Syleena Johnson's greatest instrument is her voice and has recognized her passion for music since her earliest childhood memories. With a father who was in the entertainment industry as a singer, music was part of her life from an early age and eventually blossomed into her participating in talent shows and showing the world what she was meant to do. "I just finished filming my UNSUNG episode which will premiere on TVOne early 2021 and that will tell the readers a lot about my story and how I began. I am excited for you to see it. It will show you how I got my start in the industry and how I got to where I am now," she spilled to xoNecole about her upcoming project.
As a singer, she has used her voice and songs to uplift women and Black people, but now as a talk show host on Cocktails and Queens on Fox Soul, Syleena is using her voice to empower Black women to demand respect and equality on the other side of the couch. "I am still and will always be a part of music," the former Sister Circle host told me about her transition into being a talk show host, "However, opportunities and God have allowed me to become a talk show host and share my opinions and thoughts as a woman in this world and in entertainment."
Nowadays in her career, Syleena can apply the multitude of lenses to her craft from the talent side to research and development as the interviewer. When she's not on the couch interviewing talent or in the booth making new empowerment anthems, the "Guess What" singer has been working on her latest docuseries project, The Making of a Woman, which was heavily inspired by her recently released Woman album.
Courtesy of Tony Tyus Photography
"This docuseries will show what my experience as a Black woman has been in this industry for over 20 years as well as being a working-class woman, a wife and a mother raising two sons. It will inspire people to see the challenges Black women face on a day-to-day basis and how we overcome it," she explained. "I wanted to show a message and present that in a body of work to create more of a conversation and a call-to-action. I've realized in order to make change, we must create content or use our voice to make a shift in change in our society."
xoNecole had the opportunity to catch up with the Grammy-nominated singer herself about using her voice to uplift women, her new docuseries The Making of a Woman, and being a Black woman in 2020 demanding equal rights in our current racial climate. Check out our conversation below.
xoNecole: Tell me about your docuseries, 'The Making Of A Woman', the messaging and the inspiration behind it.
Syleena Johnson: The docuseries The Making of a Woman is heavily inspired by my recent album, Woman. Each of my albums as a solo artist have been titled after chapters, however with today's racial climate I decided to create the album and docuseries to speak on the struggles and experiences of everyday Black women and what we go through in life in 2020. I created this docuseries to vocally create a body of work that documented the journey of what it took to create this album, mentally, internally and spiritually while sharing the experiences of what women go through like demanding equality and respect, having a voice to even having to work twice as hard as our male counterparts even through pain and adversity.
How does your new studio album, ‘Woman’, directly correlate with the story that you're telling us in the docuseries?
It's my journey, my thoughts and what I and many women endure as a Black woman in society as well as this industry. You'll see me on my journey of completing my album and shooting the video to my lead single off my new album. You'll see the vision that I had to want to highlight how beautiful and special women are. The docuseries speaks on dishonesty, respect and the many examples of inequality Black women face while showing the process of creating a body of work that shares the same message.
How are both releases timely considering our current racial climate?
Right now, we are in the year of the WOMAN. We have a Black woman that is working tirelessly to be the next Vice President of the United States. Black women are on the front lines organizing, protesting and leading the forefront of creating change for our economy and the futures of our next generation. Considering our current climate, both releases vocally tells a story that we still have work to do and are still fighting for respect in 2020. With both releases of my album and docuseries, I wanted to use what I've been seeing in situations like the #MeToo and Time's Up movement, and use my voice and passion in music to be a vessel for other women's stories and journeys.
What do you define as the makings of a woman?
The makings of a woman is the willingness of a woman to grow despite her flaws, despite her mistakes, despite her circumstances and her setbacks in life. The ingredients of the makings of a woman is built up of all the little experiences that you had and how you've handled them and most importantly learned from them. These are the certain experiences you must endure in life to come into your womanhood while helping you grow as a woman.
