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Dot and all, India's still hometown girl

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There's nothing like seeing one of your girls finally make the big time. OK, technically speaking, India.Arie isn't one of my girls. We never hung out at the Yin Yang or went on shopping binges at Lenox. Before she landed the record deal that led to her becoming a Gap girl, I'd only seen her perform once, at a Chocolate Soul event five years ago.

Back then, she was just India, a kid with a cute Afro-puff who played a guitar that looked too heavy for her. She belted out songs about her life, her mom getting sick and going to school in Savannah. In between, she talked too much. Her set dragged a bit too long. All the same, she displayed such raw sincerity and talent, you couldn't help wishing this youngster well.

That's why today I'm cheering India's new stardom like we're best friends. Acoustic Soul cut down the paint-by-numbers R&B-pop that's sullying the charts these days, proving that artistry and honesty can sell. "I'm not the average girl from your video," India strums unapologetically. "And I ain't built like a supermodel/But I learned to love myself unconditionally/Because I am a queen." Sing it, girl, we know.

Apparently radio and the media got it too. Acoustic Soul, a folk/R&B/hip-hop confection, wound up in heavy rotation. Meantime, India ended up everywhere: MTV, "Soul Train," CNN, NPR, the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting ceremony. And, yes, splashed across the Gap's latest celebrity ad.

Success tends to change people -- heck, she's India-dot-Arie now, thank you very much. But judging from some of her recent stage shows, she hasn't changed much. Whether it was before small crowds in the West End or in front of the masses at Philips Arena, where she opened for Sade, India.Arie seemed a lot like India five years ago.

Sure, she's got locks now and wields her guitar confidently in front of a full band. Her mom is no longer just a topic; she also sings with her onstage. But India still has the gift of gab. And her performance remains a little unpolished, very down to Earth. Just like I've always known her to be.

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