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In 1990, singer Phyllis Hyman complained to Donnie Simpson during a BET Video Soul interview about record labels shifting their focus from talent to artist “packaging,” using production to supplement raw talent. “They’re picking up kids off the street, pretty much, and producers are producing these albums. These kids have literally no talent. But they look right. I’m telling you, get a girl, get the hair weave on, make her lose 30 pounds, (snaps) you’ve got a hit record. Can’t sing a lick!” In the shift from substance to style, which started gradually happening in music in the mid-’80s, Phyllis and other singers with big voices got shelved, dropped, or simply ignored in favor of younger, more pop-friendly and video-friendly acts – with arguably less ability. “(It) pisses me off. It makes me big time angry because I have spent so many years developing this talent,” Phyllis added. She wasn’t alone.
The ‘90s is the last decade of R&B dominance –the genre grew and evolved from new jack swing to hip-hop soul to neo-soul – but the ‘80s was the last pure R&B era. The end of disco and the rise of the quiet storm format made room for big vocals over lush productions. Mid-tempos and ballads reigned supreme, and vocal production tricks like autotune were the exception, not the rule. You had to be able to sing forreal. Only a handful of female artists who were strong in the ‘80s – the ones with crossover success, including Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston – made it past the early 1990s, but the decade had sangers. With multi-octave ranges. Trained in the background vocal trenches of soul singing masters. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, VIBE looks at three of the critically under-celebrated female voices of ‘80s soul and R&B.Vesta Williams
Vesta Williams started her career singing for Bobby Womack, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, Sting, and most notably Chaka Khan. The similarities in Vesta and Chaka’s tone and style are immediately noticeable, and rumors persist that Vesta actually laid some of Chaka’s session vocals in later recordings.
Side note: Vesta liked to clown, and was a wildcard in live interviews, especially with men. She’d have them just flustered and giggling and not knowing where to go next.
A&M Records originally wanted Vesta to lose weight and sing lead for a girls group, but she held out until they extended a solo offer. Her first single, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” was a moderate hit, cracking the Top 10 at R&B radio. The lead single from her sophomore debut solidified Vesta’s spot in R&B history. Another Vesta rumor is that “Congratulations” was inspired by Bruce Willis, her alleged long-term but semi-secret beaux, calling off their relationship and marrying Demi Moore within months. Allegedly.
Vesta was sultry and sexy and representing BBWs (big, beautiful women) in a major way, but not quite intentionally. As is a theme with the women in this group, stress and insecurity over her career and her image led her to battles with her weight. Behind the scenes, she was fighting with her label over support, but on camera and on stage she exuded confidence.
She also brought the lively energy seen in her interview with Arsenio on stage. It was a signature part of her act. “I do like to interject…as much of myself as possible (into my show), because it’s terrible when you go to see a lot of these artists, and you pay your money – and you pay a lot of money now - and the show is terrible,” she told Donnie Simpson in an interview (Donnie got all the tea). “They can’t sing. They can’t reproduce what they did on the record because they punched in every line. You know it’s terrible… Those people shall remain nameless.”
Vesta also complained to Donnie, as Phyllis did, about the focal shift from vocal talent to production.
Vesta and Phyllis’s frustrations – which are still echoed today by singers who possess wide range, power, and vocal control, but can’t get their careers off the ground – were valid. Vesta’s voice was transcendent without even singing lyrics. She invoked the emotional gamut from struggle and loss to hope and triumph just through some “Oooohs” in the Women of Brewster Place theme.
Vesta recorded through the ‘90s, but only had one more hit of note, 1991’s “Special.” She never got the push she wanted from A&M Records, but always had the support of “home” – the R&B community.
Convinced that her weight was holding her career back, Vesta lost over 100 pounds after the Special album. “This is a very visual era,” she told Ebony in 1996. When I lost my record deal, and my phone wasn’t ringing, I realized that I had to reassess who Vesta was and figure out what was going wrong. I knew it wasn’t my singing ability. So it had to be that I was expendable because I didn’t have the right look.”
The recording jumpstart she was hoping for didn’t happen, but Vesta worked. She had a couple of on-camera roles in film and on TV, and you would often hear her distinctive voice luring you towards certain food or consumer good.
This commercial sounds like a take on the Women of Brewster Place theme, and I feel a way about it.
Shout out to Burrell Advertising, one of the oldest black-owned media companies in the game – for all the extra-black McDonald’s and Coke commercials you remember from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Vesta continued to perform, but never staged a full come-back. She released one final studio album in 2007. She was found dead in her apartment in 2011 - ironically, while in the process of filming her episode of Unsung for TV One. An overdose was initially suspected; Vesta was taking anti-depressants, and pills were found in her room. But final reports revealed hypertension as the cause of death, a tragic plot twist for someone who’d worked so hard to improve their health.Lisa Fischer
Lisa Fischer is one artist happy she didn’t become a bigger solo success. As with Vesta, the pressures that came with being a woman in entertainment - to be thin and glamorous - were overwhelming. She was more comfortable where she started, in the background.
Lisa began her career with Luther Vandross. Luther famously began as a backing vocalist himself, and as a world-class vocal producer and arranger, was known to only have quality talent behind him. He was not only her first gig, but her longest. Lisa sang on every tour and album with Luther from the mid-80s until he stopped working.
It’s going to be too hard to describe Lisa’s hair and sequin dress in a way that differentiates from the other female singer’s hair and sequin dress in this clip, so I’ll just say Lisa is on the left in the beginning and on the left again at the end.
As Lisa became a sought-after session vocalist and background singer - including joining the Rolling Stones on tour in 1989 - Luther pushed her to pursue a solo career, as singers like Patti Labelle, David Bowie, and Roberta Flack had pushed him. “He saw me in a way that I couldn't see myself,” she once shared. “He made me feel like a diamond though I felt like a grain of sand.”
