Singer, songwriter and producer Morley hails from Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, but she has traveled around the world to foster social change through her music. She has performed for notable world leaders, including the Dalai Lama, former South African president Nelson Mandela and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Her new album, Undivided, comes out Tuesday. It blends world rhythms with folk, soul and pop. It's inspired by a personal trip to Paris and parts of North Africa — places she journeyed to after the death of a family member.
"I had an opportunity to kind of, you know, use music and feel the music as a tool for healing," she tells guest host Jacki Lyden.
During Morley's time in the Sahara Desert, she participated in the Nomad Women Festival. She worked with performers from Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania and Ghana. Elders from different tribes and hundreds of children also joined, Morley says.
"It was just a phenomenal experience, and I decided to stay longer [in the Sahara]. And in that time, I wrote probably like 30 songs, just, you know, from being there and being in that expansiveness of the desert, and the sunrises, the sunsets," she says.
Her song "To Begin Again" was shot in the Sahara and in the High Atlas Mountains of the Ourika Valley in Morocco.
"I think in our culture [in America], it is not encouraged to stop and start again, and really start from the unknown," Morley says. "I think we're encouraged to buy something to feel better, or to fill ourselves with words or food or partnership, you know, that's not serving us. It's just — sometimes we just need to stop and actually grow again."
Growing As An Artist
Morley has grown a diverse body of work. She began her career as a dancer and has been, at different points in her life, a model, poetry writer and choreographer.
"What really shifted my understanding of my potential placement in the world of art is when I had a chance to choreograph a show for Max Roach. ... It was just this incredible production with all these masters," she says. "You know, every day in rehearsal, I watched the process and I learned the songs that were from a civil rights protest album called We Insist! And I heard that real cry for change through music, and I heard that cry within myself, within that production."
Inspiring Change, Unity And Hope
Morley aims to inspire others through her song "Be the One." The song is directly rooted in her work with teens from international conflict zones, including the Middle East, Northern Ireland and South Africa. The work is done through the program Face to Face/Faith to Faith, which flies participants to New York City for two weeklong workshops.
"We discuss issues of religious conflict, identity and their potential of being future peacemakers and present peacemakers in their community and in their countries," says Morley. "And a lot of the kids are living in townships or in refugee camps. And then you also have very wealthy kids."
She says the kids go from sitting in opposite ends of the lunchroom to having conversations and crushes, and then weeping when they must say goodbye.
"I got to really witness real courage, real humility. These kids have a willingness to open doors that have been boarded up long before they were born and look to see what's possible behind those doors," Morley says.
Hope is a strong theme in her new album. "The word 'hope' for me is always infused with action. My big inspiration for hope is the courage that I read about from people from all over the world, or that I see on a daily basis from the kids I get to work with. Hope is like compassion to me. It's like possibility and living in possibility," she says.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away today.
Now to the New York native and singer-songwriter who uses music as an instrument for social change, Morley.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY WAY")
MORLEY: (Singing) Under open sky in our country, silver birds fly into the sun while one man grabs a paintbrush, the other grabs a gun. But you know that their wingspan is in the palm of your own hand and you're the one who has my heart and, like a brave, by you I stand.
LYDEN: That's the song, "On My Way," from her new album called "Undivided." It blends world rhythms with folk, soul and pop. It's inspired by a personal trip to the Sahara and other parts of North Africa.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY WAY")
MORLEY: (Singing) I'm on my way. I'm on my way. On my way to you. I'm on my way. I'm on my way. On my way to you.
LYDEN: And as much as Morley's known for her music, she's also known for her work with teenagers from international conflict zones. Some of the world's top leaders and activists already know of Morley. She's performed for the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Ban Ki-moon. She's also performed for the TEDWomen Talk and now she's here with us.
Welcome to the program, Morley.
MORLEY: Thank you so much.
LYDEN: I want to say, you grew up in Jamaica, Queens, a borough of New York, of course.
