Faith and Family Behind Jennifer Hudson's Success

Singer Jennifer Hudson tells us who kept her believing in the gift she had to share.

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- Posted on Dec 11, 2008

Jennifer Hudson

Before the tragic deaths of her mother and brother, Guideposts spoke to Jennifer about the influence of her grandmother on her singing and her meteoric rise to fame.

Even I can’t believe it sometimes, how incredibly blessed I’ve been in my young career. Not that I haven’t worked hard and kept believing in the face of setbacks, but so have plenty of other talented people and they’re still waiting for their big break.

I went from my first professional job, singing in a local production of Big River when I was 19 to being on American Idol to winning an Academy Award for my portrayal of Effie White in Dreamgirls. I turned 27 this fall, and I have a lot to celebrate and be thankful for. Incredibly thankful.

My first album just came out—something I’ve been dreaming of for years! And now I’m playing the strong, outspoken character Rosaleen in the movie version of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestseller The Secret Life of Bees.

You might think all of this success would go to my head. It’s exciting, definitely, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

But no matter how many red carpets I get to walk down, no matter how many big names I’m fortunate enough to know, or how many albums and movies I make, I’ll always be the same girl whose greatest joy in life was singing, even if there was no one around to listen. I’ll always be my grandma’s girl.

That would be my mother’s mom, my late grandmother Julia Kate Hudson. Our family’s what we call “born into the church,” and I was no exception.

So many of my earliest memories are of being at Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago. We were there Tuesday night for choir rehearsal, Wednesday night for Bible study and all day Sunday—morning service, evening service, communion, everything.

My grandmother was a deeply spiritual woman, the soloist in the church choir and the singer in the family.

She was so good that people used to tell her she could be a professional, but she always insisted that her voice was a gift from the Lord and the best way to show her gratitude was by using it to serve him. Like when she was singing one of her all-time favorites, “How Great Thou Art.”

No doubt about it, I got my voice from my grandma. I didn’t realize that right away, but everyone else knew. My mom likes to tell a story about when I was a lap baby, not even one yet, sitting with her during choir rehearsal.

The choir director was trying to get the group to hit a certain note, and they didn’t do it. But out of the blue, I opened my mouth and hit that note right on! I can almost imagine my grandma slapping her hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t giggle out loud.

The fact is, I was surrounded by music. Not just at church, but at home too. My grandma couldn’t live on her own because of her health—she had diabetes and seizures—so she lived with us.

I was the youngest. When my mom was picking my sister up from school and my brother was out playing basketball or riding his bike, it was just Grandma and me in the house. She’d sing, I’d listen.

One day—I don’t even remember what prompted it—I joined in and something just clicked. I felt beyond happy. I felt connected to something larger and more beautiful than I’d ever imagined.

I didn’t have the words for it then, but now I’d say it was a rightness in my soul, the kind of feeling you get when you sense something is meant to be. I was only seven years old, but from then on, I knew singing was what I wanted to do, what I was meant to do.

That’s why I started asking around at church, “Could I have a solo? Please?” I begged the choir director, who sent me to the head musician, who sent me to someone else. They kept giving me the runaround.

I got so frustrated that I hid in the bathroom and cried. “If nobody will listen to me,” I decided, “I’ll listen to myself sing.

I did just that until I finally wore the choir director down. I got my first solo, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” I practiced and practiced in my little pink bedroom on the third floor of our house. I couldn’t wait to show everyone what I could do.

That Sunday I got up in front of the congregation. I stood there and looked at everyone sitting in the pews—my family, my friends, people from the neighborhood. Then I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. Not a sound! Here it was, my big moment, and I forgot the words!

I closed my eyes, praying that I’d remember just one word, one note. Dear Lord Jesus, help me! I’m stuck! All of a sudden I heard a beautiful sound. Someone singing the first words of the hymn.

I opened my eyes. It wasn’t just one person; it was the whole congregation helping me along, lifting me up with their voices until I found my own again.

It started to dawn on me then what my grandmother meant about singing being an expression of gratitude. To God, first and foremost, and to the people he put in my life to support me and inspire me.

I thought about that a lot when my grandma’s health was failing. By the time I was in seventh grade, she was bedridden. She couldn’t really carry on a conversation anymore, let alone sing.

So I sat with her and sang to her: “How Great Thou Art” and “Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There,” all her old favorites from church. And a new song—the first one I ever wrote—“To Love Somebody.”

It was my way of thanking her for all she had given me. It probably wasn’t enough, but it was everything I had.

Even though my grandmother died in 1998, I kept thinking of her, singing for her. Like when I was voted off American Idol. I was shocked at first. I thought that my biggest opportunity had just been lost.

Was it time for me to give up trying to make it as a singer? Just go home to Chicago and do something else? Who did I think I was, anyway?

But the next morning I woke up and remembered how my grandmother used to say her voice was a gift from the Lord. I still have my voice, my gift, I thought. No one can take that away because God put it in me. He made music a part of me. I couldn’t give it up. I knew I couldn’t walk away.

Of course, I haven’t. I love singing for people, moving them and inspiring them, like music has inspired me since I was that little lap baby sitting in choir practice. But I also sing every day without consciously thinking about it. It feels as natural to me as breathing or praying.

I sing even if there’s no one around to listen. Actually, I take that back. There’s always Someone listening. And like my grandmother before me, I know he hears in my voice how grateful I am.

Jennifer’s Inspirational Playlist

“What songs inspire you most?” we asked Jennifer.

1. “Encourage Yourself” by Donald Lawrence
I tell everyone to listen to this. Sometimes you have to encourage yourself. What you think, how you feel, what you believe—all you’ve got to do is set your mind to it.

2. “I Believe in Music” by Donny Hathaway
I love what this legendary soul singer is saying: “Music is the universal language and love is the key.”

3. “Can’t Give Up Now” by Mary Mary
All of the songs from this sister duo are uplifting, this one especially.

4. “There Is No Failure in God”
God will do whatever you ask him to, but you need to have faith.

5. “Impossible Dream” sung by Luther Vandross
Such a motivator for me!

6. “How Great Thou Art”
Every time Grandma would get happy she’d shout, “How great thou art!” We’d be in the car and she’d see clouds or mountains or trees and say, “How great thou art.” I wondered, What does Grandma mean?

But now I understand, and it’s why I feel so blessed—that God, out of all the things he does, took time to touch me, to give me a gift.

When I did the song “And I Am Telling You” in Dreamgirls, everyone asked me where all that emotion came from. It was from this song “How Great Thou Art”—because Grandma used to sing it. I had a recording of it and listened to it before I did that scene.

 

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