The artist known as Monifah released several albums in the '90s, most notably with Mo'hogany and the song "Touch It," using a sample of Laid Back's "White Horse."
Last year she joined several other R&B singers such as Angie Stone, Faith Evans and Syleena Johnson for a reality show entitled R&B Divas for TV One, where they made a Whitney Houston tribute album together and balanced their personal lives. She came out of the closet publicly on the show and is now recently engaged to her girlfriend, Terez.
Windy City Times caught up with her at the studio where she is making her new album before her trip to Chicago. She will be here this coming weekend as part of the African Festival of the Arts.
Windy City Times: Hi, Monifah. I heard you are in the studio recording and super-busy today.
Monifah: Well, thank goodness, yeah.
WCT: So you are grateful for that.
Monifah: Absolutely. This is the first studio album I have done in 13 years. It is very significant for me and exciting. I had left out the music industry as Monifah the artist. This is my first go-round again.
WCT: Are you using samples of other people on this album?
Monifah: No, not really. This is original, fresh and new.
WCT: I have to tell you that I wore out my cassette of "Touch It."
Monifah: Oh, I love it! Everybody loves it. I was performing that song for, like, three years after it came out. It was a blessing and my biggest song. It gave me a whole new audience than what I was geared towards as an R&B artist. It was awesome and spent 16 weeks at number one.
WCT: Did the song make you want to move in that direction with your music and be more risque?
Monifah: I don't know about risque but I just wanted to be me and I am all those things! [Laughs] My musical palette is broad. I grew up on jazz and all kinds of music. I love country. I just love music.
You will see the broadness on this new album but it won't be all over the place though, it will all make sense. You will be able to listen to it and hear it for what it is. I believe as artists we have the ability to tap into what we choose. We can be different people in different songs because that evokes emotions and thought or memories. I like to play. There is a sense of having different characters that will never feel the same musically or otherwise. I am playing a lot with that in this project. I am showing who Monifah is as a whole and all the ladies and some guys that she has inside of her.
WCT: You are from a musical family?
Monifah: Yes, my mom sang. Most of my family were vocalists. My uncle was a pianist. He didn't keep going with it but he was a prodigy as a kid. My grandmother from my mother's side played the guitar.
WCT: You are a New Yorker?
Monifah: Yes, I grew up in East Harlem.
WCT: I heard you had a crush on Kristy McNichol growing up.
Monifah: It was so funny because it didn't feel strange or anything. It just felt normal. I didn't even pay that much attention. I just liked her and thought she was cool. I liked Jo from [the TV show] Facts of Life, too. I liked her character. I have always been attracted to edgy chicks. I noticed they were all kind of tomboyish. I thought they were adorable. Who doesn't like Kristy McNichol?
WCT: She is coming in town the week after you are here.
WCT: When people like her come out of the closet it makes it easier for other people.
Monifah: That is the point. We are regular members of society living life like everyone else. I think people need to understand that. Who you love and are attracted to are individual things. They don't define who you are but they are a part of who you are.
WCT: Congratulations on your engagement.
Monifah: Thank you! It is so cool. All of my friends are getting married now. It is just a different level. We have been together a few years. Each step is different like moving in together and now we are engaged. It all feels different. It is weird but in a good way. We are more in love if that is possible. It is about commitment and doing the right thing for now. I don't believe in forever but I believe in if it works, it works. If it is going to keep going then it will.
WCT: You don't want to jinx it by saying forever.
Monifah: Yeah, because nothing is forever. Our lives aren't even forever. I never take that for granted. As long as we are loving each other, supporting each other and want to be here, that is how it is going to be.
WCT: Were you surprised that your reality show would be this big? There were almost 900,000 viewers tuning in on the first episode.
Monifah: I have to honestly say, Jerry, in my spirit I did. How it came about during the time in my life with just having made the decision to heal, live my best life, and stop using. I was ready and went totally in. I was clean in my spiritual, emotional and mental house. As soon as I made that decision it came just like that!
I knew there was a story. There are artists out there that people love. There are a handful of them that are doing the franchise now. People need to see that the story doesn't always end with fame. There are lessons in that story that we needed to share especially as women in the business. This is a boys' club. We are survivors and made it through. I knew it was going to be okay because of the timing in my life. I knew God wanted me to share and be transparent. I wanted to show that people are not alone in different areas as far as who I am in love with and my sexuality, my parenting, rebuilding my connection with my daughter, healing relationships and my drug addiction. People go through all of that and they can make it if they believe in themselves. They need to know that they are not the only ones going through it. I knew this was the right crew of women to make a show with.
WCT: You seem like a very spiritual person. Do you go to church regularly?
Monifah: I am not a churchgoer. I am more spiritual than I am religious. Religion is more men-driven. It is not about the spirit but about actions. It's about keeping up appearances to me. It is more about indoctrination than about connection to a higher power. It is a personal thing and understanding there is something greater than you. You are not the only thing that matters. It is not all about you. I think religion just keeps people in line. The powers that be just tell people how to feel. It is a control thing to me.
WCT: Amen. On Facebook you have pictures with so many celebrities. Is there one that you have met that means a lot to you?
Monifah: I would say Chaka Khan. I loved her as a kid. When I was 5 years old I thought I was Chaka Khan! I had my hair all out wild. Doing the tribute to her at The Trumpet Awards this year was a big deal to me.
WCT: How did you get involved with the African Festival?
Monifah: They called my manager. Syleena is an Illinois native so I think it came through that way.
I think it is great to be on a bill with two artists that I respect such as Brandy and Syleena. Syleena is my sister in soul. I have known Brandy since the '90s. I am looking forward to gracing the same stage and watching them do their thing. I am really excited!
Look for Monifah and Syleena Johnson Saturday, Aug. 31, at 6:30 p.m. on the main stage for 2013 African Festival of the Arts. (In addition, Brandy will perform Monday, Sept. 2.) More information can be found at africanfestivalchicago.com .