Raleigh singer-songwriter Lydia Salett Dudley believes voting is urgent. And she wrote a song to transmit just that. 

Dudley wrote the chorus of her new single, “Whatcha Gonna Say,” last year while on a lunch break from her job in accounting, where she’d often watch the news. It was before things ramped up—before the pandemic or protests against police violence—but already she could sense the urgency of the upcoming election. 

“I just remember feeling very frustrated and confused,” Dudley says. “But no matter how bad it is, you have a responsibility to make your voice heard through the avenues that we have—which is voting. What are you gonna say at the polls, you know, where it counts?”

When her job became remote in March, Dudley decided to finish the song. Grabbing a sticky note from her desk, she began jotting down the rest of the lyrics. In the midst of working on it, police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. Dudley didn’t want to write another verse: She decided instead to reach out to her friend, the rapper K-Hill. She wanted to make sure the music was relevant to the state of the world, and so she asked him to collaborate and rap on a portion of the song. 

“What he wrote was perfect,” Dudley says.

YouTube video

The call to action in the song fuses with lighter jazz tones and an upbeat, funky rhythm throughout. After she was finished with the song, she knew it needed a music video, one that would visually capture exactly what she meant and thought about when writing and recording the music. She compiled clips from protests from over the summer and combined them with clips from protests in the sixties, creating a powerful compilation for the video backdrop to her song. 

“Most people are saying they thought we would be past this point in 2020, and it made me look at older clips to see the similarities of the protests, looting, and rioting,” Dudley says. 

Music surrounded Dudley growing up. Her mother was the pianist for their Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio and her father a song leader. Saturday nights were often spent practicing hymns, in order to make sure they were just right for services the next morning. 

Classical music was the genre of choice in her house growing up. Until she moved to North Carolina in 1999, Dudley didn’t venture into the jazz world. But her piano teacher had pointed out that her playing style had a bit of a jazz undertone—and the comment stuck. In the early 2000s, the North Carolina professor and jazz legend, Ed Paolantonio, took her under his wing and encouraged her to pursue jazz in earnest. 

Dudley currently lives in Raleigh, where she and her band, Jazz Xpressions, perform. She also started the Salett Art Center in 2011, a nonprofit with the goal of bringing appreciation and education for jazz, the blues, and spirituals to youths and underserved communities in the area. In December of 2016, she obtained a Master of Music in jazz composition from NCCU. 

Most recently, “Whatcha Gonna Say” was name-checked in a September New York Times piece about protest music. 

“I always say music is liquid. It can get through walls,” Dudley says. 

Comment on this story at music@indyweek.com.

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