Boardroom: Queen of R&B

Elevating R&B to Another Level, It’s Time for Ledisi


By Darralynn Hutson

Nine-time Grammy nominee, R&B songstress Ledisi has become quite busy lately: booking her first spokesperson contract with hair care brand Design Essentials; headlining another sold-out U.S. tour with Leela James and Raheem Devaughn; and most recently booking the headliner’s position at the17th Annual Ford Freedom Awards held at Detroit, Michigan’s, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. If you look through her Facebook or Instagram pages, there’s no denying that this woman is hitting her stride.

This time last year, she’d just completed a film called Selma, where she portrayed Mahalia Jackson singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”; selling out tour dates in Memphis, L.A., and Cleveland; all while wrapping photo shoots with Essence and live performances on The Queen Latifah Show. Things really haven’t changed much other than the fact that now, Ledisi has become a bona fide household name. “I’m still an Oakland girl born and raised,” says Ledisi traveling on her tour bus. “And while on tour I surround myself with people that I love and that make me laugh. We do a lot of laughing while on this tour bus.”

Some might say that Ledisi is laughing all the way to the bank these days. After a music-industry incident that occurred earlier this year at the Grammys, things haven’t quite been the same for this hardworking soloist.


The incident that occurred during the Grammys earlier this year put her name on the lips of the most influential as well as decision makers who might not have been checking for Ledisi just a few years ago.

“The Grammy incident really let me know that I belong here – in this space. It’s my time,” says Ledisi. People let me know, especially through social media. It opened up the conversation and created a dialogue that we ALL need to uplift each other. It elevated me and it elevated R&B to another level.”

In the midst of the worldwide tour that promoted the release of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-winning film Selma, Ledisi was overlooked when the Academy of Music decided to have Beyoncé sing the Mahalia Jackson song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the awards show instead of Ledisi.

When Golden Globe winners Common and John Legend performed their award-winning Selma song “Glory” at the Grammys, some fans felt Beyoncé snubbed Ledisi for her chance to sing her song from the Oscar-nominated movie. “No one is saying Beyoncé shouldn’t perform at #Grammys. What we’re saying is it should be Ledisi performing the song for #Selma perf,” one fan tweeted. “Ledisi sang it in the Selma film, so they should have asked her,” another tweet reads. “Beyoncé doesn’t have the chops for that one. She’ll overdo it.”

In the December 25th, 2014-released film Selma and on the film’s powerful soundtrack, it was Ledisi’s raspy voice that sang the song representing Mahalia Jackson’s fiery rendition. It was Ledisi’s dreadlocked hair, chocolate skin, and dewy eyes that were cast in Ava’s film, not Beyoncé.
DuVernay announced via Instagram that Ledisi would play Mahalia Jackson in the MLK biopic. DuVernay took over the project after funding failed to come together for original director, Lee Daniels; and as a result, it reached unprecedented success. “Warmly welcoming Ledisi, one of my favorite vocalists, to the Selma film family as the great Mahalia Jackson #selmafilm,” Ava shared.

The film and its director, including cast members and producers, have received critical acclaim, several awards, and celluloid esteem. Selma won Best Movie with AFI Awards and AAFCA (the African American Film Critics Association), three NAACP Awards for Outstanding Supporting Movie and Actor categories; and a PGA Visionary Award. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, a Golden Globe for Best Picture; and went home with an Oscar for the song “Glory” sang by John Legend and Common. In all, it won over 45 awards and was nominated for more than 65 awards.

The Grammys helped propel Ledisi into unforetold stardom in a way that no one anticipated.
{Tasha Stoute, Ledisi’s management}

Her stardom has also sparked a wonderful debate about society’s acceptance of alternative beauty. Not your typical fair-skinned, thin, popularity-driven, soul singer, Ledisi has always been judged in this industry because she was outside of the normal persona of the top-charting R&B singer.” I got over that and I had to look at the positive and empower women,” she told the Associated Press on the Grammys red carpet. “We have to empower each other. It’s a great thing. And one day I’ll be on that Grammys stage. Every artist wants to be on the Grammys stage. Part of our career is to be there. So my time will come when it’s time.”

