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The Okayplayer Interview: Jody Watley Speaks On Rakim, Soul Train + Reclaiming The Name ‘Shalamar’

The Okayplayer Interview: Jody Watley Speaks On Rakim, Soul Train + Reclaiming The Name ‘Shalamar’

Jody Watley in the Soul Train tunnel

Jody Watley with Shalamar, 'Friends' album cover
Jody Watley featured in the artwork for Shalamar’s Friends LP

JW: Yeah, I do. Rosero, in my band, is always out at the clubs more than I am and he tells us what we have to do. Out here, it’s like the whip dance–and so in “A Night to Remember,” when we do the whip dance everybody goes up and gets excited about it and it’s a younger thing and we kill it.

I just try to keep up with music, art, all of it. The whole shebang. But I’m not out there twirling at the clubs. I like to still go out and take it all in, but Rosero, he’s the general of the dance. He’s an incredible dancer. It’s a tie between him and Nate–and it’s a trip because Nate is like having Michael Jackson on stage, but it’s not Michael it’s Nate! You don’t often see the dance and singing combination done so well.

Dance…I love it. I go on Youtube and look at all sorts of random dance videos. The kids are either Waacking, which is a freestyle dance that I’ve done since I was a teenager. I get all these girls and guys from everywhere from Korea and Taiwan and the UK and India—the most random places—they’re all discovering Waacking and they look at me and call me their Imperial Queen Mother of Waacking! And they reference the “Still a Thrill” video which was all freestyle Waacking. We did it in Paris and it still holds up today–as an artist, that keeps me connected and keeps my spirit young because I’m always connected with young people and I love that.

OKP: You said just now that you’re pretty well rounded but “renaissance woman” is probably more like it. I mean speaking of fashion; you’ve been very active in fashion and dance and music all at the same time. Were they always kind of there? As someone coming into the industry so young, were there people around you who influenced you in that sense of being an all around artist or impresario?

JW: Thank you! I think coming out of Shalamar—because it was a put-together group and being in the midst of a sexist environment—and I’m generally a quiet person, kind of more introspective until I’m on stage—coming out of that, I was very headstrong in that–from the very beginning, with wherever I signed to–I wanted to let them know that my voice was going to have to be heard. So I was very specific—even with Shalamar, though we were a made-together group, I was able to influence the style. Album covers for The Look and Friends–those were concepts that I had, because I wanted it to be more fashion. I’ve always been a fighter for things that I believe in. I grew up with two very fashionable parents and was looking at fashion magazines and being a fashion illustrator as a hobby and learning how to sew.

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It was important to me. I just wanted to be Jody Watley and be for real with it and not be just a girl that was a puppet for some producer. I went in with a mindset of, This is who I want to work with, this is how I want it to look. And did my own styling. I would go to the directors and have tear sheets and books and said, This is how I want it to be. There were always voices saying, You need to be more urban, you need to sex it up, you need to do this or that…and I said, The only thing I need to be is just me. I think I’m all those things without trying to be all of them. I think that that’s the best part, and to look back at videos like “Real Love” and “Looking for a New Love’” up through what I’m doing now, it’s always been authentically me. No stylist–but having the best style.

I think that’s what artistry is, it’s really your voice and not the machine telling you, This is what you should do. In some ways, I think I would have been—especially after my first couple of albums—even bigger than I was if I had played the game a little more, but I didn’t want to do that.

OKP: Part of the reason I ask is that I recently learned that you have a family connection with Jackie Wilson, the Motown legend…

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