Sean “Elijah Blake” Fenton has long been a name behind the music industry scenes as the pen behind Rihanna’s “No Love Allowed,” Usher’s “Climax,” Trey Songz’s “Jupiter Love,” and co-pen on many ofÂ Keyshia Coles’ albums.
For the past two years or so, Blake has been focusing on himself, putting out multiple EPs (including Bijoux 22, Drift, and Free Parts I & II) as a gradual introduction to the world as Elijah, the solo artist.
Blake’s debut full-length album, Shadows & Diamonds, headed by the single “I Just Wanna…,” is slated to arrive on June 23. The in-demand wordsmith spoke with Singersroom about his journey from working at Blockbuster to working the top of the charts and everything in between; how he got discovered on Myspace, how he aims to smash stereotypes of black men in music, his truth, Rihanna dating rumors and more.
You started writing poetry as a child. How do you approach writing poetry vs. writing songs?
Yeah, not to be on my own bandwagon, but I’ve always had a way with words. Math wasn’t my favorite subject. I was able to pass tests to get by, but reading, literature, anything involving English, I was always extremely gifted in. Also I wanted to find a way to make money and I was too young to work regular jobs, so I found a local poetry contest, they collected money at the door and gave proceeds to the winner, so I wanted to get really good at this, ’cause I was like 10 years old, so I could help out my mother with the bills. So that was motivating, I felt like I had a calling. It was always a job for me, [but] I never thought I would be a songwriter. As a kid, I grew up in church and looked up to Michael and Usher and those guys. One thing I didn’t want to miss out on was not do it on my own terms, so I did songwriting to earn the credibility to sing with my own message. It’s different, cause poetry was fun and natural, but sometimes you go through things as a songwriter when you believe in the song and the other person doesn’t and it can be aggravating sometimes to be honest.
You got “discovered” on Myspace. Please elaborate on how that started your career.
So I was working at Blockbuster at the time and it was irking my nerves. I just wanted to sing. I had my iPod headphones on, and people were asking where DVDs were. I watched people who worked there for like 20, 30, 45 years, and I was like, “God, please don’t let that be me.” So one time this lady walked in and told me, “you know, you’re really doing yourself a disservice with a voice like that, and you should really make something of that.” And on the other hand, somebody else complained that I was always singing and not helping out the customers, so the manager came and talked to me about that. I thought about what the lady said about me doing myself a disservice and told my manager I quit. I had a moment with God and I fasted and it really worked. My mother at the time was really pressuring me to go to college. So I was like if this don’t happen, or if I don’t have any sign, I’ll do the college thing. I just prayed about it. I didn’t eat for three days, went on a spiritual fast and my dad did it with me to support me. I remember on the third day, we raced to the refrigerator (laughs) for like, whatever was in there, and I promise you, when we got back to the computer, two or three pages full of A&Rs reaching out to me trying to connect me. At the time, it was Mike Caren who wanted to meet me, and he said you’re a star, so it was cool.
Dope! So, your video for “Strange Fruit” from your EP Drift touches on religious themes mixed with secular lyrics. How important is it for you to push boundaries in your art?
It’s so important, it’s like what are we doing this for? We’re given a platform to change the world, to change somebody’s life, to leave a piece of us when we leave this earth. And if you waste it by talking about turning up in the club, those songs are needed too, but I need songs to clean the house to or songs to get excited before I go out. But if there’s no other dimensions or levels to it, it kinda gets frustrating, so for me it’s really big to use my voice for something. What if Marvin Gaye never made “What’s Going On?” or Michael never did “We Are The World,” songs like that helped black culture, helped our voice as a people, so that song “Strange Fruit,” as a kid, I remember going to church , and the first story I heard was the Adam and Eve story. I couldn’t understand it, I just kept saying “mom, if God offered Adam everything in the world, no suffering, nothing, how could a woman’s impact be more powerful than anything else?” And as I grew up and I started messing around with these chicks …(laughs), it became very clear…
(laughs) Wait a minute, wait a minute!
(laughs) Not all the chicks are bad, but that one know (laughs), or the ones that want what they want. That’s what strange fruit was about. It’s kinda like some of these girls, and guys aren’t as innocent as they pretend to be. I don’t wanna put it all on the females, cause women are also holding down the men and raising our sons. I tell a lot of people my mother was probably a better father than yours. That’s basically what my message was with “Strange Fruit.”
