In and around the music industry for more than 30 years, Jody Watley got her start in her mid-teens as a dancer on “Soul Train” before joining R&B group Shalamar. The Chicago-born singer’s stint with Shalamar led to a successful solo career during the eighties, releasing such hits as “Looking for a New Love” and “Friends” (which featured hip-hop icon Rakim) and winning the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1987. But Watley was more than a chart-topper; she was also one of the first Black female artists to merge pop music and fashion. “When I see Rihanna and Beyoncé in the fashion magazines-nobody was checking for that when I did it,” says Watley, now 49. “I was doing something at the time that was unprecedented for a Black artist in the mainstream media. The only other female artist who had that was Madonna.” ESSENCE.com caught up with Watley to discuss diva drama, the eighties, and the launch of JodyWatleyMusicStore.com, which will feature exclusive material and songs from her upcoming album, “Chameleon,” expected in 2009.
ESSENCE.COM: Congratulations on JodyWatleyMusicStore.com. Tell us how this project came about.
JODY WATLEY: It’s a continual evolution of my entrepreneurial side. It’s a way of serving my niche fan base, where they can make a first-stop online destination. They can go to iTunes or some of the other outlets, which do have my music, but I’ll be giving things they can’t get anywhere else.
ESSENCE.COM: How much of your catalog can your fans expect on there?
WATLEY: It’s all new music, rare remixes. It’s really a nurturing ground for my new music and the music that is to come. This era is a really exciting time for independent artists.
ESSENCE.COM: You were one of the first R&B artists to go the independent route, but you’ve often talked about how much of a struggle it is. Do you ever have a desire to go back to a major label?
WATLEY: No! (Laughs) I say that because the music business is continuing to change—some of it isn’t for the good. There’s an artist I really like by the name of Van Hunt, who was signed to Blue Note. He promoted the record; went on a tour; he’s a great live act; and they shelved it without explanation. My last stint with a major label was with Atlantic and pretty much the same thing happened [to me]. It was a record that was very well received in terms of the early reviews. It was such a disappointment, and without explanation, they didn’t release it. I would say the major label system is geared more toward youth and not diversity, especially in soul, electronic, and other genres.
ESSENCE.COM: You started with the group Shalamar. Do you think there will ever be a reunion?
WATLEY: That’s probably the question I get asked the most (laughs). Not in the foreseeable future. I’ve always been the one to keep it moving forward. I’ve been on my own longer than I’ve been with Shalamar. Shalamar was a fantastic experience and there are a lot of people that would like to see it…but I don’t really see it. You never know, maybe something like BET will honor the group and we get together for something special like that. Just throwing that out there! (laughs)
ESSENCE.COM: I’d love to see it! You and Howard Hewett up there again!
WATLEY: (Laughs) For me, I was kind of a caterpillar and I turned into a butterfly. It’s just very difficult being your own person, a soloist, to go back to a background role.
ESSENCE.COM: You once said you felt like the Black community didn’t support you, especially back in the eighties. How did you handle that?
WATLEY: Good question. Any of my music, from the eighties to the music I make today, my thing is to write songs people will connect with and relate to. I’m not thinking of color, I just want people to feel it. I always put my heart into it. I’m not a contrived artist, trying to do things by a formula to appeal to a certain audience. I’m just about being an individual. Unfortunately, what I did find was a lot of, “Well, she’s not Black enough.” I’ve always had a problem with that. I think I’m a consummate artist-as a professional, as a Black woman and for everything I represent. It was always disappointing for me if people, whether it was certain portions of the Black audience or my record company, felt that somehow I wasn’t Black enough.
ESSENCE.COM: I remember when I was a kid everybody loved Jody Watley. You really transcended race.
WATLEY: My Black fans are the ones who usually say, “Girl, I’ve been with you from “Soul Train” to Shalamar, through thick and thin.” I do have a diverse fan base, it’s multiracial, all ages, gay, straight, women-it’s a melting pot. I appreciate that and I appreciate everyone who supports me. My next record, “Chameleon,” which comes out in 2009, is classic Jody meets new Jody. I think Black women in particular should appreciate what I’ve done. It’s being a mom and a businesswoman and all the obstacles that one faces.
ESSENCE.COM: With all of the divas in the eighties, did you ever find yourself in any drama with other female artists?
WATLEY: (Pauses) There were a few people along the way…I can’t even imagine now with blogs, the stuff that gets thrown around. But I don’t think Karyn White was a big fan of mine, I remember that. I don’t think Siedah Garrett was a big fan of mine. That’s really pretty much it. If there was some negativity, I ignored it. Most people, my fellow artists, whether it was Sade, Cyndi Lauper, or Madonna, have all given me great love. In fact, when I won the Grammy for Best New Artist, one of the first telegrams I received was from Janet Jackson.
ESSENCE.COM: What is the most memorable moment in your career?
WATLEY: Classic moments will always be winning the Grammy. It was such an emotional moment.
ESSENCE.COM: But it wasn’t easy for you, achieving that kind of success.
WATLEY: There were people being hateful and negative with me, telling me I couldn’t make it, leaving Shalamar would be the biggest mistake of my life. Everybody has to deal with people who sit on the sidelines and try to get in your head to make you not believe in your dream. I used it as fuel to motivate me and keep me focused. A lot of people give up; a lot of people never take the leap for a better life because they allow other people to discourage them. My new single, “A Beautiful Life,” is about wanting something and wanting it to be right.
ESSENCE.COM: What aging tips do you have for women?
WATLEY: Update your look each year, do something different. I think one of the big mistakes women make is they’ve been wearing a favorite lipstick and they hold on to it. Change your makeup approach, go to a makeup counter and let the professional give you suggestions. A new haircut-just updating your look. My ultimate thing is it starts from the inside out. What you feel on the inside exudes on the outside. Surround yourself with people who uplift you and love you. Learn to love yourself and your flaws. Things you can work on, work on. The things that you can’t work on, it really isn’t worth it to stress about.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you miss most about the eighties?
WATLEY: The carefree spirit to music and fashion. I still have part of that carefree spirit. I’ve just taken the exuberance that was so a part of that era reshaped and molded it to make it work for me. It used to get on my nerves when people were like “eighties diva” and I’m like, “I’m a diva for all time!”
Be sure to check out http://www.jodywatleymusicstore.com/.
To listen to her new single, “A Beautiful Life,” go to http://www.myspace.com/jodywatley.
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