Janet Jackson’s “State of the World” concert opens with images of the civil war in Syria, the names of unarmed black men killed by police officers and symbols of white supremacist groups. Simulated blood drips from the screens. These political and social messages told through current events are important aspects of the show, but as Jackson’s creative director Gil Duldulao tells it, there’s much more behind the narrative: It’s the story of Janet Jackson’s life.
The two-part “State of the World” tour traveled across the U.S. between September and December 2017, then from July to August of this year. The concert made it to two music festivals — Panorama and Essence Fest — in between, with the Global Citizens Festival in New York now on the schedule for Sept. 29 as well. But the first and second legs of the tour are subtly different — from the tracklist and arrangement of songs to the choreography and staging.
Who’s responsible for making these decisions? None other than Duldulao, the 39-year-old Hawaii native who started out at 16 as her backup dancer. (He lied and said he was 18 years old at the time so he could get an audition.) As the story goes, Duldulao then didn’t speak to Jackson for the next year and a half. He simply never got an opportunity. But their working relationship eventually bloomed, and Duldulao is now clocking his 23rd year on the Jackson team.
When crafting the second leg of the show with Jackson and musical director Daniel Jones, Duldulao started with the set list, he explained over the phone one recent afternoon. Due to Jackson’s packed travel schedule, they didn’t have as much time as other tours to get a complete overhaul of the performance together.
“When she lived in England, we’d stay up late at night sending each other videos and Facebook stuff just to crack up,” he says. “But we’d also work. She knows exactly which songs would be great to go into another song, or she knows which ones would work well in a medley.
“The thing is, Janet was in a completely different space compared to part one of ‘State of the World,’” he continues. “I wanted to tell a story from top to bottom of the journey from where she was even a year ago, to now.”
Duldulao’s knowledge of Jackson’s catalogue is in-depth — perhaps it goes without saying, since he’s entrenched in Jackson media on a daily basis. But he recalls her first music videos in one breath and sings the entire first verse to “Everytime” in the next. He can detail the reasoning for placing a backup dancer in an exact spot on stage from a show that happened last November. From his perspective, Jackson’s perfectionist spirit and photographic memory are no different from his — part of the reason they mesh so well.
For “State of the World,” he and Jackson went through a list of songs and started crossing things out that didn’t jive with this new concept.
“I was just like, ‘OK, why don’t we start with ‘Truth,’ your slow section?” he says. “To tell how Janet got here, how she had her career before and had her fans and family. Then that leads into ‘I Get Lonely,’ which was the time when she was single, you know? The songs fit well with the storyline of who she is now and what it took her to get to this place.”
Duldulao pushed Jackson to tweak some of the songs she performed, down to which verse she chose to sing on stage. As a result, Jackson’s set list for these recent shows is full of throwback songs and B sides, like Heavy D’s feature on the remix of her classic track “Alright.”
“I said to her, ‘There are so many bridges from songs that we’ve done that must be explored,’” he explains. “I figured we should just play with the music. Let’s not get so used to what we have been doing, you know? That’s why I was like, ‘We’ve been doing the breakdown on ‘I Get Lonely’ forever. Let’s just keep that out.’ Then Daniel goes, ‘You remember that Heavy D?’ And we added it in.
Duldulao’s job was to turn that musical side of the performance into a story that the audience could pick up on. Because of his work as a choreographer, he says people think he only likes dance music, tunes he can groove to. But Jackson’s thought-provoking songs — those that speak of bigotry, prejudice and social injustices — are actually some of his favorites.
“If we were to release ‘Rhythm Nation’ right now, it would still speak to the masses,” he says of Jackson’s 1989 hit. “That whole album is such a great message and it’s relevant to what’s going on now. I still get the chills and sometimes get teary-eyed watching our opening piece of the show.
“She doesn’t really need to say much, and for me, creatively, I don’t need to say much because what we feel and how we feel about what’s going on in the world and in her life is on that stage.”
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