JULLY BLACK with NAS , KANYE WEST , LUDACRIS , CIARA , FAT JOE , LIL jon and the EASTSIDE BOYZ , BUSTA RHYMES , MOS DEF , RASCALZ , KARDINAL OFFISHAL , KESHIA CHANTÉ , BROOKE VALENTINE , MELANIE DURRANT and more at the Getting Up Festival at the Docks (11 Polson), Saturday and Sunday (August 13 and 14). $58.25-$93.52. 416-870-8000, www.ecko.com, www.ticketmaster.ca. Rating: NNNNN
Jully Black is the Mary J. Blige of Canadian hiphop. So several weeks after the release of her debut album, This Is Me (Universal), and a week before she storms the stage at the Getting Up Festival, I wonder what's the 411?
The mere mention of Blige elicits a groan. But later Black acknowledges that if it weren't for the queen of hiphop, the music industry might never have made time for an artist like her.
"I'm flattered because Mary is one of the best out there," she says from the Toronto home she bought to share with her mother. "She changed the (R&B) game, made it what it is. I think we sound different, though, if you compare us note for note. What we have is a shared sense of strength, of going after what we want and not taking any bullshit."
Black, too, has changed the game, if only on a national level. Cavorting about with Toronto's Circle Crew since the 90s, she's left her raspy wail on nearly every classic hiphop song you hear when CanCon requirements have to be met. Not to mention her solo joints Rally'n, You've Changed and I Traveled. (The first broke her into the top 40, the second showed up on the Brown Sugar soundtrack, and the last one appears on Women & Songs 7).
She was raised by a single mom who fled Jamaica in search of opportunity, and grew up in the Jane and Finch area. But her hardest struggle has been getting to this point - from record deal to having a record.
"I'd be lying if I said there isn't a lot of pressure when you wait 10 years for someone to call your ticket," she says. After all that time in the pressure cooker of this country's music industry, Black has her doubts. While critics worldwide laud Canadian artists, we neglect our urban stars.
"For there to be major rock stars from Canada and not one major R&B star isn't right," she says. "Is it a conspiracy? What's going on? It's like you get to the gates and you have the wrong key."
I have no answers for her,though it's a thought I've wrestled with. Why do we embrace Amerie or Ciara before Jully Black? Black doesn't have the answers either. But she says, using her career as a measuring stick, that you can be a black artist in Canada and be well off, but don't expect to be diving into pools filled with cash.
Enter the need to travel south of the border. First as a teenager and now as a grown woman, Black has written for (and worked with) some of America's best producers and artists. I Know, by Destiny's Child? Black co-wrote it. Wikked Lil' Grrrls, by the esoteric Esthero? Check the credits.
Hell, homegirl is so soulful, Nas put her on God's Son. He graces her album with a verse on Material Things. But people are shocked when Black reveals she's from Toronto.
"I know that my music isn't necessarily Canada-centric," she says. "I have a strong sense of who I am. I am a pioneer. When I do travel, my sense of individuality and sense of being Canadian are what separates me. But people (still) don't believe I'm Canadian."
In July, she met R&B great Patti Labelle at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Labelle - won over by Black's booming yet sensitive vocal chops - just had to ask, "Girl, where you from?"