Powerhouse R&B singer-songwriter Ledisi, whose name means “to bring forth” in Yoruba, is one of the most gifted voices of our time, continuing to release music with no signs of slowing down. The 12 time Grammy-nominated artist recently released a refreshing, modern take on the hit “Be Real Black for Me” in collaboration with artist Brian Courtney Wilson, a song originally sung by Donnie Hathaway and Roberta Flack. The track, an expression of beauty and unabashed celebration of Black love, appears on Wilson’s new album Still (Deluxe).
She’s gearing up to release a new album entitled “Ledisi Sings Nina”, paying homage to American singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, on July 23rd on her record label, Listen Back Entertainment with BMG. She also achieved two incredible milestones this year: earning her first Grammy for Best Traditional R&B song for the single “Anything For You” and scoring her first #1 Billboard Chart hit for that song. In addition to this, she recently finished filming a starring role in the film Mahalia, based on the life of American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Ledisi is also set to appear today on the Recording Academy x EBONY’s Black Music Collective Podcast, a series that dives into the stories of several members of the Recording Academy’s Black Music Collective to discuss her journey in music and staying true to herself as an artist. The partnership between Ebony and the Recording Academy seeks to honor Black music month and “share these powerful discussions that elevate Black music creators within the music community and continue to inspire a new generation of talent.”
Wilson, a gospel and contemporary Christian music singer who’s known for consistently bringing together the sounds of gospel, R&B, and soul in his work, fifth album Still “artfully navigates the spaces between fact and faith” and “acknowledges anxiety , frustration, and fear, inevitably compounded by current events, through a lens of hope.” He has received nominations for numerous awards, including a Billboard award, and has been called the “one of our time’s premier male inspirational voices.”
The legendary songstress and Wilson sat down with EBONY to discuss their collaboration together, the powerhouse vocalist’s new album, and the power of honoring those you admire in music.
EBONY: How did the idea to collaborate on a new version of “Be Real Black For Me” come about?
Brian Wilson: I have loved the voice, music, and vibe of Donnie Hathaway since being introduced to his music in college. His duets with Roberta Flack only added to my fascination with “Be Real Black For Me” becoming an all time favorite. After connecting with our sister, Ledisi, I continued to stay in touch and the timing seemed right to re-record this classic. I’m so glad she said yes to helping me honor these two iconic figures from our musical landscape and culture.
Ledisi: Brian called and asked me, “Did I know the song, ‘Be Real Black For Me’ by Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway?” and I said ‘No, I haven’t heard that song, but that sounds good.’ So, when I looked it up, he said ‘I would love for us to do a duet’ and make it more modern but not really change too much of it. I listened to it and I loved it. Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway are legends. Of course, I said yes, but I also asked him if he was sure with doing it because his audience isn’t like my audience., and he said he was fine. I love what Brian and I did and I love that we’re still ourselves. Musically, it’s a little different and it’s this era. Now, I can go to both and love them both.
Celebrating Black love is so important. How does the tune fit into today’s political climate?
Ledisi: It was Black Music Month when it came out and it was fitting for the energy of that and just celebrating who we are. The way his label puts it out is beautiful. Black Music Month is my whole life, so I don’t look at it as how does this fit in the times we’re in because the time is always good for Black love and for love, period. It’s a perfect celebration of that at any time. I just think it was so radical just for him on his part to be a part of it publicly expressing that love and the response has been so good on both sides.
Ledisi, you’ve achieved multiple milestones this year. Tell me about how that made you feel.
Ledisi: In the most chaotic year ever in 2020, when I released “Anything For You” in April 2020, I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid and thought maybe this is the wrong time to put out something, but then reminded myself that people will always need music. With a song like “Anything For You,” and “Wildcard,” which comes out on at the end of August—which is an historic day when you look up that date—everything is about timing and the timing of all of that played a big part because my plans were different. All of our plans were different [laughs]. It all made sense towards the end and into the next year. The way that song kept climbing up—it never went up and down. It was climbing and I watched it move slowly and steadily in a beautiful way, the same with the album. To get a Grammy nomination on the same day that I was recording my Live at the Troubadour….(I wish people knew of the behind the scenes. It’s like when it’s your time, it really is the time. When you make room for that and just go with the flow and don’t question it and keep doing good work, it all goes together. It’s been a ride.)
