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Ledisi Talks Being Black in the Music Industry, Soul Music & Returning to Her Indie Roots

Longtime Ledisi fans will recall that the singer-songwriter made her first major splash in 2000 with indie album Soulsinger: The Revival. From there she signed with Verve Records in 2007, racking up R&B hits such as “Pieces of Me,” “I Blame You” and “All the Way” as well as 12 Grammy nominations.

Three years after releasing her last album, Let Love Rule, Ledisi is back with the No. 2 Adult R&B Songs hit “Anything for You” and new album The Wild Card, whose producers include Robert Glasper and Rex Rideout. She’s also waving the indie flag once again with the BMG-distributed Listen Back label.

In the following op-ed she penned for Billboard, Ledisi — who most recently portrayed Patti LaBelle in the BET series American Soul — reflects on the challenges of being Black in the music and entertainment industry, how soul music is the best salve for young and old and why going independent the second time around “has turned out to be the best decision” of her career.

When I started as an independent artist in 1999, everyone was signed to major labels and the Internet wasn’t a thing yet. To promote my projects, I only had word of mouth. I grinded. I passed out flyers on the weekends, mailed and emailed flyers to my fans while they told others about my music and my shows. I began making a name for myself because of my weekly live sold-out shows in small dives. I learned a career is built fan by fan. Amazingly, I was able to sell tens of thousands of records on my own.

Now after being signed to a major label for more than 10 years, here I am independent again. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. But it has turned out to be the best decision of my career. It’s different now because today you can post something and reach a million people instantly. You don’t have to guess what your fans want and don’t want. They will let you know right there on the spot. Also, as an indie I have more freedom in how I release my music and imagery. I’m learning so much, especially about streaming, algorithms and terms that sound more like math than music. It’s even more challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic. But we’re all figuring it out.

Because soul music caters predominantly to an older demographic, it’s called “grown folks’ music.” But here’s the truth. At my shows and online, I see a younger audience, especially females in their mid-to-late 30s, that loves this music. I’ve also learned that no matter what, my voice will always sell my product. That my music will always find its way to the right listeners — no matter how young or old they are. Classic, nostalgic, heartfelt music never goes away. It’s the first thing we gravitated toward during the pandemic when D-Nice started Club Quarantine. It was soul music that brightened the months ahead.

This generation deserves to have soul music as an option along with all the other tapestry of music that exists. I want people to support and recognize classic Black music like we do every other genre and stop changing its name to fit demographics. Call it what it is … soul music. Coming from New Orleans and Oakland, I was taught to never let the world define me. My culture is soul music: We are multiple genres all rolled into one.

Along with the industry challenges that I’ve faced, racism and colorism have always existed throughout my journey in the entertainment business — no matter how free we love to make things seem. The color of my skin and my looks are still a hurdle to jump over in good old Hollywood. I’ve even been a size 8 and it still didn’t matter. I was still too Black or too ethnic for some people. Yet I’ve seen those same people wear the same looks, the same hairstyles and the words exotic and risqué are used to describe them.

Thankfully, what’s acceptable and desirable is changing such as wearing locs or Afros and recording protest songs about race. I’ve been doing all that for over a decade even when it may not have been in style.

It gets frustrating. There’s a fine line between being grateful for my success and many blessings, while being real about the pain and challenges. However, it’s all made me a better artist and person. My devoted fan base has kept me here. Never fitting in has made me stronger and given me reason to have more compassion.

Do I wish the industry I love also loved me back all the way? Of course. I just want to receive my flowers now before I’m gone like most artists in my genre. While so many of our legends are still waiting to be seen, appreciated and loved for the roads they paved, I’ll keep singing to help keep soul music alive and relevant.

I have a lot more work to do and so much more to learn. There’s always been a small window for Black women, which gives me the responsibility to forge ahead and open that window wider. Every day I tell myself I’m beautiful because every day the world says something different. But I know who and what I am. This new independence inspires me to let more people see how much I have to offer. I promise they haven’t seen the best of me yet. I’m just getting started!

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