The Poet of North Philly: Jill Scott Attributes Greatness to Her Old Neighborhood
To Jill Scott, artistry equals defiance. For her May taping of VH1 Storytellers, rather than using the sing-a-song-then-tell-the-back story-repeat 10x format that’s been in place for 17 seasons, she, as the show’s executive producer Bill Flannigan told the audience, did “something never done before.” The Grammy winning singer/poet turned herself into a living canvas by donning several wigs, glasses, costumes and accents to establish a broader back story to the true tales: the songs. Scott let the music tell the stories and dictate the action and tone of its narrator; a trait she’s applied to her chart topping albums, like Beautifully Human and The Light of the Sun, and her acclaimed screen work on The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, or the forthcoming remake of Steel Magnolias.
During the taping, Scott expressed to the crowd at the Grand Ballroom of the Manhattan Center the importance of being “extravagant in the midst of poverty;” a pivotal ideal in the current professional landscape of creative scarcity. The 21st century female recording artist is given “a kit:” record contract, movie deals, book launches, clothing lines, etc. With an industry struggling to maintain control over its artists and an audience as fickle as ever, ingénues must establish “a brand,” becoming just add water entrepreneurs. Jill Scott has taken advantage of all of these as well, but rather than use them as marketing strategies to keep her name in the news, they are ways for her to maintain her need to express, something she does better than most. Her performance at VH1 Storytellers was reminiscent of the Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross variety specials of the ‘60s and ‘70s, finding the stars singing and acting with the same virtuosity. While those were also promotional tools, it was during a time when being versatile really meant something; displaying artist versatility that many cannot. Many women singers today do what Jill does, but lack the dexterity, command and charisma she employs.
The true essence of Scott’s extravagance in the midst of poverty is quite literal as well, born out of her formative beginnings in the hostile environment of her native North Philadelphia. This does not equate to the aesthetic of “ghetto fabulousness” – living beyond ones means to perpetrate the illusion of wealth to fulfill some shallow fantasy. Open-minded observation of her neighborhood allowed her to retain a kaleidoscope of experiences and personify them. Make no mistake, she does not in the slightest celebrate or glamorize the violent and dangerous activity that consumed her old stomping grounds, and yet she refuses to condemn those surroundings. Because of those experiences, she’s able to manipulate mundane words into four dimensional, interactive poetry. Those experiences helped her summon the simmering rage to portray a maniacally abusive Janice Raleigh in Law & Order: SVU. Those experiences led her to write and record “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” with a dynamic, regal timbre reserved only for top shelf opera singers. Jill Scott is the most talented female singer in the world, and the 5pm gunshots, polite drug dealers and strap-hanging cockroaches were just as influential to her as Edgar Alan Poe, Michael Jackson and the love of a diligent mother.
Read the full interview at iRockJazz.com