In 1991 Fischer landed a hit out of the gate with her first single “How Can I Ease the Pain,” a tormented ballad that showcased her full four octaves, including a whistle register to rival Mariah’s. This song makes me think I can sing.
“How Can I Ease the Pain” spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart, propelling her album, So Intense, to Gold status. Lisa also won the 1992 Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance – with a catch. 1992 was the only year the win was tied; Lisa shared her award with Patti LaBelle for “Burnin’” – a song which featured Lisa as background personnel. I believe the Academy wasn’t trying to catch the wrath of the established divas by giving a newcomer the award in a category containing Patti, Aretha, and Gladys that year, especially when Patti didn’t have an award yet. It would have been a scandal! But it also proved that Lisa belonged with the powerhouses.
Next, it was time for Lisa to claim her spot in the diva ranks, right? Nope.
She never released a follow-up. “I felt like I just wasn’t ready,” Lisa shared revealed in an interview. Stress from the pressures of the business eventually manifested for Lisa as an eating disorder. “Not making the second album was disappointing at first, but then after that it was a sense of peace, because back then I couldn’t deal with the expectations that came with even that teeny bit of fame. There was so much to sort out that I hadn’t sorted out.”
As a background singer, Lisa could just be in the moment and sing, without worrying about content, messaging or image. It was easier than being the focus. She went back on tour with the Stones, and has been on almost every tour with them since. Hardcore Rolling Stones fans know Lisa almost as a member of the group, since she steps out during every show for her lead on “Gimme Shelter.”
Lisa also toured with Tina Turner, and still toured with Luther, even when dates with the Stones threatened to conflict, which when Luther taped his famous live concert at Royal Albert Hall. “I was touring with the Stones in Chicago, and then Luther had a private plane waiting for me to make it to London in time to do sound check, makeup and dress for the performance,” Lisa told a local publication when asked about a standout show memory. “I was so exhausted, but his music and teachings were so a part of everything I had become that doing the show was real and surreal all at the same time. His voice, his melodies, my fellow background singers (Kevin, Ava, Tawatha and Pat) and the choreography that I’d been doing for years was so joyous. … It was like a public family reunion.”
I know we’re talking about Lisa, but you have to watch this whole performance and soak in the genius of Luther’s vocal arrangements. First of all, only Luther would have first string and second string background singers. Lisa is a starter, of course. She’s on the far left. Second, this is a slightly gentler arrangement than the studio recording of “Here and Now”, but that little bit of softness/easiness makes it so much better.
Lisa was thrust even further into the forefront than she was during her solo run with 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville’s award-winning documentary about the lives and journeys of career background singers. The movie was the first time I’d seen a visual of Fischer in years, and I was surprised at the natural, kind of boho chic woman on screen, miles from the very glamorous and coiffed Fischer of the ‘90s. Then it clicked – that wasn’t really her. That was never her. That’s why it didn’t work.
Lisa did finally get comfortable enough to launch a solo tour, but she performs now in draped, flowing garments, often in bare feet, always with bare face and natural hair. Easy, relaxed, in a way she can focus on the music and not the package. But I think she’ll forgive me if I don’t readily let go of this. Yes, we already talked about “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but her live performance is a masterclass.Phyllis Hyman
If I have to select one case study example to illustrate the damage and challenges an artist can face trying to mold themselves into a form that will lead to success, it’s Phyllis Hyman.
Phyllis was a naturally outstanding and immense vocal stylist. She had a four-octave range that blended jazz and soul, and a regal stature that demanded attention and notice (Hyman was 6ft tall with striking features), but a psyche that was torn apart through the course of her career. The music business destroyed her.
On paper, though, she had the elements to be a massive star, and she had a promising start. Her first label, Buddah Records, landed several modest hits for her including “You Know How to Love Me.”
Her 1976 collaboration with Norman Conners for “Betcha By Golly Wow” introduced that merge of jazz and soul which became her signature sound.
Her Tony-award winning turn in Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" positioned her to embark on an acting career.
But Phyllis would reach the brink of big success and lose it, sometimes by her own doing. Sometimes it was poor business decisions, like when she passed on the song “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Sometimes it was bad luck, like when she recorded a theme song for the movie The Doorman, and then the movie was released straight to video. Or when she was tapped to sing the James Bond theme for 1983’s Never Say Never Again - a huge benchmark for any singer – then Warner Brothers reportedly nixed the song under threat of lawsuit.
Oftentimes, though, it was her own insecurity showing up. Phyllis was known to be combative; she fought with producers, with people who worked with her, and most famously with label head Clive Davis. She and Clive were in a battle of the wills from the beginning of Buddah’s absorption by Arista Records - something Clive, known for his magic with female singers, was unused to. Phyllis called him a plantation owner, would speak ill of him in the press, show up late for meetings and blow off commitments, but she was fighting him out of fear. “Control equaled comfort to Phyllis,” said biographer Jason Michael in his book Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story. “It was what she needed to feel safe…She did the same with (husband) Larry and, in the years to come, she would succeed in doing the same with not just her romantic interests, but also her close friends and staff members.” The tactic didn’t work with Davis, however, and contributed to her stalling during her years at Arista. Her strongest songs from the Arista period were recorded before the transition from Buddah, like “Somewhere in My Lifetime.”
Part of the problem was also that Clive, whose formula was to position his singers for pop success, didn’t understand the kind of artist Phyllis was. “Clive never had a feeling for black music,” A&R Gerry Griffith shared with Michael in Strength of a Woman. “He didn’t understand that black connection of jazz and R&B as it relates to black folk…he couldn’t make that connection. That’s why he had to have people around him that understood it; and most of the time, in the early days, he didn’t listen to us either.”
