Jennifer Hudson: Born Into Music

When you tell Grammy, Oscar, and Emmy Award-winning artist Jennifer Hudson that you’re starting the interview for the American Songwriter Magazine Legends issue, of which she is a central figure, her response is, “Me?” Then she laughs quickly and follows up with a “thank you!” She does all this in a way that is true and honest. Hudson expresses the kind of “Thank you” that a friend might when you tell them their book of poetry is well-written or their apartment is well-put-together.  

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In terms of accomplishments, Hudson sits atop a mountain that’s all her own. Yet, there remains something about her that lives outside of that lofty peak. Perhaps this is the result of a hard life combined with a lot of hard-won hardware. Hudson, who experienced unspeakable lows in 2008 with the murder of three of her close family members, has constantly pushed forward in her life and career.  

Indeed, that’s often the mark of a legend: perseverance, resilience, and some unimaginable sense of poise. Most recently, Hudson demonstrated all three when she took on the role of fellow music legend Aretha Franklin in the 2021 biopic, Respect (out now via MGM and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment to own on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital). But perhaps more than anything else, Hudson credits a single mentality with allowing her to succeed in ways few—if any—artists have before her.  

Photo courtesy of MGM and Universal Pictures and Quantrell D. Colbert

“I always try to plant myself in whatever situation I’m in and be in the moment of it and learn from it, embrace it, experience it, face it,” Hudson tells American Songwriter. “Whatever it is. It may change but let me be the one consistent thing no matter the situation. If you can hold onto yourself and hold onto your anchor you know that this will all pass, you’ll get through it, your tree won’t budge.” 

It’s true; even in the harshest of hurricanes, some trees won’t uproot; they’ll hold on, sturdy somehow. For Hudson, those creative, spiritual, and familial roots that help her to stand strong began in the world of music, in the church (Hudson was raised Baptist), and with relatives.  

“I don’t think I was ever lost for music,” Hudson says. “Music was never lost for me. I was born into it. Even to this day, I can’t function without it. When I wake up in the morning, music dictates my entire day. It’s a part of everything I do. I say a room without music has no personality. It’s my guide through life, it really is and it always has been.” 

Hudson says she remembers one of her earliest songwriting attempts as a teenager. At the time, her grandmother was on her sickbed and Hudson wrote her a song called “To Love Somebody.” She was 16 years old and it was the beginning of more to come. In high school, Hudson would daydream and write songs in her head, but she had them in mind for other artists. Sometimes it’s another person who gives her inspiration, sometimes it’s an experience. But for Hudson, it can never be forced. 

“I’m not the kind of writer,” Hudson says, “who is going to say, ‘Okay, give me a subject, I’m going to write about it.’ It has to be, ‘No, I have something to say and I’m going to sing about it.’” 

American audiences first discovered Hudson in earnest in 2004 after her then-debut on American Idol. She finished as a finalist at a time when the show was at its cultural height. The occasion, Hudson notes, was an interesting one for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for the place it puts a person in the zeitgeist. When you’re on American Idol or The Voice, your career lands in this in-between area that can be tough to navigate.  

“I feel like it’s a place where [you can] get trapped in between two worlds,” Hudson says. “You’re no longer a regular normal person to the people you grew up with, your family and your friends because you’ve been on television. And then you’re not necessarily a superstar in the industry [either].” 

Hudson went far in the competition and landed in the finals. Her name rose and glistened. But it took a bigger leap forward thanks to her performance in the 2006 musical film Dreamgirls. She played the role of the talented aspiring singer Effie White. It was her film debut and she later won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts. The movie, which depicts a fictional singing group trying to make it big, also stars Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, and several other well-known standouts. But Hudson’s sharp, intuitive performance had the world take notice. It was a far cry from the days when she used to sing with her eyes closed.  

“Well, see, I never knew that performing was a part of it,” says the Chicago-born Hudson. “All I ever wanted to do was sing. And when you’re born in the church and sing in the church—my grandmother taught us you stand flat foot and you sing. You know, which didn’t necessarily involve or include performing.” 

