Six months after an unspeakable loss, Jennifer Hudson sings for her hometown. We talk with the Oscar and Grammy winner about her life in Chicago-and her life now.
Something’s absent from Jennifer Hudson’s voice. During the third leg of her national tour, which stops at Arie Crown Theater this weekend, a delayed sound check pushes back our interview to 7pm, less than two hours before showtime. I anticipate a harried diva. “You’re not busy at all, right?” I facetiously ask once her publicist connects us by phone.
“At the moment, no,” says Hudson—friendly, relaxed. “I’m on your time right now.”
And so she is. An attentive Hudson gives no clue she’s about to walk onstage in Philadelphia in support of her long-awaited, self-titled debut album (she coheadlines with Robin Thicke). Brimming with affection and humor, the 27-year-old Chicago native describes fans at her first concerts “singing back to you, hopping out of their seats. That love coming from them is, like, magic.”
But there’s something other than diva ’tude that I don’t hear: the slightest note of grief. Friday 24 (the day before her homecoming show) will mark six months since Hudson’s mother, Darnell, and brother, Jason, were found shot to death in their Englewood home. The body of Julian, the seven-year-old son of Hudson’s sister Julia, was discovered in an SUV three days later. Julia’s ex-husband, William Balfour, was charged with the murders; he’s pleaded not guilty.
After three months of public silence, Hudson returned to the spotlight while keeping her pain out of it. On February 1, she sang at the Super Bowl; on February 8, she belted out her “You Pulled Me Through” at the Grammys, where she won Best R&B Album for Jennifer Hudson. And she’s made select media appearances—all while not uttering a word about her relatives’ deaths.
As she recalls those relatives now, Hudson’s voice doesn’t bend under the emotional weight. “I remember being asleep on my mama’s lap,” she says lightly of her earliest memories of music: choir rehearsals at Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church. “We were there so much.” She reminisces about her bedridden grandmother Julia. “While my sister was in school or my mom was picking her up or my brother was outside somewhere, I would sit in the house with Grandma and sing her songs.” She punctuates the memory of her mother’s mother (“where I got my voice”) with a laugh.
This will be the trick for Hudson: suffering a horrible tragedy without being reduced to a tragic figure. Her label’s publicist insisted I could interview Hudson only if I didn’t ask about her loss. But the grounded, casually chatting star seems the opposite of guarded. Can she say so much about her life and not allude to such a harrowing part of it?
Hudson’s loss is nowhere and everywhere at once. She says that, as a girl, she sang any place she could: church, school, weddings, funerals. She sang so often at her cousin’s Hudson Funeral Home that people “thought I was the hired singer. I got to the point where I’m like, I cannot sing at another funeral. It’s just becoming too much.” Of course, this is the same funeral home that arranged services for Hudson’s slain family members.
At moments, despite our stepping around it, the unspoken events threaten to trip us underfoot. When I ask if fiancé David Otunga—the Harvard Law grad who’s training to become a WWE wrestler—proposed on her last birthday, she says, “I almost didn’t remember that, but yeah.” Again, her carefree laugh: “There’s been so much going on, it’s hard to keep up.” She doesn’t specify the “so much” that happened six weeks after the September 12 proposal.
Of her condo on the Mag Mile, Hudson says (with a giggle), “I’m getting rid of it. I don’t live in Chicago.” Her voice grows quiet. “I’ll come visit my family, but I don’t want to live in Chicago, not right now. But it’s always home.” Quickly, she brightens again, vowing she may come back once the couple decides where to settle down. Chicago “is number one on the list,” she says. “It can’t be too far.”
If being cagily both open and closed is the conundrum any celebrity faces, it’s also how Hudson’s always lived. Her down-to-earth, talkative demeanor belies a lifelong predilection for seclusion. “No one even knew my sister and brother had a little sister. That’s how little they saw me,” she says. “I’m very enclosed.” (So enclosed that, as a kid, she never met Otunga, though they grew up a short walk from one another.) “When I’m done with my work, I go back into my little shell.” She doesn’t smoke or drink (not even soda). A fun night out is, simply, dinner and a movie (her favorite Chicago spot: Calypso Café in Hyde Park).
Her enormous fortitude has been nowhere more evident than in the Dreamgirls number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which led to her 2007 Oscar win. When she performs that defiant anthem, “I don’t think of this woman singing to this man. That’s just not my style.” Instead, she thinks of her American Idol loss in 2004: “And now I got another chance, and this time you’re gonna love me—and you and you and you and you and you and you. And I’m not goin’ nowhere.”
Shaping that determination have been three forces: church, family and the gay community. Where they overlap is music. “If I can’t feel a song, how do I expect my listeners to receive it? I learned that from the church.” Thanks in part to her friend Walter Williams III, Hudson learned about music outside the church, too. They met in the sixth grade at Yale Elementary. By the eighth grade, “He was like, ‘I’m gonna be your manager.’ I was like, ‘Boy, please.’” He booked her at South Side gay clubs, competing against drag queens. Now as her assistant, Williams “handles everything.” Reconciling her faith with her gay following (“I adore the gay community,” she says) comes to this: “God wants us to love everybody.”
The third force, family, will be in full view this weekend, when the singer will ask some of her 90 attending relatives to join her onstage. What’s both heard and unheard in our talk will be seen and not seen there: those who can’t attend. “I’m gonna make my family come up and sing,” Hudson says. “That way, people get a chance to see where I come from.”
Hudson and Thicke play the Arie Crown Theater Saturday 25 and Sunday 26.