Diversity Dialogue: Inside the socially conscious music and mind of Devon Gilfillian

By Chris M. Junior

It’s been common lately for entertainers to capitalize on an awards-show audience by weaving societal commentary into their acceptance speeches.

You won’t hear any of that from singer-guitarist Devon Gilfillian at this year’s Grammy Awards on CBS (recently postponed to March 14 due to COVID-19 cases surging in Los Angeles). That’s because Gilfillian hasn’t been nominated for a golden gramophone — although his full-length debut for Capitol Records, “Black Hole Rainbow,” is a contender in the category Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, but that honor goes to an engineer, not an artist.

However, those familiar with Gilfillian, his fine first Capitol album and equally enjoyable second know he’s already said and sung a lot about what he finds troubling in America.

Pushing his sound forward

Gilfillian grew up near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, listening to a wide variety of music (his father was a wedding singer) and picking up the guitar at age 14. After graduating from West Chester University in Pennsylvania, he moved in 2013 to Nashville, Tennessee, to further his music career. A self-titled, five-song EP in 2016 preceded “Black Hole Rainbow,” which was released Jan. 10, 2020. (A deluxe edition of “BHR” arrived this month containing alternate takes and some of his early singles.)

Working on “Black Hole Rainbow” with producer Shawn Everett, whose impressive studio credits include albums by Lucius, Alabama Shakes and Vampire Weekend, Gilfillian had a goal “to take this sound — this rhythm and blues, this soul, this psychedelic rock — and kinda push it forward,” he told The Tennessean early last year.

Gilfillian’s music does incorporate elements of those genres; it’s a blend of the modern with the traditional that’s accessible for the masses yet still adventurous enough for mainstream-averse listeners. His voice can be smooth or raspy, and it’s effective whether he’s hushed or climbing to the top of his range. His vocal style is devoid of those showoff-y, wordless vocal embellishments that have plagued some otherwise good singers who’ve emerged in recent years. And he’s no slouch on guitar, either.

For his lyrics, Gilfillian draws from the personal and makes it universal. While writing “Unchained,” which opens his Capitol debut, Gilfillian realized he was referring to his younger brother, Ryan, who at 17 was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. In the second verse, Gilfillian sings:

Breaking through the mirror, seein clearer
Taking back the power
And I hear the sound of whispers all around me
They can’t drown me out

Around the time “Black Hole Rainbow” was first released, Gilfillian said the following about “Unchained”: “This song is about becoming the best version of yourself no matter what obstacles get in your way. My brother is a prime example of that. He doesn’t let anything hold him back from being his fullest self.”

Another standout track on “Black Hole Rainbow” is “The Good Life,” which Gilfillian described in detail in a feature published in July by Songwriter Universe:

“The song is about how beautiful different people’s skin color is, how beautiful people from a different country are, and people who celebrate a different religion,” Gilfillian said. “It was written out of frustration of [President] Trump building a wall to keep immigrants and Mexican people out. And he was banning Muslims from coming into the country, and I was frustrated at the otherness and the racism that was being created, and I wanted a song to combat that and to say, ‘It’s beautiful that you come from a different country. It’s beautiful that you come from a different religion. And hopefully everyone can see how beautiful that is, because once we do, then we will hopefully fight and destroy racism in this country.’ ”

His take on Marvin’s masterpiece

Social unrest in America — specifically some of 2020’s most despicable events — played a huge part in Gilfillian recording and issuing his second album a mere nine months after his first. It’s a front-to-back remake of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic, “What’s Going On,” with guest singers joining him.

“I literally made this record so that we could get Donald Trump out of the White House,” Gilfillian said with a laugh and smile during a Bringin’ It Backwards video interview in late 2020. “But in all seriousness, you know … this record was all inspired by this year: by George Floyd and Ahmaud Aubrey and Breanna Taylor. I learned ‘What’s Going On’ on acoustic to go out to a protest and broke down crying. … I wanted to gather all the black, brown voices that I knew and lift those voices in this time.”

Aside from Gilfillian’s skills and the quality of his catalog so far, what makes him a musician worth tracking is the way he goes about his business. Gilfillian (who turned 31 on Jan. 10) makes well-crafted music that entertains listeners and addresses issues, thoughtfully singing and talking about what he believes is right and wrong without sounding self-righteous.

“People listen to music for entertainment and to feel good, to get away from problems,” Gilfillian said in an interview published in August on Rewire.com. “And then there’s music to make people look at those problems. I think you can have both.” 

Chris M. Junior, communications coordinator for the AFTNJ, is a longtime music journalist and photographer whose work has been published by the Asbury Park Press, Goldmine magazine and RollingStone.com.

Photo of Devon Gilfillian by Jacqueline Day