Philadelphia International’s Thom Bell wrote an album’s worth of songs for Phyllis’s second Arista release, but Clive scrapped some of them in favor of songs he felt would work for crossover, like the heavily-produced uptempo “Riding the Tiger,” and designated the pop/dance options as the album singles. It didn’t work. “The audience just couldn’t understand why she was recording a song like ‘Riding the Tiger,’” said her musical director Barry Eastmond. “It just didn’t fit her at all. It was an attempt at a dance hit, but you can’t fool the audience. They love you for a certain thing and they really want to hear that from you.”
Between the power struggle and the lack of hits, Phyllis soon found herself at the bottom of Clive’s priority list as he turned his attention toward a young new starlet, Whitney Houston.
Phyllis’s fight or flight instinct also cost her opportunities that could have changed her career. Phyllis was in the lead to play Shug Avery for the movie adaptation of The Color Purple. The casting directors loved her, but when she joined Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah in a meeting with Steven Spielberg, she blew it. Her former co-manager Sydney Harris recounted the day to biographer Jason Michael, recalling Glover emerging from the meeting and telling her, “Your girl acted out. She was trying to run the audition. She was ordering Steven around.”
“That was Phyllis’s M.O.,” Harris explained. “When she got scared, she tried to take over things so she could regain control. She lost the part because they could not wrap their heads around being with Phyllis for five months in North Carolina while they shot the film.”
There was a cycle – Phyllis would get insecure and self-sabotage, then be resentful of her failure compared to the success of women she knew weren’t more talented than she was, and then lash out. But Phyllis was equally frustrated with failure and scared of success.
When finally released from Arista, she joined Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. It was an ideal situation for her: a smaller label where she could feel important and attended to, led by men who understood soul music. But even as she was working on her strongest material in years, she was brooding and inconsistent. “Living All Alone” co-writer Cynthia Biggs told biographer Jason Michael, “I remember her saying, ‘Here I am again, recording another album that’s not going to go gold.’ She just felt like ‘why do I keep trying?’”
She’d suffered from depression for years, and was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, but she preferred self-medicating through drugs and alcohol to taking lithium, the most common treatment at the time. Living All Alone was well received, but Phyllis’s depression continued to deepen, slowing down the process of recording her follow-up, The Prime of My Life. During the time between the two projects, she was featured in Spike Lee’s School Daze and on the soundtrack.
Released in 1991, The Prime of My Life was Phyllis’s biggest career success. She finally charted on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Don’t Want to Change the World,” which was also her first career No. 1, and the album had additional R&B hit singles including “Living in Confusion.”
At Philadelphia International, Phyllis had started to become part of the writing process, contributing more and more with each subsequent album. She had just finished the most autobiographical work of her career when she took her life in 1995, days before her 45th birthday and hours before she was scheduled to perform at the Apollo.
Her emotional state was no secret to her inner circle, nor was her eventual suicide. “Phyllis was an advocate of suicide,” Glenda Garcia, her manager at the time of her death, told the Chicago Tribune. “I was not surprised or shocked that she took her life. It was her philosophy that she was in charge of her body because it was hers, and in charge of her life because it was hers. Her position was, if she didn’t like the pain, didn’t like her life, she had the right to get out of the pain.” The Tribune observed, “...never has an artist produced an entire album that reflects so hauntingly on her life and hints so broadly of her imminent demise as does Phyllis Hyman’s I Refuse to be Lonely.”
Hyman’s suicide note read, in part, “I’m tired.” The album felt like a more extended goodbye message. Songs like “Why Not Me,” “This Too Shall Pass,” and “Give Me One Good Reason to Stay” spoke of finality and resignation, disappointment and loss. Phyllis may have meant it to be her farewell. We can never know for sure, but Garcia wouldn’t rule it out. “Phyllis loved drama, so I wouldn’t put it past her,” she said in the same conversation with the Chicago Tribune. “Let’s face it, she was on her way to a show the night she died. She had a performance to do at the Apollo Theater. I don’t know that Phyl was so conniving she said ‘OK, I’m going to commit suicide so now I’ll get my Grammy and it’ll be multi-platinum,’ but I won’t say she didn’t intend to make a statement. She absolutely felt this record was her best. Clearly her timing was dramatic.”
Lisa, Vesta and Phyllis all had raw talent in spades, they even had beauty and glamour - but had to push themselves to sometimes unrealistic physical levels to stay marketable as artists. In the late ‘80s, singers like Jody Watley, Pebbles, Cherelle and Karyn White came into the game with model looks and voices that could easily work over heavier production, and that trend continued for solo artists into the ‘90s. There wasn’t another successful solo female vocalist of substantial voice and body until Kelly Price came along in 1998. It wasn’t just about fitting a "look," though. There were other dynamic vocalists in this era - Stephanie Mills, Miki Howard, Angela Bofill - who were also eventually left behind as R&B moved out of the soft and warm quiet storm into the high energy new jack swing era. Their voices were too soulful to crossover, and artists without crossover potential weren’t attractive to labels; they wouldn’t sell as many records. In the ‘80s, a gold album was cool, but the ‘90s, platinum became the benchmark for success. While we’re waiting for the music industry to get it together and return to the R&B standards of the ‘90s, I’ll lift a prayer that there will one day additionally be room for sangin’ sangin’ on the charts again. For the Vestas, the Phyllises, the Shirleys (Brown or Murdock, take your pick), to sing their hearts out - and for the world to be able to hear.
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.
