Being in a powerhouse seems to come naturally to Jully Black. Propelled by a soulful, heavy-duty voice, she has achieved platinum-selling status, industry accolades and chart-topping pop, R&B and dance hits.
But it was the pursuit of emotional strength and the creation of a movement called 100 Strong and Sexy that has most recently transformed her life. “My mom passed away in 2017, and the grief [was like] I’ve never had,” she says. “It was next-level grief.” Somewhere in the tides, though she had stopped working out, neglected her clean-eating diet for six months and was feeling terrible, Black’s athletic upbringing acted as a current. “I remember a really clear thought of how exercise made me feel,” she says. “Positive motion equals positive emotion – that just kept coming to me, over and over, like a mantra.”
Inspired by popular workouts like P90X and driven by her ongoing curiosity with nutrition, physical activity and brain health research, Black decided to dedicate herself to 100 days of daily 45-minute workouts. She reached out to a close friend to join her and then decided to cast the net wider.
“It just came to me: I was looking for women to do this with me and 57 women said ‘yes,’” she says of the spontaneous invite and the Instagram account @100strongandsexy, she created. “We went on this journey, from August 1 to November 8, last year. It happened to end on my birthday, and I couldn’t have planned that – that’s the universe.” Intent on account-ability, Black wove in rules, too. Participants have to post photographic evidence (a sweat selfie) and share progress via email – otherwise, they’re out.
After taking a two-week break, Black picked up for another 100-day stint, doubling participants on the way. And then she hit it again, all while inspiring more women from across Canada and the world, including Peru and Uganda, to join her. Now, with an additional multigenerational branch growing (called 100 Strong and Smart) and her eye on running 1,000 strong for International Women’s Day 2020, it’s clear that, while the task may be physical, the objective runs deeper. (Did you know exercise can relieve stress?)
Ultimately, Black is focused on bringing women together and teaching them how to crush fear and unleash their inner strength. “When you get to that point, especially with exercise, where that burn starts to happen, you start to negotiate: Are you going to stop or keep going?” she says. “Or it’s hard at work or your mother dies or you’re getting divorced or you have a special-needs child. Are you going to stop or keep going? It’s the same brain space, same mindset. It’s transferable skills, and we’re building confidence. That’s where it’s at because confidence is currency, so be rich!”
Intent on sharing the spotlight, Black’s long game also involves developing a national awards program that celebrates everyday women and their accomplishments. “As a Canadian woman, one of my biggest goals is to have this global revolution where people look to Canada,” she says. “We’re often looking at our neighbours, wondering what’s going on in America and forgetting about the greatness that lies right here.”
Poetry in Motion
A glimpse into Black’s everyday life, where she logs back-to-back workouts before noon, reveals that being physically active is a top priority. Her steady rotation includes weightlifting at the gym, hot-yoga classes and F45 Training, a new HIIT studio imported from Australia.
“There are screens, it’s timed and there’s great music,” she says. “It’s a challenge but thoughtless – you just go and get ’er done.” Energized by a plant-based diet, Black also loves to keep moving by dancing. “I like the Soca Sweat series on YouTube,” she says. “Whew! Talk about a workout. It helps me vocally because I need to expand my lung capacity.”
That benefit also rings true in her latest obsession: boxing. (In fact, many celebrities are obsessed with boxing.) “I’ve been doing some incredible sessions with my coach that have taught me about surrender,” she says. “In boxing, you can’t be tense. It seems like a tense sport, but if you are, then you’re going to get injured. You have to keep fluid, especially your neck, and always be agile and moving. Boxing has taught me that sometimes we go through life holding our breath, and to just check in with that.”
Still, at the end of the day, what makes Black feel strongest can’t be measured by a set of dumbbells, long-held warrior pose or knockout punch. “It’s more about my emotional agility and spiritual fitness and checking in with the little girl Jully, who will always be there,” she says. “When things come up in the day, I ask myself why. Your purpose, to me, and your passion are really on the other side of the why. I go through it all the time and check my intentions. That’s a big part of my fitness every single day.”
Hitting the High Notes
There are so many ways that the future looks bright for Black. A guaranteed high point will be her starring turn in the upcoming Tony Award–winning musical Caroline, or Change. “I can’t even put it into words,” she says. “I’m super-honoured, first and foremost.”
Having been guided by a principle bestowed to her over a decade ago, “Your word is your wand, be careful how you wield it,” the opportunity appears to have been spoken into existence by Black, who shared her dream during a MasterClass talk for college students. “I wanted to study musical theatre, but I didn’t know how to sight-read [music],” she says. “That’s the one thing that kept me out. Everything is by ear. But I said, ‘I still know I can do it. I’m going to fix my mind on it and it’s going to happen.’” Ta-da!
Next year, when she finally takes the stage at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, she will have earned it through blood, sweat and tears. “In 2012, I had a hemorrhage, and that’s when I ran the risk of not being able to sing ever again,” she says. When Black was struck down again in late 2018, this time by a flu making the holiday rounds, she decided to repair the damage and protect her talent by undergoing two vocal procedures earlier this year. What followed was challenging: months of “silent time” that required only speaking for 15 minutes an hour for several hours a day. “That put me into the head space of ‘Who is Jully without the musical voice?’” she says. “It was hard. I went through a lot of emotional distress, and that part was harder than not having the voice. My identity – all I knew since I was six years old – [was that] this beautiful, musical voice came out of me and I did nothing for it. I got it for free, and now I was at risk of losing it.”
