Grown Folks Music caught up with one of our faves, R&B/Soul artist Noel Gourdin, to talk about creative control and collaborations on his new album, City Heart, Southern Soul. Get it now at iTunes and Amazon.
Check out the video for his first single, “Heaven Knows” above, and listen to the interview below.
Grown Folks Music had the pleasure of speaking with the young queen and one to watch– Antonique Smith. The actress (you may remember her portrayal of Faith Evans in the movie Notorious) and Grammy-nominated singer talked with us about her new EP: Love Is Everything, how she notoriously (pun intended) got to play Faith Evans and her passion for activism. Read below and enjoy.
GFM: I hope you don’t mind me taking it back a bit because this is an introduction to you for many of the Grown Folks. Those who would know you probably would know you from your portrayal of Faith Evans in the movie Notorious. Talk about that role. How did you get that role?
AS: I knew it was going to be my role in my heart when I found about the audition. I was like, ‘Aww man, that’s my role.’ I used practice singing to Faith in my bedroom growing up. I loved all the characters. I was a fan of everybody in the movie. So, I just thought that I was going to walk in there and they were going to be like, ‘Oh there’s Faith.’ It didn’t really happen like that. I had to really fight for it… literally.
The director wanted some of the girls at the time who were more famous and he had his eye set on two different actresses. When I came in I wore a green sweat suit and I had my hair in a bun. I don’t know why I did that, but for me I felt like I was coming like a clean palate so that they could see whatever they needed to see. They was the opposite of what I shoulda did, ’cause what he saw was, ‘Oh, she’s not sexy enough.’ I had two auditions. He was feeling like I wasn’t sexy enough. Everybody thought that my auditions themselves– my acting and my singing was great– but he just didn’t see the vision.
The producer and the casting director did, so they called me and they were like, ‘Look we need you to come back in. We’re going to put you on tape. We want you to look sexy. Bring your hair down. Throw some more make up on. [Have your] lip gloss poppin’. Put some tight jeans on [and] some heels… look sexy.’ I came back and did the same audition– just looking better and he loved it.
Then, he brought me in for my final audition which was a chemistry test. I did a chemistry test with Jamal [Woolard], who was playing Biggie and I did a chemistry test with the girls playing [Lil’] Kim. One of the girls, she did not end up getting the role, but they had us do an improv. They said, ‘We’re not going to give y’all specific lines, but here’s the situation: Faith, you’re going to go confront Kim about sleeping with Biggie. She’s at work, you’re going to go to her job and confront her. Boom. Go!’ We just start pretending and I come up to her. I don’t even know what I said, but she started popping her fingers all in my face and giving me all this attitude stuff. I’m from East Orange, New Jersey right, so I kind of lost it and I ended up pushing her across the room. It all happened so fast and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I felt bad because I had really pushed her, but the room was going crazy. They loved it. They thought that was crazy. That’s when the director said he knew I was Faith– when I pushed the girl across the room. So, I literally fought for the role. It’s really an honor. It’s an honor to be a part of Biggie’s legacy.
GFM: Was it hard to play a real person?
AS: There was some absolute pressure there because everybody knew her. She was famous. She was an iconic R&B diva. It was nerve wrecking for me because I knew that the comparisons were gonna be so easy. More recently you’ve seen the memes on Instagram of how people will go at you really bad if they don’t like your portrayal of somebody. I was nervous that people weren’t gonna really receive it. But, thank God I was able to talk to her. She answered all the hard questions. She gave me the back story. She told me, ‘Me and Big really loved each other. That’s what I want the everybody to know… how much we loved each other.’ I went back to the director and he added some scenes and some stuff to make sure that love was there. When the movie came out [and] I still to this day get love from that movie… so much love. It was a blessing.
GFM: I know you got love from Nas. He shouted you out in a song [Nasty]. That’s mad love [when] you get put in lyrics.
AS: [Laughs] Absolutely, and that was a really dope line too. That was really dope lyric.
GFM: In addition to that movie, you’ve also starred on Broadway, so you’re acting career has some momentum. Was it just simply time now to develop the music side of things with this EP?
