Over the years, Jody Watley has proven to be a conqueror of uncharted territory for black female artistry.
As a solo artist she ruled the charts in the 1980s with songs like “A New Love,“ “Real Love,” and “Friends,“ featuring Rakim. When she first pitched the concept of having a rapper on her pop song to her record company, executives didn’t get it. They even tried to convince her to use Will Smith who was more popular at the time. But after digging in her heels, she got her way and it paid off. “Friends” made Ms. Watley the first mainstream artist to feature a rapper spitting 16 bars.
The Grammy Award winning performer learned early on how to apply that sort of tenacity when she got her start as a Soul Train dancer after being turned away several times in the beginning. Eventually she became a stand-out, which led to her being handpicked as a member of the famous group Shalamar. It’s her voice that anchors late 1970s and early ’80s tunes like, “Second Time Around” and “A Night To Remember,” which still have the power to move any crowd.
An even more brilliant part of her illustrious solo career is how she consciously made high fashion a direct backdrop for her music. Before Madonna donned the Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra, Ms. Watley had already discovered the little known designer’s work during her time living in London. She was so taken by his designs, she bought several pieces and made them the focal points for some of her most noted music videos and photo shoots. Her style was fresh, daring, unfamiliar, fashion forward–but wearable. Yet like many visionaries–especially black women visionaries–convincing the powers that be to get on board with her ideas was a never ending mission.
For the first installment of our “Questions For A Legend” interview series, I spoke to Jody Watley–a woman who continues to serve as an inspiration to black girls everywhere. We talked about how she stayed grounded in such a tough industry for so many years, why fashion was so important to her as a musician, and the new music she’s blessed the world with.
Browse through our gallery to see some of our favorite looks from Jody Watley over the years.
Abi Ishola: Your voice is undoubtedly one of the many that paints a clear picture of the greatest moments in music history. How do you feel knowing that or maybe hearing yourself on the radio randomly when you’re out and about or in your car?
Jody Watley: I’m always very excited, humbled, and still like a little kid. Not to long ago I posted on my Instagram that I was going into the grocery store and my song was on. I captured myself pulling over in the car and turning the radio up because it was one of my songs. So I still get excited. I’m never jaded by it. I still get just as excited as I was in the beginning.
Abi: You were discovered by Don Cornelius when you were a dancer for Soul Train. He then grouped you with the other members of Shalamar…
JW: Yes, that is true. My first time on stage was with my god father who was Jackie Wilson when I was a little girl. My father who passed away many years ago, I feel like he was the first person who really believed in me before I even knew what my destiny would be because he would always say I was going to be a star. He would say, ‘You’re gonna be a star. You’re gonna be a star. You’re gonna be a star,’ and I would look at the sky and say, ‘like stars in the sky dad?’
JW: My father and my mother are very influential. My father was a very dynamic minister. A lot of his showmanship, though in a different field, I definitely get from he and my mom who sang a little bit. My dad was quite a character. I know a lot of what I do was initially that root of that foundation to believe in myself which he would always tell me, it really still carries me through to this day.
Abi: It’s beautiful to acknowledge your parents and your family. I also love the story you’ve told about being a dancer for Soul Train and how you started and how they sent you home a few times in the beginning.
JW: It’s just really a story of being determined and something that I’ve shared many times, to never give up. And that did happen to me—going there and getting turned away and going back. As a singer for the over three decades that I’ve been a recording artist, almost going on four decades now, including the seven years I was in Shalamar but the longest as a solo artist. That tenacity is something that is still a part of me as I’ve come along from being a teenager at that time, and just never giving up.
I was just thinking about Kanye West’s meltdown the other day. This industry, it could really mess people up, the fame the fortune. I think of myself starting as a teenager, I just feel really blessed that I haven’t become a statistic of the business, and especially in the industry with the different pressures that come along with it.
But again, a lot of my foundational strength comes from the way my parents raised me— like during those moments of dark times that you have to call upon [something] to survive disappointments and rejections to get to the triumphs, and [through] those peaks and valleys. It’s not always easy. I was thinking about him and he’s in my prayers. So asking me about those moments when I was a teenager for me, I just relate it to having to be determined.
A lot of people want to be in show business, especially today with social media and everything. Sometimes it’s more about being famous and not really thinking about the work involved, the inner turmoil, and the politics of the business, and all of these things that you’re faced with. Unless you come from a show business family, there’s really no guidebook on how to navigate all of this. So I just feel really blessed and fortunate to still do what I love no matter what.
Abi: Speaking of young artists, do you have any favorite young artists?
JW: When I look at Rihanna and Beyoncé and Ciara and Janelle Monáe, all of them, I feel like a proud big sister because I can see how they’ve taken things to a higher level.
With my solo debut and my second album, and all of that, when I was asked to be in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, my label didn’t even want to fly me to New York to have those opportunities. I flew myself out there because I knew, but they didn’t see what being in a fashion magazine had to do with selling records.
At that time, even though there were other popular singers like Madonna and Janet Jackson, they weren’t do fashion like I was, and so to open that door and to always just be authentic…you know I wanted a fashion line and the business people thought, like ‘why? what is that?’ It’s because people wanted to dress like me, they wanted to be like me, so when I see Rihanna getting Shoe Designer of the Year, or her brand with Puma I love all of that and I feel very proud because I feel indirectly a part of the strides that they’ve been able to make.
