Midnight Sun Wesley Case covers the city's after-hours scene

Artscape headliner Sheila E. wants to 'pull this country together' through protest songs

Last year, the singer-songwriter and percussionist Sheila E. was busy working on two albums — a dance record and a tribute to her longtime friend and collaborator Prince — but neither felt completely right at the time.

Her mind kept coming back to the polarized state of American discourse, exacerbated, she said, by the election of President Donald Trump.

“Our country, there was craziness going on,” the artist born Sheila Escovedo said recently. “We lost respect for each other. … It’s just horrible. I feel like we’re going backwards.”

So the 59-year-old musician turned to the protest music of decades past for inspiration, and on Sept. 1, Sheila E. — who headlines Artscape’s main stage Friday — will release “Iconic,” an album of reimagined, socially conscious songs that continue to resonate with her today.

While she’s said she’s been “appalled” and “embarrassed” by the actions of the Trump administration, Sheila E. is more interested in unifying listeners than pointing fingers for the divide.

“We need to pull this country together,” she said on the phone from her home in Los Angeles.

“Iconic” is not a typical album of covers. The daughter of Latin jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo, Sheila E. chose songs she grew up listening to like “Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters, “What the World Needs Now” by Burt Bacharach and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”

She then took it a step further by asking some of the original artists to play on her reworked versions. On “Iconic,” listeners will hear George Clinton (a previous Artscape headliner) singing his 1978 song “One Nation Under a Groove” and Ringo Starr playing drums on the Beatles’ “Come Together” and “Revolution,” among others.

“Ringo said, ‘Just bring the files, and I’ll just play.’ … One take, done,” she said. “George is pulling out all of these crazy vocals. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is why he sounds the way he does.’ I call him Uncle George.”

“Iconic’s” level of collaborative talent reflects Sheila E.’s own well-earned clout.

Known as the “Queen of Percussion,” Sheila E. had joined the George Duke Band and toured as a part of Marvin Gaye’s backing group before a chance encounter with Prince led to her singing on his 1984 song “Erotic City.” The pairing led to her biggest hits, “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre.”

Sheila E. still plans to release her tribute album to Prince eventually, and gave fans a taste last summer with the song “Girl Meets Boy.” Over swelling strings and a twinkling piano, she recalls the innocence of their meeting, while mourning his 2016 death, singing, “When you left, it rained down on me.”

At last year’s BET Awards, she brought her propulsive drumming to the stage in a memorable tribute to the Purple One. She said she’s still processing the loss of her close friend.

“Off and on, I have my moments. It’s been very challenging because we were a part of each other’s [lives] for an entire lifetime,” she said. “It’s family. It took a toll, definitely.”

Sheila E.’s Artscape set will include Prince songs, along with highlights from her catalog.

Over the years, the Oakland, Calif., native has performed with other A-list stars like Beyoncé and Diana Ross, but Sheila E. said her approach to working with artists, no matter their stature, has remained the same.

“My parents have always said that there’s no limit to what you can do. If I don’t put myself in a box, no one else will,” she said. “We’re our worst enemy, like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ I can do anything.”

She said her love of the drums is still as strong as it was when she first picked up the sticks as a teenager, performing next to her father.

“To be able to feel like that, and be that happy about performing every single time, regardless of where I am and regardless if it’s for two people or 20,000 or 200,000, it doesn’t matter — my heart feels the same, and that’s so important,” Sheila E. said. “The butterflies are still there.”

If you go

Sheila E. performs Friday from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Artscape’s main stage, 1400 Cathedral St. Gogol Bordello, Robert Randolph & the Family Band and others will also perform throughout the weekend. Free. For more information, go to artscape.org.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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