And U Don’t Stop
Singer Kelly Price Tirelessly Motivates Others in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS & Breast Cancer
by Sean Black
Chart-topping R&B recording artist Kelly Price is poised for the May 3rd launch of her sixth solo album, Kelly, while her second single release “Not My Daddy,” a silky smooth duet featuring the perfectly-paired vocals of Mint Condition’s Stokley Williams seizes a Top 10 adult R&B radio spot. All indicators suggest that the double-platinum songstress is back where she belongs—climbing up the charts.
Baring her soul in conversation, the accomplished Kelly Price pipes up about loving herself more than ever before, making a sorority pledge to public service, and lending her powerful voice to the heartbreaking ballads of breast cancer and AIDS.
Tired of all the closed eyes
Escorted by Jeffrey Rolle, her manager, high school sweetheart and husband for nearly nineteen years, Kelly Price not only lights up the room—she owns it.
“Wow, you know what? April is my birthday month. How appropriate!” she giggles pleasantly when informed of this interview’s publication date. Her charismatic laugh is infectious, but don’t let this thirty-eight-year-old’s bubbly personality catch you off guard. Her intuitive prowess runs as deep as her soulful lyrics. She is a sophisticated songwriter who knows how to deliver to her fans beautifully written melodies with a hard-edged dose of real life. “Not My Daddy” is a provoking composition that urges drifting couples to recommit to passionate love rather than the oppressive roles of pseudo-parenting. “I’m not your momma, I’m your girl, I am the lady in your world,” harmonizes Kelly. It is an emotionally charged selection that is destined to be one of this summer’s sexiest anthems.
Providing the backing vocals for a number of hits, including Whitney Houston’s memorable “Heartbreak Hotel,” Kelly Price has written and sung for some of the biggest names in music history, from Aretha Franklin to Elton John.
Cementing her endurance as a solo artist, Kelly’s first album Soul of a Woman, launched in 1998, featured the number-one record-breaking single “Friend of Mine.” It was lauded for its amazing success despite the backing of a music video, a paramount thrust for singles in an era of MTV and VH1. Her followup, multiplatinum album Mirror Mirror featured a cover of Shirley Murdock’s R&B classic “As We Lay,” garnering her further critical acclaim. She has had roles on both stage and screen, including the Showtime series Soul Food and the film, Bringing Down the House, in which she performs a cover of Chaka Khan’s classic “Ain’t Nobody.”
All ears however are focused on her latest album. On “Tired,” which earned her a fourth Grammy nomination, her third for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, she sings that she is “tired of all the games and lies and of the phony alibis.”
“And, yes! I am tired of HIV too,” insists the caring Price. “I am tired of it all, I am tired of knowing that there are things that can be done, I am tired of all the closed eyes, I am tired of people not wanting to look at this disease straight-on.”
I have obviously hit a chord with this passionate chanteuse. “For people to pretend that it does not affect them and that they are above it, is foolish—nobody is above it,” exclaims Price. “Until we open our eyes and address this disease as a united community we are not going to be able to fight this thing effectively.
“Tired” broke into the adult R&B top thirty and was produced by Shep Crawford. It was born through a “creative heart-to-heart” with long-time fellow collaborator R. Kelly. The song identifies a plethora of frustrations plaguing everyday life. Her richly relatable single culminates in a boisterous and therapeutic scream. “When I got to the point at the end of the song and sang the lyrics ‘let it go,’ it was just natural for me to scream. I screamed the minute I realized I screamed.” She laughs, “When I listened back to it I said, Oh no, I need to leave it just like that.”
Humming in her crib
Born the middle of three daughters and raised under the strict Pentecostal faith by their mother in Far Rockaway, New York, Kelly’s family is where she acquired her strong musical foothold. “My grandfather was our pastor and my mother was the musical director of our church.” Kelly’s entire family is musical, although she contends that none of them have ever been formally trained. Her mother took over the choir when Kelly was only twelve years-old. “I’ve been singing as long as I can remember.”
She recounts stories from her mother about “humming in her crib” before she could even talk. Dubbed “Little Mahalia,” after Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel Music. “It was the nickname I was given in elementary school because when it came time to try out for parts in plays, I went to audition and blew the teachers away. They were amazed that I had such a big voice.” While other kids were singing nursery rhymes normally, I was belting them out like they were hymns in church.” She sweetly laughs.