Insert a happy ending here because Black emerged, recovered and revamped. “For this role, I have to train my voice up,” she says. “At first, instantly I felt fear, like ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen?’ But now that I’m in vocal training, I’m actually coming out of it as a stronger singer than when I went into it. So, my thing is better than new!”
Whether it’s supporting countless women to grind it out for another day or taking on the challenge of learning a new song list by heart, Black appears to have boundless energy to pursue her passions. How does she do it all? “It’s really easy,” she says. “It’s like how I don’t feel my skin – it’s just me. All of them are me, and all of them are part of my everyday life.” Building an amazing tribe to lean on and developing awareness about one’s capacity are also key factors to Black’s success. “Time is already set – you can’t ‘make’ time,” she says. (Psst: Here are some life hacks for busy people.) “You have to create capacity. What are you going to do less of so that you can do more of that other thing? I’m realizing I have to make capacity to study the 29 songs I’m going to be singing – 29! And I have to hire people to run 100 Strong and Sexy. It’s been challenging to let it go so soon. I feel like it’s a baby, but I’m excited to see the participants and members run it. They’re the engine of this movement, and that’s what it’s about.”
It all comes back to that eye-catching patch. “I want my legacy to be that I helped as many human beings [as possible] to see their beauty and stand in their power,” she says, “Beyond the numbers, I believe that if you impact one, you’ll impact 1,001. I want to be that bridge, just big enough for everyone to cross.”
Badge of Honour
It may not be a photo, exactly, but an embroidered patch can say a lot, too. When Jully Black was invited to design her own and join the Mark’s Well Worn Collective, she knew she wanted to communicate her passion for connecting people while inspiring confidence. “Being a black woman and a first-generation Canadian [and] being a part of this brand represents so much, historically,” says Black, a Toronto-based award-winning musical artist and advocate for female empowerment. “My parents came here from Jamaica and wanted to make a better life for their children. I’m the only Canadian child of nine, so I feel like I’m carrying the baton for the entire family.”
Black’s badge of honour, featuring the neon silhouette of a bird soaring over a bridge, was the first to appear on a shared unisex jacket that has since travelled across the country. “There’s a bridge to show that you get from one place to the next by crossing over,” she says. “Often, we go across a bridge without even thinking, so it’s about really having faith to follow that passion.” The bird – an eagle, specifically – carries significance as a reference to a Biblical scripture that Black’s parents taught her in childhood. “Spiritually, even metaphorically, it’s about choosing your tribe,” she says. “Who are you soaring with? Who is soaring beside you? Who are you soaring on behalf of? That’s what my patch represents.”
The Mark’s Most Well Worn jacket has gone on to be sported by various national icons, each of whom designed their own patch and added it to the garment. It was a physical representation of an initiative that seeks to showcase a diverse array of influential Canadians who champion the values of dedication, passion and commitment in their own lives while impacting others. “The meaning of well-worn for me is like something vintage, a classic,” says Black. “I wanted to rebrand the word because people look at it as worn-out, but I’m, like, we’re wearing this in – in to our confidence, in to our strength.”
We asked Black: What do you wish you knew then that you know now?
“This may sound a little superficial, but it’s that I have a body that people pay for. I struggled with poor self-image and body image big time. Big time. Even two or three years ago, if I’d been able to say ‘I love my hips and booty…’ Now, people are cosmetically enhanc-ing their bodies for the body I was born with – that I can see as beautiful. Why was I afraid to embrace my curves? While that thought took up residency for too long, I could have been doing other things.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
“It’s from my mentor, Lisa Washington, who said, ‘What’s for you can’t miss you.’ In the past, I used to wonder, When is this going to happen? Or why didn’t that happen? In her telling me that – and in it sticking – my blueprint has been written. Knowing that, when you can master patience and trust, is true freedom. You’re free. There are no comparisons, especially in the age of social media. There’s no competition. What’s mine is mine. It makes for a much more comfortable and empowered life. Sometimes it takes you longer, but if it’s for you, it won’t miss you.”
A Day in the Life
My alarm goes off and, in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, I get up. It’s a five-second rule, literally. I pray, thank God and the universe for breath and life and put on an inspiring podcast. When my brain is just getting up, that’s when I put that stuff in there. Make the deposit and it will soak it right up.
8 A.M. I’m back at home after a 7 a.m. HIIT fitness class. I make a hearty green smoothie – my fave is with arugula and pineapple. Then I shower, switch my workout clothes and go to a 75-minute hot yoga class at 10 a.m.
I have a hearty bowl of salad and add extra protein to it. Then I jump on email and check in with my team, along with my agent and manager. There’s always something press related that I’m doing, and I’m also in the process of writing a book. My days between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. are very admin-ish. I have a dog, too, named Coco, who is usually looking at me to be taken out.
Most of my team works from nine to five, so by the time 6 p.m. comes around, there are two meet-ings that happen. First, there’s the 100 Strong and Sexy team meeting. Then, twice a week at 7 p.m. is the “Empowered In My Skin” meeting. It’s another empowerment organization I started with my best friend three years ago for women to come together and really unpack why we’re able to lunge, squat and create the body but look in the mirror and not see the beauty.
On Wednesday nights, I have my radio show, “The Blackout,” on Newstalk1010. Otherwise, I am in bed and do my best to get seven to eight hours of sleep. I have three nebulizers going. I spray the room and put on my humidifier and air purifier. I don’t mess around. I’ve got to make sure there’s enough moisture [in the air] while I’m sleeping. Lastly, I do my gratitude list and reflect on the day.
Next, learn why you shouldn’t worry about being perfect to succeed in your career.