Scowling to FKJ and Masego’s “Tadow” is a pretty nefarious task, but Winston Duke doesn’t so much as crack a smile when its svelte saxes and warped keys slice the tense air of a Midtown New York studio. Marking the midpoint of the Black Boy Joy playlist he curated for Spotify, the 6’5” actor stares down the camera with a glare that could send a mischievous tot running off in tears. From a white chair that looks embarrassingly miniature beneath him, he hunches forward at the lens and the cluster of people standing behind it, hands firmly clasped. Turn your head to the side. A little bit more. Duke pivots slowly, inching his chin to the left with surgical precision, eyes cutting the wall as if he’s sizing up someone no one else in the room can see.
There is a wrinkle in his olive Rag and Bone shirt. His stylist urgently flocks to his side to tug and tuck, opening the floodgates for the rest of glam — the groomer dabs his Adam’s apple and brow bone, his barber is armed with a cape, and his rep analyzes his pant cuffs from behind the computer screen — to tend to things that have hardly shifted in the two minutes he’s been sitting there. Winston’s facade hasn’t softened for the entirety of the first look, but by the time he stands to review the images, Machel Montano’s vibrant and percussive “Take It Slow” tumbles out from the speakers. Duke breaks form, unable to refrain from softly singing along with the Trinidadian soca artist, a hometown hero, and his body instinctively sways to the riddim. “Making up for not going down to Carnival this year, huh?” I tease from behind the Canon. And for the first time within the hour, he cracks a toothy smile and nods, still dancing.
While our team wonders what he's really thinking, we forget Winston Duke knows how to commit. He's a damn good actor. We’re in the presence of a man whose entire day job is to master the art of staying in character. As he floats from set-up to set-up, he comes alive in different ways, carrying with him the traits of all the versions of him we’ve seen on the big screen so far: The dominant stance and steely disposition of M’Baku from Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the grit of a tethered Abraham and the glee of Gabe Wilson from Jordan Peele’s new film Us. Duke can be whoever you want or need him to be when the camera’s rolling, but sitting face-to-face to figure out the real Winston is the true experience.
Enough time spent with the Yale-trained thespian will reveal that he’s quick on his feet when it comes to the creative realm. Duke plucking a story from thin air is impressive, and watching him do so in real time is a downright treat. When I meet him in the book-lined Reading Room of the art dealer chic Whitby Hotel a week or so prior, he’s been mouthing off all day. As we learned from Black Panther, Duke knows how to be a larger-than-life scene-stealer when he wants. Right now, however, the man who cemented his cinematic entrance as an intimidating mountain warrior is trying to conjure up a tender tale about critters.
“It could be a story about an ant that learns to fly because he wants to find love with a fly,” he says, entertaining a tangent he stumbled on about his enamoration with stories. The conversation began with his scary-movie preferences but landed on the fact that he’s drawn to narratives about almost anything. “I love stories period, it’s just gotta be tied to something. It has to be about something. That story I just described is about love.”
Without pause, we chuckle at the charm of his Pixar-perfect non-sequitur, but admittedly, it would be interesting to see where his mini Bug’s Life saga could go. He’s clearly interested, too. “That’s actually a cool idea,” he quietly repeats to himself, sussing out the synopsis to see if it could grow legs. “An ant? An ant that learns to fly because it’s in love with a fly …”
There’s more where that came from, but he doesn’t have time to tell it. His four handlers for the day gently call out the five-minute mark to wrap up an interview that has, presumably, gone on for an hour, but Duke isn’t done yet. Without truncating his stream of thought to honor the time crunch, he leans deeper into his last response. Hint taken. An additional 10 minutes have been granted, and although Duke has offered to shorten his responses to accommodate as many “last questions” as possible (and continues talking even as he gathers his belongings to leave), he simply has more to say. A lot more.
“I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” —Winston Duke
The Tobago-born film star has been stateside for more than 20 years, even attending undergraduate school in icy Buffalo, N.Y., but still has not adjusted to the bite of winter. “I can’t do anything below 60 degrees, honestly,” he says, cocooned by a massive Canada Goose down coat he refuses to take off, even though we’re indoors. He removes it only for a photo, revealing a linen summer suit and salmon shirt befitting the warm weather he’s accustomed to, then puts it right back on. So, no ski trips for you? He lets out Thor’s hammer of a hearty laugh, one of many that escape from him during our chat. “Ah, it’s never appealed. Snow is not my thing.”
Growing up along 116 square miles of pristine coastline he still refers to as “home,” despite emigrating from the island to New York as a child, means that he still subscribes to a very island lifestyle. Duke, now 32, moves at a nonchalant, easy-going pace, listens more than he speaks, and he considers himself flexible and always willing to change (“I try to maintain a feeling that’s like water.”). Anyone with ears can tell he’s a natural orator; his speech is painted with a charming lilt that intensifies the more comfortable he gets. Although he has a warm heart, his naturally dignified presence and stoic delivery may intimidate someone unfamiliar with a Caribbean’s stern humor.
Duke was insulated by the constant flow of love from his mother, Cora, his sister, Cindy, and the small community of Argyle that became an extension of his family, especially those who spent their days eating and drinking at his mother’s eatery, Cindy’s Restaurant, a local gathering spot. “This old man used to come every single day and spend a quarter to half of his day eating, just talking. He would tell all these stories about what Tobago was like before electricity came,” Duke says. “A lot of his stories were filled with a lot of magic because everything cast a shadow before 6 p.m.”
Young Duke’s mind was molded by this Tobagonian folklore, and Duke soaked in this gift of narration, although, for the most part, it was a private passion. He was a quiet kid whose traditionally-Caribbean family ideally wanted him to take on a practical, reliable profession like his older sister, who went on to become an infertility specialist. However, he knew their route wasn’t his calling. There were stories he soon wanted to tell on his own.
