a long talk

August Alsina Untangles Everything

“People look at me as this problematic guy who was super reckless, like I’m pushing up on someone’s wife.”

Photo: Allegra Messina
Photo: Allegra Messina

August Alsina took the scenic route to personal peace over the course of a decade that began with hype for the New Orleans–born R&B singer amid a new wave of talented vocalists (including the likes of the Weeknd, Ty Dolla $ign, and Frank Ocean) and took off thanks to hits like “I Luv This,” “No Love,” and “I Don’t Get Tired.” But the journey grew increasingly complicated as health issues arose and August lost his sister Chandra to cancer, becoming the legal guardian of his nieces. His struggle with a mystery illness (that would eventually be diagnosed as the rare autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome, which, like neuropathy, attacks the nervous system and can lead to pain, immobility, and respiratory failure) led to a friendship with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith that blossomed into what the actress and Red Table Talk host described as “an entanglement” last week after Alsina confirmed long-simmering rumors of a secret romantic connection between the two in an interview with Angela Yee on “The Breakfast Club.” Jada quickly found herself in the shoes of the guests on her advice show, mired in high-profile drama and in need of a space to clear the air. She explained that the Smiths were separated at the time of the entanglement but that they resolved their issues and remain committed to their marriage. August Alsina spoke to Vulture this week to clear up lingering questions about his bombshell revelation and how it figures into his path to wellness in mind and body.

 A lot of people’s introduction to your music was the second Product mixtape, with the hit “I Luv It.” Is the new album kind of a reintroduction?
Initially it was really considered a mixtape, because that’s kind of how I first began, dropping mixtapes. That was my introduction to the business. I started with The Product I and II, and here we are at Product III … I didn’t realize how long it had been since I put out music. I took a break from the business for a while. I think that’s why there’s so many songs, 27. It’s to give to my core base and get people reactivated. It’s a mixtape, but it’s album quality.

You have a song on there called “Lessons,” and you’ve been active in this industry a good ten or so years now. You’ve seen love and hate. What do you know now that you wish you knew a decade ago?
I think everybody who gets into this business kind of has this idea of it in their head. Everybody’s like, “If only I could have this, I would be happier.” “If only I could have that, I would feel this way.” Getting into this business, I realized it was the antithesis of what [I thought it was]. People think that money and fame fixes and changes so much. Money does give you assistance and resources in this life. But you think that life will become easier, and that’s not necessarily true. With more responsibility, more eyeballs on you, life becomes harder. It’s like playing a video game. You go through different levels. At the beginning, it might be a little easy, and then it gets harder as you become more advanced.

You learn the ropes, and then there’s more asked of you, more expected of you. 
To whom much is given, much is required.

You arrived in the same XXL freshman class as people like Chance the Rapper and Ty Dolla $ign, but you had a very different journey. Do you feel like you’ve had more hindrances in your career than other people who came up at the same time as you?
I’ve had a few stumbling blocks in my journey, but it’s not foreign to me. That’s pretty much what my journey has been as a whole, even in my personal life. I’ve always been the underdog, and I’ve always had to work much harder than the next person just to get a look. But I feel like that’s Black people as a whole, to be honest with you. We have to do so much more and work so much harder to get certain kinds of looks within this industry. But my journey has been my own, and as hard as it’s been sometimes … I wouldn’t be me if not for my upbringing, for my difficult, complex dynamics with my mother, my father, and my father passing. I think there are small treasures and blessings inside of our imperfections. But there are so many people in the world that oppress you for being an individual if you don’t fit in with the rest of the crowd, if you don’t run with the herd. It’s always perplexing to me when I see people mad at other people for being who they are.

With all of your very public health battles, have you had to take extra precaution during the coronavirus? There’s been a big lag in the response, and it’s affecting people of color disproportionately. 
Sadly, that’s not anything new. It’s normalized at this point. There are Black women who die while trying to give life to newborns because Black people are always overlooked, under-cared-for, underprivileged. It’s been what it has been since the beginning of time. I know from my own experience dealing with the health-care system, having to spend so much money to go to the doctor and still be overlooked. And I’m someone who has resources.

Probably a year ago when I first started getting really, really sick, before I ended up paralyzed, when I was on the journey towards it, I checked myself into the hospital three times. The first time I went up there, I went in a walker, and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. They sent me back home. The second time I went up there, I showed up in a wheelchair, and they checked me out again. I’m telling them I’m not well. My face is completely swollen. I’m looking like death, feeling like death. They checked me out. I was in a bunch of pain. They didn’t even give me any medicine. Sent me back home. By the third time, I was taken into a bigger hospital, and I had to find a neurologist. The doctors who admitted me into the bigger hospital were like, “There’s no way that you could possibly live in this world like this.” I literally couldn’t move. The other doctors saw the same thing that the doctor saw on my third visit. But those other doctors didn’t give a fuck enough to do a deep dive. The reality is that I could have been dead, because by the time I got to the bigger hospital, the doctor told me that my respiratory system was shutting down, and it was good that I got in when I did.