AS: Yes, absolutely. I was on Broadway first. Then, I did Notorious and a few other movies. When I met my manager Darryl Farmer, he was like, ‘It’s time for you to do your music’. I wanted to do music first. I actually ended up doing acting because somebody heard me sing and asked to be my agent and started sending me on acting jobs. Acting kind of came to me while my heart was trying to do music the entire time. But it wasn’t until I met Darryl that it became possible because he was willing to sacrifice and really to give to the project in a way that nobody else had ever been.
We first did a Kickstarter [campaign]. I’m on his independent label–923 Music Group– and we first did a Kickstarter before anybody knew what it was. It was in 2012. People were like, ‘Kickstarter, what’s that?’ We were explaining to people what it was and we were actually asking them for money for the same time. I don’t like asking people for anything, especially money, so it was his faith in it that made it go. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ He was like, ‘No, we can do this.’ We did it and we raised over $50,000 in 30 days from my fans and my supporters which is crazy– especially at that time. I was the first African American artist to do that. Then, we did “Hold Up Wait A Minute” and he began to sacrifice and put his own money into the project and we ended up getting nominated for a Grammy last year– Best traditional R&B Performance. It’s unbelievable, especially since that was my first single as an independent artist. That’s kind of unheard of and really a blessing. It paid off taking that time away from acting at that point and saying, ‘Okay, let’s focus on music.’ It really paid off in a huge way and now the EP is out, which my first body of work. My new is single is “All We Really Have Is Now”.
GFM: The single, “All We Really Have Is Now”, was co-written by Emeli Sande [and Toby Gad]. How did you come to get that song? How did you come to work with her? Or, were you given the song?
AS: I was given the song. I’m friends with Toby Gad. Toby Gad did “If I Were A Boy” for Beyonce’, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” for Fergie, and “All Of Me” with John Legend, so he’s like [the] beautiful-ballad king. I’ve been friends with him for a long time. We’ve done other songs together, but it wasn’t until he played me this one that I was like, ‘I love this song!’ It was a song that he had already written with Emeli. It was just a blessing that he let me have it. He could’ve given the song to anybody. It’s such a beautiful song so I’m really honored that he gave it to me.
It’s such an emotional song for me, because we all go through this [thing] where we’re not focusing on the moment. We’re more worried about what we don’t have or what we’re trying to get. Or, [we’re] comparing ourselves to other people, or thinking about the past and who hurt us instead of focusing on what it is we have right now or who is in our life right now that we love. We tend to sometimes give the silent treatment, or we’ll be mad over petty stuff when none of that really matters. The song says, ‘The future’s just a promise that may change with the weather. The past is just a photo book. All we really have is now.’ I had a little listening session when the EP first came out and I actually cried while it was playing because it really touches me. It’s something that almost everyday we need to remind ourselves of. In some area or some moment of the day, we’re going to get lost in the future thinking about what we’re trying to get, or what we don’t have, or being upset about what we wish things were, or thinking about the past instead of appreciating right now. Man, that song is a blessing. It’s my new single and people have responded to it. I had one person say after they heard it, ‘I’m about to call my brother right now and tell him I love him.’ It really is that heavy. Tomorrow is not promised. So, you’ve gotta really appreciate right now. All we really have is now.
GFM: When I listened to the EP, it has a mixture of soul and pop in my opinion. Is that the direction you’ll take for debut album?
AS: The album is going to be the full-length version of Love Is Everything. I like to call my sound, pop soul with a Hip-Hop appeal to it. I was inspired by Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Aretha Franklin. I love the big-voiced divas. I sang in church so that’s how I sing. I was obsessed with Mary J. Blige. I thought she was just so cool. Her passion and her pain in her music– you could just feel her. She was so real. I love that. I love Hip-Hop. I love Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. You can hear in my music the fusion of the things that I loved and the things that I practiced. If you combine all those things, that is what my sound is.
