Ledisi, whose name means “to bring forth” in the Yoruba language, will be in a very familiar setting when she performs at the Essence Music Festival on Friday, July 6. First of all, the “party with a purpose” is presented in New Orleans, her place of birth and where many members of her family as well as friends reside. During her childhood, the rhythm and blues vocalist, movie and Broadway actress and author, whose star continues to rise to super nova status, left the Crescent City and moved to Oakland, California where she still lives. Nonetheless, Ledisi proudly calls New Orleans her home and keeps the city close to her heart and soul.
The 12-time Grammy nominee, whose 2017 album, Let Love Rule, is in that honorable number, also knows her way around the Superdome, the site of the event, having performed there beginning in 2004. Back then, she sang in one of the superlounges, intimate venues located on an upper level of the Dome. In 2012, Ledisi made her first appearance on the main stage and it’s been hers ever since.
What was it like to play the main stage at the Superdome for the first time? Did you miss the intimacy of the superlounge at all?
It felt really good. The audience was responsive and I loved the show because it was fun and people stood up at the end. I was used to more intimacy from being in the little room but I was able to make the big stage as intimate as I could get it. That was a goal for me and I think I conquered that.
I think any artist remembers being up close to the people who support them. But when you can get more, that’s the bigger turnaround for it. Hanging around and watching big artists, like legends, you learn how to take the room and make it more intimate. I think I’ve learned that now. When I toured with Maxwell, arenas taught me that even more plus getting to see Prince do it a lot up close. He invited me to the Coachella Music Festival. My first Essence experience was playing in the little room and Prince was in the big room. That was the year he had Larry Graham, Chaka Khan and he was on roller skates and everything.
Do you go see other artists after you perform or have you gone to Essence as an attendee?
One year, I got to go and be a person just floating around. That didn’t work very well. [She explains she was too recognizable.] I have more fun going to New Orleans when Essence is not there because New Orleans is home to me. But I did love the activity and that you get to see all these artists that you see on the road and they’re all in one spot.
So how many musicians are in your band this year and will your repertoire be designed for the Essence crowd?
It’s seven of us total—two backgrounds singers, a keyboardist, a bass player and a drummer, James Agnew, who is also my music director. I probably had two guitars last time but I don’t need all that now. It’s nice to keep it small. We’re good.
I would like to do more from Let Love Rule because it’s the latest album. I’ll still add those songs that people love. People like “High” and “All the Way” right now but the traditional songs they love are “Alright” and “Pieces of Me.” But I’m a little risk taker so I like to make sure that people get my language all the time.
People from New Orleans get that you were born here and that you love the city. Do people out in the world relate to you as being from New Orleans? Do any of the songs on your set list reflect the city and its musical influence?
Some people do; some think I’m predominately from Oakland. I mention that I’m from New Orleans everywhere I go. I can’t help it. My birth certificate says I’m from New Orleans.
When I first did Essence I did some songs that had that [New Orleans influence] but now I’m promoting my album. But when I do jazz or my ‘Nina and Me’ [tribute to Nina Simone] concert, I definitely bring the New Orleans flair to it by adding a groove on a song and break out into it. As I progress in my music, I plan to add more colors of where I’m from in the music.
Let’s talk About Let Love Rule. You co-wrote several tunes on the album. Is this common for you or do you usually write alone? Were you responsible for “Shot Down,” the reggae-inspired tune?
If you look at the catalogue of my work, I write a lot. For this album, I let go and let others write. My executive producer wanted me to work with different producers and to write more with other people on this album and I was open to the idea. The only song that I predominately wrote was ‘All the Way.’ We wrote that at the piano sitting there at the piano like traditional songwriters.
There were two lines I didn’t write on ‘Shot Down’—‘rock love is pocket love’—everything else, the melody and the lyrics, I wrote on a plane. I wanted a reggae beat so I said to the producer, Khalil [Abdul-Rahman] that I’d been into this reggae feel because I’ve been listening to Bob Marley and how he can bring people together and still say what he needs to say. That has always been the makeup of who I am. On every album, I’d try to sneak something like this in but this time I was really upset by the climate and I wanted to talk about those things and I brought them up in a song. I did what I think art should be is that you use your art to express how you feel.
You do include or integrate a number of different genres on the release including what you once described as “soulful rhythm and blues.” You went for a straight-up soul ballad on “Forgiveness.”
I’m a mixture of everything. Every album I don’t stick in one area because of the jazz influence. I marry worlds together. I am what I’ve learned. I try hard to stay focused and do one style but it’s just not me. So on an album I get to paint a lot of different colors for different people. I think a lot of that comes from where I’m from. So far people like it.
What was it like portraying gospel great Mahalia Jackson in the film “Selma?”
It was awesome. It was also awesome recording ‘Precious Lord.’ I recorded one version on film and the soundtrack version at Esplanade Studios. I went and visited her grave and paid homage to her before I recorded. Playing her was great. I studied more about her and learned more about her which made it easier once you know who you are representing.
It appears as if you have a special relationship with Essence beyond performing at the festival. The company published your book, Better Than Alright: Finding Peace, Love & Power, you were on the magazine’s cover and have also been the subject of several Essence articles.
I guess we’ve had a relationship for a long time. I’ve done one cover and I had to share it with Erykah Badu and Solange [Knowles] and I have been featured in the magazine a lot. It was really an honor to be mentioned—it was really cool—and to finally get a cover was really awesome. We’ve done a book together and a lot of fun stuff. I empower women and especially black women in my music. That’s who comes to my shows a lot. That’s where I’m from and that’s who I am.
You were a frequent visitor to the White House during the Obama administration.
I’ve been there for several events. At the second inauguration I sang at the little church that they went to before the actual inauguration. I’ve been at birthday parties and other wonderful events there to support the Obamas when they were in the White House. They were really concerned about people and families, culture, education, especially music education, the arts. I was part of the Turnaround Arts program and I’m still a part of that as a mentor. They felt that it all goes together and I really champion that idea.
What would you tell people who aren’t familiar with you or your music to encourage them to come out and hear you perform?
I would tell them I am a little bit of something old and something new and to be open when you listen and you’ll find something in there that you’ll like. I’m all about the feel good. There’s a swing that musicians from New Orleans have. There’s arrogance—not in a mean way—but an arrogance of grandness that we have and we carry ourselves knowing that we take pride in where we’re from. We know we’re good at what we do because we study it. Our whole lives are about that. We have a smile in our music.