FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Now, I'd like to introduce one of the fiercest female singers on the R&B scene.
LEDISI (Singer/Songwriter): Well, my name is Ledisi. And what I'm told from my parents is that it's a Nigerian word from the Yoruba cultures and a Yoruba song, and it means to bring forth to come here. It's Ledisi.
CHIDEYA: From her name to her music, Ledisi is a true original. Her music a gumbo of jazz, R&B, soul and blues.
(Soundbite of song, "You and Me")
LEDISI: (Singing) Come here, baby, let me do your hair. Tell me, boo, about your worries and your cares. Explain to me exactly what you need. I'm here for you and I aim to please. Ooh, I got your my back when those foos be talkin' smack, 'cause they're jealous on this thing we got. I'm the one that be giving you.
CHIDEYA: Now, Ledisi's been nominated for two Grammy awards, but she struggled for more than a decade as an independent artist. We asked Ledisi to lead us through her musical journey, including a time she's saying with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra when she was only 8 years old.
LEDISI: In New Orleans, when I was younger, we'd always have music around the house, so my mother and stepfather put me in programs that were around in school. And I had a teacher named Ms. Zeigler(ph) and she went ahead and enrolled me into that NOCA - New Orleans Symphony Chorus for the Youth.
CHIDEYA: What were you like then as a girl?
LEDISI: Oh, man. I was very shy. I was very, very skinny with big eyes. I was very awkward and I got beat up after school every day. I don't know why.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LEDISI: I don't remember. I was always the darkest one, and just odd looking all the time. My sisters are very fair and long, pretty hair. And I would just look like the odd ball in the bunch.
CHIDEYA: We discuss color sometimes on the show, where there's been a number different of conversations around it, like the light-skinned libras. How do you feel about your skin now?
LEDISI: You know, I love my skin right now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LEDISI: I'm so happy to be in my skin. I started loving myself towards the end of my record, probably two, three years ago. It took a long time, you know, to start loving myself. I had a lot of people telling me I'm not pretty enough. It was tough.
CHIDEYA: Well, I got to see you see when I used to live in the Bay Area, and this is some years ago, and you just controlled the room.
(Soundbite of cheering)
LEDISI: How y'all doin'? You feelin' good? We are been.
When I sing - and it's live - I become this other thing. I become this old lady preacher or sassy-Bessie or something. You know, the audience is my congregation and I just do whatever. And I'm real and honest to not point it out the things that people don't like to talk about. So that's what artists are supposed to do anyway to take people away from what's regular. And I love that. Live is just a personal relationship between you and your audience, and you get to sing and be. And sometime we misuse that power.
(Soundbite of music)
LEDISI: (Singing) Let me hear say it. 'Cause I've been here. What? Yeah, and it sounds good. Come on. You're feelin' good?
CHIDEYA: Speaking of things that might not make some people happy or going into new controversial territory, you did the song "Papa Loved to Love Me" and it was about sexual abuse. Tell me how your family or friends reacted to you doing a song that really laid out some issues that people don't normally talk about.
LEDISI: Well, you have that - it's a true story. Everything I write, it either starts with me or it's something I've seen or whatever, but that particular song was definitely a poem that I written years ago and recorded it. And I was so freaking out the whole process. I can only sing it twice.
(Soundbite of the song, "Papa Loved to Love Me")
LEDISI: (Singing) No, no, no. Please don't, no. I remember all like it's yesterday. I remember praying, Jesus, won't you come my way. I remember the lick upon his breath. He's patting on my thigh. I couldn't scream. All I did was cry.
So then when it finally made it into someone's hands, like my mother and family, I just - I was worried that they were going to be mad at me because, you know, in our culture, we don't like to tell a lot of things that go on behind closed doors. And my mother loved it, was happy that I told the truth. Sometimes you had to go through the pain to get to the healing. So I'm very proud of that that I did that.
CHIDEYA: You have put a lot of work into your career, not just the creative, but also self-producing your albums, which can't have been easy. But this disk, "Lost and Found," takes you into territory where you're a lot more produced. What was it like to give up that control but also get other people's talents into your music?
LEDISI: Well, for me, I produced everything with the producers that are on my record. I still had a lot of control. I had started on my record before I sign with a major label. I didn't know how I was going to pay for it. These were friends of mine. We were hanging out. We didn't have a plan. Everything was just, let's just hang and write something together and let don't stress about it because I was really weary of recording again. I didn't want to go back in the studio and go back into the hot seat of pressure of being an artist again. I just really wanted to just teach and be quiet, you know, and not perform. I was really done with the business. And to have finished it and to know towards the end of the record that all of this is worth it, win or lose, I just had a wonderful time making it.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about the title track.
LEDISI: "Lost and Found" is about being lost in the beginning and then being found towards the end of this record.
(Soundbite of song, "Lost and Found")
LEDISI: (Singing) Always alone, someone come for me. Here on my own, feels like the pain last in eternity. Tears come no more. I want to smile again, love again. Please someone find me.
Really during the process of everything, I put my faith. I started to align myself in faith.
And once I learned that, then everything else started to become clear for me towards the end of the record. It became clear that I belong in the industry. It became clear that I deserve happiness, and I should start loving myself even more, and just being happy with everything as I am because all this time, I've been asking to be found, asking to be heard and listened to, asking for spiritual guidance. Everything just came. So when I finished, I was like, yes, you know? It was kind of like shedding old skin.
CHIDEYA: Well, other folks are finding you. You got these two Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best R&B Album. When did you find out and what went through your head at that point?
LEDISI: Well, when I got a call about the Grammy nominations, I just freaked out. My mouth just dropped. And I just screamed, and frantically around the house, just calling everybody I can think of. And I call my mom, and she hung up on me. So it was a great experience to have that happen. I'm floored.
CHIDEYA: Does it strike you as strange, in a way, that you have been in the game for so long, and now you're getting a nomination for Best New Artist?
LEDISI: I don't know. Their definition of new is different from what everybody else thinks it is. So I'm just happy they think I belong in this category. And I'm very excited about it. I let others debate on that. But for me, I'm just happy to be a part of it, honestly. Nothing and no one can take this feeling away. It's exciting for me.
CHIDEYA: Ledisi, well, we wish you good luck at the Grammy's. Have a great time. And thank you for talking to us.
LEDISI: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
CHIDEYA: Singer/songwriter Ledisi. Her new CD is called "Lost and Found." And you can hear two songs from the album at our Web site nprnewsandnotes.org.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. No spaces, just nprnewsandnotes.org.
To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
Tomorrow, it's the birthplace of Motown and home to the U.S. auto industry. We take a look ahead as Michigan host its primaries.
I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.