VIBE / Christine Imarenezor

Interview: Demetria McKinney Wants To Get Back To The Pulse Of R&B

The Quad actress is prepped for a reintroduction.

Demetria McKinney's sunny aura cuts through a rather dreary afternoon, courtesy of New York City's drizzly skies, when she steps into VIBE headquarters. Decked in black and gold as her curly mane illuminates the room—"This right here has become my biggest statement piece," she says—the Dark and Lovely brand ambassador is poised for a reintroduction as she settles in for a chat.

Between her success on Tyler Perry's House of Payne to BET's The Quad, a series that won her over yet lured criticism for its unfiltered take on life at HBCUs, the Saints and Sinners star has cemented her presence as an actress ever on the rise. If you let her tell it, however, music has always been at the crux of her purpose.

Through her forthcoming debut album Officially Yours, the "Easy" singer is ready to pull back the curtain to allow fans, especially her ride-or-die "Demetrians," an opportunity to access her world beyond the confines of a character on screen. "It's called Officially Yours because it is the most naked I can be musically and if I'm not really expressing who I am at that moment, then it's not worth it," she explains. "I know it took a minute, but I feel like now I actually have the truth of who I am ready for everybody to get."

Here, McKinney talks fueling difficult conversations on The Quad, playing her cards right during her brief stint on Real Housewives of Atlanta and returning to the heart of R&B.

VIBE: The Quad has opened conversation on topics like hazing, sexual assault and the criminalization of black men. Hampton University President William R. Harvey, however, wasn't happy about its premiere episode. How did you react to the debate surrounding the show?
Demetria McKinney: I was honored by it. I think that the more we talk about the show, the more people have to look into it and pay attention to it. The fact that he [wrote a letter], I understand the passion behind it and wanting to protect what is there. However, these are fake scenarios and it was one episode. I absolutely love how BET backed the project as a fictitious account that can [raise awareness], and it was great to be a part of the conversation.

You play Cedric Hobbs' mother. How much did you connect to that character as a single mom yourself?
My son is 18, so he has his moments just as any other kid but going through something like [seeing your son arrested for a crime he didn't commit], I really tried to put myself in that frame of mind, as hard as it was, to try to see what that would feel like. I remember having those kinds of conversations when the Travyon Martin case happened and to this day as injustices continue to happen, so to have that opportunity to play that concerned mother and to really be grounded in that was hard in one sense, but I feel like I take roles that prepare me for whatever may happen in my life so I'm really appreciative of it.

From House of Payne to Saints and Sinners, you've established yourself as an actress, but singing is your first love. How exactly did acting become the focus point for you?
Music has always been the forefront, but acting came in when God said so. I participated in plays as part of the program I had to do to get my scholarship for vocals, and I realized I kind of like this. I get to pretend and be silly and get paid for it? Let's go. But then when I realized the way it can change my life and the way characters like Janine came and changed other people's lives and the conversations it sparks, that's when I became a fan.

We see a lot of singers transition into acting, but we don't always see it the other way around. What challenges have you run into trying to show people that you sing too?
It's weird for me because even though singing is my first love, acting is what people know me for so any time you're trying to climb out of that box that people have put you in, you have so many people trying to close that flap as you try to make a move, but that's who I am at the core. I think reestablishing myself is the hardest part, but that's also the most fun. I have no problem proving who I am, what I want to do, what I want to be. And, I love being an inspiration to anybody of any age to go for what they want. Being an example to my son, I want to show him your dream is one thing but have a fall back plan and a means to sustain your life as well.

When did you decide that you wanted to put more attention on music?
It's always been that way. It's always been there. The only problem has been any time something would start off with the music, something with acting would take precedence because it paid the bills and it was what I was known for. I was on tour with R. Kelly. I got a chance to go out with Love Jones [The Musical], but in the midst of that, I was still doing The Quad. I was still doing Saints and Sinners. We came back with The Paynes. Necessary Roughness. All of those things were happening all at the same time. It's a great problem to have, but it definitely held the dream back a little bit more. Now, I feel the dream has an opportunity to live because the check—hallelujah—is pretty well established, and it can run itself. I put enough in the can to really be able to go on the promo tours and make myself available as an artist.

When you signed onto Real Housewives of Atlanta, you made it clear that you were there to promote your singing career and around that time, you also signed with eOne Music. How did that record deal come together?
Getting on Real Housewives of Atlanta was a conscious decision to go in there as myself, for myself and to leave as myself. I think that machine has a way of turning people into caricatures of the worst parts of them so I went in with my mentality set on music. Going to San Juan and performing "100" and seeing the response that got and even when I made my little moment in the next season with Kandi [Burruss] talking about "Unnecessary Trouble," that drew attention. Whether you want to like it or not, everybody looks at a train wreck. You can't help it. Whenever there's a car crash, you got rubbernecking, and that's what Real Housewives is but instead of making it a wreck, I'm going to make sure you're over here looking at this concert going on. I'm gonna keep my class, keep my cute, and slay on them without having to shade them. eOne took notice of that. I sent my music through my management and within a month, I was signed so that was a really exciting opportunity to get closer to the dream.

