While he waited for his oft-delayed album to drop, St. Paul singer Stokley Williams headed to a Los Angeles roller rink to shoot a video with Snoop Dogg. He remotely recorded a duet with Grammy-grabbing sensation H.E.R. He flew to Ghana for a video shoot to give the African-titled LP some authentic flavor.
"COVID helped this album to dig deeper in areas I wouldn't have ordinarily gone," said the longtime frontman for hitmakers Mint Condition. "It's been starts and stops and uncertainty. It presented some challenges but also some other opportunities."
"Sankofa," his second solo album, finally arrives Friday. An ear-opening feast of textures, colors and soulfulness, it embraces jazz, R&B, hip-hop, rock, pop, Pan-African sounds — you name it — all with a modern, electronic veneer and Williams' supple, Stevie Wonder-evoking voice.
The title, from Ghana's Akan tribe, "is a word I've heard all my life," said the singer, who bills himself simply as Stokley now. "My parents are educators. It literally means 'Go back and get it.' It's just your roots. Sankofa is looking backward while traveling forward. Remember where you're from to know where you're going."
Originally set for release last year, the deeply rewarding collection grew to 18 tracks during the pandemic.
"As time kept unfolding, I kept uploading more life," he explained in a recent interview at Como Lakeside Pavilion in his hometown.
The genre-thwarting multi-instrumentalist insists he "fits in everywhere." The album's first single, the slow jam "She," released in 2019, went to No. 1 last year on Billboard's adult R&B chart, where hits by H.E.R. and Robin Thicke reside.
Rather than a consistent sound, the theme that runs through "Sankofa" is rhythm — cool, smooth, funky, danceable, sexy, soothing rhythms.
That's not surprising because Stokley started as a drummer at age 4. He has played on records by Janet Jackson, Usher and, of course, Mint Condition, the group he formed with fellow students from St. Paul Central High School. He also has drummed in Twin Cities venues with Dr. Mambo's Combo, the Steeles, Estaire Godinez and various jazz ensembles.
"Sankofa" even includes the distinctive sounds of steel pan drum, the Caribbean instrument that young Stokley studied with master Cliff Alexis Sr.
"People always look at the steel pan as a vacation kind of thing," Stokley noted. "No, it's an amazing instrument that can be used in any genre. I'm going to put it in mainstream life. It's also an ode to my teacher."
Stokley also nods to his father, Mahmoud El-Kati, a retired Macalester College professor of African American studies and a noted activist, who contributes spoken-word passages to "Sankofa."
"It wasn't complete unless he was on there. He's alpha and omega, the beginning and the end," Stokley said.
Back with Jam and Lewis
"Sankofa" also reconnects Stokley with his first record label, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' Perspective Records.
Mint Condition, with Stokley on lead vocals and drums, signed with Perspective in 1989 and went on to score such '90s hits as "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)" and "U Send Me Swingin'. "
"I've been wanting him to do a solo album for years, even when he was with Mint, which didn't go over too well because he's so loyal," Lewis said.
"He's a musician's musician. Plus, Stokley reminds us that we miss principle and honor in our culture when he sings so positively about women. His songs are always positive, always healing. And he's going to give it up onstage. It's kind of built in if you come from Minneapolis or St. Paul."
Last seen performing at a pre-Super Bowl concert in 2018 curated by Jam and Lewis, Mint Condition is on hiatus.
"I'm doing what I'm doing. Everybody's got different things going on," Stokley said. "Hopefully we'll come back at some point and compare notes. I'm on a path that I wasn't able to do in the band."
After releasing his first solo album in 2017, he toured with the Revolution, Prince's heyday band, singing a handful of Purple tunes each night.
"I got to be part of this legacy and then I'd go on the side of the stage and watch as a fan," he said. "It was a perfect marriage because I had 'Introducing Stokley' out at the time, and people started to connect the dots."
In his solo concerts, Stokley still sings Mint songs, but now he has two albums' worth of his own material to perform.
To preview "Sankofa," Stokley did a handful of gigs and performed on "The Kelly Clarkson Show." He's also posted five videos of "Sankofa" tunes, including a remix of "Cascade" in Minneapolis with his touring band of Minnesota musicians.
Having worked with Stokley since 2008 (as Mint's touring drummer), Brandon Commodore noticed a change during the pandemic.
"The time off charged him up and gave him a new inspiration," Commodore said last week before a Stokley concert in Texas. "With all his online content [@stokleyofficial on Twitter and Instagram], he found a way to connect with his audience when he couldn't perform. And once you start traveling on social media, you find younger folks get curious and interested."
Soft-spoken and articulate, Stokley has a Zen quality about him. He's mindful and thoughtful, careful about his health and well-being, cognizant of his roots and the future of his children.
At 54, he looks 20 years younger. He says he's tried "every kind of exercise there is," and doesn't feel any particular age.
When he was in Ghana, working with young models and 20-something Ghanaian singer KiDi to film a video for the song "Woman," people kept trying to figure out how old he is.
"The body that refuses to age," he said with a smile. "I'm just trying to keep what Mom and Papa gave me.
"The music is ageless," he continued. "I've been skewing a little young just 'cause of the sensibility and the tone of the electronics. That's intentional. That's where I naturally sit. I like to explore."
But he opted for an old-school setting when it came time to make a video of the dance-happy tune "Vibrant" with Snoop Dogg — a roller rink.
Snoop knows how to skate but didn't want to see any outtakes on TMZ, Stokley said.
"I can still skate a little bit. It's been over 20 years. But I still have some boogie left."
With unexpected downtime during the pandemic, he got his son ready for ninth grade and his daughter for her sophomore year of college (her first on campus in New York).
He's also counseled his children about the racial reckoning in the post-George Floyd world.
"I'm really worried for them," he said. "I've had the experience with my son riding with me and being stopped by the cops: 'Just pay attention to what I'm doing.'
"I'm glad we did have [that experience]. It's hard to navigate."
He advised his children: "You can't do the same things your friends do. Be mindful of that. Stay positive. Try to move forward. Enlighten some people who don't get it."
A lover of colors and textures, Stokley favors stylish outfits, often with African or floral patterns. And hats of all kinds.
He may have more than 2,000. Some are in boxes, some hanging on the wall, some stacked in closets. "Some I forget about," he admitted.
"I've always loved hats, different designs, colors. Just what it does for the outfit. What it does for moods. And it's practical sometimes, especially here in the wintertime.
"It's a throwback. My grandfather used to wear hats. It's kind of an ode to that.
"It's sankofa. It's part of your purpose."
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719