Her music video “Someday,” released in 2005, transports us to this hopeful yet difficult time in Kelly’s life. Despite being taunted about her weight, Kelly embraced her “big voice.” The lyrics unearth Kelly’s robust optimism and reveal her ability to rise above hardship: “Living wasn’t easy, ’cause we didn’t have much money, but I knew that I’d make it someday.”
“I remember stepping over crack vials on my way to and from school, going to the free clinic, and waiting outside for powdered milk and cheese. That was a part of my everyday life,” she matter-of-factly admits. “I remember being homeless at four and then again at sixteen.”
Humbly she rebounds, “I wasn’t the only talented kid living in the projects, though, and I don’t take it for granted that I was the one heard and that somebody gave me an opportunity.” That “somebody” was her musical mentor Darryl Douglas.
“My dear friend Darryl was a songwriter who sadly died from AIDS,” she says. Darryl ran a professional gospel choir group for years (Darryl Douglas Workshop Company) that afforded the then-eighteen-year-old Kelly an opportunity to perform with George Michael on his number-one hit “Faith” at his 1992 Madison Square Garden concert. This led to a singing opportunity with Mariah Carey on MTV Unplugged. Kelly toured with Carey for four years and sang backup on her 1990s’ smash albums, Music Box and Daydream. The rest is history.
Followed by a sigh, she says “I am very, very grateful that I was afforded an opportunity to be heard and to take a natural gift to support myself and to improve my lifestyle. But that doesn’t happen for everybody.”
Acknowledges Price, “I can’t move from that without honoring the fact—‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”
Kelly was brought up in the unfortunate era where, “no matter what you felt about certain things, there were just some things that you could not say.” Luckily, music has been her therapy. “I have been able to say things that I may never have been able to say in a conversation through my music. Whether it pertained to a family member, or myself. Whether it was about my marriage or my life. I have been able to express myself lyrically and get it all off of my chest. I’ve been able to tell some of my deepest secrets through my music, I can flush out my soul over a melody.”
Her forthcoming album is liberatingly labeled just Kelly. “I don’t have to be Ms. This, or Mrs. That. I don’t have to be the first lady of Def Jam,” she says, referring to her ties with the iconic hip-hop recording label. “Titles for me are no longer necessary. I am loving myself more today than I have in my entire life, and I am really, really okay with just being me and having nothing else attached to it.”
Having stepped out from underneath the protective sheaths of the major label groups with her own label Sang Girl, Kelly feels that her music reflects her independence as an artist and considers her upcoming album to be her most honest offering yet.
Ambassador for health
Kelly caught my eye on the red carpet at the 20th Annual Divas Simply Singing! event held last October benefiting HIV/AIDS. She adorned herself with a custom-made pendant featuring the AIDS awareness ribbon. “I wanted to honor and celebrate the lives of those who had died from AIDS, like Darryl as well as my uncle who had passed away just two years ago from this disease. I also wanted to honor those living with the disease and still in the fight.” In addition to openly confessing to an affinity for chunky jewelry, the diva herself candidly continues, “I really wanted to put on something special that night and I knew the red ribbon would be significant.”
Compassion and kindness clearly define the nature of Kelly Price. However, candor and openness are close seconds. “I had a ball,” unabashedly proclaims the vivacious vixen, referring to her supportive attendance at the February 10th launch of Belvedere Vodka’s specialty (PRODUCT)RED benefiting The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. “It was Grammy week. We were all celebrating our nominations and I had an opportunity to party a little bit, celebrate a little bit, but to also give back at the same time and I was so glad to be there.”
In 2006, after a modicum of encouragement from a family member, soul sister Kelly Price became sorority sister Kelly Price and was inducted as an honorary member into the prestigious Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.
“My cousin who pledged when she was in college has been a member of Sigma Gamma Rho for over twenty years. She was on me for years to become a member.” It was something that Kelly knew had great importance to not only her cousin but to a great number of her colleagues. “It becomes a part of their lives that never goes away.”