Courtesy of Tony Tyus Photography
"The makings of a woman is the willingness of a woman to grow despite her flaws, despite her mistakes, despite her circumstances and her setbacks in life. The ingredients of the makings of a woman is built up of all the little experiences that you had and how you've handled them and most importantly learned from them."
When do you feel the most "womanly" or the most beautiful as a woman?
I feel the most womanly when I am being a mother to my sons, when I am being a wife. Always working or in business mode does not make me feel like a woman, it makes me tired. I feel more womanly when I can have peace, when I can have "girl time" for myself. I feel the "womanliest" when I can be appreciated and when I am treated like a woman. I feel womanly when I can be heard and valued. More than anything, I feel the "womanliest" when I can operate as a mom and wife without having to be the authoritative figure. When you are a CEO and an entrepreneur you are the authoritative figure but when I come into my household I can relax without having to be the authoritative figure all the time because I have support.
"I feel the most womanly when I am being a mother to my sons, when I am being a wife. Always working or in business mode does not make me feel like a woman, it makes me tired. I feel more womanly when I can have peace, when I can have 'girl time' for myself. I feel the 'womanliest' when I can be appreciated and when I am treated like a woman. I feel womanly when I can be heard and valued."
What is the moment in your life when you believed that you were coming into your own as a woman?
That moment for me was when I got the diagnosis that my youngest son had autism. I developed a level of selflessness that had to take place mentally and emotionally in order for me to grow as a woman. Something like that is supposed to take me out of here and it did, however what that diagnosis did was made me come into my womanhood, turn up my senses as a mother, as a provider. I had to turn up those senses and it made me develop my own personal internal growth spurt. This has allowed me to grow into my womanhood and has taught me to be more patient overall in life. That moment and many life lessons made me understand and be OK with me, unapologetically. It allowed me to love me for who I am and become appreciative of being OK with not being perfect.
There are a lot of conversations around gender and sex. What do you see is the difference between femininity and womanhood, if there is one at all?
What I've learned throughout my own experiences in life is that femininity is a characteristic. Womanhood is a state of mind. Whereas a woman doesn't have to be any of those feminine qualities, and still be a boss, knowing who she is, having a voice, understanding her worth - those are the things that encompass womanhood. Femininity is a characteristic, an accessory. Anyone can be feminine, however it is a characteristic that is interchangeable, whereas womanhood is a growth process, state of mind. A state of being.
Courtesy of Tony Tyus Photography
"What I've learned throughout my own experiences in life is that femininity is a characteristic. Womanhood is a state of mind. Femininity is a characteristic, an accessory. Anyone can be feminine, however it is a characteristic that is interchangeable, whereas womanhood is a growth process, state of mind. A state of being."
For Black womanhood, what do you believe makes Black women the most powerful and most majestic?
Resilience, our humility, our hearts have made us majestic. The fact that we've endured so much from the test of times has made us extremely powerful and majestic. We are resilient, durable, sustainable. We are smart, we are vociferous, brilliant, studious, meticulous, but we are kind, careful, and multi-layered.
How would you say that you've grown as a singer-songwriter since you first started in the music industry?
I have grown tremendously since coming into the industry and my writing has grown and evolved. I have a different and new sound. I've grown as a woman so I can't stay in the same frame of mind as my other albums. When you're saying different things, you have to stretch out and grow. And that's where I've improved as an artist and singer since first being introduced in the industry.
Being a Black woman in the industry is tough, especially when you're in the spotlight as an artist. How do you manage your mental health and how can the music industry do a better job at protecting Black women?
I manage my mental health by working out and doing stress reduction activities. I am really into fitness and bodybuilding. It allows me to be focused and gain mental clarity. I am also an advocate and use therapy as an outlet to manage my mental health. I have recently embarked on a fitness journey where I competed in a fitness bodybuilding competition which totally improved and helped with my mental health. I was able to not only transform physically losing over 55 pounds but was also able to grow internally within the process.
