By Rob Goldberg | May 31, 2023
📸: shot by Jori Halpern

“People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent.”- Bob Dylan 

Known for his socially conscious lyrics and progressive beliefs, Citizen Cope’s music represents that same emotion evoked from the 1960s peaceful protest era of equality and justice for all. Cope was born in Memphis but grew up around the pseudo-democratic streets of Washington D.C. where he experienced American grassroots political movements and government backlash firsthand. For many people who attended his birthday show at Brooklyn Made, singing along with Citizen Cope’s songs meant a different type of freedom. A freedom to either relive or understand the historical account of an American awakening during government and economic turmoil in the early 2000s through his emotional lyrics and loveable melodies.  

The night began in celebratory fashion with opening act and longtime friend of Cope, Courtney Dowe, bringing out a cake and candles as the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.” Needless to say, spirits were high as Cope started off his acoustic affair with a joyful tune “One Lovely Day” and put the entire crowd in a vocal trance until the very end of the show. From there, the activist/artist continued his ‘peaceful performance’ with chart-topper and one of his favorites, “Bullet and a Target” then transitioned into crowd favorite, “Pablo Picasso.” The show felt like a socially conscious serenade soirée almost as if we were at a University of California Berkeley protest but with much older students.

Cope mixed acoustic fretboard finesse with acapella singing in his next song “My Way Home.” As he continued to captivate fans through the night, other prominent and memorable tracks included his Gold Record, “Let the Drummer Kick” as well as “Ms. Prado” and “Victory March” both unreleased songs off of his new LP, Victory March. Between songs, Cope showed off his narrative skills by telling stories about his impromptu flying death trap of a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as the story behind his most recent released album, Heroin and Helicopters.  “The Heroin and Helicopters title comes from a conversation I had with Carlos Santana when he came to see a show at the Fillmore in San Francisco. He said, ‘Whatever you do, watch out for the two H’s — heroin and helicopters. They don’t go well with musicians,’” Cope recalled.

The birthday king finished up the set which included another sing along classic, “Sideways” featuring Santana. But it wouldn’t have been a birthday show without an encore, of course, as Cope came back out with a lullaby like lull “Holdin’ On” and ended the show with another lyrical poetical piece “Fame.” After the show, we met up with Cope to celebrate with some delicious cake. It was truly a birthday to remember.

We caught up with Citizen Cope a few days before the show where he answered a few questions for the groovement.

What was the first concert you ever went to? 
Rolling Stones Concert when I was in 8th grade. I used to make about $65 a month from my paper route and that’s what the cost of my ticket was.

What do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from being able to make great records that sound good and writing great songs. That’s always been fascinating to me. The life I’ve lived and my perspective on America, the world, the human condition, and the balance of spiritual and material lifestyle have created the journey of evolving my soul. My experiences with living in different parts of the country have also developed my perspective. Growing up in Washington D.C. and seeing the multitude of different types of people as well as having it be a federal city and residential city at the same time was eye-opening. I also spent time in rural Texas in a small town called Vernon which was inspirational because it was a different lifestyle and different community than what I had known.

Yeah, definitely taking in different influences from places where you live is something a lot of writers try to inherit in their own work. Do you ever feel as if your work is a bit of Gonzo journalism where you’re in the mix of things that are going on around those cities and you write about that?
I think even deeper than that, you feel the pulse of what’s going on, the energy, the current. And as an artist you’re able to give your interpretation of what that current is. I would always feel the need to say things. You know I would talk about the education system as I went to D.C. public schools which I felt needed to be improved. That ultimately was the case for the whole school system in our country. I also talked about people being displaced and that was maybe because I felt displaced myself. Everything I speak about in my songs is rooted from experience but it also tells a story as well.

Interesting. We also wanted to ask about how your music relates to a lot of socially conscious topics and if you would say your music relates more to the world around you or yourself?
Over the course of my work, I’ve always discussed what the social and community situation is, and I’ve been able to write that in pop music format. Like, for example, “Let The Drummer Kick” is about the prison system and education system but that’s also a personal song, so I think it’s all one in the same thing. I think it’s the song writer’s duty to say something, and I think that’s something that’s kind of missing in songwriting today. Sometimes I listen to music today, and I think, wow, I must have lived in a different time or a different place, because I think artists are going off of just melody and emotion. If you look at the history of songwriting, folklore, and storytelling all this had a social and spiritual impact. Unfortunately, I think a lot of times intelligence pushes people away from having a spiritual connection because of the bad actors that have diluted this connection due to profiting.  Things like religion, God, or a higher power in these stories even get looked at as if the writer is a maniac sometimes.

Where did the origin of the name Citizen Cope come from?
It was just, I mean, who’s Clarence Greenwood? Nobody’s gonna know that. I heard about the movie Citizen Kane–had never seen it–but had heard about how the director had gotten in a whole lot of trouble and got black listed for it. So, I felt like there was something that clicked there. And Cope is my middle name.

