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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Vesta Williams and Women In Music.


Jody Watley pictured with Vesta Williams 
Hearing the shocking and sad news of the untimely passing of R&B powerhouse Vesta Williams makes me feel for her family and friends. The sudden loss of music and film stars in my own age demographic or those that I've grown up appreciating always gives me an even deeper sense of pause and reflection.
It was just a few months ago on The Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage Cruise that I met Vesta, who was onboard for Sheryl Lee Ralph's DIVAS as well, along with Angela Winbush and rapper Yo-Yo. I'd been a last minute addition and was happy to meet these music ladies for the first time.
After exchanging hello's once being introduced, Vesta wanted to apologize if I'd ever been offended that she used to make jokes and do impressions of me in her show some years ago. I laughed and said I'd heard about it, but wasn't offended at all. I told her I'm sure it was all in fun and I have a great sense of humor. Her comedic skills and effervescent personality were apparent.
The ladies all mentioned that though fans might assume all artists may know each other; it's actually a very isolated journey. Even if you are doing a show with someone, it doesn't guarantee making a connection. This get together was acknowledged as a rarity.
The ladies and I (including Vesta) ended up sharing stories of the harsh realities and struggles of being a woman in this industry over lunch onboard the ship.
This is true regardless of mainstream crossover, R&B or local level success. It was an empowering conversation ending with us all wishing each other well and thoughts of creating more opportunities amongst us (touring or spot dates in select cities) despite obvious roadblocks. We acknowledged being aware that many booking agents hold an antiquated view that women can't work together or fans just have no interest to see them together - regardless of how many hits you may have or how great the show may be. Sexism like most 'isms is alive and well. The conversation was full of laughs as well as a shared understanding.

Make no mistake, the music business can be treacherous and pressure filled for men as well. The start of the trial against Conrad Murray and the tragic and suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Jackson is a sad reminder of that fact.

It's no secret though that women (especially of color) are the first to be marginalized, dismissed or abused in some way. It takes a lot to not end up jaded or beat down emotionally - especially if you've been at this for any length of time. This is another reason some women in music choose to exit the business entirely, limit their own exposure choosing other outlets or simply remain closer to home in more domestic and family oriented environments. There are also those who have no choice as primary providers than to try to take whatever work you can get. It's not as glamorous as portrayed - this business of music.

I remember being 19 years old on my first promotional tour in Shalamar. I was groped by the Program Director of a major R&B station while posing for the customary photo when visiting a radio station. Further, he attempted to have me sit on his lap at his desk for another photo and became agitated when I refused and pulled away. Though new and naive to the business and being intimidated by the situation, I expressed my anger and disapproval at his actions. Instead of someone coming to my aid, I was laughed at and told to sop being so 'emotional'. I was subsequently reprimanded severely by the label owner/manager for not accommodating this apparently powerful Program Director. He'd threatened to pull our music off of the playlist and kill the song. I was made to apologize, though I did nothing wrong. It was more about the airplay than my being harassed. In my own early learning curve, I knew being a girl in this business wasn't going to be easy - especially if you stood up for yourself.
The ladies and I discussed that it seemed to some degree unless you were willing to practically sell your soul, lower your standards, self-respect, professionalism and expectation of other's - it's even harder. You end up labeled "Difficult." for having standards and requirements.  Some are fortunate enough to become a part of 'the machine', inner circles of the old boy's network of R&B, or other political networks that make the road easier.
The process can be draining or you can also find yourself blackballed for your principles.

Learning of the news about Vesta made me reflect back on the conversation as well as being a part of this industry for so many decades. Women; most of us while navigating the instabilities of the business of music are often wives and mothers, stepmothers as well, adding to the pressure. As a Mom I always put my daughter and son first which may have cost professionally but personally it's the greatest reward - we choose our priorities.
What all of us learned on the ship that day was though our journeys are individual there are similarities to our stories regardless of the levels of perceived success. Fans have no idea of what it takes to try to make it in this business. Some also battle inner turmoil - like the great Phyllis Hyman. I thought about her as well over these past few days.
Though appearance is a part of the music and film business (always has been and always will be especially for women) each of us wants nothing more than for the music to be heard and appreciated by as many as possible while remaining as authentic as possible. 

Rejection is common requiring growing a tough outer exterior (especially in today's culture of scandal, sensationalism, mean- spiritedness whether anonymous or from bloggers). Add in highs, lows and the sometimes (more often than not) unfulfilled dreams no matter how great you sing or dance. As you grow older (post 30's) there is even less of a supportive framework for women in music - especially black women. The juggling act of pursuing your goals and dreams comes with sacrifices an often-constant dance of walking on eggshells of ego dynamics in personal relationships as well. It' can be tough to maintain relationships not because you're 'crazy' as we get labeled, but simply because some men generally find it hard to be in a woman's shadow, or be secondary in the financial landscape. In essence, while the fruits of your labor may or may not be great they come with a price seen and unseen to the public.

Vesta let me know she had a new perception of me after talking with me on the cruise - she'd misjudged who she thought I was or what my journey may have been as well something also related from the other women. The universe has it's own way about things, and I'm sure that for whatever reason none of us may know - we were all supposed to meet that day.

From what I've read, Vesta was happy that TV-One was doing an Unsung episode on her and looking forward to the future despite the obstacles. She'd released a new single and video titled "Dedicated", and had apparently just returned from a concert performance. Vesta was active and seemed to she have much to look forward to.

The prescription drug scenario reminds me of gifted actor Heath Ledger. According to reports he'd mixed medications not realizing the combinations could be fatal. These accidents are probably common unfortunately and in my view more needs to be done to educate people and perhaps more monitoring of those issuing prescriptions so generously.

As I always say we must take great care and nurture ourselves; tending to mind, body and spirit regardless of your chosen profession. Life is short and unpredictable, as we all know. Carefully choose who is allowed in your life personally and professionally; LIVE and enjoy life not just pursue a career.
I'm thinking about and praying for Vesta that she rest in peace - another one gone too soon.
Actually, I'm also thinking and praying for all of my fellow artists in the music business on the grind - as well as those young ones who are at the beginning of their journey.
My condolences to Vesta's family and friends who knew her best. The heavenly choir just received another voice.

4 comments:

leewilla35 said...

Jody, I love your blog about meeting Vesta Williams. Your right I think you guys were meant too meet that day and bond if only for that short period of time. It's true that fans and others don't realize that you guys have too go through so much in the entertainment business. I will always appreciate you, Vesta Williams, Phyllis Hyman and many, many others who have paved the way and given us beautiful music. I will never forget you guys and how your music makes me feel alot of times.

Anonymous said...

Jodi, I enjoyed reading your blog on Vesta, it was well written in my eyes. I met Vesta as well on a Cruise. Festival at Sea back in the 90's her bornday was very close to mine. She was very sweet and approachable. she will be missed. May her spirit and soul rest forever in peace.

un_taco said...

Thank you for your openess with this blog - enlightening, inspiring - means so much. <3

QH said...

My best friend is a big fan, I knew Ms. Vesta Williams by her reputation as a great singer, but wasn't aware of her impact until recently.

Very sad news indeed. Your post was touching, enlightening, and always delivered with passion. Keep trucking Ms. Watley.-Quentin