How Letting Go Allowed Melanie Fiona Become Her Own Woman

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There are two important lessons that Melanie Fiona's mother taught her.

First, there are consequences to every action. It's part of what's kept her relatively on the straight and narrow since she was a kid. No good girl gone bad, no negative press to tarnish her pristine image. She knows that she has the power to determine the outcomes of most situations in her life, and that you live and die by the choices you make.

Is she perfect? No. Not by a long shot. She may be sweet but she's not cookie cutter. She's made mistakes. Had bad breakups. Played lost and found with her identity, which led her on a three-year soul-searching journey. Fell down. Got back up. Wrote a song about. Made an album or three off of it, and took us on the rollercoaster ride with her.

The other lesson? Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

“That's been a real focal point of a lot of the things that I've been through in my life, which is why I don't wear a lot of the situations that I found myself in that I think are sometimes make or break for our spirit, that can determine whether you rise or fall or get back up again," she shares with me from an undisclosed location in New York, where she's putting the final touches on her third studio album, Awake.

“As long as I'm breathing—as long as I'm here—I know that there will be a better day when there is a bad day, so you have to just kind of hang on to that and know that it's just making you stronger."

One thing that can be said about Melanie is that she's never been afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. Since 2009 the R&B songstress has boldly shared her turn ons, turn offs, turn ups and turn downs through soulful melodies that capture the raw emotion of a woman coming into her own. Her single, “Give It To Me Right" from her first album, The Bridge, gave her the all-eyes-on-me entrance that was needed—mixing sultry vocals and sensual lyrics of a woman who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to ask for it.

She quickly followed up with one of her most notable singles, “It Kills Me," shutting down any notion that she was just a one hit wonder by topping the Billboard R&B charts and even earning her first Grammy nomination. Not bad for someone who just a year prior was the opening act on Kanye West's European tour—and this was before she released an album.

We even waited up with her at “4AM" when her love wouldn't answer, because that's what real friends do. Melanie has been our broken-hearted bestie that understands the highs and lows of love, and has beautifully sung her pain—our pain—in a string of relatable ballads.

But she's tired of being labeled the “angry black girl." Okay, yes, she just so happens to do amazing vocal performances on the subjects of love and heartbreak, that part she's proud of. Whitney did it. Mary J. mastered it. There's no shame in being able to have an authentic connection with women and men who've been through similar experiences. But to label her as “angry?" Well that's just an insult to someone who simply channels their emotion through their music—a sort of a release to what others may allow to build up inside. She's not angry; she's in tune with herself. It's something that she hopes will be evident on her new album.

“A lot of the writing on it is very personal and it's more conversational, and I think that people will be surprised to hear an album that's not full of huge big ballads from me this time around," she says. “There's a lot of vibe. There's a lot of experimentation, and there's a lot of moments of just feeling."

Melanie has never shied away from experimentation within her music. Her songs have always been a fusion of old school with a new school twist. She sampled Johnnie Taylor's “I Believe In You" on her record “Walk On By" and dabbled in The Zombie's rock and roll sound on “Give It To Me Right." We've even slow wined to the Reggae-inspired “Like I Love You" and again on “Bite the Bullet."

On Awake, she turned it up a notch by playing with her vocals and finessing her songwriting skills.

“I looked forward to people getting to know me a little bit better on that album, like personally. I feel it's who I've evolved into as an artist, now being in an independent space."

Getting to a place where she's been spiritually awakened hasn't been easy. It required her to cut ties with her record label Universal Music back in 2013 and partner with Primary Wave as an independent artist. I ask her if she thinks she'd be in the same mental space had she not decided to venture out on her own and cut the umbilical chord of being with a major label. She pauses in an effort to choose her words carefully.

“I don't know. What I do know is that people don't like change, and what I do know is that, sometimes, which I've experienced in the past, people have a perception of who you are and they want you to be what their perception is. And with people only knowing one side of me, I wanted to kind of break out of that shell and people only thinking that I'm either one tier, one facet, or whatever it is."

She's not the first to embrace the creative freedom that comes with being and independent artist. Former Roc Nation label mate Bridget Kelly also left the majors to go indie back in 2014.

For Melanie, it was just what she needed—to work at her own pace. No pressure. The time away wasn't spent in vain. She traveled, collected experiences, and re-evaluated who she was and the woman that she wanted to be.

Melanie Fiona is awake.

Not the kind of woke that has you scouring social media in attempt to staying abreast of the latest injustice that's sweeping national headlines (although she taps into that as well in her video “I Tried").

No, this is a positive woke. A self-aware woke. A woke that will snatch you up out of the fallacies of life and remind you that you're not living just to die, you're here to serve a purpose, which requires you to embrace your true self and not the person that society has portrayed you to be.

Yeah, that woke.

