Ledisi: Loving Every Piece of Herself
I arrived early and waited at photographer Keith Major’s studio in NYC’s Chinatown for the powerful vocalist Ledisi to arrive. Major’s spot is eclectic and holds a wealth of vintage memorabilia that transported me back to a time when soul singing was the rule. I was especially enamored by the music collection he had on display, including vinyl versions of some of the ageless classics that now provide the foundation of today’s music — Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight — the works.
Major threw on a couple of classic dusties to set the tone for the shoot, while I began flipping through an album of amazing photos he’s collected from previous shoots. There was Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Usher, Serena Williams … all the A-list celebrities he’s captured. So, with his firm grasp on “real music,” and a solid track record of photographing the upper echelon of entertainment, I had no doubt Ledisi was in good hands.
At the sound of the buzzer, Major’s assistant slid the huge steel door back. In walked our muse for the day, but more like a sleepwalker. It was like when you were a child, and your mom woke you up extra early to get you ready and rushed you off to the sitter’s without really opening your eyes. You headed straight to the nearest soft spot when you arrived to pick up where you left off with your Z’s.
Ledisi did exactly that, literally. Directed by Major, who immediately recognized her mission, she curled up on his blue, old-school, terrycloth love seat. “It’s the most comfortable spot in the place,” he told her compassionately.
According to her handlers, the usually effervescent songbird had been up since 6 a.m. singing. “She gave a great performance this morning. She was hitting all the notes, effortlessly,” her publicist said. I guess giving your all and being “on” as she was so early in the morning deserved a power nap. Within minutes, though, her team summoned her to begin the makeup process. Without a fight, she unfurled from her human knot and obliged.
After Ledisi’s “face” was on and her Afrocentric “hawk” was neat and erect, she came alive, buoyed in part by the sounds of Nuyorican Soul, Bill Withers, and, appropriately, Bilal’s “Soul Sista” oozing out of Major’s speakers.
“Party over Keith’s,” she shouted, effortlessly slipping into that gift of a big voice that’s “made room for her” thus far. It was as if the sun came up in the windowless studio. She danced over, reintroduced herself, then gave me a big hug before bouncing back to the area where several outfits were waiting for her. “Thank you for having me,” she said as she began rifling through the wardrobe her stylist, Billie Causieestko, had handpicked for her.
We wanted to demonstrate the different “pieces” of Ledisi at the shoot, so she was presented with choices ranging from sexy to playful to regal.
“I’m so hood!” she playfully shouted. “I’m willing to try anything to see if it will work.”
Her first look ended up being a black, figure-flattering dress. There’s already something alluring and powerful about the spirit of a black woman, and that dress framed those attributes in Ledisi perfectly. If she never opened her mouth to sing a note, her aura as she wore it would’ve nearly blown your hair back.
Then there’s the voice. It actually deserves its own cover story, but her look and her voice are a package deal.
Ledisi Anibade Young, her first name meaning “to bring forth,” has been described as bubbly and down-to-earth, and it fits her to a T. Her presence brings forth warmth and comfort. She kept interacting throughout the course of the shoot like she’s that self-aware cousin that keeps the family laughing and creates synergy.
“I’ve embraced my natural self, natural hair, natural image, and people have embraced me because of that, not only musically,” she said referring to her image. “I’ve been told for so long to be something I’m not, and I’ve forced myself to show that there’s beauty in just being who you are. And this is who I am. It’s not anything fake. It’s real. I’m an edgy, fun, vibrant person. You see that on the outside, but you also feel it in my music.”
Music is Ledisi’s weapon of choice when it comes to self-expression and getting her message across. She loves to do it, and she loves to do it for people.
“I love people, and you have to love people to do what I do,” she said. “I love teaching men how to love women. I think that’s what my music does. There are things that a woman may not say, and I say it for them,” Ledisi explained. “I cater to women because I’m a woman. I can only speak from a woman’s perspective and hope that the man hears it. Intimacy is so important.”
The next time the songstress walked out of the dressing area, she was in a regal, high-collared dress that complemented her swagger perfectly. To me, she’s always carried herself like a proud, self-assured black sister who’s in touch with her roots of royalty, but possesses just enough humility to endear her to the fans.
“I’ve grown in a way that I’m more confident, and I have my own style that I haven’t really changed over the years. I’ve just become more feminine and soft … still aggressive vocally, but I’m enjoying the ride. My popularity has grown a lot more. I’m enjoying this. I’m having fun. I can’t believe you guys are here [for a cover shoot],” she said.
Why would we not want a cover shoot?
Ledisi has been consistently entertaining us since her underground debut in ‘00 with Soulsinger: The Revival, representing the soul that we’ve all but lost. Along with several subsequent albums, four Grammy nominations and a Soul Train Award nod, she’s been that go-to girl for tributes and awards shows where the best and the brightest have been celebrated. Why? Because she can handle it.
So, if she’s good enough to pay tribute to some of the best, at some point, we have to stop and recognize that she’s one of them. You saw the “Four Women” performance that she was a part of in the aptly titled Black Girls Rock awards show — along with Kelly Price, Jill Scott and Marsha Ambrosius, Ledisi’s pipes and poise sent chills through the auditorium and the airwaves. The performance rocked, and she rocks.
“Other women and knowing that the world is bigger than I am inspire me,” she said. “You have to have faith, and the universe will conspire itself to do what you ask it to do. So, be yourself, and your true authentic self will shine through. People will get it. If you have three people on your side, hey, that’s a start. Hang on to those three people. The only way my career has sustained itself after all these years is the people and word of mouth.”
Ledisi is indeed an artist and musician, not just a hired voice. She was professionally trained in opera and piano at the University of California Berkeley, but when she set out to make music and hoped to sign with a major label, doors were shut in her face. So, she started the indie label, LeSun Records, and distributed her own music. Eventually, Ledisi got her big break with Verve Forecast, once she demonstrated just how much of a talented professional she is.
“Before I signed a major label deal, I was indie for a long time. So, I must have creative control over what I put out there and, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a mainstream artist. My label has been real good about that. They’ve left me alone. I know my audience better than anyone else. I’ve been a free bird — the hair, the style and everything else,” she declares.
And she has another chance to demonstrate that creative freedom … on her sixth album, which was released on June 14, 2011, by Verve Forecast.
“I’m coming out with a sixth CD, Pieces of Me. I have worked with a lot of people on this CD — Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis … John Legend wrote a song for me; I worked with Chuck Harmony [Fantasia], Bob Kelly [Brittany Spears] and Rex Rideout. He and I are executive producers on this latest CD. I have a duet with Jaheim on the next album. I’m bringing back R&B … I’m adding to R&B. Somebody has to sing it. So, I’m excited about that,” she says.
Ledisi is edgy and unique; confident and bold; sensual and inviting; fun and silly, which the third wardrobe change brings out; and human and vulnerable. All those pieces put together make her a real and whole woman … and one hell of a soul singer. It’s obvious — she’s all about rockin’ the skin she’s in.