For over a decade, Jazmine Sullivan’s hefty blues on love, in all its facets, has captured the bliss and pain of romance with so much depth that it can turn a skeptic of it into a believer. Her raspy croons are big, bold, and layered in authenticity, positioning Sullivan as one of this generation’s greatest voices. At only 21 years old in 2008, the Philadelphia native released her debut album Fearless—an LP boasting an impressive collection of timeless R&B songs (i.e. “Bust Your Windows,” “Lions, Tigers & Bears”) that sounded like they were coming from a more seasoned artist.
Sullivan’s skilled vocal ability and knack for translating vulnerable lyrics into indelible balladry made her a premier talent in R&B when she debuted. And those traits are still present in the Grammy-winning superstar’s music today. In 2021, after a six-year hiatus, the singer returned to music with the triumphant Heaux Tales. The 14-track project glistened for its pointed focus of uplifting Black women’s varied experiences with their sexual desires, love, and dating. More importantly, the record underlined the importance of community and the healing that can occur when Black women are open about their romantic needs and the pain associated with not feeling desirable. In turn, the project, which won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album at last year’s ceremony, became a sentient safe space for Black women to reflect on their own relationship struggles.
Now, Sullivan is unlocking a new level of that relatable storytelling. On Friday, she’ll release “The Art of Confessing,” an Audible episode on which she shares the most private experiences of her life that led her to become a leading voice in R&B. Throughout the nearly hour-long project, she talks about her mom, who’s currently battling breast cancer, the power of having supportive friends that have become sisters, and finding healing in singing. The episode was performed live at Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live and co-written with music and culture journalist Clover Hope. It features stripped-down versions of Sullivan’s hits like “Pick Up Your Feelings,” “Let It Burn,” and more. “The Art of Confessing” is a part of Audible’s “Words + Music” series, which has tapped artists like Brandy, John Legend, and more.
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But getting Sullivan to participate wasn’t an easy pitch. The singer revealed that she was hesitant to make her very private moments public. However, she said she eventually realized her own strengths in sharing those experiences. She wants to continue making R&B music that makes women feel and believe that they are strong and confident, just like Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu did for her.
“I’ve been in a place of finding balance and just being appreciative of all that life has to offer,” she says in an interview with ELLE.com.
Here, Sullivan discusses her new Audible episode, the lessons she’s learned from R&B music, and the reception Heaux Tales has received for the past two years.
What made you want to do this Audible project?
Well, it took a little bit of convincing on my end. I actually didn’t want to at first because I’m usually very private about my personal life and my story, really, unless it’s in my music, but I decided that it probably would be good for me to open up for myself just to look back on my life. Sometimes I think we kind of get so busy living that we don’t take a step back to really look at things and appreciate where you are because you look back and see where you came from. It took some convincing with myself, but I’m glad I did it.
Did you find yourself starting to enjoy the process as you were working on it?
It was emotional for me because it was a lot of reflection of my life and just a lot of self-reflection, period, and just some of the things that I’ve learned in this life and writing about it. So it was emotional, but I’m glad that I did it and got it out and told my story.
Your mom’s influence on your career is a crucial part of that story and a theme throughout the episode. How is she doing and how did she impact your view on self-love, considering that’s a theme throughout your music?
She’s doing pretty good. We’re still in the fight. Anybody who has cancer, breast cancer, any type of cancer, there’s good days and there’s bad days. I’m staying with her now and literally every day we’re leaning on God to get us through, and [we’re] doing the best that we can. We’re doing well.
My mom is the biggest influence in my life. I really learned self-love just from watching her. She is a force. She taught me everything that I know. She’s just amazing. I mean I know everyone feels that way about their parent, but I really feel like there’s nothing she can’t do. That’s how she raised me because she believed that there was nothing I couldn’t do, either. Even when there were times when I had self-doubt or had times when I just didn’t feel great, she told me that I was in more ways that I can even count. She really wanted me to believe that about myself and not get in the way of my own destiny, so that’s really what she’s been doing and still does in this very moment. Even now, with the things that she’s going through, she’s still my support system.
That’s great to hear. The episode also underlines how Black women have historically used R&B as a space to dissect their own experiences with love and create their own language for it. What has R&B taught you about yourself?