The music industry can do a better job protecting Black women. The most important thing they can do is listen to Black women. We are not objects. We are not possessions. Listen to Black women and see how they feel, ask are you being heard and valued? Are you being treated fairly? That is how you can protect Black women by listening and valuing us.
If you listen, you learn.
For more of Syleena, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Tony Tyus Photography
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.”
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We All Deserve An Upward Spiral, Here’s How To Spark Yours
There are moments in life when it feels like things just won’t seem to look up. Disappointment strikes, rejections come from all directions, and you couldn’t find the “bright side” of your situation if you held a flashlight up to it.
This mental pit, known as a ‘downward spiral,’ is an occurrence that comes from life’s circumstances but can be difficult to spot until you’re deep within it. But in order for you to shift the direction of your spiral from a downward decline to an upward trajectory, you must first be able to detect the signs of when your mental health is headed in the wrong direction.
According to Dr. Jonathan Leary, founder of the Remedy Place — a social wellness club, downward spirals can manifest in many different ways, so it's important to be aware of the signs in order to prevent further decline. “A lack of social support and connection can negatively affect mental and emotional health,” he explains. “Pay attention to signs of withdrawal from social activities, decreased interest in hobbies or relationships, or a sudden change in social patterns.”
In addition to involuntary solitude, Dr. Leary shares that mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety, excessive stress, chronic illnesses, or conditions that are not properly treated can lead to a decline in one’s well-being. “These signs may include changes in mood, decreased motivation or energy, difficulty concentrating, or increased irritability.”
Being able to identify the signs of our rough patch is the first step to making a pivot out of these dark moments, and once the clouds clear, it might just be time for you to spark your upward spiral.
WHAT IS AN UPWARD SPIRAL?
“An upward spiral refers to a cycle of positive changes and experiences that contribute to an individual's overall well-being and happiness,” he explains. “It involves a series of interconnected factors that build upon each other, creating an upward trajectory in various aspects of life.”
Creating these cycles of positive momentum and growth can positively impact one's well-being, confidence, and overall outlook on life. That’s why Dr. Leary says that creating your own positive feedback loop can be the fuel you need to ignite tangible change in your life. “The positive changes in one area of life can spill over into other areas — for example, improved physical health can boost self-esteem and motivation, leading to increased engagement in social activities and personal growth,” he says.
Finding your spark can start with you setting small, measurable goals to reach, pursuing personal interests, and continuously learning and growing can foster a sense of purpose and accomplishment. “As individuals make progress toward their goals, they experience a sense of self-efficacy, confidence, and satisfaction, leading to increased overall well-being,” Dr. Leary explains.
Small, positive actions can lead to bigger changes, so implementing new habits and mindsets into your daily life can not only keep the flame of your upward spiral burning bright but also lead to bigger changes in wellness.
“Cultivating a daily gratitude practice by acknowledging and appreciating the positive aspects of life can shift focus toward the good and enhance optimism,” Dr. Leary shares. “Breaking down large goals into smaller, achievable micro-goals can provide a sense of progress and motivation, so celebrate small victories along the way, as they build confidence and momentum toward larger goals.”
He continues, “Remember, the key is to start small and gradually build upon these habits and mindsets over time. By consistently incorporating these positive actions into your daily life, you can create a ripple effect that leads to bigger changes, greater well-being, and an upward spiral in multiple areas of your life.”
HOW TO PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION:
At times, hitting a downward spiral can seem unavoidable, but there are ways to prevent things from going bad to worse, and it’s all about being proactive about noticing the first sign of distress and regularly checking in with yourself to honestly assess your physical and mental well-being. If you are on the journey toward an upward spiral, remember that practicing self-compassion can be an invaluable resource along the way.
So if you’re looking for a place to start, consider the following strategies from Dr. Leary in the slideshow below:
1. Mindful Awareness:
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