Given the always-precarious state of homo acceptance these days, it’s good to know that straight girls like Jully Black have got our backs. The red-hot diva, long known for her outspoken support of the queerer sex, plans to shout out her love for the gays as part of DJ Blackcat’s Pretty In Pink Pride party on Sat, Jun 24.
“I always want to be involved in Pride,” says Black. “I have a lot of gay friends, and I lost one of my best friends to HIV/AIDS in 1999. I feel like he’s there on my shoulder saying, ‘That’s it, girl, represent!'”
Toronto’s hip-hop R’n’B princess plans to belt out some intensely personal music from her recent album, This Is Me, and hopes her message of hope and perseverance will touch a sympathetic chord with her gay audience — while maybe giving her straight fans something to think about.
“I’m in the urban scene, but for some reason there’s a segregation between straight and gay. I want my fans to know that I’m about people, period. People cut us, we all bleed red.”
Black’s empathy for social struggle is more than just lip service. Our girl came from some pretty bleak beginnings, raised by a super-mom who emigrated from Jamaica with little more than the clothes on her back and hope for a better life.
Eleven years of hard work caring single-handedly for nine children left the senior Black with a resolutely positive outlook on achievement and determination, and she passed on those lessons to her youngest child.
“My mom brought her kids one by one,” says Black, quietly. “She saved her money, got a visa for one kid, then got a visa for another kid. She did it all herself.”
Sadly, tragedy was also a frequent companion in those early days: Black’s twin brother died after only one day of life, and her sister Colleen passed away from liver failure in 1971.
“I’ve had a rough life,” Black says without any trace of self-pity. “People just see the end result, they don’t realize there’s a whole story behind it.”
Tracks like “I’ve Travelled” showcase that story, as Black’s silky alto soars with a powerfully personal message of struggle and survival. Shades of Mary J Blige hover over the soul-searching scorcher “I Know,” one of the most impressive and emotionally raw tracks on the album.
But lest we forget, Black knows how to throw down the party beats like any hometown girl; the reggae-flavoured hip hop of “Sweat Of The Brow” slyly keeps us moving while paying homage to Mother Black’s words of encouragement to her daughter.
“I was real down,” says Black, “and Mom told me, ‘By the sweat of your brow you’ll make it. Whatever you put into it, you’ll get out of it.'”
Pouring the emotions behind these experiences of setbacks and achievement into her music has proven a healing experience for both Black and her growing legion of fans.
Whether it be e-mails from a suicidal listener who found hope in “I’ve Travelled,” or a hip mother grateful for the opportunity to buy nonexploitive music for her children, folks from all walks of life have shown the singer/songwriter that the words she uses as balm for her own soul can heal and uplift the hearts of others.
But getting to the hip-hop fans can be a challenge in a country dominated by easy-listening/pop-rock radio stations. A reporting gig with eTalk Daily, and a feature role in last year’s Mirvish production of ‘Da Kink In My Hair have helped build a positive media presence. But it hasn’t been an easy ride to mainstream success.
“There’s two and a half black stations in Canada and 4,500 in America,” Black points out. “I’m proud that Canadians are so authentic, but the opportunities just aren’t there, yet.
“It’s been a blessing that I’ve been around for 12 years, but by the grace of God I’m still here doing it.”