*Warning: this piece contains spoilers for Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever*
Wakanda Foreveris in a no-win situation.
The sequel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut Black Panther has the monumental task of honoring its fallen king, Chadwick Boseman, and the character he played, T’Challa, all while continuing on the Black Panther mantel, introducing new characters Riri “IronHeart” Williams (who will have her own Disney+ series) and the antihero Namor and his underwater kingdom Talokan.
It’s impossible to do all of these things well in just one movie, though co-writer and director Ryan Coogler’s effort is valiant. The love for Boseman is palpable, and Wakanda Forever gives us the opportunity to mourn him together, just as we celebrated him in community during Black Panther’s 2018 run.
Though I left the theater in tears after both Black Panther and Wakanda Forever, back in 2018 I wasn’t immediately sure why. This time around, it’s much more clear what hurts: Black people can’t win in the MCU.
Black People Can’t Have Peace
Much of the Black joy around Black Panther was rooted in the idea of Wakanda as the AfroFuture realized. The most advanced nation in the world, shielded from the evils of white colonization, enslavement, extraction and exploitation of resources, Wakanda represented all the beauty, glory and majesty of who we could’ve been, unshackled and without limits.
And yet, all of its leaders are assassinated by outsiders. First, it’s King T’Chaka, who meets his end at the hands of white Sokovian terrorist Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. Then it’s T’Challa, who’s blipped away for five years by Thanos’ snap in Avengers: Infinity War (before returning back to life in Avengers: End Game and dying of an unnamed illness in Wakanda Forever). Finally, it’s Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) in Wakanda Forever, assassinated by Namor (Tenoch Huerta) and left face-down, drowned in a flood of his making. It’s a graphic and disturbing image, not just for the characters – particularly her daughter, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), who has now lost every single member of her immediate family – but also for the already-grieving audience.
We came to the film expecting to grieve Boseman, whose untimely death from cancer in 2020 we’ve been processing ever since. And we came expecting to grieve T’Challa, knowing that the #RecastTChalla movement had been unsuccessful because, for the filmmakers and cast, Boseman is more than a character who inspired legions of young people. He was an actual person and friend, deeply loved and deeply grieved by his Black Panther family. Acknowledging his death and honoring him with the film rightfully meant more than continuing on with a new actor in the role. All of that, I'd expected and accepted.
But the assassination of Ramonda was cruel and unnecessary, for both the characters and the audience.
Yes, it’s a fictional death, and Angela Bassett played the hell out of it. But with the death of Boseman, our fictions and our realities have too closely intermingled. Killing Ramonda and leaving Shuri orphaned exemplified our all-too-real experience of Black grief in this country. We can’t even burn our mourning clothes before the next tragedy strikes. To still experience this, even in the AfroFuture? That's cruelty.
But it’s the MCU, and superhero origin stories need cruel deaths. T’Challa’s, apparently, wasn’t enough. Shuri’s subsequent journey of being consumed by grief in Wakanda Forever then, mirrors that of T’Challa’s in Civil War–both of which lead to a dissatisfying end.
Black People Can’t Have Vengeance
In 2016’s Civil War, Boseman’s T’Challa has just witnessed the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka, leading him on a path of revenge, that ultimately ends with him sitting on a hill, having a peaceful chat with his father’s killer, Zemo. T’Challa sees how vengeance has destroyed Zemo and lets the terrorist live, choosing the road of forgiveness.
T’Challa’s insistence on vengeance being no way to live continues in Black Panther and contrasts with his uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) and cousin, the Black American N’Jadaka, AKA Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). N’Jobu, who had been a Wakandan spy in America, had found sympathy for and community with Black American freedom fighters. He married a Black American woman who was imprisoned as a revolutionary (according to a deleted scene) and was planning to use vibranium to break her out and arm Black Americans in their fight against their white supremacist overlords. His own brother T’Chaka finds that plan so offensive that it’s worthy of N’Jobu’s immediate arrest and then execution when he resists, without much discussion, let alone tribunal. T’Chaka’s murder of his brother leaves a young Killmonger without a father or a mother.