Kelly was hesitant at first: “I didn’t want to take it lightly because I know that celebrities are brought into the organizations and I wanted it to be something that I could be proud of. Not for the sake of publicity.”
With its mantra, “On Fire to SERVE,” Sigma Gamma Rho is a nonprofit, predominantly African-American community-service organization. It is focused primarily on addressing women and family issues. To this end, Sigma Gamma Rho has taken a committed stance towards addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic through targeted outreach initiatives.
Caving to her cousin’s “wooing” as well as her own philanthropic urges, Kelly joined the organization. “This group of fine women see needs in their communities and they do things about it—and that impressed me. I have always been the type of person who believes—if there is a need, meet it, don’t just talk about it.” And that’s just what Kelly did. “I have partnered with them in everything that they do, whether it’s working towards HIV awareness, or helping teen mothers make safer and healthier decisions for themselves and their babies, I am a proud life-member of the Sigma Gamma Rho and I am enjoying every minute of it.”
Representing a united front at the Divas event, Kelly was joined on the red carpet by Sigma Gamma Rho’s 22nd International Grand Basileus, Joann Loveless, who says of Kelly, “Sigma Gamma Rho considers it a double blessing to have as part of our membership high profile, high status members, like our sister Kelly Price, who in addition to representing us so royally in her own right is also so very committed to giving back to the community for serving as an Ambassador for the many health awareness initiatives, including HIV/AIDS.”
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., has been awarded more than $100,000 in funding through a partnership with the CDC through its Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative to help address education in the populations hardest hit such as the African-American communities.
Ms. Loveless continues, “By race/ethnicity, African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV in the United States.” According to CDC estimates, one in thirty African-American women and one in sixteen African-American men will contract HIV at some point in their lifetime. “We therefore have an acute and urgent responsibility to ourselves, our families, and our nation to do all that we can to ensure that every man and woman learns all the true facts about HIV/AIDS, gets tested and tells the story to everyone they know. All of our lives depend on it as well as the lives of every generation that comes after us.”
Ms. Loveless has been personally affected as well. “One of my brothers-in-law was an unfortunate victim to this disease. He died in his mid-thirties from complications associated with HIV/AIDS. I also had several friends who would possibly still be with us if they had only taken the time to better educate themselves in the proper precautions and got tested early.”
Resolutely she continues, “None of us can afford to assume that we are safe or immune just because we do the right thing or that we are a part of the right circles.”
In addition to her work for HIV/AIDS, Kelly Price commits her philanthropic energies toward breast cancer awareness. Personally affected by the ravaging effects of the disease with the loss of her mother-in-law and the diagnosis of her own mother in 1999, Kelly has made substantial contributions to this fight. She co-wrote “Love Sets You Free” with Aaron Hall. The song raised over $250,000, which was donated to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and Denise Rich’s Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for Cancer Research.
“Like HIV/AIDS, breast cancer doesn’t just tear up a single person’s body,” Kelly emphatically concedes. “It rips through families and tears them apart; it is a horrible, horrible thing.” Thankfully, Kelly shares, “My mother has been in remission since 2006.”
With a few moments left, I asked Kelly to unveil one of her forthcoming songs that may help provide comfort and hope to those living with HIV/AIDS. “Well, I have a song that is an up-tempo party record on the Kelly project called ‘And U Don’t Stop.’ My message is that you, literally, don’t stop.” It is a song with a message about being at a point in life where you are living in the moment and not allowing whatever it is that has plagued you to define the rest of your life. “It urges people to fill those moments with joy, living life to the fullest without any regrets.”
Apart from being a boldly confident woman, an active member of her sorority, and an engaged advocate for health initiatives, Kelly Price is a friend to communities in need. Her insightful lyrics prompt us to keep on living while her robust melodies soothe the wounds of our souls. And Kelly, please—DON’T STOP!
Kelly Price will be joining the amazing lineup this summer at the 2011 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. For more information about this and her upcoming album, Kelly, visit her Web site at www.kellyprice.com.
Thank you to Joann Loveless of Sigma Gamma Rho for her generous contribution and to Simone Smalls PR and James Brazil of Sang Girl, Inc., for their assistance in preparing this article.
Sean Black interviewed Judge Glenda Hatchett for the February cover story.