Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

By Clay Cane

Originally published on Advocate.com May 21 2009 12:00 AM ET

Teena Marie is an
anomaly in R&B music. She is the only white artist who has
been thoroughly embraced by the black audience. Along
with Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield, Teena is the
originator of blue-eyed soul -- years before Christina Aguilera
and the slew of girls to follow.

"I've always been
a very Afrocentric person," Marie says. "I
think that it's beautiful that there has been no other
female like me. I think it's really awesome to walk out
onstage at the Essence Music Festival and sing for 80,000 black
people. They don't care what color my skin is."

But it wasn't
always that way. In 1979, when Marie's first album was
released on Motown, it included no images of the California
native. Motown head Berry Gordy thought black audiences
wouldn't embrace a white woman singing R&B.

Thirty years later,
she's of course proved Gordy wrong. With her latest R&B
album,
Congo Square,

due June 9, the R&B songstress talks to Advocate.com about
overly masculine R&B, gay fans, Rick James, and more.

Advocate.com:

This year marks 30 years in the music industry. In the
beginning did you think,
I'm going to be an R&B legend and last for 30
years!

Was that your plan?Teena Marie:

[
Laughs

] No, I don't think I ever thought about it like that. I
was just having fun. I knew that God gave me a powerful gift,
though. That I did know.

The name of your new album is
Congo Square,

which is a place where slaves would dance and sing. Is that
correct?

Congo Square is in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Back in
slavery times, the slaves were allowed to dance and sing on
Sundays. I was thinking how powerful that music must've
been. I got to thinking about all the music that came after
that -- the whole jazz era and Louis Armstrong being the father
of jazz. People like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, all
these amazing artists that came through New Orleans. Not just
the jazz artists, but the folksingers that are on the corner
... it's just a very mystical place. I've always felt
really tied to it so I thought it would be awesome if it would
be our address. Once I finished the album, my cousin came down
here from Portland and actually found out that my ancestors are
from there. I never knew that. It was very mystical, I always
felt like it was my second home. I could've found this out
20 years ago, but I found it out right now as I finished an
album called
Congo Square.

You were, of course, on the legendary Motown label. What is
your relationship like now with Mr. Berry Gordy?

Mr. Gordy is still like my mentor -- we are very
close. I just saw him recently; he comes to all my shows.
It's like a family relationship. Once you are part of the
Motown family, you always are. He's amazing; it's been
a wonderful ride with him. Watching him in the studio, working
with him in the studio -- I really don't think anyone ever
understood me like he did. We are very close.

TEENA MARIE 02 X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

You are known to be one of the few white artists to be
embraced by black audiences. Were you embraced immediately, or
did it take some time for black audiences to warm up to
you?

It was immediately ... it was actually even before the records
came out. I lived in a neighborhood that was very mixed. Even
before I had records out I had a following -- all the black
girls at school used to have me sing all the different songs of
the day. I never really felt those racial pangs. I mean,
I've had isolated incidents, but it's always been
beautiful.

You are also loved by the gay and lesbian community. When
did you first realize you had a gay following?

I'm just happy that I have any following! [
Laughs

] I don't think I necessarily think about which following
or that following. It's really obvious to me when people
come up to me that they just love the music. Gay people love to
dance, sing -- they're just like everybody else as far as
emotions.

You've been an artist who has been able to transcend
race in R&B. Do you think there will ever be a time in
R&B where an artist could transcend being gay or
bisexual?

I hope so. I really don't know because I think that's a
personal question to each individual person that loves or
dislikes people. It's really hard to answer that. I can
only answer it for myself, and I just love people. I love
people that love me.

Back in your era there was a lot of room for R&B artists
to be more androgynous, like Prince and Rick James. Now that
seems to have died, and most of the R&B artists are overly
masculine. Why do you think that androgyny period is gone in
R&B?

Back in the day, people were more focused on entertainment. You
don't see as many great entertainers now as you did back
then. Everybody wanted to be an individual and do their own
exciting thing. You just don't see that as much
anymore.

What are your thoughts on gay marriage?

I think that everyone should have the right to make their own
choices about what they want to do. I think they should have
complete rights like anyone else.

TEENA MARIE 03 X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

I'm not sure how true this is, but I heard that you said
on the radio you had a same-sex experience?

Umm... yes. [
Laughs

]

You were obviously very close to the late, great Rick James.
What do you think of the Dave Chappelle skits on him?

It was very funny -- Rick loved it. So, if he loved
it, I love it. The statement that was made was not what Rick
said, it was never "I'm Rick James B." Rick used to
always say, "I'm Rick MF James!" That's what
he would say. So the whole "Rick James B" thing was a
made-up Dave Chappelle thing.

When you get to heaven, what is the DJ playing?

I'm sure it's Aretha Franklin. I'm sure it's
something off the
Amazing Grace

album. Probably, Aretha Franklin "Wholy Holy." I hope
when Rick James went to heaven they played Aretha Franklin
"Wholy Holy" too. He loved her as much as I did. I have a
lot of beautiful moments riding around with him in his Rolls,
me and him just playing Aretha all day.