A little over two years ago, The Voice and 20 Feet From Stardom diva Judith Hill’s life was struck by tragedy, when her mentor, Prince — producer of her acclaimed 2015 album, Back in Time — shockingly passed away at age 57. (Hill later revealed that she had been with Prince on his flight from Atlanta, the one that made an emergency landing after he fell unconscious six days before his death.) Hill has laid relatively low since then — performing and touring regularly, but not releasing any new music. But now she’s back, first with last month’s “The Pepper Club” and now with “On the Rocks,” the latter premiering here on Yahoo Entertainment. Both tracks have an uptown-funky vibe that seems directly influenced by His Purple Majesty, but Hill says that’s more of a subconscious artistic evolution than a deliberate decision.
“It’s funny when people say that, because I don’t even know if or when that [happens],” Hill muses, citing the Staple Singers as a direct “On the Rocks” inspiration. “I guess it’s just innately something that he is just a natural influence of mine. He’s so deep in my heart. But I never sit down and say, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do a Prince-inspired thing.’”
“On the Rocks” is decidedly upbeat and celebratory, but looking back on the past two years since the traumatizing plane incident and Prince’s death, Hill confesses, “I was grieving. It was hard to release [music], just because of just grief and feeling like I was reminded a lot of him.” When asked how she’s coping these days, she pauses, then answers thoughtfully: “I’m doing good. I’ll never be the same. The grief will always be there. But every day I get stronger, just learning to live in this new space of having that feeling inside, but finding a way to turn it into power and giving back. It’s actually a new thing, like I’ve never had that before, but it’s what is supposed to happen in my life. So, I’m really finding a path to taking that energy and really transforming it into love and giving.”
Hill plans to do that via her upcoming ambitious musical production The Golden Child, a “funk live concert-meets-ballet” that celebrates “diversity and inclusion in the world, cultures coming together” and will feature a cast of dancers representing different parts of the world. “A lot of the music was written during the time when [Prince] was still with us; he actually got a chance to hear it, and he was really excited for it. But it’s been hard to release it since then. Now I’m in a more celebratory place,” Hill says. The show, which premieres in November, will be accompanied by a 13-track album (separate from “On the Rocks”), released on her own Gloryhill label. Hill will star in the production, playing the grown-up version of titular character, and she’s in talks to bring The Golden Child to the screen as well.
Hill says the project (which “tells the story of the Golden Child, which is basically about a child who steps into a world where he finds people that are divided by color — but they learn to overcome that and celebrate each other as they come together”) was inspired by the division in our nation right now, as well as by her experiences as a biracial artist.
“Me being black and Japanese, I’ve always felt like I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody, because I was in the middle,” Hill says. “It’s not been overt, but there’s always been a question: ‘Where can we categorize Judith? Where does she belong?’ So, I really wanted to create a platform where inviting all these people from my experiences around the world to come together. And rather than feeling like a black sheep, I really wanted to just bring everybody into one space and just celebrate everybody. … Now that I’m able to release [music], I realize that my message to the world, and my calling in life, is really to bring people together and overcome hate. That is what I feel empowered to do now.”
Prince’s death isn’t the only heartbreak to affect Hill’s career. Seven years before that, she lost another mentor, Michael Jackson, just as she was set to perform with him at that year’s much-hyped This Is It concerts in London. (She ended up singing “Heal the World” at Jackson’s memorial service instead, then temporarily retreated from the public eye to heal.) Hill feels her new music addresses both tragedies.
“Part of this new project is about reaching towards God and really finding Him. That’s the ultimate answer to that question, is you’re forced to really realize that there’s so much more to life than what the eye can see,” she says. “When we come to the end of ourselves as human beings, and we realize that we’re not in control and it’s really not up to us, then that’s when you really are humbled before God. You really get to see Him in a different way. I think with music, that is the ultimate gateway into talking to God. There is something very spiritual about music. It’s something that brings people together, but it is also something that can really move people in such a powerful way, where they can experience God.
“With both of these incredible human beings [Jackson and Prince], I felt that onstage with them. And I know that they’re doing it right now — even more powerful than they ever have done it. And so, it inspires me now, while I’m still on this planet, to continue on. And I know that the more we tap into God, the more He’ll reveal Himself, and the more powerful it will be for us here.”
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