NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Singer-songwriter Jessy Wilson was ready to give up her musical dream when a film about female African warriors showed her the power of perseverance.
Wilson’s Grammy -nominated song “Keep Rising,” was picked by director Gina Prince-Bythewood to be featured in her action epic “The Woman King.”
Wilson and her co-writers Angelique Kidjo and Jeremy Lutito are nominated alongside Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Billie Eilish in the category of best song written for visual media during Sunday's ceremony.
“'The Woman King’ really brought me back to life, truly,” said Wilson.
The anthemic, uplifting song came after the darkest period in Wilson’s life. The pandemic had left her questioning her career after decades of singing and writing not only for her own records, but for other artists as well.
When she and her husband found out she was pregnant in 2021, Wilson was ready to devote her attention instead to being a mother. But four months into her pregnancy, she had a miscarriage.
“Sometimes in life, you can just hit a patch and you feel like, ‘This is it. This is going to take me out. This is going to be the way I am forever. I’m going to always be depressed. I’m going to always feel dark and like I can’t see my way up from here,’” Wilson recalls.
The song, which she had written months prior, reminded her of the need to hold onto hope. “It was just sort of this two-way sensation, this two-way nuance thing for me of like speaking to people, but also speaking to myself,” Wilson said.
The Brooklyn-born Wilson has been performing since she was 7 in musical theater and in clubs in New York. She was a backup singer for Alicia Keys, then started working with John Legend, who encouraged her to start songwriting.
“He is such a phenomenal songwriter and a lot of the ways that I approach songwriting today is because I watched him from start to finish, how he developed the song and how it was conceived and all of those things,” Wilson said.
Legend invited her to a songwriting trip to Nashville, Tennessee, to write with country star Faith Hill and felt so encouraged by the musical community there that she later relocated.
In Nashville, she explored different musical interests, forming a rootsy rock duo with singer Kallie North called Muddy Magnolias and then working with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney for her solo record “Phase” in 2019.
“It was an artistic statement and it’s a beautiful, beautiful album,” said Wilson “And I’m super proud of the chances that I’m willing to take as an artist along my journey.”
Right around the same time as she was working on her solo album, she got a message on Instagram from rapper and producer Tyler, The Creator, who asked her to help him with background vocals on his 2019 critically acclaimed “Igor” record. That record went on to win best rap album at the Grammy Awards in 2020.
But the pandemic upturned her career and life. Her father, a health care worker in New York, caught COVID-19 in April 2020, when the city was hit hard by the deadly pandemic. He survived after days of being on a ventilator.
She couldn’t perform and songwriting over Zoom left her uninspired. But before she left her publishing deal, she recorded an unfinished version of “Keep Rising.”
With input from Prince-Bythewood and the studio, lyrics were added to fit the film’s storyline of a West African kingdom led by an all-female group of warriors. They also brought in Kidjo, the hugely influential activist and Grammy-winning singer, to sing along with Wilson.
Wilson said she immediately connected on a personal level to the film’s cast of darker-skinned Black women, including actors like Oscar-winner Viola Davis.
“I definitely experienced being told that I wasn’t the right kind of pretty or the right kind of marketable because of my skin tone,” said Wilson. “And it was really empowering to see a cast full of beautiful brown women existing in their power, existing in their strength and intelligence.”
The signs from the universe seemed to be telling her that she shouldn’t give up on her music. The day that she heard from the studio that her song was going to be in the movie was the due date for her son, Willing Reve. Now she's writing again and hopes “The Woman King” opens more doors for her to write songs for films.
“I still have so much to say. My voice is important,” she said. “And I should, like the song says, keep rising.”