Alsina and Pinkett Smith at the 2017 BET Awards. Photo: Getty Images for BET

Fast-forward a year. You’re the talk of the internet. Everyone’s been talking about August all July. You admitted to a relationship with a very famous married woman. In the past, you’ve never really been one to really give specifics about relationships. Why now? 
I never think it’s important to know who I date. It is never anybody’s business. What people do in their personal time is what people do in their personal time. So that’s probably why in the past I’ve never spoken on it. But this became very complex for me because we’re all public figures, and there was a lot of chatter around my name and her name. I’m pretty expressive. And when I love something or love someone, I express that. Over time, I was expressing my love externally and outwardly, and when you are in a situation, and you super in love, it’s like, fuck it. I don’t care what anybody thinks. This is just how I feel. But once I got to step out of it and step outside of it, there would be people bringing how I looked to my attention. People looked at me as this problematic guy who was super reckless, like I’m pushing up on someone’s wife. I didn’t really like that. I didn’t like the sound of that, especially when it wasn’t the truth. I think because people didn’t have the truth, it allowed them to view me and my character a certain type of way. And that started to really eat at my soul, but deeper than that, it started to fuck with my partnerships and business relationships and money because of people seeing me as this reckless guy who’s, like, publicly announcing his love and pushing up on somebody’s wife, quote, unquote.

That’s really the only reason I felt the need to speak my truth. A lot of those people in partnerships came back around and apologized like, “Oh, I’m sorry, my bad. I really didn’t know.” But yeah, you’re absolutely right. I never talk about my relationships cause I don’t think it’s important. But my livelihood is important, because I have three kids to take care of now, and I didn’t like how that started to tamper with my life and finances. I felt it necessary to get it out off of my spirit and clear the air. I don’t like to walk around the elephant [in the room]. That doesn’t feel good. It felt like an elephant sitting on my spirit after a while. It was a difficult decision. I never want to be the one causing a ruckus. I never want to be problematic in any kind of way. But after talking to a few people that I have love for and respect and who’ve been in this business for some time, and even people outside the business that have been respectful, they also thought that I should free myself in that way. That’s all it’s about. I’ve never spoken on anything else. I’ve never given any detail about anything and really don’t feel the need to, but this has only been mainly been about my freedom.

Do you wish you cleared the air sooner than you did?
You know what? Nah, man, I don’t. I feel like everything worked out how it should. Who’s to say I would have been in the proper place to clear the air if I had done that earlier? Especially with me going through my health issues and my sickness. I never want to come from a place of hurt, anger, or malice. Always from a place of love. I think that everything worked out in the way that it should.

Have you watched the latest Red Table Talk?
I haven’t, actually.

Really!? That’s going to surprise people. 
I have people who’ve seen it. I saw small clips floating on Instagram and kinda backed off Instagram. But it’s definitely been brought to my attention by people around me.

People also want to know how an “entanglement” works. That word blew up online last weekend.
I don’t know why that word is such an issue. I would agree [with Jada]. If you look up the definition of “entanglement,” it is a complex and difficult relationship. It was exactly that. I think it’s just the language that probably stuck out to people. But I definitely have to agree with it being an entanglement. It definitely was something complicated, a complicated dynamic.

You told Angela Yee you spoke to Will Smith about being in situation with Jada, and that rekindled a lot of speculation about that family having an open marriage, but on the show they said that they were on the verge of a divorce at the time, which is a very different story. Seems like a lot of folks’ confusion is coming from a lack of clarity about what the situation was.
I can’t speak for anyone else. What I said in my interview, how I said it, when I said it, is exactly what I said and exactly what I meant. That’s all I can really say about that. All I have is my truth, and all I have is my truth to stand on it. I don’t have any reason to lie about anything.

So is that connection with them cashed now? Is that over? Do you speak to them at all anymore? 
Here’s the deal: I don’t have an issue with anybody. I love everybody. I love all of them. They’ve been my family, and there’s a lot of history there. They’re beautiful people. They’re beautiful spirits. They really are. After my sister died [of cancer in 2018], I decided to do something different and kind of untangle myself from what I had been tangled up in for so long, because it kept me out of alignment with my true self, so to speak. I’m an artist. But because the full truth was never there and the clarity was never there, it kept me from living in my expression. And that made me feel weighted down. That, itself, is another form of oppression and repression and suppression. It started to kind of eat at my life force. That’s really what it’s about more than anything. But there’s no bad blood with anybody. They [the Smiths] got [the Angela Yee interview] way before the world ever saw it. It came from a loving place. There’s no bad love with anybody. I got love for everybody on this planet.

