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Often Imitated, Never

Often Imitated, Never


The only white artist who has been thoroughly embraced by the black audience, long before Christina Aguilera and the slew of girls to follow, Teena Marie has dominated blue-eyed soul.

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 about overly masculine R&B, gay fans, Rick James, and more. 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.

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.

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.

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