Daniel Caesar opens up about career-changing online controversy

In a new Q&A, the singer also talks about his fascination with science and landing on Obama’s playlist
Daniel Caesar's debut album, Freudian, won the singer a Grammy in 2019; now he has returned with his sophomore album, Case Study 01. (Getty Images for Spotify)

Just a few short years ago, Ashton Simmons was sleeping on benches in downtown Toronto.

You might not recognize that name, but there's a good chance you'll recognize Simmons's stage name: Daniel Caesar.

In 2017, Caesar released his debut album Freudian, which catapulted him to fame not only in Canada, but also internationally — and even landed the Oshawa-born musician his first Grammy.

His sophomore album, Case Study 01, features guest appearances by huge artists including Brandy, Pharrell Williams and John Mayer. He is also gearing up to perform at his second Juno Awards.

Caesar sat down for a feature interview with q host Tom Power and talked candidly about music, science, a big shout-out from Barack Obama, and navigating a controversy that shook his career.

Watch the full interview below.

On your new album Case Study 01, I can hear risk, I can hear growth, and I can hear that you were unafraid to try something new. Was that intentional?

Definitely. I wanted to free myself from worrying about trying to replicate Freudian. I don't want to try and do the same thing again, because you can't. It's not possible. So I wanted to just veer and do what I felt like doing next.

But it must have been hard to say, "I have to do something completely different" and make something that's sort of abstract, bordering on experimental. It must have felt risky.

We called it Case Study because I wanted to be even more myself, and let you more into my brain. It's like a purging almost. If Freudian is for you and the rest of this stuff isn't for you and you're no longer a fan, then that's OK. And if you like me even more, that's OK, too.

Last time I talked to you was just before the Junos, and you ended up winning. What did it feel like to hear your name called and to go up and accept an award like that?

It was nuts. It was just amazing. Like, I didn't graduate from school. The whole go up on stage and accept your award thing, that was one of the first times that ever happened to me. And it was validating. It made me feel like all those battles I chose to fight, those struggles, were all worth it.

Not many people go from sleeping on park benches to winning a Juno. That must have been on your mind.

Yeah, just everything I'd ever been through, you know? It was like, "It's OK now." And it was an amazing honour — but it's also an object. So it's like, "What are you actually chasing? What do you actually want?" Because it's not an object you want. It's the pat on the back. It's the hug. It's the acknowledgement, the validation. And then you gotta keep looking for it. It's like a drug.

In that moment there was a lot of love between you and the people who helped you out as well. It felt like a celebration for all of you.

That was the best feeling. Accomplishing things is great. But you don't want to stand on top of the mountain by yourself. When you've got your friends with you, it makes it all feel amazing.

I also saw a video of Barack Obama in Toronto talking about how much his wife Michelle likes your music, and how it's on her playlist. What was that like?

Crazy. It's amazing. He was the leader of the free world. You try not to get caught up in that or let it influence future decisions about how you make music. "Will they like this one? Will they like that?" But yeah, it was a lot. I did a lap around the house. I was really excited.

A lot of the album Case Study 01 is around science — Robert Oppenheimer, entropy, even case study is a scientific term. Why did you look to science?

Because there is a definitive objective. In music, you're never right and you're never wrong. Science is amazing because it's like a mystery, and you get to hunt and search for answers — but there are actual answers. And then I can rely on these facts and these truths and apply them everywhere I go. Like I know if I throw a ball up, wherever I am, it's going to come back down. And that's not always the same for these emotional endeavours.

You had a hard year, too. There was an Instagram live video at a restaurant in March. You said stuff like, why are we being so mean to white people, and that black people were rude and disrespectful. You invited people to cancel you. You said, "Make me broke, make me suffer for my opinion." What happened?

I was in the Philippines with my friends. And if you see our crew, it's very multiracial. We're from Canada. We get along. And if I like you and I like what you're doing, the fact that you're a different colour from me isn't enough for me to not benefit from what you have to offer the world and vice versa. And we were in the Philippines and stuff was going on back home. We were having a lot of breakthrough conversations, and I was going through a lot, and I was drinking a lot. And I just saw someone being beat up on and it was personal to me. In retrospect, maybe that wasn't a hill to die on.

You saw a friend of yours get attacked online for wearing a shirt with a slur on it.

That was a catalyst for why I said what I said. And I believe and stand by what I said. But it's tricky, man. The world's in an interesting place. Even now, talking to you right now, there's so much I want to say. But there are cameras on, and it can literally bring me back to a place that's not worth it. The world is gonna be the way that the world is.

People were mad, and people were hurt that you said that.

I saw it. And maybe I was just confused because everybody has been through this. People say things to hurt you personally throughout your whole life, and I've heard much worse things said about me. If I heard somebody else say that, I wouldn't get on my computer and tell them to kill themselves. And maybe that's just me and what I've been through. And I can't be mad that other people are mad at me. That's the way the world works.

But if I didn't have a million followers on Instagram, me getting online and saying that would not have mattered. That's what I'm upset about.

Daniel Caesar, right, hangs out with music superstar Pharrell Williams in a recording studio. (Pharrell Williams/Instagram)

But you have a big voice, and because you have so many followers, it matters. You have a responsibility.

And if I know that people are going to be upset about my opinions, is it more responsible to not say it? Or to say it and deal with the backlash? What is the right thing to do? Everyone is going to be upset about everything. And I felt like I was standing up for what was right. But is it worth it? I don't know.

Do you feel like a different person than the one I spoke to two years ago?

Yeah, very different. I feel more cynical. But then in those moments of true happiness, my highs are higher — and my lows are lower. But I've always been an extreme person. So it's cool. And I feel like I'm kind of meta, like I'm looking down on myself, watching everything that I do and analyzing and criticizing, and telling myself to keep going.

Watch the 2020 Juno Awards broadcast on Sunday, March 15, at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, at 8 p.m. ET across the country, to be aired live on CBC-TV, CBC Radio One, CBC Music, the free CBC Gem streaming service in Canada and globally at cbcmusic.ca/junos. If you're in Saskatoon and would like to attend the Juno Awards, you can find ticket information here

Download our podcast or click the 'Listen' link near the top of this page to hear the full conversation with Daniel Caesar.

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview with Daniel Caesar produced by Matt Amha. This interview has been condensed.

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