Early Years and Family Life
The daughter of Jamaican immigrant parents, Black grew up in a devoted Pentecostal Christian household in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. She is the youngest of nine children and the first to be born in Canada. Her family life has been marked by tragedy. Her twin brother died at birth, and her sister, Colleen, died at age 11 in Jamaica. After her father left the family when she was seven, Black was raised by her mother, Aretha, who worked tirelessly to bring all of her children to Canada. In 1990, Black’s sister, Sharon, died suddenly at the age of 24, leaving behind two young children of her own.
Black started singing in church at age six when one of her sisters brought her to choir practice. She credits hearing Whitney Houston on the radio at age seven as her introduction to pop music. She once told the National Post: “without Whitney Houston, there is no Jully Black.”
Inspired by the artistic passion of her late sister, Sharon, and by the lack of women of colour in Canadian media, Black decided to pursue a career in music by age 12. Around this time, her mother signed her up for modelling and music classes. After winning a local talent show and singing at numerous events, Black began travelling to New York on weekends to sing and record when she was 14. While continuing to pursue a career in music, she attended C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute before transferring to Oakwood Collegiate because of their acclaimed music program. She went on to earn a degree in law enforcement at Seneca College.
At 20, Black collaborated with Toronto rapper Choclair on the song “What It Takes.” It won a Juno Award for Best Rap Recording in 1997. That year, she also collaborated with Kardinal Offishalll in “Jeevin' (Life)” and with Toronto rapper Infinite on his song “360 Degrees.” That track was nominated for Best Rap Video at the 1998 MuchMusic Video Awards.
At 21, Black signed to Warner/Chappell Music Canada. She went on to write songs for Destiny’s Child, Nas, Sean Paul, Missy Elliott and many other artists. Black’s song “I Know,” written for Destiny’s Child, appeared on The Fighting Temptations soundtrack in 2003. Her song “The Things You Do” was renamed “Heaven,” and included on Nas’s platinum-selling album God’s Son (2002).
Black released a number of original songs independently, including “Rally’n.” It was nominated for Best R&B/Soul Song at the Juno Awards and Best R&B/Soul Video at the MuchMusic Video Awards in 1999. In 2000, Black’s collaboration with rapper 2Rude and Grimmi Grimmi won the MuchMusic Video award for Best Soul/R&B Video. She also sang on a number of songs by Toronto hip-hop/R&B group Baby Blue Soundcrew, including “Money Jane” and “The Day Before.” The former was nominated for a Juno Award for Best Rap Recording in 2001. The later was nominated for Best Canadian Collaboration or Group at the 2002 MuchMusic Video Awards.
Black’s original song “You Changed” was featured in the movie Brown Sugar (2002). It was also nominated for a 2003 Juno Award for Best R&B/Soul Recording of the Year. Another single, “I Travelled,” was included on the compilation record Women & Songs 7 (2003). Alongside Choclair, Black opened for 50 Cent and Jay-Z in Toronto in 2003.
I Travelled (2003) and This Is Me (2005)
Black’s debut album, I Travelled, was scheduled to be released in 2003. However, it was delayed and eventually dropped after her label, MCA, was absorbed by Interscope. Black then worked as a bank teller. She also started her own recording, management and publishing company, Jully Black Entertainment Inc. In 2004, Black earned a Gemini Award nomination for Best Performance or Host in a Variety Program or Series for her performance in Tonya Lee Williams: Gospel Jubilee.
Jully Black eventually signed with Universal Music Canada and released her first album, This Is Me (2005). It debuted at No. 34 on the Nielsen SoundScan album chart and included “5x Love/Material Things,” a collaboration with Nas that peaked at No. 30 on the Canadian charts. The single “Sweat of Your Brow” peaked at No. 16. In 2005, Black opened for the Black Eyed Peas on their cross-Canada tour, and in 2006 This Is Me was nominated for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year at the Juno Awards. Black also earned a Gemini Award nomination in 2006 for Best Performance or Host in a Variety Program or Series, this time for her performance of Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand” at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony that year.
Black’s sophomore album, Revival (2007), was dedicated to her late sister, Sharon. It was produced by Black Eyed Peas drummer Keith Harris. A more diverse mix of pop, R&B, soul and rock, Revival features Black’s best-selling single to date, “Seven Day Fool,” originally sung by Etta James. It peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 chart. Revival was certified gold in Canada and won the 2008 Juno Award for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year. Black also closed the Juno Awards ceremony with a performance of “Seven Day Fool,” which was nominated for Single of the Year.
