by Associate Editor Michael P. Coleman
If you doubt the significance of genetics, consider singer-songwriter Rhonda Ross. In introducing her, it’s hard not to mention her lineage: she’s the only child of entertainment legends Diana Ross and Berry Gordy, and the eldest sister of actors Tracie Ellis Ross (“Girlfriends”) and Evan Ross. However, that statement just barely scratches the surface, as this wife and mother is also a Emmy-nominated actress, a Brown University alumna, a savvy, ambitious businessperson who just took over for her former Musical Director (“I can do this myself!”, she told me), and one of the most thoughtful, engaging conversationalists I’ve had the pleasure of talking with in years.
The neo-soul jazz stylist is scheduled to perform two energetic shows of jazz and R & B favorites as well as some of her original material at Vitello’s Jazz Club (www.vitellosjazz.com) in Los Angeles Saturday, January 25. THE HUB sat down with her recently, and I was surprised by Ross’ candor and thoughtfulness. She talked about her identify as an artist, why she didn’t lean on her mom and dad to help her launch her career, what it’s like to transition from the child of a celebrity into what she calls her “fabulous” 40s, some of the challenges she and her husband of 14 years face in raising their son (who speaks four languages!), and her journey to self acceptance and love.
HUB: First, allow me to congratulate you on your performance at the Hollywood Bowl last summer! It was AMAZING!
ROSS: Thank you! I have to say that that show was a big turning point for me, not just because of the Bowl and its size and stature, but something shifted in me musically that night.
HUB: Up until then, you’d performed mostly in small clubs. You didn’t appear to have any trouble connecting with the audience at the Hollywood Bowl, which was somewhat surprising given the size of the venue. How did you do that?
ROSS: To be really frank with you, it surprised me too! (Laughs) I’d never played to 18,000 people! But I’ll tell you what…I feel like my desire to connect with each individual in the audience in a more intimate setting allowed me to really very easily do that in that huge setting. But it caught me by surprise, too! I expected to be able to do my show, but I didn’t expect to feel the connection on that huge stage. My music really is a conversation, and I catch and lock eyes with people in the audience. Ten days after I performed there, I was a guest at my mother’s show with an audience of about 7,000, and it was the same exact experience. It was really remarkable. I thank God that I cut my teeth in smaller, more intimate arenas because I think it gave me an opportunity to understand what connection is. Once you know what connection is, you can connect any time, anywhere, with anyone.
HUB: In the past, you’ve described your music as “song telling”. Describe your music today for someone who’s not yet familiar with Rhonda Ross.
ROSS: I’d say my music has transformed quite a bit over the last several years. I’ve been “song telling” for awhile. It’s kind of a mixture of jazz and spoken word. That’s more of what you’ll hear on my first album, the live album. Someone recently called me a “neo soul jazz stylist”, and I said “Yes, I am!” (laughs). I’d add that I bring a touch of gospel to the mix. My audience comes from all different types of backgrounds and cultures and religions and beliefs and perspectives, and that’s important to me because my life reflects that as well. But I love that my music has an inspirational and slight gospel bent to it. And I love watching people from all different walks of life celebrate life and God and the god in themselves.
HUB: I’ve always thought there were a lot of connections between God and gospel music & the art of other artists who weren’t labeled “gospel” artists…
ROSS: You know, God is BIG. We’re so busy trying to make Him small and fit Him into some category that we’ve created, but God is big and broad and expansive, and we all can fit into His love and optimism and inspiration. My song “It Don’t Matter” is exactly about that — no matter where you think you come from, no matter what you think your excuses are, whatever you think disqualifies you from the love of God and from the responsibility to improve this world, none of those excuses matter. I’m not telling you what you need to call God. God can be any name that works for you. God is big enough to embrace all of us.
HUB: PREACH, Rhonda! Sacramento’s been called one of the most diverse cities in the country — I’m going to try to convince you to bring your message here!
ROSS: (Laughs) Wow — I don’t know Sacramento yet. Convince me! I’m convincible on that!
HUB: I know jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln is one of your inspirations, and I can hear her in your music. Who are some of your other vocal and musical influences?
ROSS: Well, first of all my mother is first and foremost, because I was hearing her voice in the womb, and like any daughter of any mother, there’s so much that I get from her just through my DNA and from having been raised by her. There’s a lot of her music and her approach to music in what I do — the straight forwardness of her delivery, her stage presence. A lot of what I do I got directly from her, from watching her. So she’s number one. [Jazz vocalist] Abbey Lincoln would be number two. And now I’m finding a funk / R & B space that I’m really enjoying! When I did the first album, the live album I was much more strict with myself. But I’ve noticed since being in my 40s…these 40s are fantastic! (Laughs) These 40s allow you to be free! You know who you are, and you get to spread your wings and fly this way and that way…so I’ve been listening to Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle and Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. I grew up on Prince and I’ve been listening to him again, and Earth Wind & Fire and some of this funkier, bass-driven music, and it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve just added horns and some church goin’ gospel folks for background singers to my show, and this mix of mine is really coming together. My ears are open to all of it right now.
HUB: I’ve seen a clip of you performing Stevie Wonder’s “As”, and you were amazing.
