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Michael Jai White On Becoming The Man His Wife Deserves

"I claim this wholeheartedly: No one has ever been with the man I am now."

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It's 2020 and struggle-love is no longer an option for me. While several memes and inspirational testimonies on Instagram tell us that real love requires hard work, pain, and a river of tears, Michael Jai White and his wife Gillian White are proof that marriage doesn't have to be a prison sentence.

The couple, who initially met in the late '90s, recently sat down with ESSENCE to talk about how they keep their love strong more than 20 years later, and according to them, the secret is to be your partner's friend first.

Gillian began the interview by recalling the first time she met her one-day hubby—in a way that was typical of many couples in the '90s—at the club. She explained:

"We met in 1997 at a club where a friend was having a party. Just for the record, you can meet your better half in a club. We knew that every moment spent together was just magical. That was something that we never lost."

When they met, Michael and Gillian were both recovering from divorce, but both say that their connection was undeniable. Although the two wouldn't marry until 2015, they say that they've spent the past decade-and-a-half watering and cultivating a love that could truly grow. Michael said that before his relationship with Gillian, he was unaware that his perspective on relationships was wrong AF:

"There was a time when I thought relationships had to be drama and everything took work. I think I realized with Gillian that there was a path of least resistance I always should have taken. You're lucky to have friends who don't require much labor because your chemistry just works. That's a blessing, and you don't get too many of those. I realized that's what I had with her."

A good relationship is supposed to improve you, not change you, and Michael says that Gillian did exactly that by holding him accountable for him "10 percent bullshit" allowance:

"I had to become the man who deserved her. I had work to do that required growing up completely and being the man I could be. I claim this wholeheartedly: No one has ever been with the man I am now."

Today, as partners in life, love, business, and fitness, this couple remains inseparable and say they wouldn't have it any other way. When asked if spending so much time together causes tension in their relationship, Michael had this to say:

"People don't believe us when we say it, so we just don't. Everyone asks, 'Do you guys snap at each other when things get tense?' We're the exact opposite. We work together in such a great way that being together is probably the best situation we could be in. What better person can you have beside you than your best friend who keeps you laughing? It would be harder if she were not with me."

Featured image by Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com

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Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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