Editor’s Note: Two years ago, Covid-19 turned the world upside down. While the pandemic is not over, The Best in Us is a series that highlights people whose pandemic stories exemplify the resilience of the human spirit.
Two years after his second project, the critically acclaimed “Care For Me,” rapper Saba was ready to release his third full-length album.
It was early 2020. The songs had been mixed and mastered; the videos shot; the rollout planned.
You can guess what happened next. Rumors of a “novel coronavirus” turned into a global pandemic – the world withdrew. And that album, the one Saba had been so ready to release, no longer felt necessary.
“There was nothing wrong with that music,” the 27-year-old told CNN. “But being in isolation, and thinking and spending so much time with myself and my own thoughts, I was like, ‘Actually there’s enough of this.’ I don’t want to contribute to the noise. I want to be intentional.”
But there was no blueprint for making art during a worldwide health crisis.
Constant news of record deaths while fearing for the health of loved ones was a unique stressor. Then there was the persistent racist violence against Black and Asian communities that not only didn’t stop when the pandemic hit, it got worse.
Still, artists persisted. In April, barely a month into the pandemic, indie folk act Thao & The Get Down Stay Down made a music video for their song “Phenom” completely over Zoom. Electropop artist Charli XCX made her album “How I’m Feeling Now” at home in quarantine, workshopping songs live on Instagram with fans. Members of Spillage Village, a hip-hop collective consisting of J.I.D, Earthgang, Mereba and others, rented a home together in Atlanta and spent months creating “Spilligion” in their de facto art commune.
Eventually, Saba made his own album in the pandemic, too: “Few Good Things,” which dropped last month, complete with an accompanying short film.
But the realities of early quarantine made creativity elusive. In the past, you could get hit with sparks of inspiration just by being out and about, Saba said. When you’re just sitting at home, it’s harder – you have to work to make the spark happen.
“We had to depend less on the inspiration and more on the actual practice,” he said. “It’s like going to the gym or something. You have to build a habit.”
So he, like many people, took to Zoom. Alongside friends and collaborators (fellow musicians Joseph Chilliams, MFnMelo, Frsh Waters, Squeak and Daedae), Saba cultivated a virtual writing group with a challenge to write a full verse, 16 bars, in 16 minutes. Soon, the group grew to about 12 people. Sometimes, they would meet multiple times a week, always holding each other accountable. The creativity, then, flowed from their community.
When Saba started working on the new album, those larger sessions evolved into smaller ones between him and his two longtime producers, Daedae and Daoud. Because of the pandemic, they couldn’t just rent time in studios, like they could with previous projects. While recording 2018’s “Care For Me,” for example, Saba and the others gathered in Oakland, California to work on the project and would spend weeks at a time in the studio.
That wasn’t possible anymore. Instead, they fed each other audio from their respective computers, miles apart, and built songs from scratch.
There were some logistical issues, naturally – the three-hour time difference between them made scheduling difficult, for example. But the distance also, quite tangibly, impacted the music.
It’s most notable on the song “Fearmonger,” one of the tracks the trio made completely over Zoom. One person created the melody while another created the rhythm, but when they first played the riffs over the computer, there was a lag on Saba’s end. What he heard was completely different from what Daoud and Daedae heard.
Later, when they sent the instrument stem files to Saba for arranging, he was confused. At first, he thought it was wrong. That’s when they realized the issue.
Saba arranged the track based on how he originally heard it – speeding up the tempo as a result and creating a more funk-driven sound, different from anything they’d done in the past. That’s the version on the album.
“Some things that happen in production or in song lyrics, some of it is random sometimes. Some of it is just based on a mood or a feeling,” Saba said. “So working without that as the center of creation is … what we had to find out how to do while we were making these songs on Zoom.”
Without the collaborative studio time, without concerts to connect with fans, Covid-19 forced many artists back to square one, Saba said. They had to look inward: What artist do you want to be? What songs do you like? What message do you want to send?
The last two years have come with setbacks, of course. But it also pushed many artists to embrace being uncomfortable. It’s easy to become stagnant, to become complacent, in your art. By forcing that discomfort, Covid-19 cultivated a new sense of exploration – and that’s where the best art comes from, Saba said.
In that sense, the pandemic hasn’t just been about finding new ways to be creative. For artists like Saba, it has reshaped their relationship with creativity altogether.