Stephanie Mills is a Brooklyn-born and bred New Yorker, but the internationally famous singer has called Charlotte’s north side home for the past 30 years.
“I have family from Marshville, and my father’s family is from Albemarle, so I have tons of cousins living in Matthews and a lot of family here,” she explains. “There’s so much about the city I really liked. It’s just beautiful here. There are so many trees and places that are so quiet.
“I travel a lot,” she continues, “and I enjoy that. But I always enjoy coming back home even more.”
Mills’ career spans over five decades. She shot to fame in the lead role of Dorothy in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz,” which ran for over 1,300 performances before closing in 1979.
Out of that show came the song “Home,” which has long since become the singer-songwriter’s signature song.
But Mills didn’t stop there. “The little girl with the giant voice,” as she was often described back in the day, went on to a multi-album Grammy-winning career that included a string of hit songs like “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’,” “Sweet Sensation,” “Never Knew Love Like This Before” and “I Feel Good All Over,” among others.
But then, Stephanie Mills walked away. 17 years ago she decided she wasn’t interested in studio recording anymore. Now she’s back with a new single called “Let’s Do the Right Thing.”
Tell me about “Let’s Do The Right Thing.”
Actually, a friend of mine, Charles Randolph-Wright, called me. He’s a brilliant musical director and he wanted me to do a song for a show that he was sitting on for some network. It didn’t quite work out for me, so with my writing partner Marcus Malone I wrote another verse for the song, and made it more urban for me, because I wanted to talk about what’s been going on. As a country we’ve been traumatized with what’s been going on with the pandemic and everything else. I wanted to write something for us because I just felt like we needed to do the right thing, for us.
We felt like now was not the right time for me to come out with a dance song because of what’s going on in the world. I couldn’t avoid addressing the issues. I think that some of the material that’s coming out now, it has to address what’s going on in the world, unless you’re living under a rock.
When you say the country’s been traumatized, which aspects of the disaster are you referring to?
All of it. [Laughs] It’s hard to believe that we had a reality TV star as a president, and he wasn’t presidential in any way. I don’t know why anyone would have wanted to have him as president! But that does tell us something about the 75 million people who still want him to be president. It’s been insane, the things that we’ve seen on television. All the deaths of so many young Black men, the pandemic, Trump, what happened on Jan. 6 and Trump saying the election was stolen from him. That is such nonsense. The Republicans [are] weak and spineless. They sew hate and discord. We have some spineless, spineless people in our government. But the one thing this did let us know is how racist our country still is, and it showed us how to protect ourselves.
I understand you’re going back into the studio. What’s next?
My next song is called “We Must Change.” It’s coming out in August on the anniversary of the March on Washington. I talk about transgender people, and I talk about loving each other. No one can judge another. You know, I had people tell me I should take that part of the song out, and I said absolutely not. Transgender people are getting killed every day. That has to be recognized. They are who they are. And I believe that people should be whom they are. Love is love no matter who it is. The song talks about that, too. I’m doing eight or nine songs. Four or five are uptempo dance songs, there’s a love song, and I’m doing one cover, a remake of a song.
I was told you are always receptive to speaking with LGBTQ press, and you were enthusiastic about talking to qnotes. That’s good to hear.
When Amp (Mills’ manager) asked me if I would interview with you, I said absolutely. I come from theater. I’ve been in theater all my life, so I’ve always been surrounded by lots of gay people. Most of my best friends are gay people. My whole life I’ve been around gay and lesbian men and women and transgender women and men. Seriously, most of my friends are male and most of them are gay.
What do you think turned the tide in favor of LGBTQ rights? Especially on issues like marriage equality?
I think President Obama gave the issue respect. I think he made people realize the gay community deserves the same rights. And I have to say this, those rights should be there. When you look at how gay and lesbian couples take care of their children, they do an amazing job and you never hear stories about abuse, like you do from some of these crazy heterosexual couples who rape and kill and abandon their children! I have a tremendous amount of respect for gay and lesbian parents. They seem to have a lot more respect for themselves than heterosexual people.
Are there many LGBTQ people in your personal life?
Seriously, most of my friends are male and most of them are gay. The friendship that we share is an unconditional love. It truly is. There’s a loyalty and a trust there. I accept them the way they are and I love them unconditionally. We’ve had so much fun together. My gay friends have taken me to clubs, and even to some gay strip clubs [laughs].
Did you know “I Never Knew Love” was going to be used on “Pose?”
No, I didn’t know that was going to happen! They did such an amazing job and I was so impressed. It was great, so when it happened, I put it on my [Twitter] page. I know Billy Porter [Pray Tell in the series] from Broadway. We were Broadway babies together.
So why the absence from the recording studio for so many years?
Oh my god! I vowed I would never return to the music studio. I didn’t think I was going to be able to find a producer who could do it live. And I didn’t want to just go into a studio that did beats. I had done that. But to me it just wasn’t right, so I was like, nah. I did not want to work with a producer who I didn’t think understood how to work with the singer, so for many years I was just done with the recording thing. I enjoyed performing and I did a lot of touring. I also tried writing. Writing music is a real personal thing, and you have to work with someone that really gets you. I really found that in Marcus. I’m happy I found someone to work with who knows what he wants to do. It’s inspired me to go back into the studio and actually enjoy it.
I read in an earlier interview that for some of your upcoming material, you’re going to be recording somewhere particularly special and historic.
Oh yeah. The next four songs that we’re recording we’re going to do in Memphis and I’m going to record at the same studio that Al Green used [Royal Studios]. The guy that ran it back then was Al Green’s partner, and he is still the owner of the studio. I love going into a studio like that. My singers will sing live, and we won’t use tape vocals for backup or anything like that.
I know you’re a woman of faith. Has that posed any challenges? I mean, you seem to embrace the gay community.
How can we judge you or tell you who to love when the preacher is fucking everything in the church? How can we? When you get to be 64 you don’t give a fuck. You can’t say God doesn’t love somebody because they are gay. God loves everybody, and he judges the heart. People [that] say you’re going to hell, they’re going to hell! You just can’t be judging like that. Love is love. They cannot throw stones at the gay community. I’m not with it. You guys are open and honest and living your truth, and I think so many people are afraid to live their truth.
Not too long ago, I was in the airport, I was going to New York and I saw a beautiful transgender woman totally strutting through the airport. I thought to myself, it takes a lot of courage to do that. So I just walked up to her, ‘cause I just had to tell her, and I said, “You are absolutely beautiful.” And she was. She had this tough attitude like, “fuck you, I am who I am and if you don’t like it, too bad.”
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