Singer, Songwriter, and Actress LaTonya Holmes Puts AIDS Awareness on Long Play
by Chael Needle
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Music heals. Music re-energizes our bodies, minds, and spirits, whether we are facing the challenges that come with living with HIV/AIDS or supporting someone who is. It restores us for the days ahead, our uncertain futures. Those of us who are attuned to the power of music most likely have a playlist, at least in our minds if not on our music player—those deep cuts that describe our own personal journeys through darkness and light, or those go-to songs that perfectly capture our visions of a world united in supporting those causes we hold dear.
Before we spoke on the phone, I asked LaTonya Holmes to compile her playlist and offer her thoughts about why each song held meaning for her. Holmes is a musical phenom—she has toured with Christina Aguilera and Macy Gray, and opened for Eric Benet; she has wowed audiences with plum parts in national Broadway tours of The Color Purple and Little Shop of Horrors, and an award-winning turn in a production of Dreamgirls, to name a few; and she’s recorded one album, writing six of the seven tracks, with first-choice producers and co-songwriters, with her eye on a second—so I guessed she would embrace this possibly odd request.
I guessed right. She offered her annotated playlist, featured as interludes throughout this article, and I spent seven glorious days listening
to her selections, Whitney Houston, Sylvester, TLC, Michael Jackson, and Stephanie Mills, as well as the music of LaTonya Holmes herself: her video for “Beautiful Day,” a single off her first album, Love Me for Just Me (Pecan Tan Music), that perfectly showcases her sweet, sun-that-parts-the-clouds voice; a lyric video of her blissful remake of “Love Hangover,” whose proceeds, in part, went to APLA and other AIDS organizations and which she performed at the twenty-third annual Divas Simply Singing!; and her uplifting performance of “Will You Be There” and rafter-shaking finale, “Home Sweet Home” at the 2014 Steve Chase Huminatarian Awards, an annual benefit that last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs, California.
When we did connect by phone to discuss her AIDS advocacy, I first wanted to find out how she went from a self-described tomboy kid who blazed on the basketball court as a starting point guard at Northside High in Warner Robins, Georgia, to landing a full scholarship to Roosevelt University in Chicago, majoring in musical theater and minoring in music, and building a vibrant career that has included not only singing, recording, and theater but acting work on Grey’s Anatomy, Any Day Now, and Hannah Montana, as well as voicework for PBS and Warner Bros. It’s clear that her drive to raise awareness and funds for AIDS is cut from the same cloth of those who have inspired her from an early age, as Whitney sings, every step of the way….
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston • This song is my anthem to some of my dearest friends and greatest inspirations who are now gone too soon [from a range of conditions and diseases, not only HIV/AIDS]. Whenever I hear it, I think of someone different every time because the incredible lyrics, penned and originally recorded by the sensational Dolly Parton, remind me of the powerful impact they had on my life. R.I.P. Whitney Houston, the greatest voice of all who inspired me to sing. Gerald Ray Horne, my high school drama teacher and mentor who taught me to dream big and never quit, who passed away from dementia. Wyle Draper, Jr., my childhood friend, who portrayed Michael Jackson in The Jacksons: An American Dream, whose hard work taught me the real meaning of tenacity and gave me the strength to sing this song at his funeral when he transitioned from leukemia. And lastly, my Color Purple castmate who became one of my biggest heroes, dearest friends, confidants and voices of reason, Lesly Terrell Donald, who gave his unconditional love up until he took his last breath when he passed away from liver cancer. I salute you and all loved ones lost to HIV/AIDS. While I know you’re in a much better place and no longer in pain, I miss you all like crazy and I will always love you.
“My family didn’t know I could sing. I was a closet singer,” LaTonya notes with a laugh. “I would wait till they were asleep, or out in the den watching TV. I had a little record player in my room, and a cassette player. I taught myself how to sing by watching shows like Star Search and listening to Whitney Houston. My parents [also] listened to Motown in our house a lot.” Her parents knew she was talented—she would often play the entertainer when it was her parent’s turn to host a party among their circle of friends (“I would dance until I danced myself to sleep”). But they had no idea she could sing. “So when someone told my parents that I was singing a [church] solo, my mom said, ‘She can’t sing.’ And they said, ‘Oh, yes, she can!’ When they came, they were like, ‘What?’”