But when one needs to, one learns, adapts, and gets better. The 40-year-old Hudson knows this well. Some people shine immediately when the camera turns on. Others don’t learn how. The expression is something like this: one falls from the sky and builds their plane on the way down. Hudson did this when she hit millions of America’s television screens, and she stretched her proverbial wings in a way that got her to serious altitude.  

“I didn’t start learning,” she says, “literally performing until I was 19 years old. I didn’t start singing with my eyes open until I was 19. And that was once I did American Idol and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I have to look at people? I have to perform, as well as sing?’” 

To this day, Hudson considers performance an essentially different aspect than singing altogether. It’s a different part of her creative brain. Regardless, she’s mastered both. On stage, she’s compelling, engaging as any. A pro’s pro. Whether she’s singing a heart-pounding track like her 2009 romantic single, “Spotlight,” or a heart-melting cover like her rendition of “Memories,” from the stage musical Cats, she soars. Hudson has also acted in the 2019 film version of Cats, along with the first Sex and the City movie in 2008 and several other projects. And as Franklin in the 2021 biopic, Respect, she dazzles. 

Photo by Matt Sayles

To tell Hudson’s story, though, must sadly also include the tragedy that befell her family in 2008. She lost her mother, brother, and seven-year-old nephew when an estranged relative took their lives. In 2012 that person was sentenced to three life sentences for the crimes. Hudson was devastated. In February of 2009, she sang again for the first time in public, performing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida. Whereas some may have understandably receded longer, or perhaps forever, Hudson came back to the part of her that’s the most signature: her uncanny ability to sing. 

“I feel like it’s something of my own,” Hudson says, talking about her not-so-metaphorical superpower. “I feel like it’s the thing—so much in my life has changed and is not the same. But it’s the one thing that is mine. It’s like the DNA that I can always identify myself with. It is my identity. It’s my expression. It’s my superpower. It is the most identifiable thing of myself that is solely only mine.” 

Now, Hudson has grown her name into a brand. Known also as “JHUD,” the singer, actor, and businesswoman has made an imprint on popular culture that’s generally unrivaled. Many know her recently thanks to her coaching gig on the popular NBC singing competition television show, The Voice (and The Voice UK), where she has guided hopeful singers toward their dreams. As a former singing competition contestant, she knows the process in spades. Perhaps more than any other coach on the show, she carries that granular sense of humanity, too. Colloquially speaking, she’s a real person. It’s unlikely you’d see her in the grocery store, but you might. In a way, too, that’s what Hudson says she loves about the art form to which she’s dedicated her life.  

“Music is the most—oh what’s the word?” Hudson says, musing. “I don’t want to say ‘relatable thing’ to everyone, but it is. It’s there in everything. It could be a commercial, an event, it could be a funeral, it could be a birthday. It could be dinner. It’s there and it’s the one thing that connects me to my every emotion.” 

The same year Hudson experienced tragedy, her debut self-titled LP won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. It went gold along with her subsequent two records, I Remember Me (2011) and JHUD (2014). To date, Hudson has performed at the White House and is considered a good friend of former President Barack Obama. She’s enjoyed a recurring role on the popular television show Empire and has performed on a myriad of award and late-night shows. And as of this writing, Hudson has thrown her name into the ring to host a new daytime television show when longtime host Ellen DeGeneres steps down from her mid-day slot. But none of this would have found Hudson if it hadn’t been for those early days in church, sitting in her mother’s lap, belting out notes not even the choir could hit. 

“The story is,” Hudson says, “when I was a lap-baby in the church, they said the sopranos couldn’t hit a note. I couldn’t even talk yet and I hit the note. You know, I don’t think people realize how changing and powerful music is to all of us, whether you’re a fan of it consciously so, or not. It’s there for us all. As long as I have music, I’ll never feel alone.”

Photo courtesy of Quantrell D. Colbert.

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