By Edwin Buggage
The True Essence of Beauty
The late great Maya Angelou wrote a poem called Phenomenal Woman about embracing and defining beauty beyond the eye, but the depth of the soul is what true beauty is. Ledisi is the Essence of Phenomenal womanhood, with 12 Grammy nominations, her talent is limitless, and her style, grace, and beauty are impeccable. Over her two decades career, Ledisi has come to redefine the industry with her brand of girl power as she embodies the spirit of many greats who have come before her. On this day I am meeting her as she prepares to perform a Nina Simone Retrospective with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
I have known and followed Ledisi’s career for many years; seeing her grind and now with her ninth studio album “Let Love Rule” climbing the charts she has come a long way and shining as bright as her luminous smile is on this day when we meet. She is sitting in a restaurant dressed casually in a black t-shirt and shorts; she is a chocolate skinned delight; ebullient, effervescent and engaging as we began to talk about her life and career.
She is relaxed and glad to be back to the City of her birth, “It feels good to be home, it just feels natural and it’s just what I need right now,” she says of her time in the Big Easy. “I’m just loving coming home and seeing my family and friends; I also love it when I am playing with musicians here, I do not have to explain a feeling they just get it. It is that soulful thing; it is like a comfortable chair you sit in. It is something spiritual that connects people in New Orleans and I love it.”
Offstage, Ledisi is undoubtedly confident but comes off as a bit shy like a cute chocolate girl next door; very soft-spoken, sweet and humble. But once she hits the stage during one of her own shows or as Nina Simone on this recent night in New Orleans, she transforms into something amazing and indescribable. She has a je ne sais quoi, that’s captivating to watch as she morphs into a sexy, empowered, confident diva, with a voice and presence that leaves one spellbound.
In addition to singing the songs of Nina Simone, she played Mahalia Jackson in the movie “Selma” speaking of her approach to the performance she says, “Doing Nina takes over your whole being and your soul. You cannot fake that kind of singing and then you have to get those words out. Studying, preparing, studying her phrasing, but I am me at the same time. I have to be me, but I have to carry over the tradition with what her singing was about. Her stance on the political side, love side and being Black side all of it, so I wanted to make sure we encompassed all that when we did the show; so, preparing is basically understanding who she is, but also how did she relate to me.”
Ledisi has traveled across the globe winning legions of fans that include musical greats Prince, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Patti Labelle and many others. But one of her biggest fans is the Obamas, who during their time in the Oval Office invited Ledisi to perform at the White House eight times. Speaking about what it was like to be part of such a historical time and getting to meet and know the former first couple she says, “Being part of their journey has been profound. I didn’t have a chance to look at it until now. Because when you’re in it and you’re going wow I am singing for the first African-American President and First Lady’s Birthday or I am singing at the Inauguration before the Inauguration at the church,” she says with excitement ringing in her voice. “They invited me to come and speak to kids, to campaign for President Obama and now I am looking at that and thinking wow I was part of history. I was part of a change in our culture a change in how we see things, so that blew me away. Today I am looking at it and looking at the pictures and saying that really happened. It’s funny thinking back about our conversations that would be about music; it was like talking to your aunt or uncle or talking to one of your good friends about just life and being a woman, the world, politics. They are regular people who love the world, but just happen to be two the most famous people in the world. And they make you forget that and that is what I enjoyed.”
A Voice that Empowers
Ledisi has had a multifaceted career as a recording artist, actress and most recently an author in the book, “Essence Presents Ledisi…Better Than Alright: Finding Peace, Love and Power” that explores the inner depths of her life that is now impacting others, “I am grateful that people have always embraced me for being me. That first began with me being from New Orleans where we were taught we can do anything we put our minds to. My mom said, ‘you can be whatever you want to be; you don’t have to choose one thing whatever the job entails you are going to get work.’ The people embracing me and wanting to hear from me that blew me away that people wanted to hear me beyond singing. Now I can write and empower other women, and I realize that I was just doing that being myself.”
Most recently, the Me Too Movement has given voice to women who have suffered abuse and harassment at the hands of men. It has been a rallying cry empowering women and, in some cases, causing men to speak out. Ledisi has been on the frontlines before the movement through her music and her life empowering and inspiring with her amazing gift. “I was abused when I was younger and calling it out was brave, but we should always call out things that hurt us and say that hurt me,” she says with a tone of a triumphant survivor. “And at first I was afraid then I realized there were others like me I am doing the right thing. Also, it wasn’t just women it was men too and people of different races and I was like wow, so me telling my story in my book writing it out was scary. I let my mom read it first and saw if she was ok and she was fine with it. She said to call it out, other women gave me courage, other men, my fan base gave me the courage to call it out. I think it’s great we are finally talking about it the Me Too Movement. But you know what, the problem of abuse it’s always been in our community, but we swept it under the rug, but now it’s time to talk about it and it’s good. I hope we have some action behind bringing it up and making it an issue.”
Embracing your True Beauty
When one comes to a Ledisi’s show, it is beautiful to see people of all shapes sizes and hues embrace their natural selves. In her years in the industry, she has become an icon and sex symbol that many women mimic and copy. You can see at her shows, sisters with well-coiffed locks walking with confidence and sassiness as Ledisi chimes many of her hits that includes her showstopper “Pieces of Me” where she encourages the audience to embrace their natural selves and love who they are. “The goal is to make sure women understand their power and men too. To express to the women what men, like, they don’t want you to play the same sad movie. They want you to be confident and embrace yourself. Just how you got that man that is what will keep him by embracing who you are. You have to love yourself as you are and that is what my life and my career has been about, and I am glad I have been able to inspire people along the way.”