The Black Book (2009)
A collection of dance, urban and rock songs, Black’s third record, The Black Book (2009), marks a departure from her earlier hip-hop sound. The energetic single “Running” peaked at No. 40 on Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 chart. The album was nominated for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year at the 2010 Juno Awards.
In 2010, Black’s song “At the Roncies” (about the Toronto neighbourhood Roncesvalles) was picked to represent Ontario in CBC Radio 2’s songwriting competition, the Great Canadian Song Quest.
Droppin W(8) (2012) & Jully Black the LP (2016)
Originally entitled (8)ight, Black’s fourth studio album was changed to Made In Canada to reflect her pride in being Canadian. It was preceded in 2012 by the free digital release of Droppin W(8), an 11-track dance and reggae album. Black’s 2012 single, “Fugitive,” earned a nomination for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year at the 2013 Juno Awards.
Before the scheduled release of Made in Canada, Black left Universal Music Canada, citing a desire to have more creative control of her work. In 2015, Black released a soulful new single called “Fever.” It appears on her album Jully Black the LP, which was released by the Atlanta-based record label The Officials Music Group in 2016.
Stage and Television Appearances
While on tour with the Black Eyed Peas in 2005, Black landed a correspondent position with the CTV entertainment news show eTalk. She served on the show until 2010, interviewing such guests as Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z. Also in 2005, Black played Raven Dauda Preacher in the Toronto production of trey anthony’s Da Kink in My Hair. The play was a critical success and sold out its 106-show run at the Princess of Wales Theatre. In 2007, Black sang the theme song for Global TV’s adaptation of Da Kink in My Hair and appeared in numerous episodes.
From 2005 to 2008, Black was a judge on a number of episodes of MuchMusic’s Video On Trial. In 2008, she became a correspondent and mentor on Canadian Idol and had a role in the crime film Saving God. In 2011 and 2012, she appeared as a panelist on The Marilyn Denis Show. In 2015, she was a judge on an episode of CBC’s Canada’s Smartest Person.
Black appeared on the 2018 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads, where she advocated for The Marrow Thieves, a dystopian novel by Métis writer Cherie Dimaline. Black argued that the story is an allegory of the effect of Canada’s residential schools on Indigenous peoples. She called out the “colonial privilege happening” in Canada. Her debate with Jeanne Beker, who was representing Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness, became so heated that Beker took it as a personal attack. “Why are you attacking me?” she said. “I just feel that you’re speaking to me, like I don’t believe that.” Black responded by saying, “Whatever you’re feeling, take it to the altar, ‘cause I’m not the one that’s responsible for your feelings.” The hashtag #takeittothealter then began trending on Twitter. The Toronto Star reported the phrase was being held up “as a succinct way to respond when privileged people put their feelings at the centre of a conversation that isn’t about them.” The Canada Reads incident made national and international headlines. Black began selling T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “Whatever you’re feeling #takeittothealtar.”
In May 2019, Toronto’s Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Production announced that Black would co-star opposite Measha Brueggergosman in their production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change. The role is Black’s first in a musical theatre production. She referred to it in a statement as “a manifestation, a dream come true.” The production is slated to run at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre from 30 January to 15 February 2020.
Jully Black champions a number of wide-ranging causes and has participated in numerous charitable events. In partnership with Care Canada and MuchMusic, she went to Bangladesh to report on sweatshops and working conditions. In 2006, she performed at a benefit concert in South Africa alongside the Black Eyed Peas. The concert raised funds and awareness for the Shanduka Foundation and their Adopt-a-School Program.
Black is a vocal supporter of education and music programs in schools. She has delivered numerous speeches in schools across Canada and participated in the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ MusiCounts education program, which provides schools with musical instruments. She has also served as an ambassador for Craig Kielburger’s WE Charity.
Black has also taken part in a number of events that support HIV/AIDS research, including a benefit concert in support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. In 2014, she hosted Kick it Up for Kidney Cancer Boot Camp in Toronto, which benefited Kidney Cancer Canada. Black is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ communities and has performed at numerous Pride events, including World Pride in 2015. Also in 2015, she co-founded Empowered in My Skin, an organization that holds conferences around the world to help young women empower themselves and become more confident.