'We don't make mistakes, we make decisions': Jully Black on charting a new path

TORONTO — Jully Black is sitting on a gold mine of positivity.

Call it self-love, sheer confidence or finally recognizing her own worth. Whatever it is, she's got it, and she wants everyone around her to hop on her wavelength, and stop fretting about past losses.

"My mom always used to say we don't make mistakes, we make decisions," the Toronto R&B singer says, while sitting in her dressing room before rehearsals for her stage debut.

"All of those what I thought were bad decisions, or the wrong decisions, were exactly to take me here."

It's one of several times the performer, born Jullyann Gordon, draws on inspiration from her late mother Agatha when digging into why she took a starring role in the musical "Caroline, or Change," currently running at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre until Feb. 15.

She plays the title character, a maid who's employed for $30 a week by a family in 1963 Louisiana. After years as a loyal worker, Caroline raises concerns her salary isn't enough to live on, and her bosses respond by suggesting she collect pocket change from their laundry.

The story is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, and co-stars Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman. But as much as it reflects on class and race struggles, the heart of the musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori is the resilience of black women.

And that's where Black says her late mother's memory offered a hand, in a sense. She was a domestic worker in Jamaica at one time, though it was under more favourable circumstances, and when she died in November 2017 she left a legacy that Black has shouldered.

"We spent all the time we could spend in this realm together," she says. "And like a relay team, it's a baton. I'm really doing her work. She's handing me the baton."

The 42-year-old singer was already sprinting in the music industry years ago. She launched her music career as a teenager, and throughout the late 1990s became one of the prominent voices of Canadian R&B/Soul music. She sang the chorus on Baby Blue Soundcrew's hip-hop cult favourite "Money Jane" with Sean Paul, and ignited her own solo career with hits such as "Sweat of Your Brow," before picking up a Juno award for her 2007 album "Revival," which included radio favourite "Seven Day Fool."

Her enterprising personality found other avenues to spread her positive vibes along the way, including as a correspondent on CTV's entertainment show "Etalk" and more recently as the owner of 100 Strong and Sexy, a Toronto-based fitness program.

But her optimism hasn't come without its setbacks. Last year, shortly after she committed to her role in "Caroline, or Change," Black was stricken with a nasty winter flu that stressed her voice and ultimately led to a vocal cord hemorrhage.

Doctors urged her to undergo an emergency surgery, and last March she was ordered not to sing or speak for three months — a suggestion she mostly followed. It forced her to tap the brakes on her career, which had become a hectic itinerary of public appearances and meetings over her fitness company's rollout in the wake of her mother's death.

"I believe it happened at the right time for where I was mentally and spiritually," she says.

"I got that sick because my immunity was compromised... Working too much, working out too much."

Hitting reset gave Black an opportunity to become "less possessive" of certain words that she believes only encourage a negative outlook on life. In particular, she made a conscious effort to detach from words like "myself" in relation to loss.

"All that 'My' stuff, I believe, is causing more emotional damage because we own it," she says.

"(It's not) my mom died. It's the woman who helped give me life passed away. So then the whole notion of ownership doesn't feel like such a big loss... I really want to, as I'm doing the work, share and help other people. Change your mind and change your life."

Over the past year, as she prepared for "Caroline, or Change," Black says she's focused on being more present in the moment. While she's still active on social media, she's trying to pull herself out of her phone, and she's put her energy into several projects, including a new album called "2020" that's due later this year.

The title recognizes her movement into a new decade, but also the perspective of having a "clear vision" of herself.

"I want the whole world to know, beyond see, that in my presence you're going to feel good, no matter what," she says.

"I call it the 'Jully Joy Bank.' You can come dip into my joy bank and get joy — for real. I want people to know that what I do, I do on purpose."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2020.

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David Friend, The Canadian Press