Judith Hill: From Grief to Liberation

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The first time the musician Judith Hill performed her anguished requiem “Black Widow” for an audience, she wept, right onstage.

The song’s title is an epithet that has been directed at her for years by tabloids and trolls because as a vocalist and artist, she had been close with two of pop’s biggest stars shortly before their deaths. She was Michael Jackson’s duet partner and performed at his televised memorial in 2009. And for two years before Prince’s fatal overdose in April 2016, she was his protégée, collaborator and more. They shared what she has called “an intense relationship”; he told her he loved her.

Prince’s sudden, accidental death derailed her promising career — which he had been guiding — and she spiraled into deep grief, depression and self-doubt as online cruelty rained down. It took years before she was able to face what happened, personally or musically.

Rebirth Through Music

“It was a deep wound,” she said onstage at a recent showcase at Mercury Lounge in Lower Manhattan, after the soulful, fierce “Black Widow.” Then she brushed her tears away — “enough of that” — and soon started another number, “Dame De La Lumière,” a detailed tribute to her mother and grandmother, with a rippling, urgent chorus that has become her anthem: “Bad times make strong women.”

Both songs are on “Letters From a Black Widow,” her new record, due Friday. It is a concept album that reckons forcefully with her past — not just the boldfaced part, but also the myriad woes and distortions that conspired to make her feel fearful and less-than. The dozen tracks that finally tumbled out chart her path of self-reflection and forgiveness, with achingly personal lyrics paired with muscular funk, soul and blues, and backed by her shredding, soaring guitar. It’s a new reach for an artist known mostly for her acrobatic and emotional vocals; she wanted her determined message to resonate, too.

“I felt unmuted,” she said, “like I was free to say something now, because I felt like I had really put a muzzle on myself for so long, and was just afraid. And it was very, very liberating to do that.”

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