My first encounter with Melanie at the xoNecole launch party let me know that she was a woman who is assure of herself. Strong in mind and in spirit. Unafraid of false perceptions, just simply her. Maybe it was the fact that in a room full of tight-dress, high-heeled beauties she stood out in her signature wide-brimmed black fedora and multi-colored cloak. Or maybe it was the gratitude that poured authentically from her lips as she thanked Necole for supporting women like her whose worth goes beyond her figure (although she fully embraces her bad-ass womanly curves in her music videos). She's talented, no doubt. But what's talent without the right mentality to back it up? Knowing who she is and the direction she's going in life, that's what makes her the real MVP.

On our phone call, we talk about what's really allowed Melanie to be in a place of freedom and positivity. At the height of her career when she was racking up Grammy's with Cee-Lo Green for “Fool for You" and touring the world she admits that it was one of the lowest periods in her life. Between balancing heartbreak from a toxic relationship to living as an independent woman in New York for the the first time, she struggled to stay afloat amongst the many people and situations attempting to drown her.

“I experienced the highest success of my career with the Grammy's, but the most extreme sense of hurt, anger and frustration in my personal and professional career—and I lost myself for a little bit because I started to wear that hurt and disappointment and frustration that I was feeling because I was so upset about the things that weren't happening rather than [focusing on] the things that were happening, and I couldn't see it at the time. It took me getting really, really low within myself to kind of have to take a step back. It really took gaining and losing everything in one hard shot for me in my personal journey."

It wasn't just affecting her personal life, but her professional one, too. At one point she recalls going to the doctor because she couldn't get through a 30-minute show without her vocal chords going hoarse. Though there didn't appear to be anything wrong, one doctor suggested that she try the traditional Chinese medicine practices of acupuncture and energy healing.

“I started to release, out of nowhere, these feelings and emotions that I didn't even know I was carrying. Once I started realizing that I had literally been storing hurt and tension and aggression in my chest, in my throat, and it was making my vocal chords so tense, almost like when you're going to cry and you get that choked up feeling. I was holding so much pain inside that I was choked up all the time, and that's why my voice wasn't working, and I needed to release all of that and so that came from being isolated, allowing myself to forgive the people and the things in my life, my own self, my own mistakes, my own failures, my own self inflicted pressures, and the people around me that I felt had did me wrong."

"Forgiveness is the greatest thing you could do for yourself when you think you've been done wrong."

The process allowed her to go through a much-needed transformation. She cut ties with people in her life who were bringing about negative energy. She also stopped dating bad people out of loneliness and boredom, and let go of old cycles and bad habits that weren't positively serving her. Most importantly, she started living for herself. Even going as far as to change up her diet, going the more organic route of healthy greens and occasional lean meats to release the physical and emotional toxins in her body.

On her 30th birthday she took a solo trip to Hawaii and realized that she wasn't on her own in this journey, the universe was holding her down. She became open—became awake.

“I felt like I was sleeping on myself before. I felt like I was living in this existence of how I thought everything was supposed to go," she admits. “I had to have it literally taken from me so I could rebuild in a stronger, better centered self."

Getting closer to God and developing the goddess within herself also brought her into a new realm of creativity, and her light didn't go unnoticed. A year and a half after her tumultuous breakup, she found a new love interest in a fellow songwriter that she met while on the road, Jared Cotter. The couple have a child together and it's the happiest she's been in a while.

“I knew I couldn't have found [love] and even been open to it if I had not let go of all the other things that were in the way," she says. “I spent a lot of time on my own, working on myself and I think that's what's led me now to be in a really good relationship. I feel like I served myself and I fulfilled a lot of the things that I needed to do for myself as a woman, and I feel like that's so important. Women, in general, no matter what age you're at; whether it's relationships or jobs or whatever it is that you want, you really have to spend the time with yourself to be a part of anything. To be a role model, to be a mother, to be someone's girlfriend, wife, partner, whatever it is."

All of Melanie's efforts in self-work and self-love led her to the love of her life. And this past Valentine's Day, the songstress received a beautiful surprise when her partner set up a faux family photoshoot so that he can ask her for her hand in marriage on bended knee. It was a culminating moment and the start of the couple's "forever in the making."

She's finally at a good place, and she's carrying it from her music all the way down to her Instagram page where she posts daily devotionals from The Little Book of Light so that fans can follow along with her on her spiritual journey and, as she likes to say, stay #Awake.

Melanie Fiona is no longer the 23-year-old who lost sight of who she was and where she's going, but a proud 34-year-old who's been there, done that, and can speak wisdom about it. And don't worry, she's still penning and singing songs for those who can relate to both the struggles and the triumphs of coming into your own, all while remembering the words that Kanye spoke to her years ago about doing whatever necessary to make people remember who she is.

Excerpt from "The Little Book of Light"

“I would love for my legacy to be based on pure respect and love. I just think that my voice is my greater purpose, and I hope that in this lifetime, my voice, with the platform that I have with an audience and being able to reach people, will make a real impact on the world in some positive way. I want people to be like, she did good while she was on this earth, she made a difference for the better."

This article was originally posted in October 2015. This article has been updated.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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