Canada has never been the most successful home for urban, R&B, and hip-hop musicians. It's a hard genre in which to prosper, and the few that have succeeded do so with the odds stacked against them. Toronto R&B singer Jully Black is one such artist, who struggled for years before she earned a name as a songwriter for artists including Nas and Destiny's Child. Black's first single came out in 1998, but no full-length album came until 2005, with This is Me. When Black let loose with the firecracker of a record called Revival in 2007, she earned numerous award nominations and made a big impression on Canadian urban music. The Canadian R&B/urban field is a tough nut to crack, but Black was able to share the stage with Jay-Z, Usher and 50 Cent. Her take on the Etta James tune "Seven Day Fool" on her second album was a hit across the border as well. Black's style was not considered vintage and retro like that of Amy Winehouse, but she produced a more diverse set of songs. "My biggest accomplishment is gaining international recognition while being able to maintain my maple leaf status," Black stated in her biography on the MapleMusic Web site. "Music is the only language that every race, every nation can speak and understand. Music is medicine."
Agatha, Black's mother, grew up in Jamaica but moved to Toronto to seek a better life. Her daughter, born Jully Ann Inderia Gordon in 1977 in Toronto, Ontario, grew up in a single-parent home as the youngest child of nine. Her life wasn't easy; her twin brother died at birth, her father left when she was seven, and when Black was ten she unexpectedly lost an older sister. Her mother's strong will and dedication to keeping her family together seeped into Black at a young age. Music was a safe place for the entire family. Black began singing in the church choir at seven. A few years later, after winning a local talent show and singing at events around town, Black began back-and-forth trips to New York to sing and record. But after graduating from Oakwood Collegiate, she went to Seneca College for law enforcement training. "I've always loved law because I experienced injustice," Black told Toronto Life journalist Olivia Stren. "When you know your rights and responsibilities, you're untouchable."
Music was always tugging at Black's heartstrings. In 1998, at age 20, Black signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music Canada, and as she began to write songs for other artists, she developed her own style of singing. She worked with established Canadian R&B artists Kardinal Offishall and Choclair at her start. In 1998 Black recorded and released the R&B Top 40 track "Rally'n," for which she was nominated for her first Juno Award. After that hit track, however, there were no record labels courting her. So her music was set aside, and she had to go back to her job as a bank teller. "I signed autographs on withdrawal slips, then went to the bathroom and cried," Black admitted to Stren. Black's songwriting chops, however, weren't ignored. In 2002, "You Changed," a song written by Black and Kenny Whitehead, landed on the soundtrack to the popular film Brown Sugar.
Black finally got the chance to make her own record when she signed a deal with MCA. She recorded an album titled I Traveled, which was due for a 2003 release. After MCA folded in Canada, the album got shelved, and Black was back to working on music for other people. Black got the chance to play some of her tracks from I Traveled for American rapper Nas. He liked them so much that he borrowed her tune "The Things You Do," asked Black to sing on it, and renamed it "Heaven" for his 2002 album God's Son. "I Traveled," another forgotten track from her failed MCA debut, found its way onto the compilation album Women & Songs 7, where Black stood tall alongside household names like Jewel, Alanis Morissette, and Michelle Branch. Black received a major writing opportunity when she co-wrote the track "I Know" for Destiny's Child. The song appeared on Unity: The Official Athens 2004 Olympic Games Album. "Writing for Destiny's Child was huge for me," she stated in the MapleMusic biography. "It was amazing to hear them sing something I wrote in my bedroom on my guitar."
With her recording career in question, in 2005 Black took a role in the Toronto production of Da King in My Hair at the Princess of Wales Theater. She also landed a job hosting Juno parties and as a celebrity TV reporter for CTV's eTalk. After tours with the Black Eyed Peas, Black struck up a friendship with Peas' drummer Keith Harris. For her sophomore album for Universal, Black brought in Harris, who had worked with Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige and Michael Jackson. She wanted to have more of a hand in every aspect of her second record and take control of her music. "For This Is Me, I might have sat there while they made the beats," she told Elle Canada writer Mary Dickie, "but this has live drums, live horns, live strings, live everything. And even though we're using technology, we have to be able to perform it live. You only get one chance onstage."
In 2007 Universal released Black's sophomore album, Revival. Its lead single, "Seven Day Fool," became a top hit across urban radio. It was a bumped up, danceable re-take on the old Etta James version. The track put Black's raspy voice to good use, recalling the retro style of Amy Winehouse, with an urban edge. "I'm ready, I'm happy, I'm confident. I'm ready to celebrate everything that comes to be Jully Black: mind, body and soul," Black proclaimed to Rob Williams of the Winnipeg Free Press. "It's nice to be able to give the fans a little more on their palate than one thing. It's fun for me." Black knows Canadian R&B isn't the most lucrative style of music in Canada, but with Revival, she has put a firm foot in its neo-history. "Revival rocks rightly, plays it safe and essentially ensures Black a lengthy and award-winning Canadian career," wrote Ryan B. Patrick in Exclaim!. Black finally won her first Juno Award in 2008 when Revival picked up an award for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year. Exploring all sides of her creative self, Black was also hired as a judge on Canadian Idol in June of 2008.
For the Record …
Born Jully Ann Inderia Gordon in 1977, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Wrote songs with and for artists including Destiny's Child and Nas; signed to Universal Music Canada, 2005; released debut album, This is Me, 2005; released Revival, 2007.
Awards: Juno Award, R&B/Soul Recording of the Year, for Revival, 2008.
Addresses: Record company—Universal Canada, 2450 Victoria Park Ave., Ste. 1, Toronto, ON, Canada M2J 5H3. Web site—Jully Black Official Web site: http://www.jullyblack.com.
(Contributor) Brown Sugar (soundtrack), MCA, 2002.
(Contributor) Women & Songs 7, WEA, 2003.
This is Me, Universal Music Canada, 2005.
Revival, Universal Music Canada, 2007.
Exclaim! (Canada), December 2007.
Toronto Life, December 2005, p. 21.
Winnipeg Free Press, November 7, 2007.
"Canadian R&B singer Jully Black is back," Elle Canada,http://www.ellecanada.com/Trends/culture/canadian-r-b-singer-jully-black-is-back-n239714p1.html (June 25, 2008).
Jully Black Biography, MapleMusic, http://www.maplemusic.com/artists/jbl/bio.asp (June 25, 2008).