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Jazz icon Dianne Reeves 'lost her breath' as Sheryl Lee Ralph sang her song at Emmys

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Last night, Sheryl Lee Ralph won an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series. And when she got up on that stage for her acceptance speech, she took a deep breath and broke into song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENDANGERED SPECIES")

SHERYL LEE RALPH: (Singing) Oh, I am an endangered species.

SUMMERS: The song is called "Endangered Species."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENDANGERED SPECIES")

RALPH: (Singing) But I sing no victim's song.

SUMMERS: It was Sheryl Lee Ralph's first Emmy nomination and her first win after a long career in entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENDANGERED SPECIES")

RALPH: (Singing) And I know.

SUMMERS: And that song is a bit of buried treasure from the early 1990s. It was sung and co-written by legendary jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves. And she's with me now. Dianne, welcome.

DIANNE REEVES: Thank you for having me this glorious morning.

SUMMERS: And what has this day been like for you? Were you watching the Emmys last night?

REEVES: Yes, I've known Sheryl for some time. She always loved the song. And she was always singing it. But I never would have thought that in this great moment that she would even start with a song and that it would be a song that I know, that I wrote. I just lost my breath. It was just an amazing moment.

SUMMERS: When Sheryl Lee Ralph was talking to reporters backstage, she told them that - and I'm quoting her here - "there are so many young actors, artists, even kids that think they know what they're going to do in life. Find your voice and put it where it belongs."

REEVES: Yes, absolutely. That is so true. You know, I always say define, refine, respect and protect it, but just keep moving forward because there's no one else like you in the world that can say it like you can say it.

SUMMERS: Now, I understand that you co-wrote the original song, which you released in 1994. Let's listen to a little bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENDANGERED SPECIES")

REEVES: (Singing) I am a woman. I exist. I shake my fist but not my hips. My skin is dark. My body is strong. I sing of rebirth, no victim's song.

SUMMERS: As you were writing that song, what was on your mind?

REEVES: Well, what I want to tell you is the co-writer is my very dear friend Jeanne Pisano. And at that time, I was doing a record called "Art & Survival." And it was a kind of a crazy time because there were a lot of things going on. And for some reason, I thought maybe this would be my last record. I didn't know. There were a lot of things going on in the industry. And so I thought, I'm going to just put on this record, this entire record, everything that I feel, that I know, that I believe in. And this was one of the songs from the record. And it just - I mean, it has been out there for so long. I have seen people skate to it. I've seen people do their dance routines to it. It's been - you know, it's just been amazing. I think in 1995, Hillary Clinton, when she had the women's conference in China, it opened that. I mean, so it's been out there. The record did not garner any great popular success, but those people who felt it kept it moving forward.

SUMMERS: And I was just wondering, have you spoken with Jeanne Pisano since this all happened?

REEVES: Oh, we've been talking all morning. You know, we've been laughing. And I was like, you know, just thinking about, you know, just sitting up and talking about this song and how it came into being. You know, both of us were - you know, there were a lot of things going on in the '90s. And, you know, we were both - you know, I was trying to navigate the record industry and all the - you know, the business and, you know, just all of the things that come along with it that can tear you down. But, you know, I had a friend in her and my other sister friends that just kept me lifted. We just kept each other lifted to move through all of this.

SUMMERS: Does the song "Endangered Species," does it make it into your usual set lists? And how do people respond to the song?

REEVES: Oh, they love it. Yes, it does. And people love it. You know, people's - you know, when I sing, I, you know, they just start, like, going, yes, you know? And over the years, the lyrics have changed, you know, to fit the times because it's - you know, as a jazz artist, the music is a living art form. It is in the moment. And there are things that inspire you in the moment. And so sometimes they become part of the song.

SUMMERS: Being an artist, whether you're a musician or an actor, it's not just about the big nights like the Emmys where you get to dress up and people celebrate you. So much of those kinds of careers are about working really hard for a long time with not a lot of recognition. And of course, Sheryl Lee Ralph is a Broadway legend, and you have won countless awards. But I'm curious if you have anything to say about those easily forgotten, kind of unglamorous aspects of being a working artist. Because this song, to me, really seems to touch on that.

REEVES: Well, yeah. I mean, like she was saying in her speech, keep dreaming, keep moving forward, keep doing what it is that you need to do. You never know where things are going to land or when they're going to land. But the most important thing is being respectful of, you know, what it is that you have to offer this world. You don't know what other young person is going to hear you, be inspired. Sometimes, you know, the excitement of it is, you know, put out in the populous. And sometimes it's just in the room of some young woman who's trying to find her way or some young man that is trying to find their way. You just never know. But just keep being who you are, and keep pushing forward.

SUMMERS: So you mentioned what that moment was like for you when Sheryl Lee Ralph stepped up on that stage and started singing. But what has it been like for you since? Has your phone just been going off the hook like crazy?

REEVES: My phone, my social media, you know, people are calling. They're, like, Diane, that was your song. Did you hear that? You know, people from all across the world, it's just - I have never experienced anything quite like this groundswell of, you know, congratulations and love and, you know - and celebration of Sheryl Lee Ralph as well. It's just wonderful.

SUMMERS: And have you had the chance to talk to her since all of this happened?

REEVES: No, I haven't. I understand that she is back in production, which sounds like her, back working there, you know. But I'm sure I'll hear from her because I sent her a message telling her thank you for the blessing, you know, that she gave my life.

SUMMERS: It also strikes me that this is a moment where young people, young girls in particular, are going to be hearing "Endangered Species" for the first time. I - it's hard to flip through TikTok without seeing it. I'm just curious. What message do you want them to take away?

REEVES: I want them to take away that you are out here, and you never know who is seeing you. You never know where your help is coming from. Sometimes, you - things will happen for you. You don't know how they happen. It's because people see you. And just keep being you, just keep loving on yourself. That's the most important thing. And the other thing that I would say is to have grace for yourself because sometimes the frustration sets in because you do a thing and you don't - and it didn't garner maybe the acceptance that you thought that it should. But you just never know. Maybe it wasn't that time, but it will be there. So have grace for yourself and for the people around you and keep moving forward.

SUMMERS: Dianne Reeves, thank you so much.

REEVES: Thank you.

SUMMERS: Dianne Reeves' most recent album is called "Beautiful Life." It won the Grammy for best jazz vocals in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENDANGERED SPECIES")

REEVES: (Singing) I am an endangered species. But I sing no victim's song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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