Your album Officially Yours has been in the works for a few years, and it actually started out as an EP. How has it evolved since you started?
RTD Entertainment was really the foundation of me even considering doing an EP. The music industry has changed so much from when I was just listening to Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle. You could just get up, get a great deal and just stand there and sing. Now, you have Beyoncé, J. Lo, Rihanna and there's so much competition so even just trying to get the EP out took a true belief from a true company and a true investment. That went on for like six or seven years before eOne ever came into play. Once they did, that's when it transitioned to a full LP. I felt all my hair straighten out. I was like, "Where am I going to get this music from? How quickly can I get it done?" And the biggest part of it was as I was taking these roles, as I was growing as a single mom, as I was working as a woman, I was evolving, which meant my music was evolving. It's called Officially Yours because it is the most naked I can be musically and if I'm not really expressing who I am at that moment, then it's not worth it. I know it took a minute, but I feel like now I actually have the truth of who I am ready for everybody to get.

As you alluded to, you're not playing a character on this project, so what's something you hope people learn about you through your music?
Own you. Whatever place you're at. If you're vulnerable, own it. You're in love? Own it. You hate that n***a? Own it. Whatever space you're at, own it because if you don't recognize it in yourself, you can't celebrate it and you can't defeat it. I talk about sex. I talk about love. I talk about hurt and evolution. Whatever level you're at, celebrate you and move towards the next.

I sensed that theme of empowerment running through "Easy." Tell us about the inspiration behind your lead single.
I'm newly single. As women, we attract guys on a pretty regular basis. Now, attracting the right guy ain't easy for us, and we shouldn't make it easy for them. We're in a place where thots are celebrated. Cheaters are celebrated. Sleeping around for a bag, a shoe and a car? That's celebrated. That ain't me. What you pay for is what you get and if you invest by way of love, honesty, trust and a true commitment, then you get so many more perks than you will just getting me a shoe, a bag or a purse. That's what "Easy" came as. I just really wanted to flex for the women who are really about something and prove that that's what you need to be looking for, not that thing over there that's handing it out like it's Christmas.

There are really no bounds on R&B right now. How would you describe your sound and what you're adding to this current landscape?
I think I'm getting back to the soul of it. I love each lane that R&B possesses, but I think that a lot of the heart has been diminished because we're trying to keep up with the trend. We're trying to do the crossover. We're trying to have the rap, and all of that is great, but if people get back to where they actually feel the music and it's something that's so relatable you can't help it—I think that was the most honoring thing about "Easy," to hear people say, "That's the new women's anthem." It's just a really cool space that we're in now where R&B has a chance to get its pulse back.

And Whitney Houston is your biggest influence. What does she mean to you, especially now that you're pursuing your career as an artist?
The very first time I heard that beautiful noise that Whitney Houston made, I knew I wanted to [sing] too. She expressed things that even at that age, I didn't know how to say or what it meant or how it felt. There were some really dark parts in my life. I've been molested, I've been homeless, I became a single mom at a young age, so there were a lot of down moments and music, especially her music, got me through. That was my soundtrack, honey. When she passed, I started doing tributes to her. It wasn't to monetize. It wasn't to do any of that, other than to say, "Thank you for saving me." Her music literally got me through so in my pursuit of my dream, I'm hoping I help somebody and I think that's why "Easy" has struck me the way that it has. When you're in the studio, you don't know what that music is going to do. I'm sure Whitney didn't know just how much she touched people because that was just what she did, but that's what we all needed.

You have a lot on your plate right now. What's next for Demetria McKinney?
Saints and Sinners is doing some amazing numbers on Bounce TV. We've attracted so many more viewers. Reality television is great but when you get back to the craft of acting, there is something to be said for that, and Saints and Sinners is showing that people are down for the drama that is not going to hurt anybody so that's been really exciting. Tamara is going through a lot. The cool thing is this show has lifted me as an actress as well because now I'm performing stunts and there are just so many more different things coming up in this season that you guys aren't ready for.

The album, Officially Yours, is coming out in the next couple of months. It's finally here. I've been pregnant with it for like two years so that baby better be cute. I'm really excited about that and getting out and performing and just showing who I am as an artist. BET is already looking at bringing back another season of The Quad. The Paynes has come back. [Tyler] Perry heard the cries over it and finally gave in so the crew is back, and we have some new things added to the show to spice it up a little bit. I'm team natural, representing Dark and Lovely's Au Naturale line. Got them curls popping like no other. They've been in our homes for 45 years and to be affiliated with a brand for us is beautiful. And I have my lipgloss line, Demetria McKinney Cosmetics. We have some new colors coming out, a brand new palette so you can have a little bit of everything to choose from. It's going to be really cute.

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P Diddy promotes his new Diddy Dirty Money single 'Coming Home' and his headphones DiddyBeats at HMV, Oxford Street on January 20, 2011 in London, England.
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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.


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