Jessy Wilson on ‘The Woman Kin’s “Keep Rising” and Her Rich Music Career: NPR
The female king — by director Gina Prince-Blythewood historical epic starring Viola Davis about a powerful army of West African female warriors protecting their kingdom – is only the second film with a black female director to open at number one at the box office. The film’s fame means millions have had the chance to hear the song playing over the closing credits, but what has received far less attention is the story of a heartbreaking triumph tied to that fearless pop anthem, “Keep Rising.”
Jessy Wilson wrote and recorded it with producer Jeremy Lutito in the studio behind her East Nashville, Tennessee home during the summer of 2020. She barely touched a microphone after that, quickly drifting away from writing of songs. What brought her back one day in early October to that same small studio — and to the music — was the chance to truly embrace the song’s role in a powerful movie. With no label budget behind her, she had decided to create a royally deliberate acoustic version for a simple, live music video. “After all this time, I hope I’m like a pro, it’s like riding a bike,” Wilson explained after arriving at the scene and packing up her bag.
She certainly seemed in her element that day on set, not only the lead performer who knew her instrument and how to apply it to the supple insistence of the verses and the more fiery exhortation of the chorus, but the one leading the arrangement of the accompanying vocal trio. , too. Once she got the vocal takes she was looking for, finished lip-syncing for the videographers, and sat on the same couch where she came up with “Keep Rising,” she was a compelling storyteller.
The decision to briefly give up music was a big one for Wilson. She’s not a fan. By age 8, she had already convinced her mother and an agent that she had the vocal ability, stage presence, and motivation to start auditioning for off-Broadway roles. During his participation in LaGuardia, the Notoriety-famous performing arts high school in Manhattan, she lied about her age to land a regular gig at a coffee shop. “They all thought it was weird,” she recalled, “like, ‘Why does she come with her mom every weekend?’ Eventually I told them the truth, but for a while I just told them I was a student at NYU, because I really wanted that experience.”
She was hungry to learn the studio side of her craft when john legend hired her as a backup singer right out of high school. “I think I had only sung with him for about four weeks. And I said, ‘Can I come with you to the studio, please? I’ll be a fly on the wall. I won’t do no noise. . I just want to come,” Wilson said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ “
It’s Wilson who provides resplendent, cooing echoes on Legend’s bossa nova-tinged 2006 track “MaxineShe branched out into songwriting with his encouragement, eventually providing cuts to other major R&B stars. Wilson thought she might become one of them herself, but didn’t. kept coming up against colorism in the industry: “Being a dark-skinned black woman, you know, being told it’s not marketable, being told it’s not worldwide, being told that no one could really relate to me because of my complexion.”
“It was a very new concept for me, because back home, my mom and dad taught me to love my complexion, to love my Darkness, to love my features that look like African features,” he said. she continued. “It was a rude awakening when I realized that wasn’t the world’s view and that somehow black people are true victims of white supremacy in terms of how we see ourselves, even in the mirror. When you have so much inside of you, it is very painful too, because you are waiting for someone to give you that [professional] down, and you expect someone to see you that way [as an artist].”
After accompanying Legend to Nashville on a songwriting expedition, Wilson decided to give the city a try, moving in 2013. In songwriting circles, Wilson was introduced to his white musical partner Kallie North and to their soulful roots rock duo. muddy magnolias was a revelation for an adjacent country scene that made more room for black music radiation than black music-manufacturers. “These first two months of life here,” Wilson said, “I walked around Music Row over and over, and said, ‘God make me a pioneer.'”
With Muddy Magnolias, Wilson finally landed the recording contract she was working for, a success that she said was twofold. “The [vocal] mix was second to none. It does something to the heart when you see a black girl and a white girl up there singing in harmony, what it means to the spirit,” Wilson said. “But also, you have to think about the business side. It wasn’t a gimmick for us, but I think the industry found it easy to remember.”
Country singer-songwriter Brittney Spencer took note of the mark left by her black predecessor when she was an employee of a health food store that regularly filled Wilson’s juice orders, and the recently called to tell him. “I think the opportunities that a lot of artists like me can get right now is because little by little people have been sowing seeds,” Spencer observed in a separate interview. “And even though this space wasn’t necessarily ready five, seven years ago, man, I was there and I looked at it and I didn’t forget.”
When Muddy Magnolias broke up, Wilson began to find his voice as a solo artist on the sensually sophisticated and atmospheric side of rock and soul with the Patrick Carney-produced album. Phase. She wanted to complicate the perception of her as “just that big singer.” “Phase gave me an opportunity to shut up,” Wilson said. “People underestimate the power of being silent. I made an intentional decision never to open my voice beyond a certain place on my album, because I had sung all my life and wanted to hear the intricacies of my voice on record. … I wanted people to hear what I had to say.”
Around the same time, Tyler the Creator found Wilson on social media, urging him to sing on his album IGO; he hadn’t been able to get his voice out of his head since he’d heard it escape from “Maxine”. But those professional landmarks gave way to a series of personal losses. Wilson’s beloved grandmother passed away and his father, a New York City healthcare worker, barely survived COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. Then she and her husband lost a pregnancy.
“Unfortunately after four months we lost our child,” Wilson said. “I felt like I was in a hole. I kept looking for things to hold on to, but nothing was pulling me out. It’s hard to even really communicate or even think about those times, because desperation was just…” She trailed off, unable to find sufficient words.
In her aggravated grief, it became difficult for Wilson to deliver the songs she owed to her publisher. One of them she submitted was “Keep Rising”. “When I wrote the song, I was talking to black people,” she explained. “There’s a part of the lyrics that I also talk about myself: ‘I’ve been walking for so long. How far is it to get to where we’re going?’ Like, how long do we have to wait in America? How long does Jessy have to wait? When will we be considered enough? When will I be considered enough?
At the time, Wilson didn’t have much hope of anything coming out of this song, or any of the others she wrote. She lost her publishing contract in early 2021 and turned to visual art. But on what would have been her baby’s due date in 2022, she received some big news. The director of The female kingPrince-Bythewood, had originally considered Terence BlanchardThe entire film’s soundtrack score, but her search for the right music to transport the audience away from the closing scene had led her to “Keep Rising.”
Sent out a collection of unreleased tracks to listen to, Prince-Bythewood found in Wilson “exactly what I wanted audiences to feel. It gets you up and moving. It felt like it was written for the movie.”
“One of the things that excites me the most,” she added, “is that I love hearing Jessy’s story and who she is as an artist, where she was at the when that call came in. I love that we have the power to uplift artists who deserve it. And Jessy, her voice, the depth that she brings to her work, absolutely deserves this opportunity.
Prince-Bythewood asked Wilson to adapt two lyrics to the period of the film and accept a feature from the legendary singer Angelique Kidjo, originally from the region where the film is set, then known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. “She’s the First Lady of Benin, basically,” notes the director, “so important to empowering girls in Africa, an incredible activist. I wanted her voice and I kind of wanted to bridge the gap, America and Africa.”
Wilson didn’t mind making these adjustments at all. “I feel so connected to the intent of their mission for what they want this film to accomplish in our industries,” she said with serene conviction. “I want to see more opportunities for women who have a message, who are dark skinned. And so if I can somehow open doors, then I feel like I can cling to that, the possibility of that, because my new purpose.”