Jully Black – R&B Queen Still Reigns  

by Roman Mitz for Open Spaces

Long live the Queen, Jully Black, Canada’s Queen of R&B and Soul.  A true icon, and long-time advocate of female empowerment through her music, spirit and activism, Jully champions important causes and uses her career as a platform to celebrate and inspire greatness. Along the way the multiple Gemini and Juno award winner has yielded multiple singles, achieving Top 10 status on pop, R&B, and dance music charts. Now she’s back with a new record, “Three Rocks And A Slingshot,” and she’s thrilled to be spreading the word over the course of a full album.

“It’s a great feeling, I’m not going to lie,” she says during our recent phone conversation in Toronto. “You don’t realize the value of a full album until you actually do it again. It’s like the single, single, single thing is okay, but it was time to put them together and have a family dinner. The album is all about relationships. It was planned to be the length of a sitcom, which is under 30 minutes. You get right through it and say, wow, I have to listen to that again. I hope people take the time to listen to the lyrics. I’m going to show my age because, greater-later, I used to read album lyrics. I’d open Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album and read along as I listened to it. I’m excited that in places like Spotify and Apple Music you can see the words to the songs now. I think it’s good that people can read the lyrics and see the story we’re trying to tell”.

Jully Black – Half Empty (Official Video)

Jully begins her story with “Half Empty,” in which she belts out the lyrics about a failing relationship over a soulful backbeat. The person in this song comes to the self-realization that the bond between her and her lover has been broken, while the girl in “Fool Fool Gyal” needs a little push.

“Fool Fool Gayl…I love that I’m getting the whole world to speak Jamaican Patois,” she chuckles. “That song has two spins. The first is I’m basically talking to my conscience. My conscience is telling me you’re smarter than that; stop the foolishness and move on with your life. The other aspect is a true story. I grew up with someone who was going through a really bad relationship, and I had to speak to her ex-partner and tell him that she was done with him and to move on. So I’m the voice for the person that’s hurting”. 

The girl in the reggae-infused “No Relation” doesn’t need any assistance in breaking ties with her undeserving partner as she bluntly tells him she’s “putting (his) ass on probation.” The video for the song is extremely expressive, which should come as no surprise given Jully’s serious acting chops.

Jully Black 2022

“I just shot episodes of ‘Pretty Hard Cases’ and ‘Run The Burbs,’ she says. “In 2021, I was on the tv series “The Coroner and I” got nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for “Diggstown.” Because I’d already been a performer with such a vulnerable presence on stage, dwelling in that acting space is really comfortable for me.  I’m comfortable being vulnerable. I also like it because there’s no ageism. Being in the music business, it’s like you’re 19, you’re 20, whereas being able to use my experience to develop characters and show what they’re going through is a perfect fit for me.”  

An actress whom the singer holds in high esteem is Viola Davis, drawing inspiration from the strength it took her to make the film “The Woman King.”  Davis’s journey had a direct influence on the release of Jully’s album.

“I saw that movie twice in one week,” she enthuses. “I heard that it took seven years to get the funding and get the picture made. There was also the challenge of being a darker-pigmented Black woman and most of the cast being darker-pigmented women, and what Viola had to go through in Hollywood and what she still goes through.  People call her the Black Meryl Streep, but she’s not paid as much. I had everything done for this album, the artwork, videos, everything.  I just had to flip the switch, and only fear was stopping me. When I saw the six hours of physical work that Viola and her cast went through on a daily basis, plus memorizing scripts which I can respect as an actress, I said this album has to come out now. I turned into a warrior like the warriors in the film. I became a warrior instead of a worrier.”

The album’s title, “Three Rocks And A Slingshot,” is a reference to the biblical story of David and Goliath in which the diminutive David falls the giant by slinging a stone.  In some circles, the stones that David took with him to face his foe are meant to represent trust, faith and obedience, qualities that God grants us to fight life’s battles. For Jully, the situation is a little more fluid.

Jully Black 2022

“My three rocks change depending on the day,” she explains. “Every day is new. When I was writing the album, I was an independent artist, so it was about resiliency, it was about endurance, and it was about compassion. I was really hard on myself in the past. I remember when I was signed to a major label, and everything was in the public eye, I wasn’t present enough to enjoy it. Being a Black artist in Canada, our journey’s different. It’s like, what’s next? When I was taking care of my mom before she passed away, I realized it was really about what’s now, and I needed to focus on that. It’s about being where my feet are and being present. It’s the most freeing thing, and it has helped create a comfortable space for me.“

One of the album’s key subjects is fearlessness, and it represents an exorcism of sorts as Jully releases a fear of failure that held her captive in the past. Nowhere is this more obvious than in “Mi No Fraid,” a song of defiance that sways to a gorgeous island rhythm. For Jully, this could well be her theme song.

“Absolutely. So many of us are paralyzed by fear. There are people sitting in jobs in careers where they know they have more to offer, but they’re afraid to apply for something else or put their name in for a promotion. I’m using mainly relationships as the focus, but it’s really how we relate to ourselves. Are we allowing fear to stop us from even swinging the bat? I would love it if more people would get comfortable making fools of themselves. Like, don’t worry about it. Don’t take yourself so seriously. There’s no use focusing on the unknown, like failing. What is failure? It’s all perceived. My lowest moment might be someone’s highest, and my highest moment is someone’s lowest.”

Jully tapped a few talented co-writers to help her with the album, including Kareem James, Corte Ellis (Beyonce, Missy Elliot), and her producer Versace P. who was also Jully’s drummer for many years. She’s certainly in line to add to the collection of Juno Awards she has won over the years, and this would follow on the heels of another honour that she received last year when she was inducted into Canada’s prestigious Walk Of Fame.

Jully Black 2022

“The Walk Of Fame was extremely special,” she admits. “I basically played it forward for my parents. They laid the foundation for me, and that’s the road I’ve been walking on. Here I am, a first-generation Canadian, and one of just 200 people ever to have this honour.  It’s really about 360 Jully and what I do for the community, being a humanitarian and an activist. I’m someone who has a voice and is a disrupter, but also someone who’s about gratitude and true love. I’m saying a lot, but I’m also at a loss for words because my mom isn’t here to see it, but I know she’s with me.”

If there’s one outright love song on the album, it’s “I Love It (Bad Boy),” in which Jully croons, “You’ve got your cool ways (to) warm me up.” Jully is a little coy when I ask if the song describes her vision of the perfect guy.  (“Perfectly imperfect, put it that way,” she laughs.) And, based on its lush instrumentation and emotive vocals, you might think that the album closer, “Imaginary Love,” is another love song, but you would be wrong.

“So many people who heard the demo loved the song, saying it’s so beautiful. They said it was a love song, and I said, ‘Are you listening to the lyrics?’ It is not a love song. I was in a relationship for a very long time, but then I started calling it an unrelationship because he was a narcissist. I had no idea. It was all imaginary”.

You have to hope that many of the songs on the album will find their way onto Top 40 radio with their catchy hooks and R&B grooves. These numbers would seem right at home alongside Lizzo at the top of the charts.

“I think my biggest challenge with this album is just to be patient,” Jully explains. “I mean, Lizzo’s been around for ten years. It took a while for her to cultivate her sound and get her team together and for the world to be ready. It was an uphill battle with all the bullying, etcetera, but she’s a brilliant artist. I really believe that my album is going to do great things. I just have to be patient.”

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