Ever since her eponymous debut sold a couple million copies and set the standard for any newcomer looking to lay legitimate claim to the legacy of soul, people have been asking, “Where is Jill Scott?”
Of course, it’s not as if Scott, 32, were sitting around twiddling her thumbs. She made forays into the small screen with appearances on the UPN sitcom Girlfriends and a role in the Showtime movie Cavedwellers, costarring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. She wrote a book of poetry that will be published by St. Martin’s Press later this year, and with about 80 G’s of her own cash, launched the Blues Babe Foundation, named for her grandmother. The foundation, based in Philly, assists 16-to-21-year-old students of color from disadvantaged backgrounds with the financial and mentoring support necessary to ensure undergraduate success. On a more personal tip, she married her longtime love, 33-year-old Lyzel Williams, bought a house, got a cat, and enjoyed some well-deserved marital bliss.
Joan: Are you nervous or concerned about the length of time between the new album, Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. II and your last CD?
Jill: A little. Because I know how the industry goes. Your label can start to take you a little less seriously or slack off in necessary areas like marketing. As far as record sales, I feel as if I can always do something else. If it doesn’t sell many records, then I can definitely still tour. But I think it’s important music. When I listen to it, I’m impressed and flattered.
If Scott sounds a little cavalier, it may very well be because she is far less concerned about the industry than she is about pleasing you and herself. “It’s unfair,” she tells me later. “I think positive music is music with a point of view, with a conscience—meaning yes, this is dark, this is funky, but I was here, and this is how I felt.” Not that she’s moved by music that’s only about “money, sex, diamonds or jewelry, music that doesn’t really touch anybody.” “Quite frankly,” and yes, Scott is frank, “I think it’s a waste of time.”
Then there’s the media’s usual confusion about what to do with a beautiful, talented Black woman who isn’t a size two. You know, opt for the head shot or stick her in a dashiki and color her “earth mother.” “I’m a Black woman,” she says. “I have natural hair.
Joan: Have you noticed that the media also make you asexual?
Jill: Well, that’s not true either. (The laugh here is wicked.) When you’re a woman of size, photographers and the media seem to think that you don’t have any sex appeal. You’re lovely, but you’re not sexy. You’re sweet, but you’re not beautiful. Ridiculous. Mo’Nique is one of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen. Latifah? Beautiful. Oprah? Beautiful.
Joan: And Jill, do you think she’s beautiful?
Jill: Yes, I certainly do.
It’s a truism that when it comes to contemporary pop culture, industry years are like dog years multiplied. It’s been four years since Scott’s debut and two years since her live album, Experience: Jill Scott 826 . Now with her highly anticipated new CD, due in stores August 31, the industry that received her so openly has become increasingly intolerant and parsimonious, ruthlessly ridding itself of once untouchable megasellers—Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston—for perceived underperformance. And in a business that favors hit-makers over artists, the only acceptable answer to the question “Where is Jill Scott?” is one that satisfies the dollar-driven bottom line. Nonindustry translation: This new joint better be so banging that nobody cares where she’s been.
As far as her artistry goes, there’s simply nothing to worry about. Beautifully Human really is that banging. Even so, her confidence can easily be undermined by her cravings for artistic perfection. “I can easily work myself into a frenzy,” she confesses, “worrying about whether or not you’re going to like it. I’ll listen to it once and love it. Days later I’m crying because I don’t like it. So I try my best not to worry at all.”
Forgoing the hit producers (The Neptunes, Kanye West) used ad nauseam by current chart-toppers, Scott wisely opted to work closely with the same Philly-based guys who produced her first CD (James Poyser, Andre Harris, Vidal Davis, Mama’s Boys) and a few kindred spirits such as Raphael Saadiq. “I tend to work with like minds,” she explains over dessert at Buddakan, an ultrachic eatery in Philadelphia. Her flawless caramel skin and meticulously painted chocolate lips provide a warm contrast to the white contemporary décor.
This is definitely a I’m-feeling-myself day. Scott rocks apple-green pants, a complementary vintage shirt and platforms a good four inches high. “I don’t want to work with somebody just because they make hot tracks,” she continues. “I really want to like you, spend my time with you. Have a meal. Laugh. Because we may end up crying at some point, and I don’t want to be in that by myself.”
The result is not only lush but confidently Scott. Showcasing both her talents as a poet and actress, Scott emerges again as the thinking Black woman’s every woman, tackling topics as diverse as do-me feminism, infidelity, and the betrayal of the political system with a vocal dexterity guaranteed to get you off your ass, and induce a few goose bumps. till, it’s a scary time. Scott’s kinda Black woman—full-bodied, real, big voice, big mind—is virtually absent from the American pop-culture landscape, at least in any chart-topping kind of way.
And as much as we may love Jill and her sistren Angie Stone and Erykah Badu, none of them has had the chart-busting success of a Beyoncé. Their invisibility says a great deal about America’s refusal to see darker-hued Black women as objects of worship and desire.
Ask Scott about this and her response is eloquent in its simplicity. “Black women,” she shakes her head sadly. “We are so out of style. I’m a firm believer in love. It doesn’t really matter to me who you love, as long as you are loving. The problem is, it doesn’t seem like anybody’s loving sisters anymore. What happened? It makes me so sad and frustrated. Black women are not necessarily easy. I get it. We’ve been holding it together for so long that it’s hard for us to step back and allow our men to be men. They don’t take the trash out that first time and we’re looking at them like, This nigger, I knew it. But a Black family is so worthwhile. Just a little bit of hard work, a little listening. If we could just do that work.”