Do you ever regret getting as deeply involved as you did?
Nah, man, I don’t. In loving dynamics and in tough dynamics and in dark dynamics is where we are able to get to the treasure within ourselves and where we’re able to bring the treasure out of other people. And I think that [relationship] helped me to operate and access my higher self. I don’t regret it at all because I know that on this planet, there is not much harmony, and there is not much love, so when you’re actually given love, real love that you’ve never experienced, it is a gift. No matter how complex or hard it may be to face or whatever, that’s the gift. I’m aware of that. I’m aware that I was gifted. It’s been a blessing to me, even the really hard parts and the tough parts of it. There is no right or wrong here. With there being no right or wrong, there is no regret. There’s nothing to regret because it’s not something I went searching for. It’s not something I went after. I don’t go after people’s girls. Nobody preyed on me or was a predator towards me. This is none of that. It just is. It just was. So I don’t feel any reason to have regrets. Every lesson man, every, every relationship, every experience is a blessing. You learn from it, whether good or bad. I could never say that I regret being given the gift of experience and love. It’s a lesson.

Anytime anything seemingly scandalous happens on the internet, the immediate thought is, This person wants attention. Does it frustrate you to have people who don’t know you look at your personal business and see someone trying to start drama for personal recognition?
I actually don’t see this as scandalous. It’s something manifested on its own. I’m aware of that type of chatter and noise from some people. I’m also aware that when I first dropped the interview, there were people on Black Twitter taking digs and shots at my mental stability, who made me out to be a crazy person, saying this was so unbelievable. “Oh, this just can’t be true. He’s delusional.” It was very telling for me in so many ways. It taught me a lot. It said more about them and what they were projecting onto me. People see each other as an image, as an idea. They put people on a pedestal, like, “This one is untouchable.” It showed me a lot about what people think of themselves and how they see themselves. That’s where the disconnect is. How you see yourself is not how I see myself. I see my experience and everything I’ve gone through. I see myself as worthy. I see myself as deserving of love. People have all these ideas about who people are, and what’s possible, and what’s impossible. I believe the possibilities are endless. People may not like that about me, and I get it, cause everybody lives within these confines and constructs. You could say that I am an unconventional person.

You’ve certainly had an unconventional journey. Let’s back up for a minute, though, because there was some smoke on Twitter between you and Keke Palmer, whom you accused of firing shots. You also called her mentally unstable. To the outside observer, that looked like an overreaction. What happened there?
I would dive into that with you, but I literally can’t give her any of my energy at this point in my life. I actually gave it too much of my energy. But what I will say is that covert narcissism exists. There’s so much that I witnessed that people don’t know that I see, that comes across my table. People will throw stones and hide their hands and then get back and play victim. I’m aware of that. That’s just people. But with that in particular, I don’t even have the energy to devote to that conversation at all. When I said “next,” I meant that in real life.

Drama aside, how are you health-wise, physically, mentally? Are you good?
My health journey has been a complex one, unpredictable to say the least. I realized that I’ve been having a fight for my life. So many of my health struggles start spiritually and then manifest into my physical body. My journey is having to go into those deep parts within myself and everything that I have buried and crammed deep down, and facing those parts that a lot of us may or may not want to see within ourselves. As I’ve been doing that, my physical health has started to shift. I would be lying to you if I said that I am at 100 percent. But my whole life now is literally devoted to healing myself, on all levels. Some days don’t look as bright as the others. I believe the universe, and God, does this to me to keep me in my humble place and to keep me filled with humility. But I have been taking leaps and strides when it comes to my health. I’m in a better place than I have ever been.

So clearing the air emotionally in the way you did this month was part of a healing journey you’re on? 
Absolutely, man. That’s not just with me, [it’s also] getting that oppression off of you. It’s a worldwide thing right now, what we are seeing in the Black community. People rising up in the streets is due to being oppressed for so long and having someone’s knee on your neck, feeling like, “Fuck, I’m carrying an elephant on my fucking shoulders, and I’m tired, and I want to drop this motherfucker, and I’m willing to do anything to get this motherfucker up off of me, even die.” That’s how serious it is. If I don’t, I’m going to suffocate from the weight of this fucking elephant on my life. It’s really that simple. Black people have been asking for years and years: Please let’s do this different. Please get this off me. I don’t like the way this feels. Please treat me a certain way. Please see me in a certain kind of way. Please free me. After a while it’s like, “Do I gotta blow this bitch up to get your attention, to get to my freedom?” I relate to that so much. I see myself in that so much.

Well, you certainly blew up the internet.

August Alsina Untangles Everything