When I won the award, I was already proud of not only myself and my team but proud of the journey. I didn’t force anything. It all went how it’s supposed to go and it keeps doing that. I’m just trying to catch up with sleep. I can’t wait until August comes around and I can take a break. I’m having a blast and I’m so grateful for the ride. People needed the song and that’s why it went to #1. The Grammy win was the icing on the cake. I wasn’t expecting that at all. My Momma was like ‘It’s about damn time.’ (laughs) To be honest, I was happier with the fact that I won it on my own label. That stuff really makes me happy, my legacy. The win was extra. It was like God saying ‘Yep, here’s where you belong.’ I was like ‘ I l already knew that, but I’m waiting for everyone else to catch up.’ And I think we’re all caught up.
You’re releasing a new album in July, inspired by Nina Simone’s activist stance. What stood out to you about Nina Simone and made you want to make this album?
Ledisi: I wanted to celebrate a beautiful Black woman by showing her listeners, her fanbase, and her family, whoever will listen, what she meant to me as another Black woman in this era and extend that love sonically, through music. I don’t know if I punctuated her activism part as that’s the part everyone knows about her. For me, I feel like on this project there’s a longing, happiness, and joy. There’s a combination of both that I wanted to express to show people that love part of her. We always see the activist part. We use her words and her presence to put an exclamation mark on that and that’s a beautiful thing. For me, what I gravitated towards her for is that longing, that little girl that wanted to be accepted for whatever she was, whether it was the classical pianist or the blues part of her, or the jazz part, or whatever , just the whole Black woman. While I’m honoring her, I’m also bringing that to the forefront for my little sisters to see that I’m more than one thing. The world tells us to be one way so much, but we’re more. It’s about sustaining and honoring the beauty that you are all the way. Black is beautiful. It sounds so simple, but it’s true.
What attracted you to the role of Mahalia Jackson and how do you relate to her?
Ledisi: Mahalia Jackson is originally from New Orleans and I have a picture of her next to a picture of my mom and Nina on my inspiration wall that I have by my Rhodes piano. She’s a huge part of my world because not only was she a big part of my introduction to the screen world in a big way with ‘Selma’ but she was also a rebel. She was criticized for being too wild when she praised her God and sang her songs and that same energy made her who she is. When I was able to tribute her in film, every time I did a feature, also called ‘Remember Me’ , of her full life, I always wanted to make sure I wasn’t trying to be her, but be the best of myself within that. I loved telling her story. It was amazing. It helped me grow. It’s funny, when you honor those before you and you give -that’s a selfless giving- when you honor others within your own craft you’re actually saying thank you but you’re also touching on memories because people want the same original version and they shouldn’t expect that when you’re not that artist. I’ll never be Mahaila. I’ll never be Nina. I’ll always be Ledisi. They shouldn’t expect another version of a classic all the time.
You’re going to be on the Black Music Collective podcast next month. What are you most excited to talk about regarding your journey in music?
Ledisi: We already did the recording and it was great. I just love MC Lyte and I love her questions and the honesty of Black music. I’m honored to be part of the conversation because sometimes you don’t know if you’re adding to the conversation or if people even see you. To be seen as an artist is really great, but to know that your work is part of the conversation, part of people’s lives, means more than anything. I love that we had that conversation about why people love my music and I keep telling her I love being this kind of storyteller that can be a storyteller in any genre and especially be part of the lead in Black music of today or yesterday honoring it.
You’re going on tour in August. What can fans look forward to?
Ledisi: I’m so focused on the Nina Hollywood Bowl show , the Nina San Diego show with the orchestra, and Newport Jazz Festival (it’s my first time back at Newport in 18 years) that I haven’t even thought about the tour. But I do know for a fact that I’m excited to see my fans again. I’m excited to sing this music with an audience. I might sing too much and be like ‘Calm down.’ I cannot wait to see my fanbase. I love the artists that are on the road with me. They’re incredible individuals who do free R&B, that’s what I call it where they’re just being themselves.’The Wildcard’ is a perfect name for what the audience will experience. I’ll be singing everything from my catalog to show my full range and my full evolution thus far. There’s still so much I can’t wait to show. For now, just seeing the audience is enough for me, that microphone, a band, and the audience, the good ol’ fashioned way, not this virtual stuff. I wanna hear the clapping. I’m looking forward to all of that.
Be sure to catch more from Ledisi in her exclusive conversation with MC Lyte on tonight’s Recording Academy x EBONY Black Music Collective Podcast, airing at 5pm PST / 8pm EST here on EBONY.com.