After the abolition of slavery in 1834 under the British Empire, indentured servants were brought into the country to continue the necessary manual labor. As a result, Trinidad and Tobago is now home to a mix of not only African natives but those from East India, Syria and China. Living on the diverse island exposed Winston to a bit of everything as a youth. His island’s major interfaith community meant that both Christmas and Diwali were celebrated by all, and Duke learned about the Bhagavad Gita, one of the Indian holy Vedic books, prior to immigrating to the U.S. He was exposed to the ins and outs of local politics since campaigning prime ministers and visiting presidential candidates would parade right past his house along the main road. And with black and brown bodies occupying all levels of the social and political scale from the homely to the elite, his dominant culture wasn’t squarely rooted in white supremacy. “That’s one thing that I didn’t have to grow up around,” he says. “Not to say that all those -isms didn’t exist where we’re from; it just manifests differently. Especially when you have a black president and prime minister, and then an Indian president and prime minister and coup by Islamic progressives.” These rich, cultural stories and the normalized integration of various lifestyles made it easier for him to see people as people instead of as others.
All this worldly knowledge and exposure did not age him, however. While surrounded by endless stimuli, as a child, Duke was still allowed to be a child. For most of his life there, he was spoiled by the delights of daily sea baths and river swims, endless spicy pepper pot and pone and pelau, toys and playtime. “I was sheltered a lot by a mother and sister and larger extended family that was just like, ‘You’re gonna keep your childhood,’” he says. “Children are treated like children, and men, especially in these family cultures, are babied for a very long time. The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it. They didn’t want me exposed. Then coming to this country, they had to shelter me in a whole different way: ‘We don’t want no police stopping you. Survive every encounter. Always take ‘no’ as an answer. No means no.’”
“Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.” —Jordan Peele
By no means was life handed to Duke on a silver platter; he just had the luxury of being ignorant to it all. “We went through hard times as well, but I never saw those hard times while we were living back at home,” he says. Because his mother owned a restaurant, he was never hungry. She would pay for a car to bring him home from school if she wasn’t able to. “I grew up thinking we had a private car and driver,” he jokes. “It was just a dude that she would pay to pick me up from school.” And because his mother was one of 12 siblings, somebody was bringing even more food to the house. “In my early childhood, I never thought about money. I didn’t have to think about it.”
That notion of not thinking about things has changed plenty. He has grown into this thoughtful, weighty version of himself, and he’ll tell you this. True to Caribbean culture, Duke grew up in a household that had a lot of nicknames for everyone, so until he reached the age of thinking for himself and “defying the rules a little bit,” he was known to his family as Winny. “It was Winny because Winnie the Pooh was a big thing, so Winston turned into Winny, and I grew into Winston. That name seemed like a big name for a child, I think. Winston Duke. It felt big.” Those cushioned Winny years did not reveal his passion for the stage and the screen in the way fans of his might expect. “My creative pursuits were pretty private for a really long time,” he says. “Just my immediate family knew that I wanted to be an actor, and they were always trying to convince me to be a lawyer or doctor until I was just like, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ It doesn’t make me happy.”
That acting bug didn’t actually break skin until his high school teacher dragged him outside of his comfort zone and pushed him into his first performance: a student-run, 24-hour play. Writers would meet one night to start writing, actors came in the morning to read and memorize the scripts, and the director put it together for it to be performed the next evening — basically, a whirlwind of fatigue with equal parts stress and reward.
“My teacher signed me up for that after she saw me do a presentation in Spanish class.” As a slowly acclimating immigrant going through New York’s schooling system, Winston didn’t know many people, so he kept to himself. “[I was] doing a Spanish presentation, and for some reason, I had a yo-yo in my pocket. I pulled it out and started doing it, going through my presentation.” She requested to speak to him after class, not because he was in trouble like he’d thought, but because she was intrigued. “‘You came alive in front of people counterintuitively,’” he recalls her saying. “‘You’re very shy otherwise, but in front of people, you came alive. I think that you should do the school theater.’ She went and signed me up for the play, and I had to show up.”
The fun of it all set him off, and he started tossing his hat in the ring for small projects, like mall auditions for The CW walk-on roles, but he knew he wanted more. “People who know me are always like, ‘You always seem like you know what you want,’ but it’s not like it comes easy,” he says. Duke has been a beneficiary of the power of his own mind on numerous occasions. He assesses himself almost daily to figure out if a particular course of action is or isn’t working out and how he should reroute accordingly. “I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” As far as acting was concerned, The Yale School of Drama, he surmised, would get him better.
His move to attend the Ivy League garnered praise from his family, as they finally accepted his acting dreams since he was “getting into a school where [his] ethnic mom could gloat about it.” After graduating from University at Buffalo, Duke spent a year diving into the audition process, but after bombing several auditions and waiting on line in several “this could be your big break” cattle calls that went nowhere, he knew more schooling was necessary. “I needed to be more competitive, and I did not have the tools necessary to do the work that I wanted to emulate,” he says. “I needed training. I decided at that moment that I was going to get into grad school. There was no Plan B. I put all my eggs in that basket, and then that worked.” By that, he means those strengthened muscles in stage and camera work, and small gigs snowballed into major TV appearances like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Person of Interest and Modern Family, the former of which sent his island into a tizzy. “There was an outpouring of love. It was all over every magazine in both islands. That was huge.” Then along came his big film debut with the Marvel canon: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and eventually, Avengers: Endgame.
Duke represents what Hollywood is slowly becoming: a diverse pot of TV and film offerings flavored with actors and characters who run the whole gamut of relatable, human experiences. Casting directors are stepping away from the easy way out. Tinseltown has a way of funneling big, tall, black actors (think Good Times’ John Amos, Green Mile’s Michael Clarke Duncan, and Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames) into gruffer roles, but consider Us Duke’s way of shaking things up and challenging those archetypes.