LYDEN: And one of the things that your work really does is bringing people together, and you know, to me that seems like someone hailing from Jamaica, Queens would want to do that. Talk about an international place.
MORLEY: Yeah. I also went to the United Nations School in Jamaica, Queens and just growing up around all of those different sounds and all that different music and food and just seeing people who are so different from myself and finding the similarities in them as a child really affected my life. And having dinner at their house or their coming to my home to have food and sharing our food, sharing our dances, sharing our thoughts, and going to synagogue, going to mosque, going to church and just - you know, with my friends - just having that experience really affected me as an - I know, in an unusual way - as an American.
LYDEN: Let's talk about your new CD, "Undivided." There's a whole story behind this album, just as there was a journey in your music-making. The story behind this album took you somewhere.
MORLEY: Yeah. I had a personal loss that really just stopped me in my tracks. You know, I've had loss before and, you know - but this one, I kind of felt like I couldn't do any of my own music or really function in the same way, so I stopped performing my own music for a year, but I did travel...
LYDEN: We're talking about - I just want to be clear - really grieving. We're talking about a death.
MORLEY: Yeah. It was a death in my family. And so what I did was - I had an opportunity to kind of, you know, use music and feel the music as a tool for healing, so I traveled to North Africa and to Paris. I co-wrote some music for some great artists over there and I wound up doing the Nomad Women's Festival in the Sahara Desert, so I got a chance to work with women from Mauritania, Tunisia, Morocco and some women came in from Ghana. It was just a phenomenal experience and I decided to stay longer.
And in that time I wrote probably, like, 30 songs, just - you know, from being there and being in that expansiveness of the desert and the sunrises, the sunsets. It was just incredible and, especially for a kid from Jamaica, Queens, I mean, it definitely, you know, rocked my world.
And so I came back with all these songs and then I took about eight months in the studio and just took my time and produced it myself and worked with amazing artists.
LYDEN: It is a really beautiful part of the world. Let's listen to this song from your new CD. This one's called "To Begin Again."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BEGIN AGAIN")
MORLEY: (Singing) Freedom dance. Ride the wind. See the wingspan of all that's been. Surely I will to begin again.
LYDEN: Did you actually shoot some video there? Because it looks like I see you on the back of a truck going through the Sahara or - I don't know - maybe that's the magic of the way things are done now.
MORLEY: No. You got it. That's in Morocco and that is in the Sahara Dessert and in the High Atlas Mountains of the Ourika Valley. And I had a chance to go there with my dear friend, Damani Baker, who directed the documentary "Still Bill," about Bill Withers. It's fantastic. And we just went there - the two of us and his wife - and we just - we shot it ourselves.
That song was really inspired by that feeling I had that I had to really start everything over again.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BEGIN AGAIN")
MORLEY: (Singing) To begin again.
I think in our culture it is not encouraged to stop and start again and really start from the unknown. I think we're encouraged to buy something to feel better or to fill our self with words or food or partnership, you know, that's not serving us. It's just sometimes we just need to stop...
LYDEN: And not...
MORLEY: ...and actually grow again. Yeah.
LYDEN: And perhaps not enough time for reflection.
MORLEY: Yeah. We're not given that - we're given like a week or a couple weeks off of work and then it's like, what's wrong with you after three weeks? You know, get it together. That's like the thing in our culture that I hope we can find a way to work around.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LYDEN: May I ask just a little bit, please, about the Nomad Women's Festival, because that's really sounds amazing. I mean were these female performers and where exactly did this take place? Is this in Morocco or elsewhere?
MORLEY: This was in the M'Hamid desert. So that's on the border of Algeria.
MORLEY: So we had to drive through seven hours from Marrakesh to get there. Yeah.
LYDEN: Did women perform?
