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From Madlib’s playlist for Headspace to Toro Y Moi’s “ambient record” for Calm, Black artists are redefining the music on meditation apps.
Last September, Madlib took to Twitter not to promote a new collaboration or solo album, but a collection of beats created for a meditation app called Headspace. The 60-minute mix included at least one song that ended up on his 2021 Sound Ancestors album (“Theme De Crabtree“) as well as a handful of unreleased instrumentals varying from the smooth boom bap that has made him one of hip-hop’s most beloved producers to more trap-leaning beats. As someone who’s considered a godfather of the lo-fi hip-hop internet subgenre — a sound that meditation apps like Headspace utilize — it was interesting to see the enigmatic producer create a mix that played into — and subverted — the idea of lo-fi hip-hop. But it was also refreshing in that it offered a sound different from what’s commonly viewed as meditative or wellness music.
Although there isn’t a singular definition of meditative music, it’s primarily new age music that soundtracks meditation classes and segments on these apps. A genre that came about during the 1960s and 1970s — coinciding with the rise of eastern spiritual practices like meditation and yoga in the United States — new age music often encompasses the sounds that have since become signifiers of meditative music: natural sounds like birds chirping or crashing ocean waves, soothing flutes, and droning synthesizers. The music is often calm and slow-moving, which is why many meditation practitioners listen to it.
However, just because most people refer to new age — or other adjacent music genres like ambient, easy listening, and minimal — for their wellness music, doesn’t mean that other music genres can’t be used for one’s meditative practices.
“It depends on your frame of reference, and the kind of music that you listen to, as to what you will consider to be meditative,” Richard Wolf, an Emmy-winning composer and author of the book In Tune: Music as the Bridge To Mindfulness, told Mashable. “What is going to hold your intention and lead you into a frame of mind that’s calm and steady.”
Madlib is but one example of how Black musicians are creating — and curating — music for some of today’s most popular meditation apps and, in the process, redefining what meditative music can sound like. As Headspace and Calm have grown into million and billion dollars businesses, respectively, both apps have enlisted celebrities, entertainers, and musicians to help expand their platforms. In August last year, Headspace announced it had appointed John Legend as its first-ever Chief Music Officer, where Legend would work with Headspace Studios (Headspace’s new multi-platform studio) to “harness the power of music to enhance members’ mindfulness journeys.”
“Songwriting and performing requires an incredible amount of mental focus, concentration, and present moment awareness. When I’m able to cancel out external noise and tune into a state of relaxed concentration, that’s when the creativity flows,” Legend said in a press release. “That’s why I’m looking forward to helping others learn how to focus on what’s important to them — and I’ll be bringing some of my friends in the music industry along with me for the ride.”
The following month came the release of Madlib’s mix as a part of Headspace’s Focus playlists, which Legend curates each month featuring a different artist. This was then followed up with playlists from R&B and synthpop singer-songwriter Aluna Francis, and R&B violinist Sudan Archives.
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Each one sounds different from the other: Aluna’s is a mixture of downtempo and electronic dance, while Sudan’s is more experimental, most of the tracks built around looped violin parts layered on one another. But what’s interesting about all three is how they approach the idea of meditative music. Take, for example, Madlib’s mix. Halfway through he incorporates trap instrumentals, a sound not often employed in meditative spaces. Rather than have a continuous mix that remains sonically similar and tame throughout, the producer throws in moments like this that challenge listeners’ expectations — the more upbeat tempos and rapid hi-hats and 808 kicks of the instrumentals a distinct contrast from the rest of the playlist’s tracks.
Aluna uses some of the sounds associated with New Age music in her mixes while creating something refreshing in the process. In Aluna’s hands, meditative music staples like bird chirps and spacious synths are grounded by drum grooves that give the music pace and make it danceable, the mix feeling more like a DJ set that is enjoyably mild throughout. Sudan leans more into the ambient, the electric strings of her violin building soundscapes that are immersive but soothing. Out of all three, her mix is the most akin to traditional meditative music, the playlist a reflection of the atmospheric and experimental work Sudan does with her solo projects.
Both Toro Y Moi and Moses Sumney have also offered their own takes on traditional meditative music through Calm. In November last year, Toro released an 11-track “ambient record” titled Inclusion, while Sumney released a 31-minute track titled “Transfigurations” the following month. Calling Inclusion an ambient record is accurate: most of the tracks are between five and eight minutes, and all of them are instrumental, each one driven by droning, reverbed sounds that make the album feel atmospheric. Tracks like “Animation” and “Being” evoke the feeling of being submerged underwater, while “Red Sky” and “Subsistence” feel celestial, as if one is floating through space, unafraid of the dark abyss before them.
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Sumney’s “Transfigurations” could also be described as ambient. The long-form track is atmospheric, with strummed guitar strings and echoed synths intertwined to create a soundscape that at times feels psychedelic but always comforting. But the staple of the track is Sumney’s distinct vocal delivery, the artist drenching his vocals in reverb and repeating certain melodies to where they essentially become mantras, evoking the Sanskrit or Tibetan chants meditation practitioners sometimes say.
“I’ve been making music for a few years that is just kind of zone-out music, so I was really excited to do something with Calm and do it in a way that was weird, and predominantly improvised,” Sumney said in an interview with Vogue, adding that the song was designed for “relaxation, sleep, meditation — essentially whichever tickles the fancy of the listener.”
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Most recently, Calm also enlisted Laraaji, a pioneer of ambient and new age music, for an hour-plus-long improvisational performance on his zither (a stringed instrument that usually has 30 to 40 strings over a shallow horizontal soundboard). Considering how prolific of an artist Laraaji is — he has released over 50 albums, including Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, which was produced by fellow ambient music pioneer Brian Eno — it’s noteworthy that Calm has used its platform to promote a Black artist integral to the sound that defines most meditative music.
As more and more people continue to subscribe to these meditation apps, it’s likely that other Black artists will participate in creating special albums, mixes, playlists, and more for them, continuing to expand the idea of what meditative music should — and can — sound like.