Jazmine Sullivan is a G. She calls in from her hometown in Philly a week before the Grammys and days before the release of a deeply vulnerable podcast episode she calls “an extension of Heaux Tales.” The seasoned singer has otherwise been pretty quiet lately, but you’ll be damned if you say the girl (and the genre she represents) ain’t growing.
“Everything that I’ve worked for is finally paying off,” she tells Complex. “Sometimes it takes years for people to recognize it, but if it’s important to you and you feel like it’s the thing that you should be doing, you keep going. And I feel like that’s a lot of people’s stories, especially today. I’m seeing so many ‘underdogs,’ as people call them, [finally] get their just do.”
The artist is not the least bit worried about R&B’s health at the moment. “I think we’re in a great place… If you like the rappy singers, that’s out there in abundance. If you like singers who sound like Whitney Houston’s children, those are out there as well,” she laughs.
When the now Grammy-winning Heaux Tales was released in 2021, Jazmine was primed for the spotlight because she’d been basking in the warmth of its precipice for years. Five nominations for her debut album, Fearless, and 13 other noms thereafter, she was consistent and careful.
This year, the “Girl Like Me” vocalist is nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional R&B Performance category—which, if won, would go to Jazmine and the other four credited writers on the nominated record (“Hurt Me So Good”). This would get her the foundational holy trinity of Grammys. In February 2023, Sullivan released a 24-track Deluxe version of her Grammy-winning and career-defining Heaux Tales, an expressive and soulful project that (as its name alerts) shows an appreciation for wordplay, defiance, and delicious conviction. It is her heart cry, and it’s echoed by waves of many who could relate. Fifteen years into her career, at age 35, Jazmine carries confidence and wisdom that can only be gained with time and experience; it’s the survived pain heard in Mary J. Blige’s enviable catalog and the ease and spunk felt in Erykah Badu’s index. All G’s. Grounded, grown, and growing still.
To further process and share her personal story, or tale, Sullivan partnered with Audible and prolific writer Clover Hope last year to flesh out and recite more details on her road to this moment in her career. You’ll all now get to hear the result on Feb. 3. The episode—a part of Words + Music, which has featured other talents like John Legend and Common—is titled “The Art of Confessing,” and it finds her doing just that.
“I wrote a song called ‘Roster,’” she details at one point, giving context to one of the new songs on her Deluxe album. “I love that the heroine in this song is in full control of her life. We usually hear men talk about the plethora of women they have to choose from but rarely can women speak like that. We’re told it’s a woman’s place to be meek, sexual, but only for the male gaze, and happy to be chosen,” she says sarcastically. “But women are way more than products on an assembly line… I want us to be free of societal standards, our own baggage, and the weight we carry.”
“I want [women] to be free of societal standards, our own baggage, and the weight we carry.”
In addition to getting to know the singer on a more intimate level, there are also sprinkled-in, stripped-down renditions of some of her listeners’ favorites—including “Let It Burn,” “Masterpiece (Mona Lisa),” and “Pick Up Your Feelings”—performed live at Philly’s World Cafe. The process, she says, resulted in a deeper connection to self. It’s encouraging and affirming as we realize that at her weakest, she made some of her strongest work. “Above all, I want to create a safe space for women,” Sullivan says decidedly.
Despite the flag of openness she pledges allegiance to in her own work, Sullivan is calculated and prudent with her words when we speak. Like many empaths and humans who feel deeply, she can lean into recluse tendencies if she isn’t careful. “Sometimes I can retreat within my head and go into my own little space and [my girlfriends] will literally come and find me, like, ‘No, don’t do this,’” she shares.
“Being open is a way to healing really,” Sullivan says. “We all have a place in this life to help each other and help each other get through it.” Below, she shares thoughts about love, the state of R&B, mentorship and friendship in the field, and more.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity purposes.
You’ve said in the past that music allows for you to express and openly talk about things that you don’t know if you would otherwise. How and why did you want to tell your story in this new way for you?