MORLEY: Yes. Women from all over. And people came from all over on their camels. They walked. They had - and it was kind, what was amazing and very beautiful, to start the festival the elders came of different tribes, and then they had maybe about 100 elders, and then seemingly to be out of nowhere - because we're in the middle of the desert - there's like two or 300 kids show up and they stood in front of elders and they faced each other and they did this kind of dance, song and prayer, and then they began the festival. We left that location and went to the area of the stage. And it was just so beautiful to see, you know, and to really experience as an American during this time deeply in the Muslim world, to feel the gentleness of that culture.
LYDEN: What would you say your first musical experience was? Was there a musical interlude that really called to you?
MORLEY: What really shifted my understanding of my potential placement in the world of art was when I had a chance to choreograph a show for Max Roach, and Cassandra Wilson sang. There was a 30-piece choir. I didn't know who a lot of these people were - Olatunje, Ossie Davis - it was just this incredible production with all these masters. You know, every day in rehearsal I watched the process and I learned the songs that were from a civil rights protest album called "We Insist," and I heard that real cry for change through music and I heard that cry within myself within that production.
LYDEN: I'm still curious though, how did you meet these people? I mean there a lot of people who want their music to have a message and they don't necessarily cross the thresholds that you have.
MORLEY: Well, you know I was choreographing the student show at Alvin Ailey...
LYDEN: The African-American dance company in New York.
MORLEY: Yeah, the American – Yeah. Mm-hmm. And they, Max Roach came to see a student show because his niece was dancing and one of the shows and said oh, who choreographed that piece. And then they introduced him to me and then it just kind of unfolded from there. I was living in an apartment that had these incredible artists that I was around and I was kind of like the only one that wasn't a musician in the tribe. I would be, you know, choreographing and doing poetry and teaching and running around, but these friends affected my life and the music that they were playing that they were creating, and the music that they were listening to. I mean they taught me about Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie. They really taught me just from their own joy of listening.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're speaking with the singer-songwriter Morley. Her new album is called "Undivided." And let's hear a little bit more. This from the new album is called "Be the One."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE THE ONE")
MORLEY: (Singing) I want you to be the one, find a way out of no way, be the one to open doors and stand, hand held high. Stand those pointed places, go on and make them right, be the one in the place where there's new choices to make a sound. Please heal the ground, child.
LYDEN: Morley, this song was directly inspired by your work with young people in conflict zones - Israel and Northern Ireland. Would you tell us about this a little bit? What exactly did you do with young people?
MORLEY: Well, I have the chance to work with Face to Face
Faith to Faith. It's an organization that brings together these 15 to 18-year-olds from Palestine, Israel, Northern Ireland and South Africa and the United States. And they fly them to New York City and we do workshops upstate for two weeks, and we discuss issues of religious conflict, identity and their potential of being future peacemakers and present peacemakers in their community and in their countries. And a lot of the kids are living either in townships or in refugee camps, and then they also have very wealthy kids, and then they're all kind of brought together. And it's quite beautiful because the first week, like maybe the first three days they are sitting on opposite ends of the lunchroom and by the fourth day they're starting to really - having conversations. By the fifth and sixth day they're starting to have crushes and by the end of the workshop they are weeping as they say goodbye, and these are people that they were raised to learn as to be the enemy.
My exposure to that has, you know, really influenced the song because I got to really witness real courage, real humility. These kids have a willingness to open doors that had been bordered up long before they were born and look to see what's possible behind those doors. And real friendships are formed in this organization and then I think that changes their whole life, you know. Yeah.
LYDEN: Well, I'll just say in the active tense here we do all hope that those doors remain open. Active hope - not just, as you said, a passive one.
MORLEY: Yeah. And so it inspired a pop song, basically.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORLEY: And the song isn't, you know, it's just saying anyone can really think about it, that we can be the one to find a way out of no way, we can be that person of our own lives. I mean who doesn't have challenges?
LYDEN: Do you keep in touch with any of the young people?
MORLEY: Yeah. Through Facebook.