Her family has always been supportive of anything she has tried her hand at. Both of her parents are educators (now retired), so it didn’t matter which of her talents that LaTonya honed—athletics, mathematics, the performing arts—they just wanted her to fulfill her potential. (Her brother went on to play in the NFL and earn a degree in electrical engineering.) While the performing arts had always been in her blood, LaTonya first envisioned basketball as a career.
One fateful day in high school, she was plucked off the basketball court by the head of the drama department, Mr. Horne, who had heard of her talent. Though LaTonya had aspirations to play b-ball at a higher level, Mr. Horne pointed out the roadblock ahead no matter her talent. There was no WNBA at the time, she explains. Instead he told her: “‘You have a gift from God. You’re talented. Come try out for The Wiz tonight.’ At that point, once I got going, I kept going; I kept getting cast. I started entering my high school pageants and singing more around town in competitions. That’s when I knew I [had been bitten by] the bug.”
Hoop dreams were traded for the drama team, which Mr. Horne had led over the years to many wins at regional, state, and national one-act competitions. At an international competition, held that year in Muncie, Indiana, sophomore LaTonya attracted more than a few college recruiters. One in particular, Yolanda Lyon Miller, the dean of the musical theater department at Roosevelt University at the time, went the extra mile. She stayed in touch with LaTonya (and Mr. Horne) for the remainder of her high school days, making sure she was doing well in school and doing well in general. The concern impressed LaTonya, who chose Roosevelt.
“I have had so many teachers in my corner from day one and thank God and Mr. Horne for that. I am also extremely blessed to have the everlasting support of my family because it’s hard when you don’t. I have friends in that situation and it breaks my heart.” This past Thanksgiving, her father gave her a much-needed pep talk (“Whatever you do, you’re going to do it well. Just never quit….You gotta keep believing. God did not bring you this far to leave you.”) and her mother has the uncanny knack of dropping notecards of encouragement in the mail just when LaTonya needs them the most.
“Mr. Horne, my mom, my dad, and my brother—they always, always, always told me never quit, never give up, dreams do come true. No dream is ever too big; if you put your heart, mind, and soul into it you can do anything you desire. And so for that I am grateful. My first voice teacher, Miss Cathy Dooley—once my parents found out I could sing [they found her]—would always say ‘You’ve got more in you, kid. You’ve got more in you, kid. Push, push, push.’”
Now she encourages young performers to push, push, push, dedicating time on the weekends whenever her schedule allows to Barbizon and The International Performing Arts Academy, recruiting young talent and leading workshops as a mentor. “I’ve been doing it since June and it just warms my heart when I’m able to go out on the weekends and really encourage the shy kids, encourage the kids whose parents don’t quite believe in their talent, and encourage the kids who are being bullied.” One little girl at a recent session in Chicago expressed frustration with having to wear glasses. The girl’s mother explained to LaTonya that some kids at school had called her ugly. “And I said wait a minute….You’re beautiful, with them on or not. You’re beautiful. And she said, ‘I don’t see you with glasses; do you wear glasses?’ I said, ‘I actually do, as needed.’” The girl goaded LaTonya to wear them, and LaTonya did—for the rest of the trip (even tweeting a pic of her bespectacled joy). The girl listened to her mother, as LaTonya advised. “She put her glasses on and said, ‘Mommy, I’ll never take them off again.’ That to me is more than any check that could be written….”
It’s clear that LaTonya wants to inspire the next generation as much as she has been inspired, not only to sing out but to speak out, to help others see the world with brand new eyes…
“You Are My Friend” by Sylvester • While Patti LaBelle recorded this song originally, I chose Sylvester’s version because he was an activist against the spread of HIV/AIDS who died from complications of the disease in 1988. The message of this song moves me because we all have that one friend who has always been by our side through the thick and thin. Yet, we still look around and around for that someone else when they were there all the time.
“Coming from the theater community, I’ve lost several colleagues and friends to the disease. But the ‘a-ha moment’ was finding out one of my family members is HIV-positive,” she responds, when asked if there was a catalyst that made her step up and take action in the fight against AIDS.
“When I found that out, I just sat at my desk and thought, ‘You know what? It’s time to get involved. It’s time to talk to the African-American community as well,’” she says, understanding the opportunity to share what she knows with those who may not. “If we just…held it in and not shared, then what good are we doing?”