“Black Panther was just a watershed, and now with Us, it’s another big cultural watershed because they loved Get Out,” he says, throwing his head back for emphasis. He still has recordings from friends back home of people yelling at Daniel Kaluuya’s character through theater screens. “So, now for me to be in Jordan Peele’s second movie, everyone’s excited.”
The pride his homeland feels for him is a next-level feeling because it’s not just his blood relatives. At this point in his career, the entire Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is his kin. To his neighbors and beyond, “their family has done something, so by extension, they’ve done something,” he explains. “They believed that they also raised me, so, technically, their thoughts, their beliefs, their teachings, their cuisine, their history is now in Black Panther. In Us. In Hollywood. In production meetings. In table reads.”
Everything about Duke exudes intention, right down to his measured mannerisms in conversation. When he reaches a peak realization mid-soliloquy, he’ll rearrange the crossing of his legs, how far away or how close he’s leaning from the table, whether he pivots to face me or lets the full weight of his body fall back into the seat and his hands stretch across the table, fingers tapping its surface in rhythm. Each of his fingertips has his own weight when it lands on the wood, its own felt vibration, to accentuate each point. All of that comes from where he comes from, traits from every person in his community now stitched into the patchwork of his being. “I’m called an ‘all we boy.’ ‘All we’ is ‘alla we.’ So, when they say ‘all we boy,’ it’s our boy. ‘All we boy doing good. Winston’s an all we boy.’”
The first time Winston watched Us, the air felt different. After spending two hours as one of 15 bodies in a 150-seat theater, the hugeness of the occasion hung overhead. The hazy sunset, though he’d seen them many times before, felt unfamiliar this time. Despite his spectacle-enhanced eyesight, the colors cast along the sidewalk outside the theater looked different. “I think really good art changes the air,” Duke says ahead of SXSW. The Austin premiere would mark the second time ever seeing Peele’s highly-anticipated Get Out follow-up, and the first time with a crowd — “the public.” While he emits an air of confidence, suppressing the butterflies of knowing your work is officially “out there” is a tall order. “You either feel tense, you feel happy, you feel sad, you feel something, because the air changes. It shifts.”
Duke isn’t lying. When black entertainers, tastemakers and media rivered into New York City, Atlanta, and Los Angeles theaters for simultaneous #UsFirst early screenings — Peele says “it would’ve been a big problem for [him] if black journalists weren’t included in the unveiling of this movie” — the energy shifts were palpable from scene to scene.
“What the hell is wrong with Jordan Peele?” an audience member exclaimed during one of the film’s many twisted scenes. A particularly charismatic bedroom scene in which Duke was the star downright drew an onslaught of cackles from the crowd. Aside from there being no doubt in Duke’s magnetic star power, the spirited conversation between the audience and the screen was confirmation that Us is another moment for both black entertainment and Hollywood at large.
“When people take big swings with love, we are rewarded, but black people — certainly in the film industry — haven’t been given enough leeway to fail, let alone succeed,” Jordan Peele says during an L.A. roundtable. He’s addressing being embraced by former skeptics after Get Out, especially given that both his films can be safely categorized as “weird.” “Like Get Out, I’m trying to push representation into a place and into a type of story we don’t usually see.”
While Us isn’t explicitly about race as its predecessor, Peele doesn’t feel like it has to be in order to shake the table and reframe how black people are seen on screen. Being a dark-skinned black family at the center of a scary movie is enough. “To be able to normalize this idea of representation in film, we have to be ready to represent the spectrum of where we are as African-Americans. I hope it’s therapeutic to be able to see a black family buy a boat in a movie, to be able to play the good guy and the bad guy, and not have it be a movie that has to be about race. I think that’s good within our community, and it’s good for the outside communities to be able to see — don’t put us in boxes.”
Even in casting Duke, the goal was to break the mold a bit. When Peele had originally written the script, he did not picture the Wilson patriarch as physically formidable as Duke, but rather as a nerdy version of himself. When initially considering him for the role, he thought choosing a dad people still see as M’Baku might make the movie less scary. However, talking to him and discovering a different shade to his character made him realize Duke was “not only essential casting because he's a great actor, but [it’s] important to put a guy who wouldn't be cast in a movie like this, for these reasons, in that role. It's an important piece of representation to take a guy that we assume is one type of dude and allow him to be a different type of dude.” Or to put it even more plainly: “Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.”
When Duke took the part, it was more important to get into the nitty-gritty of why Gabe Wilson exists in this film and understand the life experiences that made him who he is. Gabe was penned as a weekend warrior, Keeping Up With The Joneses, all-American corny dad, so Duke drew from sitcom fathers as inspiration for the jokey nature of his character. “He lives on the balls of his feet,” he says. “Very impulsive and playful, but he’s that dad.”
That dad is spinning water wheelies around a lake on a secondhand clunker named the Crab Daddy, not knowing terror is about to befall his family. To bring out that sense of blissful obliviousness, as well as lean into his larger purpose, Duke sought out dramaturgy help. “I wanted to get inside of the world and the genre, and I wanted to hold fast to the allegory and commentary that was being made, so I wanted my character to be deeply functioned in that space.”
Peele says having Duke offset the on-screen bloodshed by humorously calling out “duh” moments was essential to keeping the edge off his viewers. “I have to have somebody voice what the audience was saying,” he says. “In the case of Get Out, it’s Rod, like, ‘How have you not left yet?’ [In Us], Winston is largely that voice. There’s one moment where Lupita [Nyong’o] takes a step into the unknown, where black people [will think], ‘I don’t know.’ But to have Winston say, ‘Aaaand she left. Your mother just walked out of the car.’ That’s all we need.”
