Her second act is true to her soul

Boston Globe, April 4, 2011

In the brand-new video for “Until U,” from soul singer Ashanti Munir’s album, “Soul of a Woman,” a couple in the fullness of adulthood are dressing and preparing for an event – their wedding, it seems – while black-and-white flashbacks picture a much younger couple walking in the rain, 25 years earlier. It describes a kind of love, Munir sings, that she had despaired of finding again … “until u.”

Shot in Munir’s home in Brockton and, recognizably, on Quincy Shore Drive and in the Boston Public Garden, the video and the song it supports encapsulate key facts about Munir: She’s making the kind of old-school, adult R&B that struggles these days to wedge itself onto commercial playlists. She’s doing it in Boston, a city not known for its soul-music market and venues. And she has taken her time.

All true, says Munir, who has fronted various bands on the Roxbury circuit over the years and has backed up innumerable local and national acts, but whose solo pinnacle, prior to relaunching her career three years ago with the indie album “Balance,” had been winning Amateur Night at the Apollo back in 1992.

“And everyone always asks me that: What happened after?” Munir says with a laugh. “Well it was exciting, I won, and then I went back home with the kids.”

Munir’s recent music has earned some recognition on the indie soul circuit, especially overseas, pushed by several European websites, one of which, Soulchoonz, flew her over to headline its annual London gala. Breaking in back home has been trickier, but Munir has high hopes for her first solo gig at Scullers on Tuesday – one she’s been working to get, she says, for well over a year.

Her sound – backed by a full band of longtime local jazz and R&B players – falls near the intersection of ’70s and ’80s soul with groove-oriented jazz. The themes are confessional and uplifting. She cites Whitney Houston as inspiration, not only for her technique and stagecraft, but because the two women are the same age. She also cites Gladys Knight – “I do try to sing like her sometimes, I like the tone of her voice, her raspiness” – and Regina Belle.

“Those are my three lady loves,” Munir says. She is sitting in a coffee shop in Copley Place mall with a kind of entourage: her songwriter and manager, Craig Eleazer, whom she met about eight years ago when he was booking talent at Bob the Chef’s in Lower Roxbury; and at the next table, waiting patiently, her romantic partner (he’s the handsome man in “Until U” and Munir’s first video, “So Smooth”) and his children.

Ashanti Munir’s second act is very much a family affair.

“In the community, they know me,” she says. “I’ve got backup, as they say.” Local promoters have helped spread the word to thousands of people on their mailing lists. At Munir’s day job – she’s an administrative assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital – everyone from security guards to surgeons is a potential fan. She’s especially thrilled that a top surgeon in her department has promised to come hear her sing: “That’s like having the president come!”

Munir and Eleazer are forthright that her sound might have stronger commercial chances in a market like Atlanta, D.C., or New York where soul radio and venues are more developed. They say they are slowly but surely fielding interest from promoters around the country.

But at heart Munir is fiercely local. She grew up in Roxbury and began singing for fun, she says, in her early teens in her bedroom on Seaver Street. She cut her teeth on the talent-show circuit, at the Trotter School in Roxbury and then the Lee School: “When you went to the Lee School show you had to be really good, I thought I had it going on!”

Now, she’s happy with her quiet life in a simple ranch house in Brockton, with the turmoil of the past – she doesn’t specify just what, but allows that bad relationships may be part of it – safely behind her and providing, at most, the benefit of experience and material for her songs.

She’s come too far to be frustrated. “I’m not tired, I’m not discouraged,” she says. “Every opportunity that comes to me, it’s supposed to come to me. You put the love out there and it comes back.”

When she meets aspiring singers, she invites them to shows and to the studio, and presents them a different path than the raunchy current R&B and hip-hop she dislikes: “Say something! The lyrics, it’s a story. And you’re reaching people, you have the ability to reach inside someone, and that’s a gift!”

It’s the kind of empowering message that Munir sends herself as well. One of her favorite songs on her new album is “Don’t Be Afraid.” “That’s like my little anthem to myself,” she says. “I play it to encourage myself: Don’t be afraid to stand alone. Just do you.”