MORLEY: And I will be working again with them this year. And, you know, these songs all start as medicine songs for myself and to process life and then, you know, sometimes I don't even think I'll ever sing a song that I write and then like "Wild Bird," there's a song on this album, I never thought I would sing it outside of my apartment, and I wound up going to Morocco and doing a video for it. So I recorded it, perform it and now there's a video for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD BIRD")
MORLEY: (Singing) I thought by now I'd had found a safe place to lay, but mankind can be unkind and time doesn't pay. I'm going to cry on God's shoulder. I'm going to cry on God's shoulder.
LYDEN: You know, one of the messages I really take away from your music and from that song is you say I don't want people to see people have the hope go out of their lives. I'm opposed to having people having the light go out of their eyes - that sense of enthusiasm and optimism...
MORLEY: Yeah. Yeah.
LYDEN: ...sometimes gets kicked around a lot.
MORLEY: Yeah. You know, the word hope for me is always infused with action. My big inspiration for hope is the courage that I read about people from all over the world, or that I see in a daily basis from the kids I can get to work with. Hope is like compassion to me, it's like possibility and living in possibility. Especially in our culture, it seems to be a public shaming. Kids, you know, going through Facebook-shamings and these - it's really a time where it's not really encouraged to be authentic and to be your individual self. And I think actually since it's kind of bordering along the line of a time of like high mediocrity, it's a great time to be innovative. And I think especially when you're get in with kids, you can get in there and get inspired by their sweet authentic nature when they are in a safe space and, you know, it kind of influences me, it affects me and then I can affect them, and it's just this great exchange.
LYDEN: Let's listen to a little bit from the song that you performed for the TEDWomen conference not so long ago "Women of Hope"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOMEN OF HOPE")
MORLEY: (Singing) Crossing the border she said you will grow free on this land. Women of hope. Women of change. Women of war and pain. I can feel your power in these words she said. If you're feeling helpless, help someone. If you're feeling helpless, help someone.
LYDEN: I think you were quoting Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner and the Burmese activist. Has she heard this song, do you know?
MORLEY: She has, apparently. Somebody sent it to her. She heard it. I got an email from an unidentified source that said the lady has heard your song and is pleased.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORLEY: That was when she was still – yeah, that was during - when she was still under house arrest so it had to be top secret.
LYDEN: Before we say goodbye I just have to ask, what was it like to play for the Dalai Lama and also Nelson Mandela? I mean you've played for some really remarkable people.
MORLEY: To me that's when you realize that music is something so much bigger than ourselves. And peace and unity and nonviolence is something that we're all capable of and that we're all living for. That's really what it's all about is to feel that within ourselves. And then when you're around somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or, you know, you just feel the presence of something bigger than yourself. It's like an honor but also like I just feel like OK, this is the work, this is the service work to the music because the music is to me the connector. It's the thing that brings a room together. Because I've been in several settings where it's a lot of talking - a lot of world leaders talking about issues or people who are on the frontlines of change talking about the work that needs to be done, and then I get a chance to bring music to that setting and you feel the room change. It locks humanity together. It weaves us together.
And, you know, I didn't speak any of the tribal languages or my Moroccan or Arabic and French are not that fluent but I could connect with those women at the Nomad Women Festival through the music, through the songs. And so that's why it's such a blessing to be in the arena of music and I'm so grateful to be on your show and discussing the music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BEGIN AGAIN")
MORLEY: (Singing) Stunned and flushed, hot and rushed, the peering like frantic crows, will I be the one to go, begin again? Hard and fast, in a spin, I hear the voice deep within, say child this is the place to begin again.
LYDEN: You've been listening to the song "To Begin Again" by Morley. It's part of her new album called "Undivided."
And that's our program for today. I'm Jacki Lyden, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for Michel Martin and more talk tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BEGIN AGAIN")
MORLEY: (Singing) Bright and strong. No it won't be long before too long. And I want to be there when the light, light comes on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.