Honestly, I thought that it would be a chance for me to grow. I didn’t actually want to at first because I am very private and everybody knows by now that I do only like to talk about myself and my story through my music. But I thought this would be an opportunity for me to do some self-reflection and to grow, and that’s what it ended up being for me.
That sounds lovely. In what ways would you say that you grew through this project?
Just not being afraid to tell my story, share my experiences in a different way other than my music, going into more detail about certain things. And when I did that, I realized I was able to self-reflect and notice some things that, I don’t know, you don’t notice if you just don’t talk about them really. And also sharing them with people and finding community in that. And that’s what my project, Heaux Tales, was about, and this was just really an extension of that for me personally.
I love that. I believe part of the reason people connect with your work at the level with which they do is because you’re a great writer at your core and a graceful but raw one at that. Tell me about the process of working with the writer Clover Hope to bring this part of your story to life in this way.
So when I first decided to do it, I was given a series of incredibly personal questions. And I was just sitting there writing it and writing my answers and sent them back. And Clover would then ask me “in more detail.” [She’d ask me] to go into more detail on certain things. So it was just that back-and-forth that helps to pull out more and maybe to get to the root of things because sometimes, especially if you don’t like to talk about things, you can be a little surface. But when you work with somebody, they will bring out certain things in you. And that was the experience of having somebody to push you to a deeper place.
“Being open is a way to healing really.”
I’ve recently gotten into podcasts and have been exploring other forms of audio and storytelling outside of music. Obviously that’s the one we likely connect with the most, but, as a consumer and listener, do you connect with this form of storytelling and are there podcasts that you listen to for your personal delight?
Oh yeah. My girlfriends have a podcast called Around The Way Curls. They’re absolutely brilliant as far as being able to touch on subjects that are very personal and normal for women, as well as dig deep about politics or anything. They’re just super brilliant and I love to listen to them. And sometimes I feel like because you’ve been with them so long, you [can] appreciate the conversations that we’ve been privy to having because we’ve been having them for so long. But they are absolutely amazing women, and I love that they get a chance to show who they are on their podcast.
How has your time since Heaux Tales—dissecting yourself through this project and whatever music you’re working on now and what’s been going on in your personal life—how has that shifted your perspective on love and sisterhood, if at all?
It’s making me appreciate my experiences and the people that I’ve chosen to experience this life with even more. I’m so very grateful even more now for the women in my life, which I talk about a lot because that’s just where I’m at in my life. I’m just super appreciative of the women in particular. I feel like they have really...raised me and supported me in a different way than anybody else. And so, I’m just appreciating them even more since even starting Heaux Tales. They’re so wonderful and they love me so much and support me in the ways that I need to be supported. And I’m not easy either. I’m not an easy girlfriend…
[Laughs] Is there such a thing?
Sometimes I can retreat within my head and go into my own little space, and they will literally come and find me, like, “No, don’t do this.” It’s like, “We are here. We’re here for you and we’re going to help you get through this.” And that’s just beautiful to see and it’s helping me to continue to just be open. And even with this, the Audible, just being open is a way to healing really. I really feel like God created everybody on this Earth so that we can help each other because it’s hard. Life is really hard. It gets really hard, and we all have a place in this life to help each other and help each other get through it.
That isn’t always easy to find though. And you speak of sisterhood and accountability of course in all of your work, including this one and on Heaux Tales. Music as both an industry and profession isn’t always a space that allows for that, especially for women, within any genre or space really. I don’t know if it’s the case in R&B, but how did you create that or find it yourself?
Well, I’m not going to lie. I’m pretty to myself, but I do have a few women friends that I’ve found very genuine and supportive in this industry. One being Amber Riley, or Missy [Elliott], whom I grew up with. So it’s not a lot, but there are women that I did find within this industry that are good friends.
“If you really are in search for great music and great R&B, it’s definitely out there.”
Have you embraced any of the younger women in the space in that way? Are there any that you’d like to?