LaTonya went from adagio to vivacissimo, from a slow and steady tempo to one very fast and lively, when she learned how HIV had impacted her family. “At that point I said, ‘You know what, that’s it—how do I get involved?’ I talked to Thornell Jones, my marketing guru I call him, and he said okay, ‘We’re going to start with the proceeds from ‘Love Hangover’—are you willing to donate a portion of that to help somebody? To help a community? To help a charity?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
She explains that her “a-ha moment” was more than learning about the diagnosis of her family member (who did not want to be identified); it was learning about the struggle that her relative and many others are going through in the South: lack of insurance to cover medications, ADAP waiting lists, stigma.
“In certain states it’s just brutal how they treat people with HIV and AIDS. It’s just awful,” she says, sometimes not quite believing what she has learned through her research. Individuals living with HIV/AIDS seem to be facing a series of “no’s.” “‘No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do that.’ It makes me tear up. It’s like treating people like they’re already dead. It’s awful, as if they don’t feel bad enough. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. And yet it’s [happening] in the South, absolutely.”
She aims to transform those “no’s” into “now’s.” Now is the time to teach, to learn, to act against AIDS. Too many storms have come and gone…
“Waterfalls” by TLC • The message of this song is so powerful, yet not preachy. Particularly the second verse, which is about a man having unprotected sex with a woman who’s been with many men and, as a result, gets infected with HIV/AIDS and dies. The lyrics, “three letters took him to his final resting place,” sum it up for me. Whether those three letters are SEX or HIV, he dies from having unprotected sex with an infected woman. The message this song resonates with me is that no matter your race, sex or gender, get tested, know your partner, and always practice safe sex.
Acting against AIDS isn’t an individual project; it’s a project that needs the time, skills, and energy of whole communities. “I feel like people are in denial in the African-American community. What I’m finding is that a lot of the community feels like it’s a gay thing, it’s a white thing. You know, ‘I’ll never get it.’ It’s like, ‘Hold on. It’s not just a gay thing. Straight people are dying from this disease every day. It’s not just a white thing. It has no gender or color.’”
The impact of HIV/AIDS on the African-American community, and especially among women of African descent, requires a studied and strong response. “We, as African-American women, have to educate those who aren’t educated, or don’t know where to go to look for this information. Practice safe sex. If you’re going to have sex, practice safe sex. No one is exempt from this disease. No one.” She catches a breath. “I’m speechless right now—I don’t want to start preaching, but I find that in our community it’s just not talked about and it’s treated as if [as I said before] ‘I’ll never get it.’ Then, when HIV hits home, and your mother contracts the virus or your son contracts it or your newborn baby has it—now it’s too late. Now you want to go and figure it out, but all along the knowledge was there,” she says gently, careful not to cast blame. “The information is there. We need to read more; if we don’t know, we need to not be ashamed to ask questions. I feel like our community thinks AIDS is a bad thing to talk about it, and to me not talking about it is the worse thing ever.”
The power to create change is in our hands. We just need to set aside the excuses and act, she says, mentioning a recent highly advertised radio station-sponsored testing event in Los Angeles that suffered from a lack of turn-out. The doctors showed up, counselors were at the ready, the information was there—but fewer than expected people came. “I’m at a loss,” she says about the disinterest. “It doesn’t make sense to me at all. The means are there. We have to speak out more about it. We have to pay more attention to it….I just got tested again. I had a full physical exam a few weeks ago and had my blood work tested for everything. It’s mandatory. It’s a part of life. We need to make knowing your status almost like breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“Tweet [about HIV], Google it. There’s nothing you can’t find on the Internet. Take five minutes a day and read one article about it, whatever that is. Google and just read—educate yourself.” Once you know, teach another. Make a little space, make a better place…
“Will You Be There” and “Heal The World” by Michael Jackson • Both of these songs are near and dear to my heart because they both speak about us a nation and a people being non-judgmental, loving, and there for one another during our trials and tribulations, joy and pain and in our deepest fears. They both represent the need and want for the world to be a better place and not discriminate against anyone, including those living with HIV/AIDS. Let’s be there for the less fortunate and pray for a cure to heal this hurting world we live in from all diseases and destruction. R.I.P. Michael Jackson, gone too soon.
