Ahead of her first professional performance in South Africa, Jill Scott opened up to Helen Herimbi about her relationship, rap and Mma Ramotswe..
Who is Jill Scott?
A scene from Dave Chappelle’s documentary called Block Party hints at the answer.
The beautiful songstress is backstage at the makeshift concert in Brooklyn and soul singer Erykah Badu is on stage belting out classics and crowd-surfing. Someone off camera asks Scott if she is nervous to be getting on stage after Badu, who has been in the limelight much longer than Scott.
The singer, whose debut album was titled Who Is Jill Scott? (Words and Sounds Vol 1), looks at the enquirer with a big, mischievous smile and says: “Have you seen me perform?”
She then proceeds to wow the audience and own the stage that blew off Badu’s wig a few moments earlier. And that’s exactly what we’re hoping to see Scott bring when she mounts the Cape Town International Jazz Festival stage at the end of next month.
But what else will she be bringing?
“Great musicians, a lot of energy and my spirit,” she tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “I’ll also bring pictures and my iPad so I can look at my son, Jett,” she says. While this will be the new mom’s first professional performance in SA, it won’t be her first visit.
Saying she’s “geeked and excited”, about the festival, Scott says: “I love to see people dance and from just being at parties in SA, I know people are so expressive with their dance moves, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.”
The Long Walk singer took in the sights and sounds of Mzansi en route to Botswana, where she filmed the TV version of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in which she played the lead character, detective Precious Ramotswe.
“I wasn’t aware of the books (Alexander McCall Smith) before the series, but I really enjoyed being Precious Ramotswe. “Also, the sky was my absolute favourite thing in Botswana,” she tells me excitedly. “There isn’t a lot to cover the sky there and I had no idea it would be so cool.”
The conversation switches from the beauty of the twinkling stars in the dark to The Light of the Sun, Scott’s fourth album.
The voice of this teacher’s aide turned-singer-cum-actress (you may have seen her as William’s lover in Girlfriends and in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? film franchise) is distinctly jovial when she speaks about this album.
“It’s about the things in the dark coming to light,” she says. “About learning to let things go and journeying through the darkness to get to the light, then creating in the light. That energy of the spirit to create. I also worked often at night and didn’t write anything down. I went to the studio with a different attitude and I was free. That’s the best feeling I’ve had in ages. I said some things that I was really surprised I’d said.”
Those things included talking about her relationship with drummer, former fiancé and the father of her son, John Roberts.
“I was very saddened when the relationship between me and my son’s father didn’t work. So when I got to the studio, emotions were just flowing out, subconscious thoughts were spilling out. That’s how Hear My Call (on which she tells God: “Love has burned me raw, I need your healing please”) came up. “Sometimes the mind can get in the way. But that’s a process I want to relive again.”
This impromptu singing of words that come to mind is known as a freestyle. I ask her if that’s what she was doing on Blessed, which opens her fourth album.
“That’s exactly what it was.”
I can hear her loud clap in the background.
“It is a freestyle. Literally. No boundaries. Where there is nothing in the way of expression.” Light of the Sun, which, Scott says, is “my favourite album in terms of creating”, is the closest to Scott’s critically acclaimed, classic 2000 debut in that “I wasn’t thinking of Who Is Jill Scott?”
With the exception of a more R&B-driven third album, The Real Thing (Words and Sounds Vol 3), Scott has always had hip hop as a sturdy foundation of her selection of instrumentals.
She’s collaborated with everyone from Pharoahe Monche (who will also perform at the festival) to Doug E Fresh, Eve and Lupe Fiasco. “I love hip hop,” she says. “I’m a huge fan of MCs. I love an MC. Someone who is thinking and has something to say, has a point of view. I want to see you think out loud. There’s a freedom in approaching music that way.”
So what was her favourite hip hop album of last year? “Watch the Throne (Jay-Z, Kanye West),” the smile is almost audible. I ask if she doesn’t want to reconsider since Common, a past collaborator, also released a stellar album last year.
“No,” she giggles. “It’s Watch the Throne. I enjoy the back and forth banter between Jay and Kanye and their wordplay. They got really creative.”
Considering her first splash in mainstream music was with the legendary The Roots, it’s no surprise Scott, who is also a poet, is drawn to the wordplay. On an interlude of a live performance with The Roots, Scott sing-raps: “My name is J-I-L-L-S-C-O-T-Teeeeeee, Jill Scott, representing North Philly, ya’ll.”