[About] Love Is Everything— overall, the overarching message is that if there was more in this world, a lot of these crazy things going on wouldn’t be happening. This whole Black Lives Matter movement wouldn’t be necessary if there was more love in the world, because people wouldn’t be getting killed unarmed in the street. There’s so many other things [like] all of the human rights violations going on all over the world, [especially] this thing going on in Flint [Michigan]. I was just in Flint and we’re testing the water. These people have been drinking this water since 2014… for two years… and we come in and find more toxic chemicals than government is talking about. It’s a major cover up. That kind of stuff– poisoning an entire city because they are poor and black and who cares according to the government– or that governor in particular. Love would keep that stuff from happening. Love would be more important than the greed that makes a lot of these horrible things in the world go on.
“Got What I Need”
Then, you have more details where each song is like a different experience of love. “Got What I Need”– I call that the song for the kings. The ballers have got a lot of songs. The ballers don’t need no more songs. They get celebrated enough, but the kings are the regular guys. They’re out there working hard. They’re loving their woman, they’re being good to their woman. They’re just regular dudes working hard. They are the ones that need a song, so I say “Got What I Need” is for the kings because it’s saying, ‘Ain’t got a lot of money, but you know how to please. Can I get a lil’ mo’?’ So that’s for the kings.
“Take A Chance”
The next song on the EP is “Take A Chance”. We’ve all been afraid in a relationship. Once you’ve been hurt, you’re afraid. But, you really do have to just be vulnerable, open up and take a chance.
“Hold Up Wait A Minute”
“Hold Up Wait A Minute” is [about] self-love. Take your power back, put your foot down for whatever the injustice is. When I was performing Hold Up Wait A Minute all over the country I would talk about Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner. It was crazy too, as i was performing the song it would be more people to add to the list, which was so sad and so unbelievable. Whatever the situation is that you’re facing, it could be small, but whatever it is… hold up wait a minute. My “Hold Up Wait A Minute” moment was [when] the guy that I was dating was using my money… my money… to got see another woman. Hold up wait a minute. That’s self-love because when you have a large amount of love for yourself then you won’t allow some of those things to happen. You fight back against them. You shut it down.
“Higher” [is] the song that was curated by Dr. Dre. We got the track from Dre and we wrote the song. I’m not going to get on the guys too hard, but guys, sometimes y’all are afraid to commit. When we can feel that energy of y’all being afraid to commit we start to ask all the wrong questions like, ‘Oh my God. Where is this going? Are you seeing other people? Are we exclusive? What’s our future? What are our goals?’ All of these questions and y’all just disappear on us, which is not what we’re trying to do, but that is what happens. So “Higher” is what you say to a guy to make him look at you different and make him want a commitment. The song says, ‘Don’t you worry, I’m not trying to change you. I won’t chase you. I’m only trying to elevate you higher if you let your guard down.’
“All We Really Have Is Now”
“All We Really Have Is Now” is the next song on the EP and I just talked about that. We’ve gotta focus on the moment because tomorrow’s not promised. My grandmother always says, ‘Give people their roses while they can still smell them.’ So that’s how we need to live everyday.
“Here Comes The Sun”
The last song on the EP is a cover of a Beatles’ song called “Here’s Comes The Sun”. That song is a song that I had the honor of singing for the Pope on the National Mall in D.C. where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the “I Have A Dream” speech. It was for the Pope’s private rally last year when he was in the U.S. I sang it all over the country actually at rallies. I was [travelling] around the country with the Hip-Hop Caucus. I’m an activist. That’s why I was in Flint too. I was around the country telling people about the pollution in their air and in their water. That’s why they have cancer, asthma and heart disease. People don’t know this. They don’t know that’s why they’re getting sick. I lost a lot of people in my family recently to cancer. It’s because we grew up near a power plant. Among other things, now we’re just finding out that there’s lead in the school system in their water fountains. There’s a lot of stuff going on all over the country that’s just like Flint but less obvious. Flint is a very obvious situation. It’s very blatant. Everything else around the country is more covert. They are covertly poisoning people. People are living next door to people working with hazmat suits. Well if you have a hazmat suit on, then why am I 200 feet away from you and I don’t need a hazmat suit? “Here Comes The Sun” — it’s like an ode to solar power. The sun is sitting up in the sky, bidding us to use it. If we use the sun and use less oil and all of these more polluting energy sources, then we could power our homes and our cars and we could live a great life without anybody getting sick and anybody dying. “Here Comes The Sun” is a hopeful, beautiful ode to the sun. That’s my little activist moment at the end of the EP [laughs].