“What drives me is knowing that innocent babies are being brought into the world with HIV and wanting to be a part of helping to find that cure—what do they say, by 2030?” says LaTonya about her armor against hopelessness or those who might assume AIDS is a losing battle. She continues about what drives her: “My family member who cries out for help because the state he lives in won’t help. And wanting that family member to hold on. And be encouraging to that family member. And also, friends, colleagues—wanting us all to still be here if we can help it, and avoid HIV if we can.
“So if I can speak to one person a week, send a link to an article, or send the proceeds this month to Desert AIDS Project, to know that I’m helping someone pay a bill, buy his or her medicine, then that’s what I’ll keep doing. Because the world—we’re shrinking, and [AIDS] is huge and I love life and I love people.
“So as long as I can give—if giving is teaching, if giving is sharing a story, if giving is giving a hug and letting that person know that, ‘You are still human; I’m not afraid to hug you.’ A lot of people think you can get HIV from touching someone. No, educate yourself,” she pleads.
“It’s not just about money. You don’t know what giving someone a hug can do for them. Speaking to them, acknowledging them. My family member was saying to me that sometimes he just gets looked at, like, ‘Don’t come near me! Don’t come near me!’”
She is critical of shaming judgments like those from a Phoenix, Arizona, preacher who made headlines with a sermon that suggested killing gay men as a way to end AIDS. “Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. And what kind of congregation could sit there and listen to that? It’s unbelievably scary…,” she says, unable to recognize, in this hatemonger’s sermon, the spiritual uplift that comes from her own faith in God.
“Sharing the knowledge that I do have, making myself aware by learning new things every day, and practicing what I preach and being an example—that’s what keeps me going, keeps me fighting, and still believing there’s hope.”
Suddenly my world has changed its face, but I still know where I’m going…
“Home” from The Wiz • “Home” is one of my favorite songs because it represents a place full of love, peace and unity that I believe all those loved ones lost to HIV/AIDS are actually experiencing in Heaven.
For now, LaTonya is continuing to act and do voicework (most recently for Adult Swim), and, yes, working on her new album,
going the crowdfunding route. “The record is coming! I want to put it out right,” she says, both patient and impatient about sharing what is sure to be a stellar suite of songs.
Perseverance is the name of LaTonya’s game, a lesson that’s surely not lost on her fans or performing arts mentees. “I’m in it to win it. I’m in it till the end. I’m in it till I leave here, even if it means that at some point I’m not on the performance side,” she says about navigating the peaks and valleys of any career in the arts. “I will never not be involved with the arts because, without it, I don’t dream.”
Her faith in God guides her. “I’m human. I have my days where I throw my hands in the air and go, ‘Okay, God, I don’t know; this isn’t funny to me anymore. Your sense of humor is no longer funny to me. What’s going on here?’ I talk like that to God,” she says with a giggle. “‘I trust in You and believe in You. I know You wouldn’t bring me this far to leave me, but I’m feeling discouraged today, help me, help me.’ And He does. I tell myself every day, ‘Okay, you have to get up, have faith, keep believing.’ Faith—I walk by faith.”
It’s what has allowed LaTonya to cast worry aside and believe in herself. It’s the message she tweets to others, too, embedded in one of her favorite hashtags: #beYOUtiful.
She tells me it’s from a song she is working on: “Be you—you are beautiful. We are all beautiful in our own way. God made us, us. And He loves us just the way we are. So don’t try to be me, don’t try to be them—be you. There’s something about each and every one of us on this earth that’s absolutely beautiful. We must find it and work from that, and know that people will see it and people will acknowledge it….Embrace you. Embrace who you are….We all have flaws. No one is perfect, so acknowledge those, too. I believe when you acknowledge your flaws, you become a better person.”
It’s obvious there’s clarity in LaTonya Holmes’ voice—in more ways than one.
Support the music of LaTonya Holmes, who donates a portion of the proceeds to various HIV/AIDS charities, at: www.gofundme.com/latonyaholmesmusic. Follow LaTonya Holmes on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: @latonyaholmes. For news and updates, subscribe to her website: www.latonyaholmes.com.
Cover and inside photography (gold dress) credits: Stylist: Harrison White. Hairstylist: Patrick Kilian. Makeup artist: Daniel Chinchilla at www.DanielChinchilla.com. LaTonya wears Jean Fares (red jacket and gold dress) and Bebe (green jumpsuit). Jewelry by Joleen Rizzo at www.JoleenRizzo.com. Direction by Thornell Jones, Jr., for fortressMKTG.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.