By the time Joanna Levesque — better known as JoJo — could toddle, she was already regularly regaling everyone with snazzy renditions of "Jack and Jill" and "Winnie the Pooh." Nowadays, the 13-year-old ingenue doesn't have time for nursery rhymes. She's too busy promoting her upcoming album.
The "America's Most Talented Kid" veteran's self-titled LP, due in June, not only features three songs she penned — "Keep On Keepin' On," "Sunshine" and "Yes or No?" — but she also takes it way back with a cover of the SWV hit "Weak," which came out just about the time JoJo was rocking to Raffi. The native of Foxborough, Massachusetts, said there won't be anything weak about her first video.
"The video takes place in a school and basically the camera ... is the boyfriend, so I'm basically telling off the camera," JoJo said. "It's very colorful, and there's a lot of Boston references like Fenway High 'cause, you know, I'm from Boston, so I had to represent. ... It's kind of declaring your independence, girl power."
Even with a mother who sang in church and a blues-singer father, JoJo said she grew up with the odds stacked against her. "We were the lower-income people [in our neighborhood]," she said. "Everyone lived in nice houses, and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and we had the tiniest bathroom ever imaginable to man." JoJo can laugh about it now, because the sounds of Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Whitney Houston filled their modest home and inspired her profoundly soulful style.
JoJo made her debut at the age of 6 on TV's "Kids Say the Darndest Things," where she wowed host Bill Cosby with a stirring rendition of "Respect." "It was really scary," she said of the experience, "but it felt fulfilling, like it was right. ... I think [Cosby] was a little surprised because I was a little girl singing Aretha Franklin, and I think he really liked it."
JoJo went on to perform everywhere from "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" to the Republican National Convention, and legendary gospel singer Cissy Houston gave JoJo her stamp of approval after a performance at the 2001 McDonald's Gospelfest. "She said, 'You did a really good job,' " JoJo said, "and that meant a lot to me, because I love Cissy and love Whitney, her daughter."
It wasn't until JoJo appeared on an episode of "America's Most Talented Kids" that it all came together. She didn't finish first, which caused her to question her efforts, but she didn't stay anxious for long. An audience member approached her after the show and engineered an introduction to producer Vincent Herbert, who's worked with Destiny’s Child, Toni Braxton and Aaliyah, among others. "For everyone who doesn’t know, you're gonna know soon," said Herbert, who executive-produced JoJo's album. "She's incredible, unbelievable."
Herbert introduced the young artist to Blackground Records owner and founder Barry Hankerson, who wasted no time signing her. "This is another young lady who has the potential to be as incredible in her own right," Hankerson said, drawing a comparison between JoJo and Aaliyah, his late niece.
With a real shot at stardom in front of her, JoJo is more than entitled to a little diva attitude, but the songstress manages to be as mature and grounded about that as she's been about all her other ups and downs.
"I think last summer was the best summer of my life, and I get kind of teary-eyed just thinking about it," JoJo said, seeming as tickled today as she must have been when she first performed for Bill Cosby at 6. "Everything happened so fast. I recorded the album and worked with so many great people. ... We'd have secret handshakes and eat junk food. And it was a lot of work, too, [but] I just had so much fun."