GFM: I was intrigued when I learned that you have a passion for activism. You’ve talked about it throughout the interview. You’ve touched on different issues, but talk specifically about your desire to use your platform and your voice for certain causes.
AS: I feel purpose I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like helping people and saving people’s lives and bring awareness to people that are under attack or they’re being literally poisoned and dying and letting them know why finally… that to me there’s something more purposeful about that than just entertaining people. I’ve always enjoyed entertaining people and I still do, but I feel purpose when I’m using my gift for activism.
My next project as an actress is even that [about activism]. I’m going to be on a show called Shots Fired. It’s a show on Fox. We haven’t started shooting yet, but it’s written, directed and produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. Gina Prince-Bythewood did Love & Basketball— one of my favorite movies. Sanaa Lathan is going to be starring on the show. It has a Black Lives Matter connotation. When I tell you that this show is going to be powerful and so hard-hitting… it’s gonna move people and hopefully help further this movement of change that we’re all on. On all levels I want everything I do to touch people, to help people, make people think, to bless people and help create change in some way.
GFM: What is your definition of Grown Folks Music?
AS: When I think of Grown Folks Music, I think of soul. I think of the two-step. I think of sexy, mature music. For some reason I think of chillin’ and groovin’. Grown folks music is cool and chilled, because when you grow up all of that extra turn up… nobody’s trying to do all of that. We’re chillin’ [laughs].
Steven Russell Harts, lead singer of the group TROOP– yes Grown Folks, that TROOP– took time out to talk with Grown Folks Music. We chopped it up about his current solo album The Wedding Singer and the remix of the first single, “Shelter Deluxe” (Listen to it here). We also talked about the current situation that R&B music finds itself in, TROOP’s recent episode on the TV One series Unsung, and the return of TROOP. Read the interview below and enjoy.
GFM: Let’s jump right, in. You have a solo project out (called) The Wedding Singer. The first single is “Shelter”. Before we get into the album, can we talk about the “Shelter Deluxe” remix that you have going with that all-star lineup? How in the world did you get all these people? You’ve got… and let me make sure I’m correct… and (you can) correct me if I’m wrong… you’ve got Joe Little from the Rude Boys. You have one of my hometown favorites, Mr. Keith Washington. You have the silky and smooth Howard Hewett. You’ve have one of my favorite people in the entire world, Mr. Al B. Sure! and you have Elliott Yamin and let me just say, he goes in on this remix. He is one of the most underrated voices out today, but that’s a discussion for another time. How in the world did you make this thing happen?
SRH: You know, I just feel like R&B is in a state of emergency in a certain fashion. So, I’ve just been trying to come up with ways that I could do whatever I could to bring some interest and make R&B interesting. I just called up a bunch of my friends and asked them if they would help me do this remix– this idea that I had to do like a “Secret Garden” with this song “Shelter”– because I think “Shelter” is such a good song for women. They agreed. They all came in and me and Al B. got together and figured out the parts and it turned into magic.
GFM: You mean you didn’t do your parts remotely? You mean you got all of these brothers in one studio to do the remix?
SRH: Oh no, no. It was only a couple of people here at the same time. But, I got everybody to be down and come and participate… yeah.
GFM: So going back to the album overall–The Wedding Singer. Listening to the songs, they do sound a bit like a soundtrack to a wedding. Tell us about the feel of the album and the meaning behind the title of the album.
SRH: Well I wanted it to be… like you said.. I wanted it to be a soundtrack to love. Discovering love… remembering love.. making a decision about being in love. I wanted it to be all those things under one umbrella. The title actually came from my brother. He always teases me about, “If I could sing man, I would be singing at everybody’s wedding. People get married everyday.” (laughs) He’s on me about doing certain stuff. We were playing pool one day and he was playing a bunch of my music and he said, “This is my album right here. This is the wedding singer.” That’s how it happened. I went and put a bunch of good songs together that I thought would fit the purpose and that’s how I got the album.
