R&B Singer Monifah Carter Talks About Her Journey as a Lesbian in the Music Industry
R&B singer Monifah Carter rose to prominence in the 1990s working with Heavy D. Nearly two decades later, she is still writing, producing, and singing, and she's also starring in TV One's top-rated reality series, R&B Divas. The show's first episode reached almost a million viewers, a record for the network. This season Monifah is reconnecting with her 22-year-old daughter, Akemi, who has been vocal in the disapproval of her mother's two-year relationship with her partner, Terez.
Monifah chatted with The Advocate about her life, the show, being a role model for black lesbians, and her advocacy for HIV awareness.
The Advocate: It's so good to talk to you. I've been a huge fan of yours for a while, and a big reason for that is because you've been so vocal about your drug addiction, and I really respect that.
Monifah Carter: Thank you.
LGBT people have some of the highest rates of depression and substance abuse. Do you think any of that factored into your issues?
No, actually that was probably the least of them. It was more based in the things I had gone through as a child. I had a lot of deaths of people close to me. My sexuality wasn't a big issue for me. There are a lot of gay people in my family, so the ice was broken. My brother, God rest his soul, whom I was very close to and helped raised me, he was 12 years older than me, his name was Kevin Carter. He was a gay man, and I felt like, whatever, it was so prevalent on my mind that it wasn't a huge deal for me exploring my feelings for women. I didn't feel frightful in that area, any resistance, I didn't experience any of that. That definitely wasn't the cause.
You haven't made your same-sex relationships a secret. When was your first one?
Exploring my affinity towards women, actually it's so funny. Terez and I laugh because we have this running joke. We're like, "Oh! Now I understand why I liked Kristy McNichol!" You know? I didn't understand what it was. It wasn't anything sexual. I just thought they were cool. There's so many people, retrospectively, it's like wow! It's a big joke. I had a bad relationship with this older guy who was real controlling. After that I thought, I'm going to the girls' club, I'm going to meet a woman, I'm going to date a woman. I'm going to find a woman. I just made a conscious decision.
That happens a lot — why do you think that is?
I don't know! [Laughs] I mean, I really don't know. It wasn't like I hated men or anything. I just thought I'm going to give that a break, because I've never experienced a realtionship with a woman, and I was curious. I thought it would be a good way to give the guys a break. I was going to live my life, I was just going to be me.
You never really made it public until R&B Divas started airing. What was the fan reaction? Did anything surprise you?
The only surprise is how much support I got. In the industry all these years, it wasn't a secret. It just wasn't. It wasn't something that I put out in interviews. It was a different time. There wasn't much social media, the digital age wasn't so "full force" yet. It's a whole different platform of publicity and how artists are normalized in a sense, where people are supportive and their fan base can reach out to them and stuff like that. At the end of the day, what is the most real thing is that I'm in a relationship and in a reality show. Why wouldn't I share one of the happiest areas in my life? Why can't I and why wouldn't I? It wasn't a big deal. We need to get over ourselves. Especially as a black woman, it's a double-edged sword being a black woman in a same-sex relationship because it's so taboo in our community, I just thought it was high time. I mean, come on!
It's funny you mentioned social media, because when you first became well-known in the '90s, it didn't exist. How do you think the media would have reacted at that time — before Ellen and Will & Grace — to a black lesbian R&B star? Would your trajectory have been different?
It would have been way different. It probably would have been way stifled. It probably wouldn't have gone the way it went [laughs]. Honestly. Everything comes in time progression. Things change. I think, even though I lived my life out loud, that's not something I could come out and say. There were a lot of people attached to my career who were very afraid of what it would do. So I couldn't, I just didn't. I made that choice. It wasn't something I felt that I had to come out and say, because it wasn't the time. It would have been very different I believe.
You've always been ahead of your time. Your single I Can Tell seemed to have an innuendo about being in the closet. Did anyone react to that when it came out?
