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.