I have not as of yet, and the only, not the only, but a young woman that I absolutely love and I admire is H.E.R. I don’t know if I will be able to call myself a mentor because she is just so mature for her age. And that’s one of the things that I really love and admire about her, because I remember being her age and I was just not thinking the way she was at all [laughs]. I was probably boy crazy and making all the wrong mistakes, and I’m just so proud of her just looking at H.E.R. Girl, you are the bomb. You are the bomb. You’re so advanced. I can’t really even say that I would be a mentor to her, but I do think she’s very special. But I love all the girls, all the R&B girls. They all have something special that they bring to R&B. The only thing really that I would feel like I would be able to offer is what not to do because I feel like I did all the things [laughs].
I’d be like, “Just don’t do this… Keep going where you going. Don’t do what I did.” That’s pretty much what I have, I feel like, for them. But they’re all so amazing though. Whenever I meet them, they tell me that they love me and [that] they’ve been influenced by me and I think it’s amazing. You’re not thinking about that when you’re young and just making a new thing, doing your thing, that you will influence people that aren’t coming behind you, but that’s exactly what you are doing. And they’re doing the same thing for women that’s going to start coming up behind them.
Right. Speaking of R&B, there’s this (what feels like biweekly) online conversation and questioning of its importance and its health. We’ve already touched on a few reasons why it is healthy, including the vulnerability that it allows for. What do you think about the state of R&B today?
I think we’re in a great place. I think the people that complain aren’t digging deep enough. That’s what I really think. I think there’s so many different styles and artists out there who are giving great music and being authentic and not trying to be like the next person. I just think it’s about how much you want to dig for it. Now we can talk about the fact that you have to dig, but… That’s just where we are. That is life. Some things will get the spotlight and some things won’t.
“There’s no way that you can’t find the music that you’re looking for.”
But if you really are in search for great music and great R&B, it’s definitely out there. Great vocalists. Whatever your flavor is. If you like the rappy singers, that’s out there in abundance. If you like singers who sound like Whitney Houston’s children, those are out there as well. [There are] different things out there. You just have to want to find it and know about it. But it’s definitely available. I hear a lot of singers every day that I’m amazed by. I’m sitting here, my mouth is wide open. I’m just like, “You are actually the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Are there some that come to mind when you think of that right now?
I’ve had background singers that I’ve found online that are absolutely amazing. It’s literally just on your feed; the internet gives you access to so many great people. There’s no way that you can’t find the music that you’re looking for. There’s no way. There’s just no way.
It’s Grammy season, which you’ve been nominated for 18 of and won 2 of if I’m not mistaken. What emotions does this time evoke for you?
Just that everything that I’ve worked for is finally paying off and [I hope] that I will be an inspiration to people to keep going in their lives. Whatever it is that you feel passionate about, that you feel like is your purpose in life, sometimes it takes years for people to recognize it. But if it’s important to you and you feel like it’s the thing that you should be doing, you keep going. And I feel like that’s a lot of people’s stories, especially today. I’m seeing so many underdogs, as people call them, get their just do. And it’s beautiful to see. And I feel like even though it’s hard going through it, you appreciate it so much more if it’s taking you forever to get there and people finally get it and, you know, just appreciate everything that you went through a lot more.
Your music, especially Heaux Tales, feels like it concaves the broken heart to expose oneself to oneself or in some cases an older lover to themselves, all ultimately because of love, almost as a means of survival. And that brings you to sisterhood, self-love, and other forms of non-romantic love. So I have to ask, how do you define love?
Oh, man. How do I define love? I don’t know. I think the younger version of me would say it’s complicated, but I don’t think it is now. I think it is easy. I think love is easy. I think it’s all the things that God is. He’s patient, he’s kind, he’s just God. And I think that people try to make it more difficult than it is. And I’m even learning what love is, even with my parents still at 35 with my mom, going through what she’s going through with her health and just watching my dad just love her and support her through the hardest time of her life, just watching them. This is what love is and it’s not complicated. You want to be your best for someone so that they can be their best. It’s very simple, but it’s definitely something that I’m still learning about. I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer for what love is. You just constantly learn more about love, period, the longer you live.