Yes, actually another funny thing is I codirected and wrote the treatment. I came up with the conecept for the video. I wrote that treatment and codirected it with Sanaa Hamri, who was a very well-known female video director at the time. I was keeping it real, because in my social life, I'm in places where I'm looking at guys and it's like, "Oh, my God! People in his family don't know that he's gay!" I knew he was living a double life and I knew people that were. Because my brother was sick at the time, I was understanding the effects of people not walking in their truth about their sexuality, and it was killing us! Especially women. Not disclosing it to their female partners, it was killing us. We were completely "dun-dun-dun" not knowing and not believing that this shit was going down. I felt like it was my call to action that I had to say something and make people think a little bit. Not to bash men, but this is real. It's a real thing. And we had to protect ourselves and open the dialogue. It's not a big deal! That was my small way of expressing that, and they wouldn't even play the end of that video where there's a guy in bed [with another man]. They think it's me the whole time, but it's another man. They wouldn't play that video on BET, but they played Dru Hill's In My Bed and two women were actually lying in the bed making love. It's such a double standard, it's so crazy. I get it, but I'm just not that silent. I don't go for that easily.
This season in the show, it's starting to show the relationship with your daughter, Akemi. She doesn't approve of your relationship with Terez. Why is that?
It's her religious belief. She is only 22, and she doen't know shit yet. When I say that, I'm not disrespecting what she believes, because I respect what she believes in. It's helped her in her walk and what she's gone through in her life thus far. But she has not had any world experience, and I think that we have a lot of convictions at 20. I had a lot of convictions at 20 that I don't have [now]. I laugh at my young self and say, "You're an idiot." Life teaches you and shows you differently. Life is not this bubbly. She's a college kid whose life is still safe. She's still protected and living in this sort of bubble. She has the luxury of these convictions. And I also wanted to show [in the program] that love and respect are the greatest tools and the greatest things that we need to possess to get along and be more than tolerant of each other in our differences. I wanted to show that in my home, what we're going through on a broad scale in the world with same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and its place in society is that we're dealing with this thing — this elephant in the room — that we're addressing. We're moving through with love and respect. She doesn't have to agree or believe the same thing I believe, but at the end of the day I'm her mother, I love her, and she loves.me. I respect her, she respects me. And we respect each other's perimeters and we have dialogue and talk. We're open with each other and honest with each other. There's a way to do it. There's a way to believe in something different and respect each other's positions.
Has she always been this way with your relationships? Because you've been out a while.
No! It wasn't when she was younger, you know. Her walk in her faith is about four or five years old. You've got to understand, she's a baby. Everything is by the book, she hasn't experienced things that are going to challenge what she believes right now — and I have. I have to respect that. I have to be patient. I'm the elder. I get it. It's just what I have to do.
It's really great to watch the dynamic between you two. You guys have such patience with each other, and although you disagree, you both understand that you're mother and daughter and you love each other. It's great to watch.
We don't believe that God wants our family broken. She'll get it. I'm not saying that she has to change. You just never know. She has a lot of life to live.
It's funny that your daughter doesn't approve of your relationships; I wonder how your mother feels. Your brother was gay and he died of AIDS. My sister is gay as well, so I know what it's like. How did your mother react to you both being gay?
She was just like "OK!" [Laughs] I was 22 or 23 when I met my first girlfriend, and I was just head over heels. I lived my life, we were holding hands. She was like "Oh. God." It wasn't a big deal, it just was what it was.
You've definitely used your celebrity to promote awareness of HIV. What would be your message, particularly to the young black population? What can society do to change the trajectory of this disease?
I think the judgmental dialogue should cease. The dialogue has to be more honest, and we have to get our own way about what we believe and deal with what is actually going on and meet these children where they are and stop being so sensitive. Shit is happening, so let's deal with the issue! You know what I mean? It's happening! We have to address it, we have to meet these kids where they are and let them know that we have their back. We have to stop pointing the finger and help them navigate this thing. Give them the tools to love themselves and make better choices.
Nicci [Gilbert] is getting a lot of haters on social media because of her fight on the last episode. You've been the neutral and wise soul out of all of them. What goes through your head whenever you see these fights happen?
