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Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire is having a 🔥🔥🔥 summer

The band’s lead vocalist on being a Kennedy Center honoree, his solo album and paying it forward

Even with 50 years in the music business, this was a big summer for Earth, Wind & Fire lead vocalist and percussionist Philip Bailey.

The Kennedy Center recently announced that the band responsible for classics such as “Shining Star,” “That’s the Way of the World,” and “September” is one of this year’s honorees. Founded by Maurice White, Earth, Wind & Fire is the first R&B vocal group and the fourth band overall — joining The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Eagles — to be honored.

And in June, Bailey, 68, released his 12th solo album and his first full-length set in 17 years. Recorded over two years, “Love Will Find a Way” skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart for the week of July 6. The album features appearances by new age and veteran jazz performers Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, will.i.am, Christian McBride and Chick Corea.

“We’ve achieved so many high-profile accolades in our career, but this really ranks among the highest of them right here.” — Philip Bailey on the Kennedy Center Honors

Bailey’s nonprofit organization, Music is Unity Foundation, was founded in 2007 to help fund organizations that assist young people who have aged out of the foster care system. Earth, Wind & Fire donates a portion of its ticket sales to Music is Unity. And before each concert, Bailey treats those curious minds to Backstage Soundcheck, a program that exposes youth to career opportunities in entertainment.

Bailey chatted with The Undefeated following a Backstage Soundcheck in Atlanta about the Kennedy Center Honors, longevity in music and paying it forward to a new generation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What was your reaction to being named a Kennedy Center honoree?

Man, it’s a pinch-me moment. It’s like, ‘Wow, who would’ve thought?’ We’ve achieved so many high-profile accolades in our career, but this really ranks among the highest of them right here. We’ve had such a blessed life touring this world, playing for all of our many millions of fans, and we hope to continue, as Maurice would say, “to serve you well” in our music and endeavors.

How has the band been able to collaborate successfully for five decades?

We were in our element similar to a Super Bowl team or a championship team. Everything came together at the right time and right place. We were in a zone, and none of us could’ve foreseen the impact, longevity or all of the accolades the band would have — and continue — to receive. We had a motto we were very true to: We wanted to be the best band in the whole world. We worked tirelessly as we do now to do the best that we could. We researched, studied, rehearsed, played and wrote. Maurice’s motto was to render a service to humanity. That’s what he wanted the music, the imagery on the album covers and performances to emulate. That’s a lofty vision. We’re still about really giving the people that come to see us more than what they paid for.

What was the inspiration for your new album’s title Love Will Find a Way?

In the last few years, the whole political and social climate has brought ugliness to our faces that has been reminiscent of the ’60s. I chose songs by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Abbey Lincoln, just to name a few, that helped people through those turbulent times. We were inspired to use our tool or weapon, which is music, to speak in the way that we speak.

Love Will Find a Way includes artists like will.i.am, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and Christian McBride. What was it like working with them?

It wasn’t work, but it was very invigorating working with all of those artists. I’ve always tried to do things in my career that spark my flame or love for the art. I wanted to keep that love alive, so when you work with talented people, it infuses you again with that fresh energy and appreciation for being able — and blessed — to do what we do. I didn’t have to try. Their music and artistry speaks for itself. They’re all just really great people: talented, fun, personable, intelligent and insightful.

“If you have been blessed to have influence, then it’s a natural byproduct of the power that you have to spread it and make a positive difference.”

Love Will Find a Way reached No. 1 on Billboard’s jazz album chart. Since many of your contemporaries get placed into the adult contemporary format, were you concerned about how your music would be received?

The album was geared from the very beginning to be jazz. You’re working with Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Christian Scott and Kamasi Washington; that’s jazz as we know it. That’s the lane that we wanted to be in.

You contributed background vocals to Travis Scott’s “Stop Trying to Be God” on his LP Astroworld. How did you become a part of that session?

My manager, who was my son’s best friend, has been my manager for 15 years, and he happens to be Travis’ manager. When Travis found out, he wanted me to sing on the project. They sent over the song, and I went down to the studio. Travis is like my grandkids’ age. I wasn’t that familiar with him, but I knew something was up when my grandson went nuts.

Your foundation, Music is Unity, focuses on music education and providing resources to those that transition out of the foster care system. How did you come up with the name?

The name really came from a concert tour we were doing with [musical group] Chicago. I was watching after so many shows [and] seeing the effect the music had on the different fan groups from the beginning to the end of the show. I spoke out then and there that “music truly is unity.” In conversation, we found out that this was a very needed, underserved segment of society, so we decided to make kids in foster care our focus.

How does the band make sense of being an American treasure?

To whom much is given, much is required. If you have been blessed to have influence, then it’s a natural byproduct of the power that you have to spread it and make a positive difference.

What joy do you get from still performing?

My joy comes from just being an instrument of music, beauty and continuing to resonate in those zones. As long as God wants to play me [chuckles], then I’m good.

Christopher A. Daniel, M.A. is an Atlanta-based, award-winning journalist, cultural critic, ethnomusicologist, Prince enthusiast, and multimedia journalism professor at Clark Atlanta University.