The first time I heard a Jill Scott track, I remember feeling like I had no business listening to ‘Grown Women Music’. There I was - a thirteen-year-old me, using my parent’s WiFi to soak in the sultry sounds of Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol 1., smothering myself in the riffs and runs ‘Jilly from Philly’ would rain down and feeling like this is what it meant to be Black, loved and in love - with others and with myself. A few years later, a friend would introduce me to Erykah Badu’s Certainly as a gift from her to me. The double-bass would run tirelessly on repeat and Baduizm would become the soundtrack to my autumn nights, pulling me into a world of neo-soul healing.
When Swizz Beatz and Timbaland announced the next Verzuz battle - and first women’s Verzuz - to be Erykah Badu vs Jill Scott, I was ecstatic. Two neo-soul giants playing some of their greatest hits throughout their careers back-to-back was to be nothing short of a spectacle, and neither Erykah nor Jill were running low in what would become a three-hour celebration of appreciation and soul-massaging sound, shared by 775,000 viewers at its peak.
To open the evening, Jill Scott provides a score of poet Nikki Giovanni’s words as a nod to her own poetic heritage, and Erykah joins in with a microphone and projection of Bruce Lee in the background. They spend the first few moments bouncing back and forth between each other like two old friends catching up at a family BBQ, and it feels like we are sharing a beautifully intimate moment of mutual love and respect.
When Erykah Badu selects her first song, she chooses You Got Me. Jill Scott’s eyes light up, and a warm-filled smile stretches across her face as she sways side to side. This moment is personal for the both of them and we’re locked into their trance, moving to the sound of Erykah’s voice on that notable chorus before Black Thought comes in. With gratitude, Jill reminisces on performing the same song live - the one she co-wrote and Erykah sang - while Erykah was stuck in traffic on the way to The Roots’ concert. At 27, You Got Me was the first track Jill Scott had written after admittingly lying to Questlove that she had written a song before. This leap of faith would be the moment she says, “changed everything”, and proudly shares how honoured she was to be able to write for Erykah. An influx of tweets from viewers talking about how ‘grounded’ and ‘at peace’ they feel is a tribute to the space of kinship Erykah and Jill built, and this exchange of admiration set the tone for an evening that would uplift two neo-soul titans in this sonically transforming experience of music.
During quarantine, music has been a key component holding Black communities together across the diaspora. From No Signal Radio hosting Julie Adenuga and Ian Wright in a pure vibes battle of the 80s and 90s, to Teddy Riley’s NPR Tiny Desk-esque set-up and Babyface’s slipping velvet jacket. Black sounds have dominated the digital sphere and conquered lockdown entertainment, and clash culture has been revived in the form of light-hearted ‘battles’ between pioneering artists.
Erykah vs Jill wasn’t your usual Verzuz and nobody was keeping score. Instead, we were transfixed in watching two Black women actively reinvent the wheel of ‘clashes’ and ‘battles’ to deliver a lesson on sisterhood, legacy and mutual ‘stank faces’ without hesitation, with interludes between tracks ruminating on the histories and anecdotes that underpin the songs we hold closest to us. These are the stories we don’t get to hear, the ones that are left behind or held in secret, and Erykah and Jill took us round the fireplace and had us hanging on their every word of moments of triumph, fear and overcoming. Homage was paid to other Black women artists along the way, such as Mary J. Blige, who inspired the unforgettable drum pattern that would take us into On & On, Billie Holiday, Queen Latifah, Kim Burrell, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Rachelle Ferrell, Minnie Riperton, Millie Jackson and Nina Simone. Jill would remind us of the people who first showed her a reflection of herself on paper, including poets Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez and James Baldwin. Musicians and producers such as George Duke, J Dilla, Robert Glasper and the late founder of label Uptown Records Andre Harrell were integral in pushing the boundaries of neo-soul expression.
In all of Jill’s praise to Erykah, one thing stands out to me in particular: “Thank you for not being afraid.” The community of people behind the artistry is testament to the legacies Erykah and Jill created on the come-up, with specific emphasis on Black sisterhood opening doors for those before Erykah and Jill and those to come after, especially within an industry filled with ego and hypermasculinity. If there is anything to be learnt from this moment, it is that prioritising space for love, tenderness and adoration for one another creates room for fearlessness - and invites others to be fearless with us.