Before she was a renowned R&B singer, Jill Scott was working the boisterous poetry circuit in Philadelphia. So when she gave a spoken-word performance last May at the White House, she was going back to her roots -- albeit in front of a slightly more intimidating audience, including President Barack Obama.
Scott met the occasion head-on, smiling and acknowledging a hint of nervousness, yet punching hard. Among her three readings was “Womanifesto,” a bold declaration of “don’t-box-me-in” feminine empowerment that she toned down only slightly. As she said by way of conclusion, she was "indeed the shiznit."
The piece, also a centerpiece of her latest album, “The Light of the Sun” (Blues Babe Records/Warner Brothers), is a humorous and pointed response to those who would reduce women to mere physical specimens to be ogled, seduced and discarded.
“A woman is more than the sum of her parts,” Scott says with a laugh. “So I had an opportunity to present some work at the White House, I chose not just to talk about the sky, the planet, love or heartache. I wanted to actually be there, to place a mark on that moment.”
And how. “Womanifesto” was easily the most irreverent piece presented at “An Evening of Poetry at the White House.”
“I’ve been reading poetry publicly for 20 years, and this is what you do – you express, you sometimes dig a bit to get a conversation started,” Scott says. “That’s the point of poetry. You’re supposed to go, ‘Hmmmm,’ and ‘Woooh!’ The First lady has come to see me perform, so she knows my scene.”
It was Scott’s first trip to the White House, and she’s still in awe about the experience: “There’s amazing artwork in every single room. I thought, ‘Wow, Jackie Kennedy was a beast.’ She really put her stamp on the White House. The experience was amazing, including the Marines in dress white who gently, gently, gently pushed us out the door of the East Room (after the reading). The next thing you know you’re out of the room, and the door is closed and locked behind you. I felt the authority there, but by no means was it rude. I appreciate that kind of tact.”
Scott brings that same attention to detail to her music. Over four albums, she’s blown out the boundaries of the so-called neo-soul movement that she helped build. A skilled lyricist with a gift for vivid imagery and a powerful singer, she makes her every gesture feel conversational, intimate, off-the-cuff. “The Light of the Sun” was recorded after a tumultuous period in Scott’s personal life, when she went through a divorce, gave birth to a child, broke up with the father, and switched record labels. That turmoil doesn’t defeat her; instead the overriding impression left by the new album is one of resilience, of rising above.
“This album renewed my sense of what music is supposed to feel like for me,” she says. “It’s not a job, it’s not a chore. Sometimes I felt as a writer I was purging and it almost hurt to purge to that level. Now it doesn’t feel that way, maybe because I’m older. Maybe life has given me some punches, but it didn’t knock me down. Going in, the most important feeling was fun. I didn’t want simple rhythms. I wanted you to feel something in your foot, in your back, your fingers, your groin. I definitely wanted to speak to that area. I watch the way people dance now, and it’s all two step. They’re not using whole bodies. I wanted them to feel more free.”
To get to that place, Scott says, she and producer JR Hutson didn’t rush anything. The album took a year-and-a-half to complete, in part because Scott was also busy with an acting career that has seen her star in the HBO series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”
“I like to be in the now, now,” she says. “Sometimes musicians have to wait for me to be genuine with it. As an actor, I don’t have that luxury. You have to make it legit when they say ‘action.’ With singing, we talk, drink, laugh, we might even cry a little. Maybe not do a thing. But eventually something happens, at the right time when I feel it the most. A note might be off, the timing may not be great, but the feel is right. When I sing, I have to live in that moment, so my audience can feel that. That is my reason for doing art.”
Jill Scott: 7 p.m. Sunday at Charter One Pavilion, Northerly Island, $49.75, $85.75, $105.75. $175.75; livenation.com.
Copyright © 2015, RedEye