Love Is Always the Theme
Grammy-nominated R&B singer Ledisi embarks on a new calling—HIV advocacy
by Candace Y.A. Montague
Photos by JUCO
Since 2000, steadfast fans have been indulging in the neo-soul tunes of Ledisi. They buy her CDs and download her songs. They line up to see her perform. This fall Ledisi has been co-headlining “The Rebel, The Soul & The Saint” tour with gospel artist and producer Kirk Franklin. Starting in her old stomping grounds of Oakland, California, and ending in Richmond, Virginia this tour runs fast and covers a lot of ground. While she’s serenading and inspiring the masses with her soulful voice Ledisi is also using her time on the road to be of service. She has recently taken on a new role as an advocate for HIV education. The story comes together in pieces.
“I wanna get to know you
How can I get to know you
I wanna get to know you
Know you better”
—“Get to Know You,” Lost and Found album, 2011
Ledisi (pronounced led-ee-see) Anibade Young was born in New Orleans with a birthright for music. Her mother, Nyra Dynese, and her father, Larry Sanders, were both singers. Her stepfather, Joseph Pierce III, was a drummer in a band. During her adolescent years, the shy teen moved with her family to Oakland, California where her singing skills bloomed. Being surrounded by a full range of musical genres in her life helped shape the singer’s thumbprint. “Growing and being raised in New Orleans and Oakland was definitely entertaining. The combination was really great. In New Orleans you have music from zydeco and Fats Domino. I would listen to soul, country, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rufus and Chaka [Khan]. I had aunts listening to Mahalia Jackson. It was just an eclectic collection of music to listen to. And then in Oakland where I came up with the Hawkins family I learned more about gospel music and classical music. All kinds of music. The combination was so enlightening. Having parents that understood my love for music and supported me, that made a big difference with how I listen to music and how I support music meaning my philanthropy work as well.”
If Ledisi had an official second title it might be philanthropist. Throughout her music career she has found ways to give back to others. During her formative years, Ledisi participated in school music programs that helped shape her love for the arts. When she grew up she found a way to give back to her little self through music education. Ledisi was hand-picked by former First Lady Michelle Obama to be an ambassador for the Turnaround Arts program sponsored by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Turnaround Arts is an educational program that brings arts education to seventy-three low-performing elementary and middle schools across the country. Artists and performers such as Elton John, Kerry Washington, Dave Matthews, YoYo Ma, Esperanza Spalding and Russell Simmons donate their talents to this program. “Music education is really important for me. It helped me growing up. Every program I was involved in and every scholarship I got was because of donations.” Ledisi was asked to perform at the White House during the Obama administration multiple times. It’s no surprise that she was selected. She proudly beamed, “Other artists donated their time. I was appointed by her. It was an honor.”
“I ain’t worried ’bout the hate (uh-uh)
Last year was a good year for your girl
I’ve been keeping up with the pace
So don’t be coming with the bull
Had a good year, now you starting to see my face
Ain’t worried ’bout the hate”
—“High,” Let Love Rule album, 2017
Music for Ledisi is a language in which she is undoubtedly fluent. Her songs reflect on themes like struggle, growth, change, pain, love, passion, and resurrection. Her first album, Soul Singer, came into rotation in 2000. Songs like “Take Time” and “You Are My Friend” piped through the speakers with positive messages over a grown and sexy groove. Her latest release, Let Love Rule, does not deviate from the formula that has brought her so much success over the years. Her songs continue to uplift and encourage listeners. What inspired her album this year? Ledisi explained how the deficit of love spurred her to write the music. “I was inspired by being a human being and having a human experience outside of music. Let love rule. I was basically upset with how things are going. Some of our acts are so selfish. There’s no compassion or empathy. We need to get those things back and it requires love. Love is always the theme. Hate exists because we need love. Our actions should be ruled by love.”
Ledisi’s music comes from experience. She has lived through some things. She has borne witness to others. Music is her therapy. The lyrics are a testimony to survival. Her wisdom flows through each word. Her early recordings such as “Papa Loved to Love Me,” an uncomfortable session about a father raping his daughter, and “Coffee,” a spoken-word piece about domestic abuse, shows that she won’t back down from issues no matter how close they hit home. “I have been molested. Probably not as heavy as most people that I know that have been molested. I survived it. We got through that. I had to go to counseling and get help for that. ‘Papa Loved to Love Me’ was a poem that turned into a song years ago. I’m glad I wrote it. But I don’t want people to think that just because I wrote those songs that I live there. I got out of it and it made me stronger. Luckily I have the outlet of music to get out of it. Some people don’t have that luxury.”
Ledisi explained that she doesn’t think that people should live in that place of pain. “I think people need to acknowledge it. Say it out loud. And don’t be ashamed of it. Say it happened but don’t live in it. That goes for any kind of abuse. Whether it’s domestic or sexual or any kind of abuse. Acknowledge that it happened but don’t live there.”
“There is a path and it is written for you
Take your time to find the truth
What do you have to lose?
It’s time for you to choose
No one else can do it for you”
—“Raise Up,” Pieces of Me album, 2011
When the spotlight is turned off you can see the audience that you’ve been performing for clearly. Like many people Ledisi affirms that she has been unknowingly surrounded by people living with HIV for a long time. Many of them concealed their status so she was unaware of their health issues. She adds that it comes as a shock when she finds out their status later on. “I’ve known many people with HIV. A lot of them were my mentors that helped me become more vocal and not be shy. I have had friends who have hidden it. They would rather die than tell someone. I never knew they had the disease until after they were gone. It’s strange. And then when you find out you’re like ‘Whoa! I didn’t know.’” Another significant detail that served as a wake-up call were the effects of HIV on black women. “I didn’t know how heavy it was for black women. That’s a new thing to me. That has blown me away. That part bothers me.”
