’re saying and writing them in songs, but I am taking the sentiment of what they’re saying and coming up with ideas for songs. Songs can be conversational or like a love letter or a healing exercise.
MC: Do you know when a song is going to connect with your audience?
Burke: I know a song is going to connect because I’m the one delivering it on stage. I could sing “Happy Birthday” and it could be nobody’s birthday but, because of the way I perform, the audience will connect. It’s not just the song that’s the reason they’re connecting; it’s me as a human being. They see my open heart and it connects to their open hearts.
MC: Do you sometimes alter a song based upon audience reaction?
Burke: No. I do not. At the end of the day, the songs are my art and expression in the world. The fact that any human actually connects to it is an anomaly to me. It’s like, whoa, this is my true, authentic experience and when I deliver this on stage I can see in your eyes that you understand me. You understand and connect to the emotion.
Love is a universal feeling. We all have different perspectives of what love is but it’s the same love. Joy is a universal feeling. When we feel joy it’s the same joy, even though we come from different backgrounds.
I love being on stage because I feel like I’m being appreciated. I’m being respected. I use the stage as therapy because I didn’t have that growing up. I didn’t grow up with my mother so when I perform I really do care about the fans because they’re like my family.
MC: You recently released a remix of “Penetrate.” Was that a deliberate strategy to get your song into people’s heads?
Burke: The way “Penetrate (Part 2)” happened was I was in the studio with Marcus. He started playing the piano and as he started playing the bass parts I was like, whoa, this would sound awesome to “Penetrate.” It’s not even in the same key as the original song. And he’s like, you’re going to have to sing all the parts over. Do you really want to do that? And I’m like, yeah, let’s go!
When you listen, you can tell it’s a way different key than the original, but it works. If I love to hear it and am excited about it, my fans are going to be excited about it.
MC: You place an emphasis on using social networks. How do you deal mentally with haters?
Burke: I love haters. I use it as an opportunity to see their perspective and open up a space of compassion for them. I spend time trying to figure out––how can this person be my friend? It’s okay to have people you don’t agree with. That creates a space for me to learn new things about myself.
Music is the uniting factor to humanity. No matter what you believe, when you and someone else like a song it’s a common point of interest. It’s a common space in your heart that you can’t deny. I believe in love and compassion for everyone. Even though I’m colorblind, I know through science that we all have red blood. We all have consciousness and brains and hearts. And at the end of the day we’re in this together. The more we see that, the more we can connect with other people.
Sometimes I’m on stage and say something I can tell not everybody agrees with. I like to open up the space to see why you don’t agree. And it’s not about you not believing what I believe; I want to understand you. I want to understand your viewpoint and give you a voice, too.
MC: You’re an expert in artificial intelligence. Do you think songwriters will ever be made obsolete by non-human songwriters?
Burke: It’s okay for artists to embrace new technology and have things that can help them make music. I don’t look at technology as a replacement. I look at it as an aid. How can we stretch the limitations or constraints of this technology to achieve the same aim, which is connection through music? So I don’t think it’s a threat per se. It gives us a different avenue to innovate and create.
Which is also something that’s going to happen in the blockchain. Blockchain technology is going to revolutionize the industry. More artists need to be open about how we can use the blockchain.
MC: Will blockchain be able to prevent piracy?
Burke: Piracy is always going to be something we deal with. We’re moving really fast in a lot of different ways. I don’t know how that’s going to affect everything, but I do know the blockchain is a step in the right direction in terms of paying people directly and faster than a bank or PRO. The blockchain creates more transparency, so it changes the relationship we have with people who are getting paid. It’s not perfect but it’s a step in the right direction.
MC: You’re also a proponent of Bitcoin, yes?
Burke: Yes, but I like to focus more on blockchain, because there’s a wider range of things you can do with the blockchain that are not limited to the application of Bitcoin. Bitcoin’s only one application in the blockchain.
MC: Tell us about your musical influences. Do you consciously incorporate those influences or do they serve primarily as inspiration?
Burke: They serve as inspiration. I love Nina Simone. She’s being honored at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April and I got invited. I’m so excited, even though she’s not living anymore. I also really love David Byrne; the documentary, Stop Making Sense, is brilliant. I also love jazz musicians like Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis, of course.
MC: You changed your sound when you hooked up with Marcus Bell. Do you think there’s a time in your career when you might shift your style again?
Burke: I’m constantly changing things up; I just haven’t released everything to the public. Marcus and I are always inventing new sounds and approaches to music. The world can only have so much content at one time. There’s a lot more content coming that we’ve already created.
MC: You mentioned on our podcast how you’re revolutionizing the album. Can you elaborate?
Burke: The concept of the album is so old. It’s outdated, quite frankly. It’s time for something else. It’s time for new experiences. We are living in what I like to call an experience economy, which means the best experiences will win. People want to be wowed. They want to have experiences they’ll remember forever. That’s what I want to do. I want to deliver those experiences.
MC: Will things like virtual reality play an increasing role?
Burke: Augmented reality is going to be a big part of the music industry. I’m launching some things in the augmented reality space this year. I’m speaking at SXSW. I’ll do a keynote session one day and then on another day I’ll be performing. Some of the augmented reality things I’m doing will be showcased there, which I’m super-excited about.
MC: Do you have your career mapped out? Do you have an idea how it’s going to unfold?
Burke: I pretty much have my career mapped out, but how I get there will change. I’m constantly trying, testing and validating new things. I have a roadmap, but that roadmap changes based on what works and what doesn’t.
MC: When you started your journey as an artist, did you always expect you’d have the success you’ve now achieved?
Burke: I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little girl. There was nothing else for me. I knew I wanted to be a musician. I knew I wanted to be onstage. I knew I wanted to be a singer. I can’t imagine myself doing something else.
So as far as what success means, I believe we create our own successes. We design our own metrics for success. And success for me is doing what I love every day. And that’s what I’m doing.
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Hear more from Shelita Burke on The Music Connection Podcast: podcastone.com/music-connection