Snubbed by Grammy telecast, Ledisi keeps her head up
When Ledisi's name started trending online last month, the reason was either a shame or a blessing, depending on whom you asked. The R&B singer, whose 15-year recording arc has been an organic flow of albums both soulful and simmering, fierce and funky, was suddenly cast as the underdog. She has never been that; her sublime talent as an articulate singer and songwriter has made sure of it.
Ledisi, who was born Ledisi Young in New Orleans, had portrayed gospel great Mahalia Jackson in the recent film "Selma." Her rendition of "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" was a powerful moment, sending shivers down the spine while conveying the song's spirit of uplift.
But when the song was performed at the Grammy Awards in February, Ledisi was not at the microphone. Beyoncé was, and the story of how and why that happened is still muddy. Skeptics claimed the show's producers wanted Beyoncé to do it, while others suggested the platinum-selling pop star herself had masterminded her spot on the telecast.
Whatever the case, the result was undeniable: Ledisi had been undermined, which shocked the nine-time Grammy nominee into realizing a greater truth. Her fans are legion and loyal, and they recognized she was the best and obvious choice to be singing at the Grammys.
The ensuing controversy capped what had been an eventful past year for her. In 2014 she released "The Truth," which captured the singer "feeling my sexy," as she puts it, followed by a sumptuous new EP, "The Intimate Truth," which reimagines some of that album's songs in acoustic soul settings.
Ahead of Thursday's show at the Wilbur Theatre, with fellow R&B sensualists Raheem DeVaughn and Leela James in the opening slots, Ledisi recently reflected on all the unexpected commotion she's been experiencing.
Q. Did you have a sense early on that "Selma" was going to evoke such a powerful response?
A. I did. You could feel the energy on set. You knew it was spiritual and bigger than all of us. We were portraying things that had already happened. And it was parallel to what was going on in our world today. When I put on my costume as Mahalia Jackson, I immediately saw that it was no longer about me. I cried. Even if the film won Oscars or it didn't or if I didn't sing the song [on the Grammys], it didn't matter. What mattered was that people were still so passionate about it. Everyday people loved and possessed that film.
Q. What was your initial reaction to playing Mahalia?
A. I was freaking out. Here's Mahalia, the greatest gospel singer of all time. When I started to study her — where she was from, how she walked, how she talked, how she never recorded secular music — I realized we had a lot of similarities. We both stood our ground. I stand my ground on mixing up my music; she stood her ground on not mixing up her music. Child, when I put my costume on, I realized I was right where I was supposed to be. And it was the greatest feeling in the world.
Q. You were gracious in your remarks about not being invited to perform at the Grammys, but were you surprised by how it all played out?
A. Everyone was upset. I wasn't upset, but I just wish I had known a little sooner so that I could have told my mother. I didn't care about the political part of it. I just wanted to tell my mom ahead of time. What I was more surprised about was the response from the people. That blew me away. I didn't know I had that huge of a fan base. I was grateful for every part of it, that it brought attention to R&B, to "Precious Lord," to me. I'm not going to lie, at first I was like, "Oh, no. How come I'm not singing it?" But it wasn't my time. They asked Beyoncé, or Beyoncé chose to do it. So I had to let that go, and once I did, I woke up to everyone else not letting that go. (Laughs.) It was crazy.
Q. What were some of your early ideas for what you wanted "The Truth" to sound like?
A. I was going through a big breakup, but I didn't want to sing sappy love songs because I didn't feel sappy and depressed. I felt excited about the new lease on my life, the transformation. I was taking dance lessons and feeling myself a lot more, and feeling my sexy. In my body of work, you'll notice that I've moved naturally. It's my life. So "The Truth" is exactly what I wanted it to be.
Q. In 2009 you made a rock-oriented album called "Turn Me Loose." Was that title a reaction to feeling boxed in by expectations?
A. That's exactly what it was. I got tired of being boxed. Let me set the tone. I started the way I started because I had to make a living. That doesn't mean that's all I am. With every album I've been showing more and more of myself. And that's what "Turn Me Loose" was a statement of. People will always love you for what they think you should be. But as an artist, you can't get caught up in that. I love leaving behind some people and catching some new people. And the people you leave behind still love you for what you were before. They'll catch up on another album.