Ledisi on Selma: I Was Proud and Afraid to Play Mahalia Jackson

The nine-time Grammy nominee talks transforming into the legendary gospel singer for the civil rights drama.

Singer Ledisi has the bold distinction of having a name which fully describes her life’s purpose. Her Nigerian Yoruba culture name means “to bring forth, to come to” and the NAACP Image Award nominated songstress has brought her musical talents forth to millions of music fans for nearly fifteen years.

Now, Ledisi is extending that reach to acting, starring as gospel legend Mahalia Jackson in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./civil rights drama Selma, which also stars David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey and is directed by Ava DuVernay.

When Ledisi spoke to, she discussed the experience of making the film, portraying an icon and what bonds her to R&B legend Chaka Khan. You star as Mahalia Jackson in the critically acclaimed film Selma. How did you get the role?

Ledisi: Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo heard me sing at an event and Ava wanted to know if I could act. I told her I did theater and I had one scene in George Clooney’s film Leatherheads. But I didn’t act in that movie, I more so sang on camera. Ava said, “Well great, one day I’ll probably call you for something.” And months later I get this call out of the blue. I mainly auditioned to act, which was mind blowing for me. It was a very important scene and a pivotal moment in the film. And Ava really focused more on my acting, more than the singing. She said, “I know you can sing but I want to see all that.” That was really big for me. I am excited about it. It’s a great time for a movie like Selma. It’s a great reminder of how far we’ve come and what we need to work on.

What was it like to play a real-life musical icon and pioneer in your first big film role?

When I studied Mahalia and her relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, I realized, “Wow, they had a bond.” And she helped lift him like all the other people around him. That’s what I enjoyed about the film Selma, we see the people that lifted him. And she was one of them. I was so proud and afraid to play the part, because it’s such big shoes to fill. But when [costume designer] Ruth E. Carter put the costume on me, I just started crying. I said, “Oh wow, I’m no longer me. I’m Mahalia. I have to be her and hold up this banner of what she created.” She’s from New Orleans; I’m from New Orleans. We grew up in the same area. I visited her grave and thanked her and honored her. I really studied Mahalia and learned about her. I now fully appreciate and have a newfound respect for her. She did more than just sing.

One of my favorite live performances of yours is your segment of the Chaka Khan tribute at the BET Honors 2013. Describe how she has touched your life.

My mom listened to her, so that’s how I first heard Chaka. Her sound was a part of my mom’s music and I am a product of what I grew up on. When I finally met Chaka, it was amazing to hear her up close because I was like, “Wow, this is the sound that everyone is going crazy over.” And I finally understood why people told me I sound like Chaka and have that energy.

During her 40-year career, Chaka has truly proven to be an everywoman. What do you admire most about her?

What I love about her is that she’s personable and powerful. She tells the truth always, it doesn’t matter who you are. I love Chaka’s family — her mom, sister and everybody. I’ve gotten that close to her and I think she’s amazing. She always tells me the truth. There’s nothing fake about her, she’s always real with people. That’s why I enjoy her. 

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(Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for AFI)

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