All grown up, Killmonger comes to Wakanda for the first time to avenge his father N’Jobu. Killmonger also seeks revenge for Wakanda’s isolationist tactics, watching from the safety of their secret borders as Europeans kidnapped West Africans and sold them into slavery in the Americas, colonized most of Africa, and terrorized Black people globally with white supremacy. His keloided body marks the inner corruption vengeance has left on his soul–and there is no doubt, his murderous, misogynistic tactics are less about liberation for all Black people and more about replicating the white power structure with a Black male face as king.
When Killmonger fights T’Challa to maintain control as Wakanda’s king and Black Panther, T’Challa kills Killmonger. As Killmonger dies, T’Challa offers to heal Killmonger, but he’s just too broken and damaged by the impact of slavery and white supremacy on his people in America, too consumed by vengeance to ever be healed, to ever go back to his African home. Trying to get Black people together to get revenge against white people will never fly in the MCU.
Shuri learns as much in Wakanda Forever when her anger and grief over the loss of T’Challa from an unnamed illness leads Namor to believe she will be a good ally to him and his people, the Talokan, who have also suffered because of white supremacists’ efforts to destroy their people. He asks her to burn the world with him in order to protect their people from further distress. She isn’t keen on it, and she’s also not in control; Ramonda is calling the shots. When Namor murders Ramonda, Shuri goes all in on a plan to destroy Namor and the Talokan.
Her deep-seated need for vengeance leads her to meet Killmonger when she goes to the ancestral plane on her journey to becoming Black Panther. It’s at first a welcomed surprise to see him and to see the film allowing a young, dark-skinned Black woman the fullness of her rage on screen. Seeing Killmonger and watching as her rage sets the ancestral plane ablaze, suggest perhaps we might see Wakanda Forever correct the MCU's constant propaganda that “Black people must forgive our oppressors!” Plot twist: it's the same old story.
“Vengeance has consumed us,” Shuri says after she’s got Namor on the ropes, a spear at his throat. She drops her weapon and her vengeance, for the sake of the Wakandans who are getting their asses kicked in the middle of the ocean by the Talokan. “We cannot let it consume our people.”
Shuri has lost everything and everyone, and even still, Ramonda's spirit randomly shows up as a deus ex machina to remind Shuri that vengeance is not appropriate. "Show him who we are," Ramonda says. What is that, if not the same tired Black respectability politics we’ve been fed since slavery?
Black People Can’t Have Unity
Just like in slavery, unity among Black people is the greatest threat to white supremacist power and has been intentionally thwarted for centuries. It’s no different in the MCU. I accept that Killmonger wasn’t actually radical, and his faux-tep philosophy would not have led to Black liberation, but T’Challa didn’t listen to his partner Nakia’s (Lupita Nyong’o) correct takes on Black unity and liberation either.
Nakia wanted to use vibranium to help the people of Africa, and often left Wakanda to go and help people in other African nations as a spy. Does that inspire T’Challa to do her work at a larger scale at the end of Black Panther? No. He builds a STEM program and community centers for some underprivileged Black kids in America; skips right over the African Union or any attempts to unite and empower the Continent; and incomprehensibly takes his knowledge of vibranium to the white supremacist United Nations instead.
In fact, outside of fictional Wakanda – which appropriates many African nations’ languages and cultures to make up the look and feel of Wakanda – there are zero positive depictions of real Africa in the MCU. In Civil War, we see Nigeria’s capital city Lagos completely destroyed (and mispronounced!! several times!!) by the Avengers. In Black Panther, Nigeria is reduced to Boko Haram traffickers of women and children. In Wakanda Forever, there’s mention of a Wakandan hub in Ghana, but we don’t see Ghana outside of the hub, which is guarded by Dora Milaje. We don’t see any other part of Africa in the MCU, and the message is clear: Wakanda has advanced itself so successfully because it has isolated itself from the rest of Africa. It's giving: "not like the other Blacks."
But the worst offense takes place inside of Wakanda’s borders at the end of Black Panther.
King T’Challa, who was thought dead, has arisen, meaning he was not defeated by Killmonger and the challenge for the throne should continue. But Killmonger has no interest in a fair fight; he’s already been crowned king and Black Panther. Inexplicably, this leads to a Wakandan civil war.
Killmonger just got there like the day before; T’Chaka and T’Challa have been mainstays in Wakanda for decades. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is T’Challa’s best friend. All of the tribes joyously celebrated T’Challa being crowned king the week before. And yet, W’Kabi leads his tribe and others into war against fellow Wakandans and many, many are killed, including members of the Dora Milaje. This is the problem of having an all-Black setting in the MCU: action movies need battle scenes, so a lot of Black people will be killed on screen and even Wakanda itself will have to get trashed.
Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation in the MCU; they’ve never been colonized, and still their ways of handling conflict are steeped in age-old white supremacist tactics of violence, domination and control. The math don’t add!
To make matters more disgusting, Nakia and T’Challa have brought a white CIA agent into Wakanda, Everett Ross, who is not only given life-saving treatment for his injuries and a tour of Wakanda’s secrets as a literal AGENT OF THE CIA, but he's also given weapons by Shuri to shoot down Wakandan pilots in the civil war. The entire reason T’Challa won’t help African nations or the Black diaspora is to protect the safety and security of Wakanda – which completely goes out the window when a random white cop is down bad?
Coogler, Oakland’s own, is very well aware of the history of the CIA, FBI and global police efforts to destroy Black liberation movements, and particularly the Black Panthers. But it’s the MCU; the “good white cop who has Black friends” is their entire MO (seeCaptain America, Iron Man, Thor…). Still, Agent Ross’s seemingly irrevocable invitation to the Black Panther franchise cookout is an affront and jokingly calling him “colonizer” doesn’t make up for it.
Contrast the Wakandan civil war with the Avengers in Civil War, where the Avengers split into two factions and fight each other. When one Avenger gets seriously injured, the fighting stops. They love each other too much to kill each other. Wakandans – who literally only know each other because they’ve been isolated from the rest of the world for their entire existence – kill each other with ease. What message does that send about Wakanda, about Africa?
Meanwhile, as Black countrymen are killing each other, Zemo, the white man who murdered their king, is still alive and well.
And so are the white French soldiers in Wakanda Forever who attack Wakanda’s hub in Ghana, armed to the teeth and looking for vibranium. The Dora Milaje disarm them and bring them – handcuffed yet unscathed – into a United Nations meeting to help Queen Ramonda make her point about how corrupt these white countries are.
Yet Okoye receives no such leniency from Ramonda when Okoye valiantly loses her fight against a gang of Talokan warriors with superhuman strength who kidnap Shuri and Riri. Ramonda strips Okoye of her rank as general and banishes her from the Dora Milaje, ignoring pleas for mercy from the Council. Ramonda also mentions that Okoye’s “treacherous” husband W’Kabi is in banishment after siding with Killmonger during the civil war.
All of this begs the question: What is justice in Wakanda and how does the most advanced nation on earth dole it out to its own? Murder and banishment and war are all we see.
This continues in Wakanda Forever when Namor approaches Wakanda to team up against white colonizers. I’ll admit, when Namor shows up dripping in vibranium because Wakanda wasn’t in fact the only special place where vibranium formed, I thought, Man…Black people can’t have nothing! Still, I was all for a film exploring the joint struggle of Black and Mayan communities and how we’re naturally allies. But it’s the MCU; Disney would pull the plug on the whole franchise if Marvel actually let Black and Mayan people team up to take down white supremacy for real. So Wakanda Forever spends the majority of its action with the Black and Mayan people killing each other, becoming allies at the very last possible minute, without showing what “allyship” actually looks like. Guess we’ll see what the MCU allows in Black Panther 3.
But as for Wakandan and Black American unity, that future is still to be seen. In Black Panther, Okoye spits the word “Americans,” and with Killmonger’s death and the heartbreaking message that Black American descendants of enslaved Africans might just be too messed up to reconnect with Africa, Black Panther surely makes no space for an end to the Diaspora Wars.
The only other Black Americans in that film are some nameless boys in the ‘hood in Oakland, whom T’Challa attempts to rescue through his charitable STEM program. Get ‘em while they’re young, I guess. But if Black Americans can only receive Wakandan charity rather than exchange of ideas, of cultures, of language, there's no hope for unity.
The inclusion of Riri Williams in Wakanda Forever, however, may be an attempt at correction, as she’s the first Black American young woman character in the franchise. She’s not quite an equal to the Wakandans we know, as she's a 19-year-old college kid. But she is also a prodigy and a mentee for Shuri, and I’m here for their Black girl brilliance and the growing bond between them. But Shuri won't let Riri take her IronHeart suit back to America with her. Shuri is still in control.
Even Wakanda Forever 's introduction of Haiti and Black life in the Caribbean to the MCU still puts Wakanda in the position of teacher, as Nakia is the headmaster of the school featured there and in charge of educating Haitian children. Coogler choosing Haiti as a site of healing and connection and writing that Nakia and T'Challa name their son Toussaint to honor the revolutionary history of Haiti seem like narrative steps toward Wakanda's community building in the Diaspora. But knowing Haiti's current real life level of devastation after the 2021 hurricane, I need some receipts that Wakanda is doing more to empower Haiti than just running one self-sustaining school.
Further franchise installments should account for the incessant lack of Black unity both inside Wakanda and throughout the Diaspora. Without colonization and white supremacy, Wakanda should’ve been leading the charge on how to show care and solve intracommunal conflict.
But, again, it’s the MCU. That means these movies can’t possibly be revolutionary beyond the veneer of representation.
Black People Can’t Be Free
And sure, representation matters, but then what?
What was gained by the extremely mild showing of affection in Wakanda Forever between Dora Milaje warriors Aneka (a wasted Michaela Coel) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba), two queer characters in the comics whose relationship is diminished to a two-second peck on the bald head? Is it enough to know that Black queer characters exist in this world, even if they can’t do anything particularly queer so that Marvel can increase the odds that China will let the movie open in its country? (Surprise! China wasn’t ever gonna let them do that, anyway.)
What was gained by taking Okoye, who found such pride, joy and beauty in her bald head in Black Panther, and reducing her looks to punchlines in Wakanda Forever? This happens both inside Wakanda by M’Baku in front of the Council, where this leader is supposed to be respected and revered, and outside Wakanda by the young genius Riri who couldn't think of a better comeback than calling her bald head ashy. This passes as comedy in 2022?
What was gained by making M’Baku king and setting up the reveal of a secret 6-year-old son for T’Challa? These choices seemed like throwing bones to the #RecastTchalla crowd who mourned the loss of Black male power more than anything else. Sure, the idea of a secret son could bring some comfort that the T'Challa character will live on in the future and that Shuri does still have one relative left. But more than anything, it makes its secret-holding characters look especially cruel.
For a year, the son was grieving the loss of his father, as were Ramonda and Shuri and all of Wakanda. They could've been grieving together. Wakanda Forever opens with this gorgeous, all-white funeral for T'Challa, emphasizing the Wakandan tradition of grieving and healing in community, which only makes Nakia's nonsense reasoning for not bringing the boy to attend the funeral and meet his aunt all the more unbelievable – especially considering the turmoil that Killmonger being disconnected from Wakanda had caused.
But the worst grandmother of the year award goes to Ramonda, who not only knew about her secret grandson and didn't tell her grieving daughter, but she also sent his only living parent off on a dangerous rescue mission, leaving the child behind in Haiti (with whom?!). It's such an unsavory series of choices that goes against so much of what we've learned over two films about these characters and their love for Wakanda, in exchange for an emotionally manipulative surprise ending.
It only further highlights the fact that these characters haven't been developed enough and neither has Wakanda. Besides letting women fight in battle and rule the kingdom when the men they’re connected to become ancestors, we don’t know much about Wakandan culture and values outside of the royal walls, since we never meet any regular degular Wakandans. Is there homelessness? Free healthcare? Hopefully flood insurance? We don't know. But even without the infiltration of white supremacy and colonization, it seems that Black people in Wakanda are only free to a degree. And that’s by design.
Outside of the MCU, these films wouldn't have had the tentpole, blockbuster reach or success; they wouldn't even exist. Still, they could’ve been so much more than the fashion, the memes, and the need for representation that initially brought us together behind this franchise – though that 2018 moment in history was a gift that can never be replicated. We wanted a king and Chadwick was a beautiful one. We wanted Black women exercising agency and power. We wanted dark-skinned beauty representation and we got all of that, so we let some anti-Black, anti-Black American and anti-African sentiments cook.
But we deserve more. We deserve a story about Africanness and Diasporic Blackness that’s not hampered by the white gaze that would refuse us peace, justice, unity and vengeance. In the MCU, no matter who’s at the helm, that’s just not possible.
Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
Director of Content: Jasmine Grant
Campaign Manager: Chantal Gainous
Managing Editor: Sheriden Garrett
Creative Director/Executive Producer: Tracey Woods
Cover Designer: Tierra Taylor
Photographer: Ally Green
Photo Assistant: Avery Mulally
Digital Tech: Kim Tran
Video by Third and Sunset
DP & Editor: Sam Akinyele
2nd Camera: Skylar Smith
Camera Assistant: Charles Belcher
Stylist: Casey Billingsley
Hairstylist: DaVonte Blanton
Makeup Artist: Drini Marie
Production Assistants: Gade De Santana, Apu Gomes
Powered by: European Wax Center
Janelle Monáe's Reveals The Real Reason Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Tuxedos
Singer and actress Janelle Monáe exemplifies how change can be a powerful catalyst for growth and transformation.
Monáe, who rose to fame in 2010 following the release of her debut album, The ArchAndroid, captivated fans' hearts with her powerful vocals, catchy tunes, and style. Around that time period, when various female artists were known to wear provocative ensembles on stage, the "Tightrope" songstress set herself apart by wearing her signature black and white suits and continued to do so for almost a decade.
In the later years of her career, after the release of her studio albums The Electric Lady in 2013 and 2018's Dirty Computer, many began to notice the shift in Monáe's artistry and fashion, which some widely praised.
Although the now 37-year-old rarely addressed the reason behind the transformation over the years, that would all change when Monáe sat down with radio personality Angie Martinez on her IRL podcast earlier this month.
During the interview, Monáe --who was promoting her latest album, "The Age of Pleasure"-- opened up about her mental health struggles, how she would cope, and why she chose to live in freedom.
Janelle On Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Suits All the Time
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
In the May discussion, the "I Like That" vocalist revealed she suffers from anxiety, which she claimed would occur around "winter to spring."
Monáe added that when she has her bouts with anxiety, she tends to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Further in the interview, the "Lipstick Lover" singer disclosed that her emotional eating habits caused a weight fluctuation and that she could no longer fit into the suits she once wore earlier in her career.
Monáe explained that even though she tried to diet and exercise to return to her smaller figure, she ultimately stopped and made peace with herself with the help of therapy because she acknowledged that she isn't the same person she was nearly a decade ago and shouldn't try to be even if it was a highly "celebrated" version.
"I'm petite, but it can get thick... When I couldn't fit them suits anymore, and I was like, 'Oh my God, what is going on?' I would be dieting, running, or exercising, trying to fit into [it]. I'm just like, 'No. No, we're here. This is where we are.' We [are] not about to be utilizing life trying to be an old version of ourselves. No matter how celebrated that version of me was. I'm here. I'm here," she said.
Janelle On Freedom
As the topic shifted to freedom and what that meant to Monáe, the "Primetime" vocalist shared that in this new era of her life, she enjoys it because she can boldly express herself however she wants and honor who she is as a person right now.
Monáe also revealed that she had found ways to become a better artist and the best version of herself because of her freedom.
"What is the new version of freedom? What does that feel like? That's usually when I feel the most free is when artistically, I can honor exactly who I am right now," she stated. "I feel most free as a human when I can honor exactly who I am right now."
Monáe's fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure, is set to be released on June 9.
Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Feature image by Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images