NPR’s early spring Tiny Desk Concert starring the psychedelicate soul of singer-songwriter Durand Bernarr let the cat out of the bag, unveiling R&B’s best-kept secret about who’s got next. His day ones loved the range and beauty of multitracked harmonies woven through “Around” (featured on season one of BET’s Boomerang)—as well as self-produced mixtapes and EPs that made his lineage to the likes of Little Richard and Rick James crystal clear. Billboard named him an “LGBTQ artist to discover” back in 2019. But Bernarr’s recent scintillating Tiny Desk show-out—shirtless in a sequined tux, fronting a band decked out like The Proud Family—took his rising stardom to an even more universal level.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Bernarr came up in the church, where his mother served as music director. His father, audio engineer Bernarr Ferebee, employed him as a teenage production assistant, exposing him to the behind-the-scenes artistry of superstars like Earth, Wind & Fire. Soon, young Bernarr started uploading to YouTube and Bandcamp, sharing GarageBand creations like 8ight: The Stepson of Erykah Badu—an EP of covers that caught the songstress’s attention and landed him a yearslong gig as a live backup singer in her band.

Image: Gianna Dorsey/@giannasnapped

Those day ones also remember Bernarr competing on BET’s The Next Big Thing music competition series four years ago, making it into the show’s trio of finalists. His various viral moments have finally spilled into the mainstream, courtesy of NPR and satisfying studio albums like last year’s Wanderlust and its latest single, “Leveled.”

Below, Bernarr ushers EBONY into the creative process underlying “Leveled,” sharing as well a playlist of his inspirational favorites.

"Leveled" for me is just very special, very sweet. Sonically, it was inspired by Sault and Cleo Sol—shout out to them. “When I’m in Your Arms” and “Masterpiece,” specifically, those two records definitely had a play in the production of “Leveled.”

Lyrically, [in "Leveled,"] we are discussing catharsis. And having the level of catharsis, leaping at the idea of: who you are at the core as a person is not going unnoticed or unappreciated. Yeah, it’s just one of those overwhelming moments where we’re just kind of going so fast and so high up that we have those moments where we need to just kinda come down and be still for a second and just breathe.

I just got together with my guys that I played with in Erykah Badu’s band: Frank Moka on drums, Daniel Jones on keys, Braylon Lacy on bass. My guy Chris Bivins created a mock-up track, because when I recorded the song initially, we weren’t doing them to a [metronome] click track. It was all live. He pieced it together, added some bells and whistles on there. I love it. [We were], cutting a bunch of different ideas in a session and that was the one I really wanted to sit with. I just knew I was sitting on something very special, because I would play it a lot before it even touched the public’s ears.

I’m looking at reactions from when I’m on the road performing these songs live and seeing the different responses that I get from people.

The first time I ever did the song "Leveled" in front of people was during the first tour that I did last August. There were one or two times during soundcheck where we touched on the song and played it during the meet-and-greet. Right now, I’m still independent. And so these pieces of work that I’ve put together, I just feel that until I can offer them the proper care and budget, these visuals are going to remain in people’s minds.

Durand Bernarr

A Curated Playlist of Songs That Keep Durand Inspired

  1. Sault, “Masterpiece”
  2. Tame Impala, “Breathe Deeper”
  3. Neil Frances, “Dancing”
  4. Pretty Ricky, “On the Hotline”
  5. Evelyn “Champagne” King, “I’m in Love”
  6. Kblast & Mighty Bay, “Town”
  7. WSTRN ft. Fireboy DML, “Be My Guest”
  8. Solange, “Way to the Show”
  9. Beyoncé, “Kitty Kat”
  10. Khruangbin, “First Class”