GFM: Those of us… or those out there who haven’t seen TROOP’s Unsung episode should know that you haven’t been sitting inactive after the years that TROOP disbanded. Can you talk about the work that you continued to do in the music industry and with whom– some of the artists that you’ve worked with?
SRH: At one point in my career I had to make a decision about keeping songs for a future TROOP album… if it happened or not. I decided to send some music around to a few friends at labels and I was able to start my career as a writer/producer. Randy Jackson, from American Idol, actually was the first person that gave me a shot with a group called Jersey Avenue. The song was called “I Wonder Why”. From that, I joined with a couple of buddies of mine, Harvey Mason, Jr. and Damon Thomas. We started The Underdogs. And Jay Valentine… Jay was actually there before me and we all got together and started The Underdogs. From there we produced Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks’ “No Air”, Chris Brown, Charlie Wilson, Ruben Studdard, Katharine McPhee, David Archuleta and Aretha Franklin. I mean I’ve worked with almost everybody that’s anybody, except Rihanna, I haven’t had a chance to meet her. I even had a chance to sit in… when we did Dreamgirls, I worked with Beyonce’, you know just sitting in and watching her do her thing, so that was a privilege. So, I’ve managed to stay pretty busy over the years… got a couple Grammys.
GFM: Oh that’s all… just a couple. (laughs) Just a couple little Grammys. I had no idea you that were part of The Underdogs. Do you continue to work with them?
SRH: Yeah, I work with The Underdogs often. I am on my own now, but I go and write with them all the time, yes.
GFM: Speaking of the Unsung episode, were you satisfied with how TROOP’s story was told?
SRH: I thought it was decent. I thought it was safe. I wish that it would’ve been… you know that was the opportunity for the raw truth to come out and I thought they made it a little safe just for certain members of the group to feel a certain comfort or whatever. So, I think it was cool. I think it was nice. It didn’t get into the depths of why decisions were made. What led to certain decisions… they never did get into that. They just kinda did an overlook of the whole thing, which I think was okay. I think it was cool. I think it served its purpose, yes. But I wish it was more truthful about the relationships and how it went bad amongst the group. They didn’t really tell the truth or get too deep about that.
GFM: What advice if any do you give… if asked… to these young artists coming along about the inner workings of the music industry?
SRH: Well the music industry now is so different. People are creating themselves. You can become an Instagram star now. It’s a totally different game. I would say to somebody pursuing music seriously to make sure they have a great team around them. Get some great representation. Promote yourself and create as much buzz on your own as you possibly can because any label… any representative that you go to is going to be looking at your followers on Instagram, or Facebook, or MySpace– all this stuff. All that matters now. You have to really just build yourself up and try to become who you’re gonna be, because the labels are not gonna create an artist these days. You have to already be who you’re gonna be– already have a following before a label will touch you. I would say just work hard. If you believe in yourself stick to it. Don’t take “no” for an answer and just constantly create new music. And know the business.
GFM: That intrigues me that you say that. I was watching a music documentary,and forgive me for not remembering the title, (but) one of the people interviewed said the same thing you just said. Labels no longer create the artists or invest in the artists to that degree. You already have to come with something– with followers and kind of a package. But with that said, the reason that intrigues me is how do you account for the image that artists seem to be molded into after they’re signed and after stardom comes. The music they’re asked to sing and perform. The lyrics they’re asked to sing and the outfits they’re asked to wear. How do you account for that which seems to be a little bit different than it was before they were signed? The image that seems to be different?
SRH: It depends. I think that’s independently on each camp… on what image they’re trying to portray. You know most people nowadays do what they see. They might see somebody dressing a certain way and try to put a little spin on it. There’s not a lot of originality going on. There’s so many different artists that are out right now that look the same and dress the same. It’s kinda hard to say that it’s just the record label doing that. I think it’s just the record companies pushing… the record company wants what’s hot, so they’re not trying to create a Michael Jackson or believe in a Prince. They don’t have time for that. They don’t have time for you to go from “I Wanna Be Your Lover” to “Purple Rain”. They just don’t have that kind of time. I just think it’s a sign of a times. We’re in an era right now where this period of music… this era of music… it’s just that time where it’s not a lot of extra creativity. Those who do step out of the box as far as work ethic and creativity like a Beyonce’– she stays young and fresh and keeps everything with how the times are, but she works like Tina Turner. She’s the only one that does it and she’s the only Beyonce’.