Despite losing to Beyoncé for Outstanding Female Artist, Ledisi felt like a winner at the after-party. Stevie Wonder thrilled her, as did the crowd, with a one-word spontaneous song consisting simply of her name: Ledisi.


The daughter of “The Prophet of Soul” Larry Sanders and her mother Nyra Dynese who co-wrote the 70’s hit “Pillow Talk,” Ledisi instinctively inherited the gift of soul music. Growing up watching her mom write and sing for local bands in New Orleans, Ledisi learned firsthand what it meant to be a leader, an emotional songwriter, a powerful singer, and a strong woman in the music business.

“Beauty is an expression of what’s inside,” says Ledisi. “Confidence and how you think of yourself has got to start from the inside. I got that from my mother; looking at her when I was growing up, with her Afro and her hands on her hips. How she walked into a room. My momma was bad.”

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but raised in Oakland, California, with a name that means “to come here; bring forth,” a Nigerian word based in the Yoruba religion … you see Ledisi lives her music every day of her life. When her family moved to Oakland, Ledisi studied classical singing and piano at the Young Musicians Program at University of California at Berkeley, and as a graduate studied music and theater performances at Chabot College and Cal State Hayward.

When she met keyboardist Sundra “Sun” Manning, they started their own independent label LeSun Music releasing two critically-acclaimed LP’s, Soulsinger and Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue. Ledisi and Sundra continued to sell records out of their cars and at their shows, begging record stores and radio stations to play and sell their music, all the while gaining a powerful fan base. “When you’re told on a daily basis that you’re no good or that you’re not good enough, that became the fuel I needed to know that I was doing something right,” she said, remembering her beginnings. “I had a lot of downs in my career, but I’ve had a bunch of ups that have helped me to be in the place that I’m in right now.”

These days, Ledisi is touring the United States with her longtime friends and fellow musical collaborators Leela James and Raheem DeVaughn – performing to sold-out audiences from California to Memphis – stopping in Selma along the way for the re-ignited anniversary of the Walk from Selma. Having built her own personal entourage, including her infamous hairstylist Michelle London, her stylist Shawn Nelson, and dreadlock colorist Teka Shifield at Epiphany Salon in Washington, D.C.

“I love being a girl,” reveals Ledisi. “I’m not Beyoncé which means that I don’t have as many custom-made outfits for this tour. I have fun with it and feel sexy and cool while on stage … sometimes in 7-inch heels or a long gown at the end of the night.

Her fans remember her soulful voice of longing in the first LP released, “Alright” in 2009, when she sang of not having the money to pay her bills. “This world sometimes isn’t kind but it’s alright. I wish I had money to pay my bills but it’s alright; money to buy happiness and the joy it brings and it’s alright.” In most recent years, after the 2014 release of her The Truth album, Ledisi has started to sing more about having strong and loyal men in her life. She sings of love and contentment and beauty. Her fifth Verve album, The Truth, as with her preceding albums, is certainly formed by the past but sounds contemporary; not as rooted in early- to mid-’70s funk and soul. Her “I Blame You,” an ode to having a good man, reached success on Billboard’s R&B chart.

The difference is heard on her new album, The Truth, which marks a stark contrast from her usual ballad-friendly style to a surprisingly uptempo, danceable sound. After earning her reputation as one of the great balladeers, she flipped the script, catching her fans off guard. “I’m enjoying life more, most definitely,” she explains. “I am more uninhibited, having more fun. Loving myself more. I titled the CD The Truth because I’m more open, more open to life. I let go of the emotional baggage I was carrying and I am feeling free.”

A breakup caused her to reevaluate her life, which is chronicled in the title track. Instead of eating her way through depression, she decided to live a healthier life – exercising, dancing, being more conscious of nutrition, resulting in her more svelte figure. “It boosted my confidence, inside and outside,” the 43-year-old reveals. We see it too. Ledisi, your time has arrived.