“That is mind-blowing to me,” admits Jessy Wilson, still “in shock” about her recent Grammy nomination for “Keep Rising,” the end-credits song she wrote for “The Woman King” with producer (and ex-Jars of Clay sideman) Jeremy Lutito, featuring Angelique Kidjo. “I knew that it had been submitted, and I made a ‘for your consideration’ graphic that I texted to people. But I honestly didn’t think it would happen. I felt the movie was so successful and the song is so powerful, but I’m just this small fish in a huge pond.”
Wilson is the decided underdog in the front-loaded category of best song written for visual media, where she is up against heavyweights Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s not her first nomination; she’s previously been nominated for Grammys for her songwriting with Fantasia and Ledisi, as well as writing for Usher, Mario, Keyshia Cole and Macy Gray and rappers Kanye West, will.I.am and Meek Mill.
“Being in that company is incredible, but more than that (is) to be able to work on a song with such an amazing artist as Angelique Kidjo,” she says.
The genesis of “Keep Rising” is like life imitating music, a final attempt to jump-start her career, which included stints in the Nashville-based Muddy Magnolias, an Americana roots-soul-gospel-blues band featuring dual vocals with partner Kallie North signed to Capitol Records, and as a solo artist, with the 2019 “Phase,” a “sophisticated psychedelic pop-soul” record produced by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, distributed by Thirty Tigers.
With her Warner-Chappell publishing deal about to expire, Wilson submitted a rough demo of the song — the lyrics are as much about her own struggle to succeed in the music industry as it is a call to Black self-empowerment — not really expecting anything to come of it.
“I was writing from my own perspective, what I was going through, what I was observing in the world at the time,” she says. “But the song was unfinished. It was me pouring out thoughts and emotions through song, expressing the frustrations I felt about the deaths of Black men and women in America. It was written as a rallying cry, but simultaneously, I was telling my own story for my own motivation, my own will, to just keep going.”
A copy of the demo got to “Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who was looking for an end credits song as a climax to her Viola Davis-starring film about the real-life Agojie, an all-female fighting unit charged with protecting the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820s. Prince-Bythewood saw possibilities in the song, sending a long list of notes, including lyrical ideas and musical elements to “wrap around” the film, along with bringing in Angelique Kidjo, who comes from the region depicted in the film, now known as Benin.
Prince-Bythewood told Variety in an email, “I was looking for a bridge at the end of the film, from the past to the present. And I felt the best way to do that was musically. ‘Keep Rising’ is a beautiful bridge lyrically, culturally and emotionally. It touches on the world we have just lived in, and the warriors we have fallen in love with, yet makes us think of the fight we still have ahead of us. The song gets you so hype. And I love an audience leaving this film feeling good.”
The day Wilson learned the song would be in the film marked what would have been the due date for the birth of her son, after suffering a miscarriage five months earlier. It was a bittersweet moment for Wilson, who had become “disenchanted” with the music industry and was prepared to give up her musical ambitions to concentrate on visual art as a sculptor working in plaster, paint and cement. “My artwork is very physical and involved,” she explains. “It was therapeutic to have this creative outlet without having to collaborate. Not speaking or singing, just a silent expression that still speaks very loudly.”
On “L.A. Night,” the final track on Phase, Wilson sings about her frustrations with the music industry, “But I’m too dark and too short / That’s what they said in New York / Now I’m here, I took a different route but it’s politics as usual.”
“That song is an autobiographical snapshot of some of the feelings I’ve had as a dark-skinned Black woman in this industry,” she says, delighted by comparisons to Nina Simone. “Colorism is a very real thing in this white supremacist world we live in. I don’t necessarily hold that up as a banner, but it is something I’ve experienced.”
One phone call changed everything. “I was ready to come back to music, but I was able to see everything from a different perspective,” says Wilson. “I needed to reassess my priorities.”
The Red Light Management client now finds herself in an enviable position, without a record label or a publisher, in control of her output, and now a Grammy nominee.
The Brooklyn-born singer/songwriter has been harboring dreams of being a performer since she was 3, moonlighting as a singer in bars and night clubs accompanied by her mom while still studying at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, known as the “Fame” school.
“I can’t remember a moment when I wasn’t pursuing being on-stage,” she says. “It’s been my life-long journey. There was never anything else for me.”
After graduation, she toured as a back-up vocalist for Alicia Keys, then contributed vocals to John Legend’s 2006 bossa-nova flavored “Maxine,” a performance which would eventually attract the attention of Tyler, the Creator, who had Wilson sing back-up for six tracks on his Grammy-winning 2019 best rap album, “Igor.” It was Legend, whom she considers a mentor, who invited her to Nashville to write with him and Faith Hill, among others, and she never left.
“After I got with John was when I really began to pay attention to artistry, songwriting, producing,” Wilson says, often joining Legend in the studio and co-writing a number of songs with him, including “Save Room” “PDA,” “We Just Don’t Care,” “Heaven Only Knows” and “Another Again.”
“He gave me access, showed me the evolution of a song from thought to writing to recording to how it gets out to an audience. I went from wanting to perform to wanting to be a recording artist. He moves and I just watch.”
Jessy Wilson relocated to Nashville herself in 2013, meeting her future husband, Jim McFarlin, a DJ and songwriter who co-wrote with her on “Phase,” the very first day she arrived in town to stay for good.
“I was deeply impacted by the culture, craft and songwriting there,” she said. “It became obvious that was place for me to be. There’s a real balance of creative and personal life. The craft of songwriting seemed so much broader in that environment. I’ve always loved blues and soul – the more traditional sound of Black music – and Nashville gave me the space to be that way.”
The Muddy Magnolias was her first brush with recognition. The group received much media attention after performing at the 2014 CMA Music Festival, with Rolling Stone comparing her vocals to Aretha Franklin, and contributed an original song, “American Woman,” to the soundtrack of the 2016 all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot.
“With Kallie, we never had to learn how to blend,” says Wilson. “We just sounded incredible together. There was some great musical chemistry.”
With “Phase,” Wilson discovered another side of herself, with more luxurious, expansive, cinematic backdrops, as she eschewed her big voice and went inward. An admitted Black Keys fanatic (listen to “Devil’s Teeth” on the Muddy Magnolias album “Broken People”), Wilson wanted to work with Carney “because I knew he could create this sonic world. I always wanted to hear my voice over these backdrops like the Beatles or Danger Mouse.”
As the longest shot for a Grammy in a superstar-crowded category, Jessy is still basking in the spotlight, even if the fact that the song was, at first, not specifically created for the film disqualifies it from the best original song category at the Academy Awards.
“I expect great things to come from this,” she says about the Grammy nod. “I want to continue down this path, and I’m hoping more producers and directors will reach out to me to write songs for their movies.”
Jessy just finished working on a “really dope” track with the Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada and is actively writing again. “I’m back in the game, baby,” she exults. “I’m 100% a free agent and in ownership of all my creativity. It’s a good place to be.”
And she’s ready to grow her family. Wilson just had successful surgery for 27 individual growths in her uterus and is now hoping to move forward with her art and personal life. “Keep Rising” is not just a Grammy-nominated song, it’s also the best way to describe Jessy Wilson’s future.