Ledisi’s first flash of celebrity AIDS advocacy came in 2007. Ledisi was tapped by the legendary Sheryl Lee Ralph [A&U, August 2015] to join her on stage for her signature AIDS fundraiser DIVAS Simply Singing! This evening of song and entertainment brings together artists that are legendary in their own rite. Ledisi had earned her place in this assemblage. She joined Ms Ralph for a second time with DIVAS in 2010. Ms. Ralph raves about Ledisi’s contribution to the performances. “For twenty-seven years I’ve been producing DIVAS Simply Singing!, the longest consecutive-running musical AIDS benefit concert in the country and for at least two of those concerts we have experienced the brilliance, the giving heart, the voice that is Ledisi. I thank her for her compassion and simply daring to care about those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.”
An act of fate this year brought Ledisi in the same room at an event in Arizona with Phill Wilson [A&U, February 2014], President and Chief Executive Officer of the Black AIDS Institute. While listening in the audience she absorbed stats and anecdotes about the reality of HIV today from various speakers. Mr. Wilson spoke about HIV in the Black community. Ledisi really listened. She learned that in 2015, 4,524 African American women were diagnosed with HIV. That’s about sixty-two percent of the women who are diagnosed. She learned about PrEP, a pill that actually prevents HIV infections, and the struggle to educate Black women about the drug. Ledisi learned that her work in philanthropy was far from over.
When the event was over Ledisi marched straight to Mr. Wilson after he spoke to extend her services. Mr. Wilson recalls the passion he saw in her face from the moment she spoke. “She came up to me and she said ‘I need to get involved because many of the things you mentioned in your talk I didn’t know about. And I assume that many of the women that follow me and many of my friends don’t know about it either. I need to step up. I need to do my part to fight this in our community.’” The conversation led to dinner a few weeks later where Ledisi reiterated her desire to help fight HIV in the Black community. “It is not unusual to meet someone who wants to get involved and then they’re off to their next thing and then life happens and nothing comes of it. But that didn’t happen with her. We talked about Heroes In the Struggle [see this issue], where we induct people into the HIV hall of fame. This year we decided to honor only women. We had a remarkable group of women that we inducted. We were thinking about what would be an appropriate tribute for them. Jussie Smollett, who was the host and the event chair, said I think a musical tribute from Ledisi would be perfect,” Mr. Wilson recalls. Ledisi obliged and brought the house down with her amazing performance.
She wasn’t done yet. The drive continued as Ledisi met with Mr. Wilson again to determine what else she could do. “You kinda pinch yourself when you have someone of her stature say they want to be involved and someone as creative as she is. She has ideas,” says Mr. Wilson. For starters she would offer VIP packages that include special seating at her show and a chance to come backstage and meet her and Kirk Franklin. AIDS service organizations can offer this package to their clients as an incentive. She would also do a tour alongside her musical one. With the help of the Black AIDS Institute, Ledisi will do speaking engagements and visit select community events to encourage people to get tested. On top of all that, she will do a public service announcement about HIV. Her indefatigable spirit impressed Mr. Wilson. “We are just trying to keep up with her. She’s going to twenty-seven cities in six weeks. In some cases she’s in a city one morning and out that night. It’s a lot to take on. HIV and AIDS is an issue that continues to devastate the black community. It particularly impacts black women. This is a great thing for her to take on,” says Mr. Wilson.
Needless to say Ledisi is pumped about being an ambassador for the Black AIDS Institute. “I can’t wait to get better at this. I’m here waiting to be of service. My part in life is to be of service. So what I leave behind was Ledisi was of service. She did her part. That’s so important. It makes me feel good.”
“Listening, without speaking
I think only when we really try to hear people
can the process toward understanding them begin to take shape”
“Understanding/I Love You (Interlude),” featuring Soledad O’Brien, Let Love Rule album, 2017
Whether it’s on a record, on stage, in a PSA, or at a speaking engagement, you’re going to hear Ledisi’s voice for many years to come. She isn’t done making her mark. Her art remains in demand and she plans to use it for good. A gallant spirit like hers just cannot be contained. She knows that it takes guts to make a statement and she welcomes the challenge in that. “It takes courage to speak out but if something is wrong you need to speak up about it. It’s about being real and protecting our race. And not just race meaning Black people and white people. I mean the human race. We all should be contributing to this world. So if something is wrong we all should be speaking up. We all should say this isn’t right. As an artist that’s our job. It’s our job to sing the songs that tell what’s going on in the world right now,” she exclaims.
She credits artists like the late Bob Marley for inspiring her to record her song “Shot Down,” an ode to the victims of gun violence. “Bob Marley has a way of telling you something without preaching. He tells the story and you feel good when you hear it but he wanted you to think about some things too. That’s the point of making music as an artist. Some people are silent about their activism. Some sneak it in. Some people are loud. I do it however I feel. And that song [“Shot Down”] is my feel-good protest. Yeah you feel good when you hear it but you better recognize what’s going on in this world.”
We can count on Ledisi to be authentic and benevolent to all who embrace her. Her compassion is awe-inspiring. Her philosophy is simple. “We are human. We’re not perfect. We all want the same things. We need to be loving. That’s what I want. That’s what I have to have in every aspect of my human experience. Let’s get back to that.”
A round of applause for Ledisi; the artist, the muse, and the advocate. BRAVA!
For more information about Ledisi, visit: www.ledisi.com. For more information about the Black AIDS Institute, visit: www.blackaids.org. The 27th Annual DIVAS Simply Singing! is set for December 9, 2017.
Candace Y.A. Montague is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been featured in a number of print and online publications including The Washington Post and The Grio.com. Follow her on Twitter @urbanbushwoman9.