In the 1800s, New Orleans was a cosmopolitan city with different cultures from around the world creating a variety of music unlike any other place in the United States at that time. Specifically, Congo Square was a section of New Orleans where African Slaves were permitted to play drums, sing, and dance to music from their native land every Sunday. PJ Morton is a product of this African tradition, born and raised in New Orleans. As the son of Bishop Paul S Morton & Pastor Dr. Debra Brown Morton, PJ heard a lot of Gospel in the house from his father who is a Gospel artist and from the Gospel albums his parents played, like The Winans, The Clark Sisters, and Andrae Crouch. Morton also stated that he was a true child of the 80’s, and that his parents also played a lot of R&B albums by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, and Prince.
This is what sparked PJ’s interest in music, where he began to listen and study music throughout his childhood into high school, where Morton attended St. Augustine High School and Morehouse College majoring in Marketing and graduating in 2003. After graduating, Morton released his first solo recording in 2004 titled “Emotions”, and then “Walk Alone” in 2010. Due to his versatility, creativeness, and originality, Morton has worked and produced with industry giants like Maroon 5, Rapsody, Jon Batiste, Mike Phillips, and Ledisi, just to name a few.
I asked PJ what it meant to him being a musician who was taught and nurtured in New Orleans. He responded that when he decided to become a musician he knew that he had to take it seriously because of the older musicians around him, and because of the tradition of integrity to play music in New Orleans Morton stated that, “If you want to be somebody in New Orleans you have to have CHOPS!” This is due to the number of serious participants on the music scene in New Orleans that come from various families who have a history of musicianship dating back to Congo Square and it’s badge of honor as a musician in New Orleans.
PJ Morton’s music is a mixture of the African American Diaspora, influenced by all the music in New Orleans that he saw at festivals; thus, listening to the various styles of music in New Orleans is how the musical foundation was developed for PJ Morton.
In 2013, Morton released his first major debut studio album with Young Money Records called “New Orleans”. The album’s lead single “Only One” features Stevie Wonder, and was nominated for the best R&B song Grammy at the 56th Grammy Awards in 2014. After being in Los Angeles and dealing with record companies trying to change his style, Morton returned to his New Orleans roots and produced and recorded the album GUMBO, which was released in 2017.
Gumbo is a body of work resulting from Morton’s musical evolution as a songwriter and musician. This includes Soul, R&B, Gospel, Hip Hop, and Morton’s original interpretation of the African American Musical Diaspora. The release of Gospel According to PJ from the Songbook of PJ Morton in 2020 has PJ returning to his childhood roots with his own unique voice. I asked PJ what he wanted to convey to his audience and he said “Honesty, a reflection of life and who I am at the time; a balance of life, love, and spirituality.” Morton also stated that he wanted to be more vulnerable and connect even more with his audience; to be a torchbearer of the music that came before us, and have a hand in today and the past. PJ says that he does not want to be categorized as one thing all of the time, so he sings about God, love, and life among other things.
I asked Morton for some information to take back to the children of Detroit, and what advice he would give to upcoming artists. He responded that he encourages all children to find out what makes them original because that is what will give you longevity, find out what success looks like for you, and that there is no “one way” to get you where you want to be.