“His function isn’t to see through the veil,” Duke adds, nodding to Gabe’s general unawareness. “His function is to tell the absolute truth how he sees it. He’s sometimes there to say the things that other people don’t want to say, but he’s also there to make fun of things to keep it from not getting too heavy, even though it’s real. That was my job. Jordan respected that. I like to lean into functions. If I’m going to be your antagonist, I’m gonna really push you. If I’m gonna be your clown, funny guy, I’m gonna do that.”
One of the things that Peele was drawn to about Duke is just how seriously he takes the job, no matter how far away from serious the role may seem. “I was really taken with the fact that he wants to dig deep,” Peele says later on the phone. “As I do with all my actors, I asked him, ‘What's the biggest help I can be with you?’ He said, ‘Information. The more information I know the better, the more confident in my performance I will be, the more I can strategize.’” That affinity for proper planning, he says, is common amongst Yale Drama grads, his Us wife Lupita Nyong’o included. As homework, she watched a laundry list of Peele’s horror film suggestions to prepare to play Adelaide Wilson and her doppelganger, Red. “This is going to be somebody who was in a constant search for a deeper meaning and deeper layer,” Peele continues, “and that thoroughness is something that I've come to really pride in my collaborators.”
Teamwork surrounding character development was another extension of Peele honoring his actors’ processes. Take Gabe’s wardrobe selection, where neither Peele nor Duke could resist the Howard University representation. “We talked about different [HBCUs], and I was like, I think he feels like a Howard guy. I feel like he’s playful, he could be serious, he’s going to protect his family at any cost, so he’s many things at once. That’s another thing about Gabe that I love. He’s not any one thing. He’s sensual, he’s playful, he’s serious when he wants to be. He’s all these things, but he’s still super privileged. He’s not any one thing throughout the story. It feels like Howard,” Duke says — although shouts from the audience at the NY screening begged to differ. Reacting to his lack of “catching it” when first seeing the family, “Naw, he’s gotta be a Hampton man” was heard from either side.
After the screening, hardly anyone went straight home. Instead, they gathered at the hotel’s now-closed bar, hoping for more wine to help them unpack what they’d just seen. Regardless of whether viewers instantly heralded it Oscar worthy, had more questions than answers, were still shaking or wanted to square up with Peele, the clusters of discussion created a deafening hum in the space. Eyes widened and scattered yells ensued as conspiracy theories and thesis-level analyses shot left and right. Duke already knew this project would be a conversation starter he wanted in on.
“Other than it being a Jordan Peele movie, when I read the script, I said, ‘Whoa, cool discussion about power and privilege,” Duke says. “Cool discussion about American culture, about the American dream, about its global proximity to others.’ I want to be a part of that conversation. And to be part of a conversation about the nuances of black psychology. It’s a lot of psychology, and what kind of person does that create? Sorry To Bother You, psychology. Beale Street, Moonlight, psychology. It’s a lot of nuance of black psychology instead of just celebrating your physical attributes and vilifying or fetishizing it. We’re not in a blaxploitation age.” Duke as Gabe helps deliver Peele’s poignant Easter eggs and social commentary. “[Gabe] is intentionally the American dream, and as a result, he is very insecure because he’s not grounded in reality.”
"The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it." —Winston Duke
“All throughout the movie, I've used American imagery and the duality of American imagery because that was, first and foremost, the ‘us’ that I was attempting to address,” Peele says. “We as a culture, we're a culture of finger pointers. We're a culture that is xenophobic. This movie is about many different forms that the word ‘us’ can take, but on the level of this country, it conjured the true horror of what's going on in this country right now.”
Real-life horrors indeed. Even Duke found himself scared watching Us, despite already knowing the paths of all the characters. “Even though I read it on the page, watching it on its feet is 100-percent different, and I wasn’t there for the filming of those things, so it was brand new to me,” he says. “I didn’t get to experientially go through that moment, so it’s scary.” And that says a lot, considering the fact that he wouldn’t even call himself a scary movie person. “I think this is the kind of scary movie person I am, which is one that’s wrapped around a really intimate, well-composed story.”
I ask Duke if M’Baku will be a hard shadow to step from under, and he instantly recoils, wrinkling his brow at the proposition. The defense mode comes naturally — and rightfully so. “It’s my work, I don’t really wanna step away from it. I don’t wanna step out of it,” he says. “I think it should be a part of a library of work that I’ve done and celebrated. I celebrate it. People sometimes are haunted by the work, but that’s just how you approach it. That’s up to you to think as an individual, the kind of work that you do and put out there and how boldly you attack your work and do things [so] that people will remember other things, too.”
Duke may still be emotionally attached to the character that made him one to watch, but the Jabari tribe leader is not synonymous with him, and neither is the Wilsons’ goofball.
“I think Gabe lives somewhere along my spectrum, [and] I think M’Baku lives somewhere along my spectrum,” he says, assessing where he falls between the two cinematic poles. “I think I’m very many things. I think I’m funny, I’m intellectual. I think I’m vulnerable, I think I’m guarded. Gabe has a lot of my impulsive playfulness, but he doesn’t have my consciousness. At all. Gabe, to me, represents the culture that he belongs to. He’s too privileged.
“M’Baku is at the total opposite end of that spectrum,” he continues. “He’s actually not privileged. He comes from a group of people that are oppressed by the dominant culture of his society. M’Baku is socially conscious. He knows his place within his community and the responsibilities that he has to his people. He has a civic duty and wants to challenge his country to be better but will risk everything to save it.”