Tell us about your upcoming album Shadows & Diamonds.
Shadows & Diamonds is the main thing that was constant in my life since I got my record deal. I went through a lot of ups and downs. I went through being at the label and having my album done and ready, and all my peers saying “wow, this is an amazing body of work,” and then wondering “yo, like, why is this not out?” Feeling at times ashamed that I’m not hood enough, I’m not ignorant enough, that I’m not perpetuating this ignorant stereotype they put on black guys, like if you don’t talk about shooting people or slapping b*tches, then something is wrong with you. So that was the “shadows” part because I was really in a dark place and upset about it. Then finally, the “diamonds” part was in my darkest time and choosing not to give up, seeing that little glimmer of hope, which is the diamond, and saying nah, I’m not gonna be ashamed because my mother worked two jobs to put me in a good school so that I can hold a conversation with a business man and not seem dumb or wet behind the ears. I owned it, I’m proud of the fact that I can articulate exactly how I feel. I’m proud of the fact that I learn the value of a smile and what can I do for somebody’s day, and I’m not gonna play into the black stereotypes they put on us, I’m not gonna take ownership of that.Â
So that’s what Shadows & Diamonds is about and I worked on that for over 2 Â½ years with [producer] No I.D. I remember when we started he was like, “The last classic R&B album was [Usher’s] Confessions. I’m not saying make an album that sounds exactly like Confessions, but that should be the goal.” So I did the mixtape, but I still kept on working on Shadows & Diamonds, then we did the Drift EP, and I kept on working on Shadows & Diamonds, then we did the Free EP, and I still kept working on Shadows & Diamonds, and so now we’re back to Shadows & Diamonds, and it’s just the first chapter of my artistry.
In your new video for “I Just Wanna…” ft. Dej Loaf, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know you could dance like that! How does it feel to be able to express yourself fully as a solo artist?
I’m glad you bring that up, cause when I first got signed, I’m a little younger than Chris [Brown], so the question was should he dance, is it gonna distract from the music? Are these early comparison’s gonna distract from Elijah’s message? So when I thought about it, I was like yeah, cause I can really dance. But the thing that was important to me was now that I feel I laid the ground work for my message and my purpose in terms of an artist, now I feel like that was understood, I’m like ok, let me go back to my roots. When I was living in Atlanta when Trey [Songz] was working on the Ready album and my family is from Florida, I took a job to be head choreographer at a really big dance school out there, and that’s how I fed myself and put money in my pocket. Its’ so crazy, the guy who choreographed for me, Chris Grant, who choreographed for Beyonce and Michael Jackson, we grew up in the same area, and I had to audition a couple of times to get in. The focus there was dancing and singing. It’s good to see the feedback and people are appreciating it, because I didn’t want people to think the label was forcing me to dance, I wanted to dance from the beginning. I didn’t want to come out the gate with “he does this, and this, and this, and this,” I want my fans to grow into my artistry with me.
Producer N.O. ID is your mentor. How do you two vibe when working together?
He is, and the cool thing about No I.D. is he’s no filter but he’s so honest, you can’t even be mad. That’s what I always state to people. The term “hater” has taken away the right for someone to genuinely dislike something. Ever since that “hater” thing became popular, it’s like, nah, I can genuinely just not like it, it may not be my thing. It doesn’t mean I hate you. So with No I.D., he’s so honest and transparent, it’s like ok, you hold me down and probably go harder for me than I need to go for myself sometimes, but you’re not a hater, you just genuinely feel like this can be better. That’s how he was with me from the beginning, so there’s a trust I have with No I.D. that I probably don’t have with anyone else. He’s come to the studio and hear a song, and he’ll be like, “you’re an amazing singer and songwriter, and sometime I feel like when you get on the song, there’s a story you put on top of the beat and vocal acrobatics and your tone makes it more listenable, more likeable. Do you feel the producer really killed the beat like they should have?” You know what I mean? And sometimes he’ll hear a song and he’ll be like “oh you were tired” (laughs). So for somebody to offer their honesty, it makes me always come back to; I kinda rely on him to keep me in touch, humble, grounded, and not to believe my own hype.
