Wednesday, March 26, 2008

WE COVER STORY: Exotic Fruit – Jully Black

By Ian Andre Espinet

Julie, the island of Jamaica's favorite mango, is an incredibly sweet, entrancingly coloured fruit that grows best in the rich, deep loam of tropical climates. Jully Black, the last of 9 siblings and the only one born in Canada, shares 2 of the 3 attributes of her exotic counterpart – namely her demeanor and complexion.

Unlike her dwarflike namesake, however, Canada’s Queen of R&B stands at a staggering 5 feet 11 inches - a fact that is evident immediately upon glancing at her leggy album cover – an obvious nod to another queen of Soul, Tina Turner. In further contrast, she was reared a far cry from the lush Jamaican soil of her parentage, in Toronto’s Jane and Finch, an area that she represents to the fullest at every opportunity.

Jully’s story is much the thing of fairy tale lure and begins with the matriarch of the family. Her Mother, as many of Caribbean heritage, left her native land in search of a better life for herself and her children. Jully’s countless stories tell of a strong, prideful, ambitious woman. It is no surprise then that she toiled tirelessly for $1.65 per hour with the goal of immigrating her children, so that they too could experience opportunity - accepting sacrifices and disappointments for the greater good of her family.

Jully, no stranger to disappointment, grew up in a single parent home, in awe of her hard-working mother who was the nucleus that held the family together. Her twin brother died at birth. And her beloved sister Sharon passed away prematurely at the age of 24. In spite of it all - Jully was her mother’s child.

Jully first discovered her voice in church at the age of seven, but as her vocal ability developed so did her self-consciousness about her powerful alto range. Her raspy almost gravel like voice caught the attention of fellow Torontonian’s Choclair and Kardinal Offishall in the much celebrated “Fresh Arts” program which also spawned talents such as video producer Little x, hip hop artist Saukrates and MC Kid Kut from the Baby Blue Soundcrew. She was recruited to sing and write and ultimately became a member of “The Circle”, a Toronto based music family consisting of Choclair, Kardinal, Solitair, Tara Chase, Ro Dolla, Marvel and countless others, who collectively formed a large part of the Toronto Urban sound in the late 90’s. They would frequently appear on each others songs and videos, exercising a collective economics and support that should be not only inspirational, but intrinsic to Canadian artists.

Her association with Canada’s hip hop elite would become a launching point as the ever ambitious Jully started to want more than to sing on hooks (coincidentally, she often become the focal point of the song). Armed with stage, writing skills and freestyling abilities that she had developed, she ventured onto the solo path, shortly thereafter pursuing songwriting. Her talents as a singer, coupled with her magnificent ability to craft beautifully structured songs, melodies and lyrics, led to a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music in 1998, at the age of 20.

In addition to the network, comaraderie and skills that would develop with peers in “The Circle”, Fresh Arts, part of the “JOY – Jobs Ontario Youth” program also acted as catalyst. The program, targeted at black youth was built on the mentorship of established artists providing youth with artistic training and encouraging pride in culture and history. “It’s sad that it went away – I took a bus, a train and a streetcar to go downtown to take this program. I don’t think I’d be the woman I am today if it weren’t for it”.

Much like her “Circle fam”, Jully is an avid flag carrier – she decided that she “wanted to have one foot in Canada and one in America”, with her music played worldwide, and her base at home. “I went there, spent some time, and didn’t want to integrate. I really didn’t feel I should be exiled. I was born here – if I ran, my neice who’s coming up – wouldn’t think it possible. Besides, my Mom came here and raised 9 kids by herself – I HAD to stay here and do it too”. Jully sites her dream as coming home to perform at Massey Hall. “I need to be able to come home no matter what - like Alanis Morrissette and play Massey, yet still enjoy the intimacy of venues like Mod Club”.

After a few setbacks, Jully volunteered as part of a Much Music documentary on working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh. The experience gave her new insight and “put it ALL in perspective. People are living in substandard conditions, working for wages that are disgraceful – and I’m complaining about a record deal? I was like Jully – get over it”.

And she did – continuing to release her own music, while writing for international superstars such as Esthero, Nas and Destiny's Child. Her hard work resulted in 4 Juno nominations ("Rally'n” w/ Saukrates: 1999; “The Day Before” - Baby Blue: 2001; "You Changed": 2003; Sweat of Your Brow: 2006) and 4 Much Music Video Awards nominations, as well as being named “One of the Most Alluring Canadians” by Fashion Magazine. Ironically, despite her perceived success, she was “signing autographs on withdrawal slips at Royal Bank in my wicket”. She decided that she had to do more.

She redoubled her efforts, releasing “This is Me” on Universal Music Canada in 2005. It included the hits, "Sweat of Your Brow" and "5x Love". Although incredible, the offering sold a heartbreaking 15,000 units. Notably, the album was SO excellent that according to IFPI (The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), there were a reported 2.8 MILLION illegal swapping requests for it in the first 2 weeks of the album's release.

Never one to give up, Jully put her faith in God, and was rewarded with an offer for position as “celebrity reporter” for CTV’s eTalk Daily after high-jacking an interview being conducted by Ben Mulroney. She continued producing music while traveling worldwide interviewing celebrities, as notable as Oprah, Barbara Walters, Bill Clinton, Aerosmith, Sean Paul and Shakira.

That same year, Jully also joined the cast of the acclaimed Mirvish production of “Da Kink In My Hair” at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre for 106 performances. Shortly thereafter, she toured with the Black Eyed Peas after Will I Am remixed “I Know”, a song that Black had co-written for Destiny’s Child. On tour she met Peas' drummer Keith Harris with whom she went on to co-executive produce Revival. The band driven first single "Seven Day Fool" became her first Top 10 hit in Canada, and acted as engine in driving the album to Number 1, and then GOLD status just a day before New Years Eve 2007.

The album could have been called “Transformation”. In 10 years, she has gone from a girl, to a strong, self-assured, confident, humble woman, transforming herself on a multitude of levels. Spiritually and mentally she has remodeled her being - and then there’s the physical renovation: one no less worthy of Debbie Travis. Jully’s body is a temple sculpted from a regiment which includes an hour of cardio 6 days a week and a dizzying 3 days of circuit based, heavy weight training. She jokes that “our mothers, whether by walking up stairs, or walking with groceries, or water, developed strength that we don’t have. “In preparing for my new album, I decided I needed a total lifestyle change”. Her mental regiment is no less rigorous, as Jully finds therapy in blogging on her website.

Jully has transformed misfortunes to triumph, becoming one of the most respected and acclaimed R&B artists in Canada. As the sweet Julie mango is the favorite of her descendant land, Jully has secured her spot as ours. And like the plentiful mango, our never idle Canadian, can be found everywhere: the gold album, “Revival” is in stores now; Jully can be seen on eTalk Daily on CTV, blogging at, on tour, and in countless other places in coming months, as she takes on new challenges in the realm of TV.

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