We’re just in that era where everything is the same. We’re not in the era where you’ve got TROOP, New Edition, Ready For The World and Mint Condition. We’re just not in those days anymore. You’re not in the day where you have several production teams doing a bunch of great music. If you do have different production teams, they’re all trying to sound like one producer. It’s one producer’s sound that’s ruling the industry– which is fine for him. I think the heavens have opened up for him so that’s great, but we’re in an industry. We’re in an industry where when you turn on pop radio you hear different songs. You hear different meanings… different looks. You see different videos when you turn to pop television, but when you come to R&B, they’ve crammed up into R&B Hip-Hop, so we’re all just one thing. Hip-Hop can’t breathe without R&B, and R&B can’t be loved as R&B without having some slick, Hip-Hop way to it. I think that train wreck right there is gonna kill R&B, because Hip-Hop’s not going nowhere. Hip-Hop is going to evolve into anything. It has a life of its own. Anything can be Hip-Hop. R&B is what’s really at stake.
GFM: Just touching back on what you said about the Instagram star. The age of the Instagram star, the internet star– all of those outlets where you can become a sensation very quickly. Do you think that has also contributed to the death of the R&B male group? The R&B male group is an endangered species. Where have the R&B male groups gone?
SRH: Shoot, I’ll go a little further and say the R&B male group is extinct almost. You see a TGT pop up. You see TROOP is making their way back. It’s extinct because the labels are not interested in it. It’s not about what the female fans or the fans want. It’s about what’s gonna make the quickest buck for today. They don’t care that Silk is still out on the road every weekend and people would love to hear a new song and see a new Silk album, or a new H-Town album. They just don’t care about that. It just doesn’t matter. Groups like us–TROOP and Silk and New Edition– we make our money out on the road doing touring. So the fact that we’ve had hits (means) we don’t have to have new songs. We never have to create another song to be TROOP and to go out and make millions of dollars on the road. We’ve already created them with “Spread My Wings” and “All I Do” and the stuff that we did in the past. So, the record companies… they have to make their money where they can. If it’s a young hot act that sounds like something in the club right now, then let’s go. Let’s go get it. There’s no interest in a male R&B situation.
GFM: That’s unfortunate, because I look at the White (pop) boy bands like The Wanted, One Direction and Five Seconds of Summer and there seems to be an interest in putting together the White (pop) boy bands or male groups, but none with the R&B male group. I think that’s something that’s sorely missed… along with the solo R&B male artist, but that’s a discussion for another time.
GFM: Tell us what’s going on with TROOP. We are reuniting, I hear. We have a single, “Not In A Million Years”. Tell us everything about the TROOP reunion.
SRH: The TROOP reunion is great. Right now we’re performing a lot. Since the Unsung episode, we’ve been working like crazy so we’ve just really been rehearsing and getting our tour life back together, to be honest, while we record between being out of town. It’s going great. Everybody has a bunch of great ideas. We have a new single called “Not In A Million Years. (It’s) just a taste of TROOP– where we left off and where we are now as far as those classic records having not gone anywhere. We still can do that, but the album is gonna be filled with fresh, new music. We’re gonna be in the club this time– we’re bangin’. We’re just gonna do what we’re supposed to do to represent the age that we’re in. We’re not going anywhere, so we don’t have to fight the grain of music that’s going on. We’ve just gotta get with it and do TROOP. Do what TROOP would do today. So, we’re having fun just coming up with the ideas. It’s gonna be amazing.
Connect with Steven Russell Harts
On Twitter – @StevenRusel
On Facebook – http://facebook.com/StevenRussellHarts
On Instagram – @SteveofTroop
Attend Steven’s Songwriters Social mixer: email songwriters@MatthewsEnt.com
Booking: TROOP or Steven Russell Harts booking@MatthewsEnt.com
Connect with TROOP
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/TROOPRnB
On Facebook: http://facebook.com/TROOPReturn