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Zero Feet From Stardom: Judith Hill Grabs The Mic

Judith Hill's new album, <em>Back in Time</em>, comes out Oct. 23rd.
Smallz & Raskind
Courtesy of the artist
Judith Hill's new album, Back in Time, comes out Oct. 23rd.

Judith Hill has sung duets with Michael Jackson. She's provided backup vocals for Stevie Wonder and Elton John. She competed on the show The Voice, and she was featured in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, about backup singers who spend their lives at the margins of the spotlight. Next week, though, she'll be front and center with her debut solo album, Back in Time.

In a sense, Hill has been 20 feet from stardom all her life: Her parents were well-known session musicians, and operated a recording studio out of her childhood home in Los Angeles.

"My bedroom was the vocal room," she explains. "My dad played with Billy Preston, and sometimes he'd come to the house and play the organ, and that was always a treat to see. My parents both played with Rufus and Chaka Khan. I though that was normal life, but as I'm here now looking back, I realize what a treasure that was to have."

There's a song on back Back in Time that seems to reflect the experience Hill has garnered in the years since then. "As Trains Go By" has a funk beat that lends it a celebratory feeling, but there's one line that smacks of hard truths: "Might as well be famous, since I ain't gonna be white."

"Being a woman of color, I've just experienced a lot of what it takes to break through in this industry. And when I wrote this, it was also during a time where we were experiencing a lot of what was going on with police brutality," Hill says. "So really, it's about the cry of our community raising up and saying, you know, we've gotta come together and do something about this. When I say, 'Might as well be famous, since I ain't gonna be white' — it's like, we can use our music and our talents to spread a message, and that is just as powerful as anything else."

Luckily for Hill, she's now got a megastar helping her spread that message: Back in Time was co-produced by Prince. She spoke with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about how she came to work with her dream collaborator, and why once in a while she sometimes misses her life as a backup singer. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff