10 Black Women Founders On How They Cultivate Their Summertime Joy

10 Black Women Founders On How They Cultivate Their Summertime Joy

This joy is Black-owned.

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What a time to be us: Black women. We've entered a new era where the mantles of all industries are shifting and Black women are not only taking their rightful place within these spaces but continue to create their own: reimagined and reclaimed.

It's the unique ability of Black women to identify a need, incubate the vision, and give birth to what the world has always needed, but couldn't find the words to call out for. In reflection, this proves even more true as we shift from one of the darkest times our generation has faced, into a radiant future if Black women have anything to do with it—and we do.

For years, Black joy has seemed out of reach, locked away from our grasps. But our imagination, resilience, and ingenuity will be our keys. And now that we've opened it, it'll never close again.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, so this is for the muthas, sistas, aunties, and everyone in between who have been shaping worlds with their visions—a world that our future kin will live in fully and abundantly. Today, xoNecole honors and celebrates the trailblazing and trendsetting woman founders defying the odds with style and grace. And if you ever see it replicated, just remember who did it first.

The message is clear: Shop Black. Support Women. Stand in Joy.

Her Why Behind Golde: 

"Golde makes superfood self-care for the next generation. I started the business four years ago on a mission to make the wellness space more accessible and inclusive for folks like myself. From matcha lattes to papaya skincare, we make it easy to feel like your best self."

Her Black Joy:

"I've been spending as much time as possible offline and in the garden! There's nothing more powerful than strengthening that connection to nature. We've got a few dozen baby veggie plants that we started from seed, and it's been such a cool journey to nourish this little living thing from the very beginning. I also come from a family of musicians, and I inherited none of the talent but all of the appreciation. Right now our record player has been seeing a lot of Aretha's Young, Gifted,and Black — such a treasure."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves:

"There are so many great ones! Any soap bar from REDOUX, Klur's Gentle Matter face wash, or OUI the People's Rose Gold Razor. I also have to plug Golde's Clean Greens Face Mask — it's truly like a smoothie for your skin, and it clears up my breakouts like nothing else."

Her Why Behind The Glamatory: 

"My 'why' has always been to make women feel confident in their own skin and empower other makeup artists. When I started The Glamatory, it was twofold: creating a creative space that other artists could flourish in and I could mentor. That transitioned into my makeup line; I wanted to create products that any skin tone or shade could wear. All in all, it's creating products that are inclusive, health-conscious, and multifunctional to simplify the beauty process."

Her Black Joy:

"The pandemic brought a lot of sorrows, but on the bright side, it brought a lot of great things. It made us sit and realize what's important, made us prioritize, and brought out a lot of creativity. I love to see all of us win."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves:

"I'm a big fan of the Doux! I love Maya Smith (the founder), her creativity, and how she involved her family. I'm a fan of the 90's so I really love her brand. Particularly, I love the MOUSSE DEF Texture Foam. I'm also big on skincare. I use AcARRE, [their] Beauty Edit Oils are great!"

Her Why Behind Melanin Haircare:

"With Melanin Haircare, we set out to provide luxurious, beneficial, and non-toxic natural hair products at affordable prices. We were one of the first brands to have this unique goal of offering unisex high-end products, in high quantities, and at prices that respect our customers' wallets. We believe that high-quality, natural beauty products should not be reserved solely for the luxury market and we set out to make sure that every person, man, woman, and child that wants non-toxic, all-natural, and high-quality products can afford to get them.

"All of our products are free from sulfates, silicons, phthalates, formaldehyde, parabens, mineral oil, and petroleums, and we've also taken the additional step to analyze every ingredient we use against the WG database to ensure it's safe for our community."

Her Black Joy: 

"Caring for my mental and physical well-being, as well as those around me, is first priority. Not pushing myself past my limits, and honoring myself if I need a break is how I've maintained my sanity. But beyond that, exploring new hobbies like growing house plants, and revisiting old hobbies, like painting and running, have been bringing me so much internal joy this season."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves:

"Besides Melanin Haircare products for my own hair, of course, I'm in love with Harlem candles for my home atmosphere. The scents are so chic and classy, lighting one feels like a ritual in itself. Keeping in fragrance, I'm obsessed with, and constantly reaching for my La Botica fragrance oils; they're so intoxicating and sensual.

"I love applying them after my showers and baths, and the scent lingers on through the night. I can't do without Habit Cosmetics cream blushes, which I basically use for every look! They're an all-natural formulation, and sink into my skin making me look like I'm blushing and glowing from within!"

Cheryl Williams, Founder of 86 & Norman

Photo Credit: Sarah Deragon of Portraits to the People

Her Why Behind 86 & Norman: 

"Each individual person is unique and so is their personal style. Sometimes people want to gravitate away from what's the latest trend or find something that very few people have. People want to be themselves and express that in many different forms. From my fanny packs and wallets to my colorful plant pots, I wanted to give people the option to wear or to put into their homes something that is as eclectic as they are. Or the option to find that super unique gift for the special person that they know will love it. I hope to one day in the future create a physical retail space where people can shop for not just my brand but other Black-owned brands with the same vision."

Her Black Joy: 

"I'm cultivating Black joy this season by being more and more intentional about giving more grace to sisters and brothers who look like me especially during the trying season the world has been in. Sometimes we are hardest on those we relate to the most. I have also been making it more of a habit to share and promote positive Black stories, experiences, businesses, and images whether it be on social media, in person, or in the conversations that I have."

​Her Black-Owned Must-Haves: 

"I love On The Lookout's hoop earrings. They are so colorful and lightweight. I've been using Body By Bella soaps, body butter, and body oils. They smell so good and are very moisturizing on the skin. And The Lip Bar's newest Skin Tint is my new makeup staple. I buy up all their products. And of course, I put my plant babies in my 86 & Norman colorful plant pots all around my home."

Sheree M., Founder of Sophie Rose Candle Co.

Photo Credit: Carol Rose of Colurwrk

Her Why Behind Sophie Rose Candle Co.:

"I'm a candle addict, I'm still that way. I love, love, love candles. I'm just in love with all the dope Black business owners doing their thing. It's been an honor just to be amongst that crowd and to be inspired. I love the people I've met in the process and the people I continue to meet, as well as my loyal customers. I've become friends with a lot of them, just from doing markets prior to the pandemic. They're loyal. Those repeat customers, you get to know them and they provide feedback and that's really inspiring."

Her Black Joy:

"I'm an avid reader, so whenever I get time to read, that brings me joy. I love learning new things, I love hearing about other people's experiences through their words. I also have two daughters, so that's constant joy. Most importantly, when I make my candles, it doesn't feel like work. It's therapeutic, it relaxes me, it zones me out. So I find a lot of joy in what I do."

​Her Black-Owned Must-Haves: 

"I definitely wear sunscreen, so one of my daily regimens is using Black Girl Sunscreen. My hairstylist makes her own haircare products, my hair is loc'd so I use her products on my hair. I also work out, so I wear J. Dow Fitness. And Mantra Mugs, I use them to drink my teas."

Her Why Behind Koils By Nature:

"Our why is to empower, educate, and serve women and men around the world by increasing their knowledge in haircare, hair solutions, beard and grooming, and the use of plant-based products for healthy growth. And we strive to provide high-quality jobs for people in our community."

Her Black Joy: 

"Seeing Black businesses do astronomical numbers, that's something that brings me so much joy. Even in a pandemic, so many Black-owned businesses have seen record sales, placements, it's just been so amazing to see the recognition for people in our industry and in our community.

"How we took over and showed that Black is beautiful, and Black is magical, and Black is amazing. We didn't allow the pandemic to beat us down or what happened with George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. We used that as fuel to do more and be more."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves: 

"I'm really intentional about buying Black. Right now, I'm really loving a company called Empowered Tees and we're both from the Lowcountry [of South Carolina], we're Geechee/Gullah; they truly empower our community with t-shirts. This jewelry that I wear almost every day, it's called CandidArt, I love her jewelry. I'm really loving Crayon Case Cosmetics by SupaCent. And BaabsBeauty, her makeup is hyper-allogeneic, she has an amazing BB Cream that I use."

Her Why Behind Movita Organics: 

"I was inspired to create Movita Organics from my work in women's health, specifically as an advocate for Black women's maternal health. I believe that a woman's health sets the tone for the well-being of her family and ultimately the health of her community. Movita Organics offers vitamin supplements for women that is one tool in her arsenal of achieving optimal wellness."

Her Black Joy: 

"Over the last several months, I've been producing a documentary about Black maternal health. And so this season my joy has come from bearing witness to incredible mothers giving birth to healthy Black babies."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves: 

"I love Golde's Matcha Turmeric blend in the mornings. Fenty's Fussy Lip Gloss is my go-to, and our Movita Beauty supplement for strong hair, skin, and nails is a daily no-brainer."

Her Why Behind Bask & Bloom Essentials:

"As a Black woman, our hair isn't just hair. It is our crown and makes a statement even without intention sometimes. Going through something like postpartum hair loss multiple times and connecting with so many women who were dealing with the issue, I knew I had to offer something that spoke to their needs specifically. While this is a normal issue that happens after childbirth, it is not talked about with care and understanding that our 'crown' is no longer the same.

"It's one thing to cut your hair just to switch up your style from time to time, it's another to watch it fall out in clumps with no control over what was happening. I decided to step outside of my comfort zone little by little and share my story as well as my journey to getting my hair back healthy. By connecting with so many women in similar situations, this gave me the boost to launch a full product line over time to help them bounce back to healthy, flourishing hair."

Her Black Joy: 

"By only participating in activities that keeps me mentally and physically happy. Showing up as my authentic self in every space, proudly and unapologetically. Empowering women to pour into themselves first in order to show up better for their families. Using all of my platforms to amplify all of the things that make us beautiful and unique as Black people."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves

"Bask & Bloom Essentials, of course. I've been enjoying the More Moisture Cream and Hydrating Vitamin Curl Mousse combination lately. For skincare, Demosea Botanicals' Alpha Serum is bae! And Saige & Ivy for underarm care."

Her Why Behind BREAD Beauty Supply:

"After working in brand management for the likes of L'Oreal and Procter & Gamble, I felt that there were gaps of representation in the beauty space for women of color, and felt compelled to do something about it. However, it wasn't until I underwent the process of ditching chemical hair relaxer and returning back to my natural texture that the idea for BREAD was born. I was struggling to find brands on the market that I felt I could buy into, and the journey of finding products for my hair type was really confusing and time-consuming. So, BREAD was created to be 'the basics' for not-so-basic hair: all of the essentials you need for easy, simple textured, and curly haircare."

Her Black Joy: 

"I'm all about embracing being lazy. That truly brings me joy. As Black women (and people in general), the rhetoric is often centered around being strong, and tough, and constantly on the grind. But what is bringing me joy is being unapologetically carefree, sometimes doing absolutely nothing other than enjoying free time, and I love watching others do the same."

​Her Black-Owned Must-Haves: 

"My skincare favorite has got to be Faded by Topicals, made by Olamide Olowe. I'm so impressed with what she has built with Topicals at just 24 years old, and the product is a godsend for hyperpigmentation. I'm also recently obsessed with the Ami Cole Skin Tint. It's a new makeup brand by Diarrha N'Diaye-Mbaye that is unapologetically all about melanin-rich skin, and the formulas are game-changing!

"And of course, I can't forget BREAD! I shouldn't have favorites for my own brand, but I really can't go past our hair-oil: Everyday Gloss. It's like lipgloss for your hair, and I use it on the daily. It has won multiple beauty awards and is our best-selling product. My favorite time to apply is after I've just washed my hair and it's still a little damp. Nothing makes my hair softer."

Tay Watts, Founder of Posh Candle Co.

Photo Credit: Tiare Rush of Rush Studio LA

Her Why Behind Posh Candle Co.:

"The why behind Posh Candle Co. is freedom. Before becoming a full-time business owner, I would find myself dissatisfied with the level of freedom and flexibility that I could enjoy with a 9-5. I've always been one of the hardest working people I know; I would go to work and give my best work but always craved being in control of how I spent my day."

Her Black Joy: 

"I'm cultivating Black Joy by bonding with my inner child and expressing some of the playful energy that may have gotten lost over the years of being in survival mode. Also, I've prioritized self-care like I've never done before and so much that I'm truly in a joyful state of mind just thinking about relishing in my routine or trying out something new. This is just a small example but one of the things that have brought me so much joy is going to sleep listening to the relaxing sound of a fan blowing."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves: 

"I swear by Bask & Bloom (Essentials) for natural haircare products especially their Brahmi Root Hair Masque. After having my second child, my hair became unmanageable and the products I previously used no longer worked. Candera, the CEO of Bask & Bloom gifted a box of hair products at xoNecole's ElevateHer Crawl back in 2019 and I have been hooked. For my acne-prone skin, Demosea Botanicals products are the perfect fit for my busy morning routine. It was important for me to have a simple routine that did not involve using several products, so I consider their Clarify Face Cleanser, Radiate Toner Mist, and Aloe Water Cream my must-haves.

"No routine is complete without nail care, so People of Color Beauty has a range of non-toxic nail polishes that I enjoy. I love white nails so my go-to color is New Attitude for a weekly refresh. Lastly, whether I'm relaxing or working, I'm burning a candle to set the mood. Do Nothing & Chill, Black Girl Magic, and Boss Lady are a few candles from my line that I'm personally obsessed with."

Tiffany Dalton, Founder of La Nirvana

Photo Credit: Robin V. Photography

Her Why Behind La Nirvana: 

"One of the main goals in life should be all about discovering the powerful benefits of establishing a daily self-care routine, cultivating a life you desire, and setting good intentions towards health and wellness. Equally our bodies, emotions, spirituality, and mental health all need equal attention right? That's where La Nirvana comes in at. While traveling abroad to over 10 countries over the course of eight months, I first began with addressing my physical health as a vegan for five years and later stepped into my emotional and spiritual health by working with a spiritual healer in Ubud, Bali.

"I practiced yoga daily, meditation, detoxed, became a certified Reiki healer and the list continues. Upon returning to the states, I really yearned to continue my self-discovery journey and that's how La Nirvana was birthed. In times of uncertainty, we all need a way to continue to reconnect with our higher power. The benefits of La Nirvana aromatherapy candles and metaphysical products do just that. My passion is to help empower, educate and inspire others to reunite with their higher self through holistic healing at La Nirvana - a safe space to heal and grow."

Her Black Joy: 

"As a Black woman, cultivating my Black joy is through self-expression daily. Showing up for myself, honoring myself, and refilling my cup daily so that I too can pour back into my daughters and the community each and every day."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves: 

"There are so many. La Nirvana of course for my daily wellness needs. In addition, my top favorite woman-owned products would be Lalah Delia, founder of Vibrate Higher Daily. Angel Brown, founder of MaeRahKee custom waist beads. Goddess HoneySuckle Moon, for smooth and addicting shea butter. Tracey Bryant, founder of Hey Honey Wellness Spa, and Abena Boamah, founder of Hanahana Beauty."

​Her Why Behind Nolaskinsentials: 

"As an African-American woman, I realized how challenging it was to find a brand that created all plant-based products for skin with melanin. Instead of accepting defeat, I tapped into my Black Girl Magic and said, 'Fine! I'll do it myself!' and created a skincare line that not only benefited melanin-based skin tones but all skin tones and skin types, because, with Nolaskinsentials, there's no glow left behind.

"It's our priority to revolutionize the skincare world with affordable, hand-crafted products to enhance natural beauty and help our community feel beautiful, from the inside, out."

Her Black Joy: 

"I'm cultivating Black joy by making self-care a daily priority, focusing on better health and wellness, and continuously creating products and helpful content that will allow my community to cultivate their happiness and joy in their own skin."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves:

"I swear by Taliah Waajid Shea Coco hair products, Mischo Beauty nail polish, Honeypot feminine products, and of course, Nolaskinsentials skincare."

Jasmine Lewis, Founder of Vie Beauty

Courtesy of Vie Beauty

Her Why Behind Vie Beauty:

"It links to family, really my grandmothers in particular. Both of my grandmothers have passed away and these were my best friends, you know that grandmother/granddaughter love, nobody can touch that. I have younger sisters, so with the brand, I wanted them to see that it's not one-size-fits-all, there's no one way to do things. You can start a brand at 15-16 or 25 like I did and you can still do great things and make an impact, regardless of what it is.

"It really roots in family and me wanting to change the trajectory of how we think of our skin and how we take care of our skin. I'm a pre-med turned beauty founder, and there are a lot of similarities between medicine and beauty and I wanted to bring those two together and bring a lot of education to my brand."

Her Black Joy:

"Right now, I'm celebrating what it feels like to be a Black woman. I tend to do a lot of creative things, so I DIY projects and feeding things into my soul that spark that ultimate joy. I'm also married, so doing things with my husband, listening to soulful music, and art galleries are really big for me. And just celebrating what it means to be Black right now. It really sucks that it took this long, but that's what it is. Seeing Black girls in luxury too.

"My brand is big on luxury and self-preservation because I think that's how we self-preserve. Having beautiful things, it's not saying we're vain, but these are the things that spark joy in our lives and bring us happiness and I mean, who doesn't like nice things?"

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves:

"Of course, I love Vie Beauty's 30 Roses, that's my baby. It's a hydrating rose water mist; it's great right now for the summer and keeps your skin fresh, hydrated, and dewy. Another brand would be Gilded Body, she had this beautiful marble brush, so it's been a great way for me to exfoliate.

"Hyper Skin is a Vitamin C serum that's absolutely amazing, you get that glowy finish, and it evens your skin tone. And then The Glamatory had this red lipstick called Cherry Bomb, love that! And then I have a Turmeric Supplement from Golde that I take, incredible."

Ashley Sims, Founder of Humans Before Handles

Courtesy of Ashley Sims

Her Why Behind Humans Before Handles:

"For years, women whose skin color, body type, age, or appearance don't match the American beauty standard have been excluded from the fashion industry. Humans Before Handles aims to celebrate every person's unique and beautiful characteristics by giving them the chance to express themselves through fashion. We want to create a space for all women to feel confident without forcing them to adhere to social media's beauty standards.

"The pressure of influencers and Instagram often makes people feel as though they have to put up a front in order to be liked. Our business prioritizes the unique, beautiful individual in every person and gives them the chance to be their authentic selves all day, every day."

Her Black Joy:

"This season, and every season, we aim to curate a product collection that represents diverse interests, fashions, and people. We want our accessories to inspire joy and confidence in the people who wear them, whether they're going on a first date or a job interview.

"This month in particular, we are working on making all of our site model features black faces with photos from our stockist BYAS + LEON. We want to highlight black joy and celebrate their beauty in a fashion culture that often denies black women the space to do so for themselves."

Her Black-Owned Must-Haves:

"My tribe of business besties all have incredible products that I highly recommend checking out. For self-care products, I love Alexandra Winbrush's luxury candles and teas, Base Butter's skincare, and Range Beauty's clean makeup line. Each of these businesses curates unique and empowering experiences specific to your own needs through their products.

"For fashion, I could not recommend Alex Lord's brand Shop Hacz any more than I already have! She has the cutest one-of-a-kind vintage pieces that are guaranteed to steal anyone's heart."

Featured image design by Kyra James

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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.”

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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

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Photographer: Ally Green

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