We know you have a lot of integrity for the music you make as well as individuality in what you produce.  Has that integrity and individuality you bring more so hurt or helped you to become prevalent in the mainstream?
I think it helps the longevity of it, but not the immediacy of it. A lot of my peers who had immediate success, you know, once the marketing and the radio aren’t there, then what’s really there? I never really had the radio support and the press support and this type of campaign around it, even though I was on a major label. But, I look back at songs like Bullet and a Target, in my bubble that was a song that meant something culturally and personally. 

I went out to Minneapolis and heard “Your Body is a Wonderland” on the radio, and I was like “oh man, I get it!” You know what I’m saying? I’m coming from D.C. where I’m seeing the school system and talking to friends who had parents who worked at the U.S. State Department or the CIA and even knew less fortunate people with tougher economic backgrounds. Witnessing what was going on at the D.C. public school systems; witnessing what was going on with the crime and the drugs, then understanding where that was really coming from being that it was a federal city; realizing that our government was causing a lot of these things. So, it was always important for me to write about that. And I think I was able to do that in a catchy enough way that it got me a record deal with a major label, but when you come into that situation, and you’re trying to get on the radio, I didn’t know if the country had caught up to that type of thinking or poetry yet.  Bullet and a Target was dealing with the country at a time where there was a touchy kind of post patriotism after 911. I think there were a lot of different components to it–I didn’t think the record company or the labels were really ready to rock the boat. But those things have become very prevalent today which created the longevity of it, making it something far from nostalgia. 

The goal for me as a writer was to be an artist then a hitmaker. Maybe for other artists, they don’t have those perspectives that I have, but at the very least, you need to stand for something. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, and even Dolly Parton–you knew what they stood for. I think sometimes people are just scared to say their point of view as well, because they have to learn how to market that, and it’s easier to follow a trend rather than create your own path.

What was the first concert you performed at?
It was the Old Black Cat in Austin Texas. I was just starting out, I had a drum machine and this pad thing, and I went out and did a little show.

What’s your dream venue to perform at where you haven’t performed yet?
RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. or Yankee Stadium. But I would also love to play my own show at Madison Square Garden. I played there one time with Eric Clapton.

What’s your pre-show routine?
I try to get a little bit of stillness going. The thinking and the mind can sometimes take over with all the tasks that need to get done during the day. I guess having a moment through either prayer or meditation… or both.

How would you describe the evolution of your music over time? What’s stayed the same and what’s changed?
I guess what’s stayed the same is the fact that I’ve always wanted to make records that sounded cool as well as make good songs. I guess what’s changed is what I’m writing about now. It’s really my evolution as a person, I’m a different person than I was 20 years ago. My tempos are always mid to slow, which has bothered the hell outta me, but that’s stayed the same as well.

Where do you find yourself happiest right now, creating new music or performing music live?
What’s weird is I’ve kind of had a resurgence of playing live, because I started realizing that I needed to accept or learn to understand that the people were there to support me. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but when you get in a circle of trying to impress or prove yourself in the arts, I had to look up and say ‘ok, wow, these people are on my side. I don’t have to win them over.’ I think that has helped my shows tremendously, because I actually used to have bad stage fright.  

So that is kind of where the shows are more enjoyable, but the new music is really exciting now, because I feel like I had a 10-year period where I wasn’t free like I am now. I feel like The Victory March just kind of started something in me.

Was that caused by a certain event in your life?
Well, I stopped drinking about three years ago which lifted a huge weight off me. I also had a long relationship that ended, which was just heavy, so it has felt like a free period in my life.  You’ll feel that energy in my new record, The Victory March. I finished the record, and I felt like, although I want the record to be heard, my expectations have always been set at a point where I was bound to kind of not reach them. So going into this where I don’t have the same expectations necessarily, it gives a much different vibe to this music, and it feels good as it has allowed me to enjoy the creative process. Just enjoy where I am, in the moment.  

What would you like people to take away from your music right now?
Embrace the gift of life. We have to realize at some point, we’re going to have to come together, and in order for that to happen, we’re going to have to be compassionate and empathetic towards each other. The way to do that is going to be finding inner peace within all of us, and realizing that sometimes our minds can be our enemies. Our thoughts can be our enemies. So hopefully my music can bring that inner peace to help people to ultimately come together. The Victory March is about understanding that and embracing the gift of life.

What’s Next for You?
I’ve got The Victory March record which is coming out. I’ve got a single coming out called “Dancing Lullaby.”  And I’ve got two live full band records and a live acoustic record called Live from Venus Vol. 1, 2, 3 coming out soon!

Connect with Citizen Cope on Instagram, Spotify, and his website.

📸: shot by Jori Halpern

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