And I think he’s one of the best. With me growing up and being influenced by Michael and how he trusted Quincy [Jones], and me being a 90s baby, I’m never gonna get that experience, so No I.D. for me would be the closes thing in my generation to Quincy. I don’t think that’s debatable if you watch what he’s been for Kanye, Common, J. Cole. I don’t know how another artist feels but for me, that’s what No I.D. is for me, in my humblest opinion.
You’ve written for Usher, Rick Ross, Rihanna and more. It was rumored that you dated Rihanna back in the day. Is that true?
(laughs)….I wish!….(laughs) I’ll just leave it at that (laughs). But RiRi’s cool, every time I see her it’s all love. We’re both from the islands so, there’s always gonna be that right there, but I always feel I know what direction she should be going, but at the same time, she’s like the world’s biggest superstar. And I’m a new artist getting my vision off the ground so I may not be able to be fully involved with what she’s got going on. I can submit certain songs to her, but that’s somebody that will change playlists for me. Every time I see her, lie, I saw her at the Roc Nation brunch and the album release for the Unapologetic album, when Jay Z first introduced me, it’s always love and she’s always super supportive. I think she’s incredible.
What subject do you find easiest to write about and why?
It’s easiest to write about my truth, and that’s what No I.D. said, he said stop worrying about who’s coming in your lane and who’s lane you may stumble upon, because the cool thing about you, Elijah, is you write about your truth, about real experiences, and in that same aspect, the most beautiful thing in that is that someone can relate to your truth. ‘Cuz we’ve all had a first love, we’ve all had our first heartbreak, we’ve all had our first disappointment, we’ve all had a time where we broke someone’s trust or they broke our trust. So he was like, when you write about your truth it can help people get in touch with their truth, and that’s where the artist and fans connect. Even when I write for other people, whether it’s Keyshia Cole or Trey [Songz], it starts with a conversation. Trey is like my brother, Keyshia is like my sister, so when we get to the studio, I’m talking about a chick I might me talking to at the time or something I’m upset about or they’re telling me, about traffic or something. A lot of people say “Aw man Elijah, why did you give ‘Climax’ to Usher?” I was like, “I didn’t GIVE ‘Climax’ to Usher.” I was called to come to New York and we came up with an amazing song. That song wasn’t for me to begin with, I was flown to New York to work with Usher, so it’s not like I wrote “Climax” and been like “Ooop! Let me put that on my album!” I didn’t have a record deal at the time. So it’s always different, it’s different vibe and a different approach.
What does Elijah enjoy doing outside of music?
Umm, so I’m a Gemini, and I feel like sometimes I have A.D.D. cause there’s a million things going on in my mind, I’m always thinking, my manager is always like “I swear you’re a manager in a past life” cause I always micromanage things. The coolest thing for me is going to a movie theater and watching action movies or Marvel or anything really, I love karate movies or anything with martial arts, superpower and all that stuff. That’s like my getaway, ’cause when I’m watching those movies, my mind isn’t thinking about the other things going on. So I like to go to the movie theaters to get that hour to 2 Â½ hour escape from the reality of my current situation.
Besides your album release, what’s next for Elijah Blake?
I feel like nowadays albums are so short lived, people are like “here’s my one single, here’s my one video, here’s my album, I’ll see you in three months with my next album.” You feel me? Whereas I’m like, you’re not gonna take this experience away from me. By the time I was old enough to be aware it was the late 90s, and I still remember those moments where people would put out almost all your favorite songs and the album would get a video. I wanna give that to the fans. Nowadays I’ll have a favorite song on someone’s album that I love, and you’ll never see a live performance for it, so I’ve been working on my live shows, working with the dancers to bring all these songs to life to give a whole new expectations to them, so it’s kinda like, just expect aÂ lot of exciting live performances and a lot of cool touring opportunities, really cool TV performances, just really give everyone to have an experience with Shadows & Diamonds, not just to be like “yeah, first week sales are done, blah blah, blah, next album.” Or I won’t be like “I hate music, and people aren’t buying Black music so I’m never singing again, I’m upset,” you know what I mean? I’m gonna really drive this home and that’s my goal for this project.