BLACK VOICES

Tracee Ellis Ross On Singing, ‘Jodie’ And Black Joy As Resistance

The star of “The High Note” breaks down the change she wants to see in Hollywood and beyond.
Tracee Ellis Ross attends the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 9 in Bev
Tracee Ellis Ross attends the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 9 in Beverly Hills, California.

Tracee Ellis Ross is still processing her role in this world. Her quirky sense of humor and infectious personality are synonymous with some of the best parts of television over the past two decades. And when she’s speaking truth to power off set, it feels like a manageable load that viewers can carry. She offers a dose of levity with the gravity of heavy situations. 

In May, the actor was promoting “The High Note,” which is available on video on demand, Blu-ray and DVD. In the film, she stars as Grace Davis, an aging pop icon who has to choose between taking on a Las Vegas residency and coasting on her laurels or going against her record label’s advice and creating new music. 

But when the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black people killed by police sparked global protests amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ross knew she needed to press pause. Instead of powering through media interviews in June, she took that time to reset, connect with activists such as Brittany Packnett and Patrisse Cullors and publicly advocate for racial justice.

“This is really an unprecedented time that is combined in a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting our people,” Ross said in an interview with HuffPost. “The one thing that I want to do is be with people, be with my people, meet with people that I love, look into each other’s eyes, hold each other’s hands, be in spaces of collective joy with each other as a space of healing, and that is not on the table. You know? It’s not easy.”

In an era seeped in blood from both COVID-19 and systemic racism, Ross wants to make sure Black people are clinging on to the things that make them happy. Not just now, but always.

“In the face of racism, the ability to dream is revolutionary,” she said. “And the ability to hold joy, experience joy and be in joy is also part of that resistance.”

For the “Black-ish” actor, a part of that process has meant showing up as her full self in every project she takes on. Ross said her role in “The High Note” was “an experience of unbridled freedom and joy.” She made her singing debut for the film, releasing five songs for the soundtrack. It’s not the first time fans have gotten a sample of Ross’ vocals. She’s hit a melodic note or two in past series, including “The Lyricist Lounge Show” and “Girlfriends.” But her effort for “The High Note” was a huge leap in comparison.

Despite being Diana Ross’ daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross said she was terrified when she first walked into the studio to record, but eventually found a home in it. She described the scenes in the film where she performed as “the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on,” so much that she had even planned on doing some live performances during the promotional run — until COVID-19 struck.

But Ross plans to continue singing.

“To walk through that fear and towards a dream really offered me personally a sense of real freedom to know that whether rational or irrational, fear was not going to shatter me,” she told HuffPost. “How do you walk through that towards the dream of what is the radically imagined sense of safety and freedom that we actually should be living in and deserve?”

“I do think ‘The High Note’ — it’s not going to change your life, but it’s going to offer you a moment of being, to me, a Black woman in a weak position where I’m not the evil one,” she continued. “I’m actually walking through my humanity and walking through people’s expectation of me towards who I want to be.”

That doesn’t stop at acting. Ross said she feels the same way about Pattern, her hair care line, which caters to Black women. Ross said it’s “very healing” to have a company that celebrates Black beauty so boldly.

“It sort of amplified the work that was happening there and reminded me of what I knew from the beginning — that the celebration of Blackness, the celebration of Black beauty in and of itself is political,” she said. “And Pattern is not a social justice organization. We are a beauty company, but that in and of itself is a political act in the face of racism.”

While Ross may not be working on an album just yet, she’s still expanding her rap sheet. One of her forthcoming ventures is creating the “Daria” spinoff “Jodie” for Comedy Central.

She will also voice the main character, making her the first Black woman to voice the lead character of an animated series in 17 years. The revelation came amid backlash from Black animators and voice actors about the lack of representation in the industry. Ross likened it to when she was the first Black woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Comedy in 35 years.

“Jodie was a sidekick. She was an important sidekick on ‘Daria,’ but we’re moving to the front. This is our time to tell our story through our own voices, to own our own narrative, to speak our own stories into existence,” Ross said. “We have been being glorious forever. We have been being the leads in our lives. And so I hope that art and industry begins to reflect that in a real honest way, without it being an issue of checking a box and creating a diversity hire, whatever that is.”