So, who is Duke in the middle of all that? It’s all part of the process of figuring him out piece by piece, role by role, extreme by extreme, and in each layer that pulls back, slowly but surely, there will be a lesson, a reflection of a deficit within mainstream conversation. “I’m deeply humbled by it and I tried to understand what it was because people still don’t know me that well, they don’t know who Winston is. But they did respond to M’Baku,” he said last year, responding to a red carpet question about his sex appeal. “I feel what they were responding to is something that felt authentic, something different from what they’ve been consuming before, and the image that presented: A confident man. A confident black man, 6’5”, 250-pound man with stretch marks. A man with a gapped tooth. I feel they were just saying, ‘We want that, we want more of that.’ If we just take the time to understand it, they’re not just lusting, they’re screaming out for something different.”
Looking at Duke’s social feeds will reveal just how much he likes to switch things up. “I’m not a perfect person in any way because I do struggle with some of those same things, too — like if I put this up, people might make fun of me; I do worry about potentially being bullied online — but I have to live. People are going to be people, and I have to be me. I just try to embrace the freedom of what it means to live at this time. I want to embrace the freedom of my time.”
Duke wants his work to drown out tropes that try to limit our frame of thought. “It’s important to embrace what is a word that has become so watered down by our world, not just our culture — the word ‘freedom,’” he says. “Freedom to not be anything in particular. Freedom to self-define: self-define yourself, self-define your language, self-define your verbiage and your lexicon, and choose for yourself what those things are. Choose for yourself what love means because you have to define that. Choose what art means for you. Choose what success means for you. And that, for me, is the biggest thing.”
Winston Duke will be whoever Winston Duke wants to be and will live as freely as he can while doing so. That’s all he owes to himself — no boxes, no borders, no baggage.
READ MORE: 'Black Panther' Star Winston Duke To Portray Kimbo Slice In Biopic
Photographer: Stacy-Ann Ellis
Stylist: Jenny Ricker, Stylist Assistants: Thomas Kivell, Richard Sifuentes, Tabitha Sanchez
Makeup Artist: Laila Hayani
Groomer: Martyse Lewis
Videographer: Kristen White
Additional Style Credits (Header Image) | Jacket and Knit: Rag and Bone, Trousers: Vince, Boots: Frye, Chain Necklace, and Bracelet: David Yurman
For two years, Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Derek Hough have introduced some of the world’s best dancers to viewers across America. Their NBC weekly competition series, World Of Dance, fills living room television sets with high-flying stunts and out-of-this-world routines. The show’s multicultural acts each bring a distinct flavor to their every step, tracing back to their native homelands.
Now in its third season, the dance tournament is divided into various categories befit for each act’s demographic. The brackets are divided into levels: Upper, Junior, Upper Team, and Junior Team and they’re all in the race for a hefty $1 million. Yet with all that talent in one room, you can bet the competition is stiff. It’s also nerve-wracking trying to impress superstars like Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Hough for a qualifying score.
There’s The Kings, a group from India that flies across the stage in lightning bolt speed. Their precision is just as massive as their dash, everything is carefully coordinated into perfection. Then there’s The Heima from Seoul, South Korea that offers an incredible fusion of Asian culture paired with beautiful choreography.
Surprisingly, if J.Lo would’ve had the chance to compete in a show like her own at the beginning of her career in the early ‘90s, she admits she would’ve passed on it.
“If I was on In Living Color, I probably wouldn’t try out for World Of Dance,” she says seated on a leather couch at a private party room at Los Angeles’ NeueHouse Hollywood. “I probably would more be watching World of Dance and cheering on my friends. The level of tricks and technical skills is not something that I had when I was coming up. Even though I know my flips and tricks just a little bit, I’m in awe of what they are able to do.”
It’s also exciting to learn from the contestants, some of which she says end up working with her after the show is over.
“I’m from The Bronx. I’m a hip-hop girl at heart so I’m always looking at what the young kids are doing, and trying to do that too,” she notes. “Let’s get some young kids here so they could teach us the new steps.”
While the new generation of dancers are exciting, it also isn’t taken lightly by the judges—especially for Ne-Yo. The award-winning R&B artist is known for his tough criticism, and he isn’t generous when it comes to scoring. His methodology is earnest yet simple: show and prove.
“If I’m going to give you a million dollars you’re going to earn it,” the 39-year-old says flatly. “Whether you’re an eight-year-old or a 38-year-old, your skill level is what makes me go, ‘I’m going to talk to you like a person who wants a million dollars from me.’ It is what it is.”
Hough adds that the judges often disagree when it comes to scoring.
“We’ve had full-blown arguments after a performance where we’re behind the desk and I just straight-out disagree with some of their things, and with their opinions,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But that’s what makes us judges. We’re going to have different opinions, and we’re going to have conflicting ideas. I think ’cause we’re so passionate about it, we’re so invested, and we love dance. We’re all fans of dance, and we want to make this the best we can possibly make it.”
Amid Ne-Yo’s tough rubric, there’s no denying that working alongside Lopez has a positive effect on his work ethic.
“J.Lo is over here killing the game,” he says. “It makes you go up because she’s the ultimate. She comes in sharp, alert, charismatic, every single time,” despite having a million other things to do the second the show is done taping.
World Of Dance is something Lopez also enjoys with her family. She watches it with her children and says her son Max wants a chance to compete to win the million dollars. “They love the show and they love the electricity of the show. It’s powerful, it’s young, it’s fun,” J.lo says.
What gives the show its power is the exposure that it grants contestants whether or not they win the grand prize. “Getting on that stage in itself is a victory,” Ne-Yo says. “You’re in people’s houses every week. If you can’t parlay that into something whether you win a million dollars or not, you’re not hustling right.”
World Of Dance airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.