First of all, I'm thankful ... I'm thankful for the awareness of self and the work I've done on myself. I'm thankful for emotional intelligence. To me that's the factor. I'm not saying that I'm better than, I'm just saying I'm better off. I've done a lot of work and it was very hard. A lot of fucking tears, man, a lot of pain. Looking at things and having to work through, and I'm still actively working through. We never arrive anywhere. That's a daily process. But I'll be damned if I'm not going to be my best self and live my best life so I can square my shoulders and make them strong for the next crew that's coming up behind me. It's not about me, I don't look at it like it's all about me. It helps me to move out of the way. When I look at the episodes — because we see them with everyone else — it's just disheartening for the most part. It seems like the so-called [black woman] myths, we're kind of making them look like they're true. [Like] we can't work together. It looks like black women are angry. It's disheartening. I know that it's not what I am capable of, what we're all capable of. I think if we got out of our own way and were a little less selfish and self-absorbed, it would probably be a lot better than it is right now.
So the drama is real on the show, it's not just produced?
Oh, hell no. It is absolutely real.
I have to say, I don't know how much of it is purposely perpetuated either. People have objectives, people have agendas. So you never know. But it is real. It is real tension. Perpetuated on purpose or not.
It's getting real high ratings. It's definitely becoming your comeback. What's it like now? Have the fans followed you all these years, and are you getting new fans now?
It's giving me an understanding of the younger generation, which falls in line with what I think my calling is, which is meeting the kids where they're at, keeping it "gangsta," and getting the message to them about love of self, doing your work, and making better choices. This, to me, are the spider veins into HIV awareness and all these things. I call it my "second 15." I was like, no one gets a "second 15." I'm going to make the best out of my second 15 minutes. I have my new music coming, and that's definitely going to be a tool to push the social agenda I have. So I think it's great and I'm not going to waste it. I'm not focusing on anything but what's ahead of me. All the foolishness I don't give my energy to. You can see [on the show] I'm quiet. I don't have anything constructive to say.
I don't believe that for a second.
[Laughs] No, honestly. I'm fun and funny, but I don't actively sign up for bullshit. I try not to.
I read somewhere that your first show was an off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and you played Hermia. Tell me about that.
Yeah! I was 9 or 10, and I was in Monica May's Children's Acting Company here in New York. I've been doing this professionally since I was 7 years old. I was part of the production of Midsummer. I played Hermia and it was amazing. I'm not just a recording artist, not just an R&B singer, I'm so thankful for my mom in culturing me and showing me that there was more than the four corners of the street we lived on. I think that has a lot to do with who I am as an adult as well. I have a broad appreciation for a lot of things and was exposed to things. My skin is tough and I am a lot more accepting. I get it, I think I'm more accepting than a lot of my counterparts. I've been doing it a long time, man! [Laughs]
You have. You certainly are well-rounded, everyone can see that by the longevity of your career.
Did living in Spanish Harlem affect your artistic ventures?
I think it's in more of my personality, but it's absolutely in my music also. It's in my blood. There was so much "Uh!" growing up. We had to be in the house before the street lamps came on. We were raised by the neighborhood. You know, if Mrs. Brown saw you doing something crazy, you're going to get spanked and then go get spanked by your mama. I was raised by a village. And I think that's one thing that children are missing, and what separates them from my generation which is the last of the Mohicans, really, before we started getting scared of each other. You know, I was raised with that old-school sensibility a little bit. So I'm a little old-school with a little new-school, and I really appreciate my sensibilities. So yes, it absolutely does translate into my art, my writing, and who I am as an artist.
I just have one more question. You had mentioned that you were 9 when you started at Monica May's. The age of 9 was a big year in your life. Your parents got divorced and your dad died of an overdose. Do you think those traumatic events led you to music?
I come from a musical family. My mother says I've been singing since I was 2. [Laughs] She sang and loved music and exposed me to all kinds of music. I think that God led me. It was divinely ordered. I'm walking exactly in the path that I am supposed to be of use.
This has been a lot of fun, thank you so much. Good luck with the show. It looks like this season is going to be the biggest one yet.
I think so! [Laughs]
R&B Divas airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m./9 p.m. Central on TV One.