Abi: There’s no doubt you are a fashion icon. One example of that is the fact that you were wearing Jean Paul Gaultier before Madonna. Yet record labels tried to put you in a box because of your style. How so?
JW: For me it was about representing authenticity and hopefully inspiring others to always be themselves. If you feel like the offbeat, the outcast—you know. People used to tease me because my bottom teeth were crooked, ‘why don’t you get your teeth fixed?’ Well, I like my crooked teeth. When I was in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful, that’s one of the things that I said—learning to embrace ourselves and love ourselves and not the typical standards that industries try to put on us, especially black women, and women in general. The music industry is always trying to make women be something else, so anyone who can hold on to themselves and be who they are and be themselves, is very important to me. It has always been that way.
Watley after receiving Best New Artist Grammy award. She wore a cocktail dress with an edgy leather jacket, a look that still works today.
Abi: What inspired your style?
JW: I just looked to anything that no one else was doing. For instance, with Jean Paul Gaultier, I was living in London at the time. He wasn’t famous yet and I was in some off beat boutique, and I thought, wow, this is really cool. It’s different. So I started getting his pieces back then. When he blew up and he became Jean Paul Gaultier, I was like, oh my God, I have some of his stuff from the early days. He recently had an exhibition in France, one of my fans got him to sign the cover to, “Don’t You Want Me,” in which I’m wearing the cone bra which I got in ‘83/’84. Also, I was supposed to close one of his fashion shows. He had a special fashion show here in Los Angeles back in 1992. I was going to be the bride. I was pregnant with my son at the time, and—one of my great disappointments—although my son ended up not being born that night, I went into false labor. So though I had fitted for this fabulous one of a kind creations for the show, I wasn’t able to do it. I went to the hospital and they sent me home and said, you’re not ready yet. [laughs]
My other influences—I’ve always liked vintage clothes because you can find pieces that are unique and I’ve always liked having clothes made too. For instance, when I won the Grammy award for Best New Artist, I wore a $10 cocktail dress that I got at a thrift store and I paired it with a biker jacket. That look is still rocking today. So it was like something edgy with something pretty. I hadn’t seen anyone pairing those things together. So it was always looking to do things so I didn’t look like anybody else. Even in my video I was never doing choreography and group dancing because to me that was Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be fashion and attitude and baddass and it set me a part from those artists.
Jody Watley wearing Gaultier, 1985
Abi: Did you happen to keep any of the amazing pieces you wore back then?
JW: I do have quite a few of them. Some of them were lost during my divorce. My ex-husband said, well I didn’t think you wanted them, so he got rid of them, which I was not happy about—my collectibles. Luckily I didn’t catch a case [laughs]
Abi: [Laughs] He’slucky you didn’t catch a case. Listen.
JW: [laughs] We shared a storage space so when I went to get my stuff he said, I got rid of it. I thought you didn’t want it. But a friend of mine has a popular consignment store here and we’ve been talking about maybe doing a retrospective of some of my pieces and showing how those looks are still relevant today. So I think that would be really cool.
Jody Watley, Vogue Italia
Abi: You were in Vogue IT’s historic “The Black Issue.” What was that like for you?
JW: I was so shocked. I think I bought 20 copies at $40 a piece [laughs].
Abi: Oh my God [Laughs]. There were different covers.
JW: It was a hot selling issue. I exaggerate, but I bought [several]. It was such a beautiful issue. Unfortunately on one hand, it was the black issue. We should always be represented. Black girls, we always hold it down.
JW: But it was such a beautiful issue and to be included…For me it meant a lot also because like I said, through my career, especially at the beginning, I would always get, ‘you’re not black enough.’ At the label, the urban department would say, we’re hearing that she’s not black enough. And I was always like, well what the hell does that mean? I’m a black woman. How much blacker do I need to be? I’m myself, I’m well spoken, I was an honors student, I’ve had my struggles. I haven’t worn them on my sleeve. I haven’t used them to market my career, but I’m as street as they come because I’m always hustling.
So to be in the “Black Issue” of all the other artists but to be recognized as a trendsetter in that particular issue, it was everything. It’s one of many highlights that is right up there.
I went to the newsstand—because I didn’t know until it came out that I was going to be in it. I had been in Italian Vogue before and other magazines like that. But it was awesome.
Abi: You’re back with new music. Your new single “Sanctuary” is a smooth track and of course it has your signature vocals on it. Talk about the song and what it means.
JW: “Sanctuary” is really like the many songs that I’ve written over my career. Sometimes the songs are things I’ve gone through or want to say. Some songs I want to make a statement for others if I get an empowering message or something. “Sanctuary” was a song I wanted to write because my home life has kept me and keeps me grounded and sane. I’ve raised two children. One just graduated from college and my son, he’s in college and they’re grounded. Our home life, I created an environment of love. Leave the world behind when you close the door.
I was in my house one day and I was thinking, I need to write a song about just chillin’ at home. You don’t hear songs like that—‘fill these walls with happy times and fill these rooms with peace of mind.’ I wanted to remind people how important home is.