It has taught me to fight for myself. It has taught me to be honest with myself. You know, having grown up listening to R&B in my latter years and just listening to women be strong and even in their weak moments—in the moments where they feel bad about a relationship or being in a relationship that has beaten them down emotionally or whatever—-they still find the strength within them, and I think that’s something that I wanted to give in my music as well. There are times when life is hard and life will beat you down. That’s what life is, but you have everything within yourself to stand, to get up and keep moving. And that’s in any part of this life.
“[R&B] has taught me to fight for myself. It has taught me to be honest with myself.”
Are there songs that you’re listening to right now that are lifting you up as you’re dealing with your mom’s illness?
I listen to some gospel sometimes. If I need encouragement, I listen to Jonathan McReynolds, but, yeah, there’s a lot of gospel being played. Sometimes, I’ll just sing, even. Music is so powerful, like I’ll just sing myself into tears, I’ll sing myself happy, I’ll sing to my mother. Music has the power to help you get through whatever it is that you’re dealing with or facing. Even if it’s not even lyrics. Sometimes it’s humming or just like the sound of a note is powerful.
Music can definitely be therapeutic. Can you think of the first time you heard an R&B song that really shaped the way you think about love and heartbreak that made you want to emulate that feeling in your own music?
I don’t remember a specific song, but I speak in the Audible [episode] about an album that kind of changed the way I make music, which is Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I was eleven years old, and I just loved how she told her story and how it felt like she was trying to help us as women and whoever was listening to the album. And it didn’t feel preachy or like she’s telling me what to do. It just felt like she’s trying to tell her experiences to us and help us not make the same mistakes. It moved me because I felt like this is what music should do. It should make you think about your own experiences and make you want to grow from it, and of course it should be enjoyable. It was just a great album. It meant a lot to me as an artist.
Is there a moment during the recording that made you reflect on your life more?
I think any time I mentioned my mom and the things that I’ve learned from her that actually makes me think about myself today. Or when I talk about my grandma and her as a poet and how I listened to her put humor into her poetry and then I realized that’s something that I do now even within my music. Thinking about the women who’ve had an impact in my life did make me kind of go back and realize just how big of an influence they’ve had.
I like that the Audible continues the themes of sisterhood that were ubiquitous throughout Heaux Tales. The album recently turned two. Can you describe what these past two years have felt like for you?
The past two years have been full of high highs and low lows for me, but it’s been amazing to kind of see everything that I’ve worked toward—my mom and I have worked for—play out this way. I’ve seemed to be getting some of my flowers for the work that I’ve put in over the years, so that’s been amazing to feel like people see you and appreciate you. That’s been amazing to see. It’s been hard as well—dealing with my mom and her health. It’s also been just about finding a balance of life being this way. You have amazing moments. You have hard moments, but you have to be appreciative for everything that you’ve experienced.
What do you want people, especially Black women, to learn from this Audible?
Obviously, to love yourself, to fight for yourself and believe in yourself and to find community. If you have it, that’s a blessing to have people that love on you and believe in you and help you through the toughest of times. So it’s a lot of lessons in there, but those are the main ones.
Did you learn anything about yourself while doing this?
I’ve learned that I don’t have to be afraid of opening up. In fact, it gives way for growth and for healing. I said before that it was hard for me to do this because I don’t really like to talk a lot about myself, but doing it, and even with the project and when I’m doing things for it, it always comes back to me in such a positive way. Stories that I hear from people about what I did, blessed them and they in turn blessed me, so it’s just about being free of all the voices in your head that tell you to [keep] to yourself and don’t say certain things. No, there’s healing in that and in speaking up about yourself and your life.
You’re nominated for three Grammy awards again at this year’s ceremony, which takes place on Sunday. How does it feel to be constantly recognized for this project after taking a hiatus?
It’s amazing. What makes it more amazing is that it was done with the women that I love and I grew up with and that love me. It was just a community project and I will forever have that moment [with them] together. We kind of let it all out, and it was received so well. Women really felt us, and that’s rewarding to know.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
DeAsia Paige is freelance music and culture writer whose work has been featured in Pitchfork, NPR Music, Teen Vogue, and more. Her writing primarily focuses on the intersection of race, culture and music. She’s a firm believer that there is a Real Housewives of Atlanta moment for everything. DeAsia is based in St. Louis, MO.