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Bootsy Collins on Togetherness in the Time of Quarantine

With the release of “Stars,” a new song featuring Dr. Cornel West and Béla Fleck, the bass legend reflects on the power of music, what James Brown taught him, and more

Bootsy Collins discusses his new song, "Stars," how he's handling the pandemic, his feelings about George Floyd, and what he learned from James Brown.

Nick Presniakov

Bootsy Collins feels a lot of different ways about the way the coronavirus pandemic has put the world on pause, but mostly he’s hopeful that people will take a moment to think about their place in the big picture.

“I think [the pandemic] is a tragic thing and a deep thing, but it gives us a chance to reset and reflect on our lives and what’s important and get our priorities together,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Before this, everybody was just going for it hard. Now I think it’s like, ‘OK, wait a minute. Time out. Let’s take a look at this. Let’s rethink this.’ So it’s a bad thing, but it’s also a good thing that sometimes we need to be stopped and revisit what’s really going on.”

In this moment of reflection, Collins — who played bass with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic before becoming a solo artist — decided to write a song about togetherness. He was nearly done recording his upcoming album, The Power of the One — due in October — but decided to pause that momentarily so he could record “Stars,” a new tune that features 16-year-old singer EmiSunshine, philosopher and activist Dr. Cornel West, banjo player Béla Fleck, drummer Steve Jordan, and singer Olvido Ruiz.

The song opens with Collins’ voice offering up a classic, “Ah, the name is Bootsy, baby,” followed by his thoughts on the importance of music. Propelled by his wiggly bass line, the thickly textured R&B track finds EmiSunshine singing, “This thing can’t last forever,” and Dr. West speaking about brothers and sisters coming together. All proceeds from streams and downloads of “Stars” will benefit MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund.

Although the song was recorded before George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis policeman, it’s taken on new meaning to Collins in recent weeks. “Sacrificing your own life is the highest price to pay to benefit the living; Mr. George Floyd paid that price,” Collins says. “What do the living get in return? How about a receipt of true justice?”

What strikes him when thinking about the song’s message, though, is just how important it is for people to find solace in music. “Music allows you to get it out and that’s why you hear a lot of emotions in songs,” Collins says, reflecting on what he’s learned during the pause. “When you hear something you can feel, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God. I haven’t felt this way.’ It’s like your first love. I think everybody wants to feel like that. That’s why we need to be stopped and reflect and renegotiate our lives because really we’re letting it all go. We done forgot all about people’s feelings. To me, that’s the most important thing.”

How did “Stars” come together?
I was working on my new album, and we were probably maybe about 75 percent done before the pandemic hit. That kind of took me in another direction for a moment. I think it took everybody by surprise. So then I started thinking, “Wow, maybe I should do a song that pertains to this moment that could maybe help bring people together and lift people’s spirits.”

I went through my archive of songs and I found some music that I was feeling, and it was like, “Man, I just need to get together with somebody and do some lyrics.” This young girl, EmiSunshine, had reached out and we were talking about a whole other subject, and she told me she could write. Next thing, she came up with these lyrics that kicked the whole focus into where it’s at now on this record and this video.

When I hooked up with her, it started to become personal as well as a community of people just in this one song. I wasn’t going to let that one go, just because I was working on the album. It’s actually going to be on the album, but with extra artists and guests on it as well.

What exactly did you want to say with the song?
It’s about how people are really the same and we all hurt, and when tragedy strikes, that’s the time we all really come together. We need to try to change that way of thinking and just be together, period. The song kind of says that in a traditional way, “Let’s come together, y’all. It’s time to quit joking now. We all are human beings and we all want to live.” It just feels right; the lyrics feel right. It’s not messing with nobody’s religion. It’s not messing with nobody politically. None of that is necessary. As a matter of fact, it’s better to do without all of that and just talk straight up with people.

What strikes you about the song’s message now, watching people protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police?
We would all like to be treated equally, but a step towards justice would be a step in the right direction. If someone is drowning, you don’t stand around and watch them sink. A real humane society would join in and help. Every seed may not grow, but the Creator made each one of us.

Your guests on the track range from Béla Fleck to Dr. Cornel West. How did you get everyone together?
Well, we had been working together in the past, but we never really broke through on anything that I guess the marketplace — the universal market — picked up on. This was the perfect storm to pull every- and anybody together with different voices, different colors, different cultures. It made all the sense in the world, and it actually made the song speak even louder because of who all is on it. So it was really a good feeling, and I think it’s the right timing.

You wrote and recorded this while working on a new album. How is that coming along?
The record is called The Power of the One. “Stars” was kind of the icing on the cake that said, ” OK, this can lead up into the album because this is kind of the same message and the same feel that we were doing on the album.” Of course, the album got more party stuff on it and it’s just a good overall vibe of uptempo songs, medium-tempo songs, and then ballads. Then it’s got a different cultures on it, too, as well. So it all ties in.

I got a lot of different artists on it that I felt really good about, from the young guys like Brandon “Taz” [Niederauer] who is 17, going on 18; he’s a maniac on guitar. You got [guitarist] Christone “Kingfish” [Ingram], and then you got George Benson. He’s actually playing on the single that’s coming next, “The Power of the One.” And the list goes on and on. You’ve got [pianist] Brian Culbertson, [drummer] Steve Jordan, and [drummer] Dennis Chambers. And I met this young guy, Brennan Johns, out of Indiana University, and he’s doing all the horn arrangements. He’s like a young Fred Wesley.

So it’s a pretty exciting record. We redid [Sly Stone’s] “If You Want Me to Stay.” It’s just some pretty heavy things going on, on it.

Other than making a new album, how else have you been spending your time at home?
The thing that threw everything up for a wrench was you couldn’t actually go nowhere. I was recording a lot of stuff in my home studio anyway, so I had gotten used to that, so when it struck, it was like, “OK, I don’t have to change so much.” We’re kind of tiptoeing through it.

It’s still weird, the whole new way of life. Music, I think, is the one thing that keeps me sane. Then you had Iggy Pop drop [our cover of Sly Stone’s] “Family Affair”; we recorded that in 1985, but it took something like this to happen to reflect. He even said so. When he took this time and he started reflecting, then he went back and listened to that song that we did, he felt like, “Wow, this needs to be out now.”

The title The Power of the One calls back to your time in James Brown’s band 50 years ago. Back then “the one” meant hitting the first note of a musical measure hard, but what does “the one” mean to you now?
Musically speaking, that’s where it all came from; James taught me about “the one” and now I have to pass that on to the world. It’s all about the power of the one, whoever your “one” is. All of us don’t have to have the same one. That’s the beauty of it; everybody’s allowed to have their own. I think that’s where we get in a lot of trouble. People try to make you have the same one that they got. It’s like, “That’s not necessary,” and it’s like, “You don’t have to have the same father I have for me to dig you or for you to dig me. I mean, it’s cool as long as we respect each other’s father.”

To me, that’s all it’s really about. It’s not making somebody try to love somebody because you love them. You can love whoever you want to love. It goes back to the hippie days. That to me was the most fabulous time coming up in my life because we had a chance to experience that, and I don’t think young people coming up nowadays have a clue about that kind of freedom-feeling power. I’m just trying to pass on what I’ve learned and experienced in a new world because it’s definitely a new world and it’s changing every day, so we better wise up and get used to, “Hey, things are changing, so let’s change with it.”