Host intro: The film The Woman King arrived to immense fanfare. But what nearly got lost in the mix is one Nashville artist’s life-altering triumph tied to the soundtrack.
Jessy Wilson was ready to walk away from music before “Keep Rising” was chosen for the film. She’s WNXP’s Nashville Artist of the Month, and senior music writer Jewly Hight has her story.
Jewly Hight: Millions of people have heard this anthem over the credits of The Woman King.
Millions of people have heard this anthem over the credits of The Woman King.
Its creator, Jessy Wilson, is returning to the same small, East Nashville studio where she recorded it to redo the song for a music video. But this time, she’s accompanied only by a piano track laid down in advance.
Jessy Wilson: We’re doing it like that for cost efficiency. I’m an independent artist. This is all coming out of my pocket. So to be honest, I just couldn’t afford to have everyone here all day.
Two whole years have passed since Wilson stepped up to this exact microphone, or any mic.
Well it’s been a minute since I’ve expressed myself musically. I feel a little nervous, a little bit, but I also feel very, very excited.
Take the metronome out. [sings] More vocal. [sings]
That was just Wilson warming up. She’s been a professional performer since she was 8-years-old and landing musical theater roles in New York in the mid-‘90s. In high school, she lied about her age to secure a regular café gig. Then John Legend hired her to sing backup, and she asked to tag along to studio sessions. From there, she worked her way into writing songs for R&B stars. She thought she might become one of those herself, but couldn’t get signed.
Being a Black woman, being a dark-skinned Black woman, you know, being told that that wasn’t marketable. Being told… that no one would really be able to relate to me because of my complexion.
The record deal Wilson had been working for became a reality when she moved to Nashville in 2013.
There she met a white musical partner named Kallie North, and their soul-steeped roots rock duo Muddy Magnolias was a revelation to a country-adjacent scene that made more room for Black musical influence than Black music-makers.
Brittney Spencer, a rising country singer-songwriter and a Black woman, took note of what Wilson brought to that business.
Brittney Spencer: The opportunities that a lot of artists like me are able to get right now, I think, is because little by little people have been sowing seeds …It was important to me to reach out to Jessy and just let her know I remember.
When Muddy Magnolias broke up, Wilson started finding her voice as a solo artist on the atmospheric side of rock and soul with her album Phase.
JW: I made an intentional decision to never open up my voice past a certain place, because I had been singing full out my whole life and I wanted to hear the subtleties in my voice on record.
Those professional landmarks gave way to a string of personal losses. Wilson’s beloved grandmother died, and her healthcare worker dad barely survived COVID. Then she lost a pregnancy.
Unfortunately, after four months, we lost our child. It just felt like I was just down in a hole … I kept looking for things to grab on to. But nothing was pulling me out.
In her compounded grief, it grew difficult for Wilson to deliver the songs she owed her publisher. One that she did submit, after completing it with her co-writer Jeremy Lutito in this very studio, was “Keep Rising.”
When I wrote the song, I was talking to Black people. …There’s a part of the lyrics that I’m also talking to myself about myself: “Been marching so long. How far is it to get to where we’re going?” Like, “How long do we have to wait in America? How long does Jessy have to wait?”
Wilson didn’t have much hope that anything would come of the song. But on what would’ve been her baby’s due date, she received big news. The director of The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood, had searched for just the right music to carry the audience out of the closing scene, and decided that “Keep Rising” was it.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It made me feel. And it was as if it was written for the movie. …And one of the things I’m most excited by is hearing Jessy’s story and who she is as an artist, where she was at the moment that this call came. I love that.
Wilson didn’t at all mind adapting a couple of song lyrics.
I feel so connected to the intention in their mission for what they want this movie to accomplish in our industries. …I want to see more opportunities for women who have a message, who are dark skinned, If I can. Somehow. Open any doors. Then I feel like. I can hold on to that. The possibility of that as like my newfound purpose.
Jewly Hight, WPLN News.
Read the full Jessy Wilson profile here.