ROSS: Oh, thank you! I JUST added that to my show, and I’m so enjoying that unbelievable song. We were just talking about God being expansive and loving all of us, and for me that song is about God’s heart speaking to us: “I will love you for always.” There’s no ending to His love. Most of the songs I perform are my originals, but I leave a space for maybe three or four covers that I change up as we go along. “As” is probably one of those songs that doesn’t get replaced too easily.
HUB: I’d like to suggest another of Stevie’s songs if you’re feeling his vibe. Given the timbre of your voice, you’d do an incredible job with “Ribbon In The Sky”.
ROSS: Isn’t that funny? That one came up on my Pandora just yesterday! I’ll look to that again.
HUB: I want to congratulate you for not leaning on your mom or dad to launch your career. We’ve all seen artists debut with company bios that trot out every celebrity that the singer is allegedly connected to. For you, it would have been so very easy to lead with “the daughter of Diana Ross and Berry Gordy.” Congratulations.
ROSS: I appreciate that…but…the reason I didn’t do that is it doesn’t work! (Laughs). I can remember being in my early 20s and I was talking to someone, a producer or publicist, I don’t remember…I was singing professionally, and he asked me who I liked. I told him Whitney Houston, and he told me to take her or whoever else I liked and groom myself as an artist like that person, and he offered to “create” me. I clearly didn’t move forward with that. But that process, that conversation put me on the road to finding myself. My mother taught me and my siblings that we were worthy human beings despite who our parents were. Not BECAUSE of who they were, but DESPITE who they were. And we believed her! We went about creating our lives as people who were on a journey to figure out who we were. And all five of us were able to live our lives independently. Fame and money didn’t make us any more valuable to ourselves than anyone else. What the press or society deems as beautiful or not beautiful didn’t define us. My mother gave me the ability, the time, the space to know who I am — for real. This is not for Instagram, it’s real. It wouldn’t have dawned on any of the five of us to jump on her coattails in that way.
HUB: Whenever someone compliments me as a father, I always cut them off and say only my kids get to evaluate me as a father. So when I hear you and your siblings talk about what an incredible mom your mother was and is, it always moves me. For everything that your mother was and is as a singer and performer, she was an even better mother, according to you.
ROSS: She really was! It baffles my brain, because she had this extraordinary career at the time. This was the 70s and 80s, right? There was no career bigger! And at THAT point, she was being the most hands on, the most down to earth, the most regular mother. Now she had help…there were nannies and cooks and all that stuff, but nobody trumped her. SHE was our mother. I know people who had celebrity parents and they grew up closer to their nannies than their mothers. That was NEVER the case with us. She woke us up in the morning, she’d charter planes back home after her shows so she could be there with us in the morning. None of us feel she disregarded us for her career, and none of us feel we were disregarded for any of the other four! That’s remarkable in itself — she has five children! To this day, the five of us are extremely close with each other and with her. She and I speak many times a week. I always know where she is. I have never in 42 years felt or heard her say “I’m too busy.” I called her the other day on her cell, and asked if she was in the middle of something. She said “No, just going onstage. Everything ok?” I said “No, no! We’ll talk later! Have a good show! (Laughs) She’s taking a call literally minutes before going on stage from her 42 year old daughter — not a toddler or a small child! This is who she is. She’s been like that from jump, and to this day. I appreciate it even more now that I’m a mother! Now I REALLY don’t know how she did it! (Laughs) My career is a drop in the bucket compared to what hers was and is, and she had FIVE kids and I’ve got one! I’m doing everything I can to try to balance everything, and it’s no easy task.
HUB: Your four year old son, Raif, speaks four languages. Can you talk about your decision to expose him to different languages at such a young age, and how you’re doing it?
ROSS: It was not a decision that came all at once. I’m from a black american mono-lingual family. But my mother’s life took a turn when she was able to spend some time in Europe, and she brought me and my two sisters with her. I had an opportunity to go to a boarding school in Switzerland for two years. Now my classes were all in english but I had the most amazing opportunity to meet people from around the world — from all over Europe, Africa, the middle east. And they were speaking many languages, and I got to see firsthand that it was normal outside of america to speak more than one language, to speak with someone in their own tongue and not demand that they come to you. I always said if I ever had a child I would give him the gift of language. It’s a gift my mother gave to me having not had it herself, and that was another turning point for me. I learned that you can give a gift that you do not have yourself. My mother doesn’t ski, but my siblings and I ski. My mother doesn’t speak french but I speak it, and my sisters do to an extent — she gave us gifts that she didn’t have herself. So I thought that I’ll not only give him the french that I have, but I’m going to take a page from my mother’s playbook and give him gifts that I DON’T have. I didn’t know how to start, so I got some language CDs, and also hired caregivers who spoke different languages. I started speaking to him only in french when he was about one year old, so I had to up my french considerably. I take classes, I study online, I walk around with a french / english dictionary…it’s insane (laughs), and my son speaks to me in french. Meanwhile, spanish is really an important language in this country, so we started doing spanish play groups, and I noticed that he had no confusion about the two languages.
HUB: Raif also speaks chinese…
ROSS: A lot of people ask about that… t just popped into my heart that I wanted him to learn Chinese (laughs). Everyone thought I was insane, and the only person who was down with it was my husband. It was just a desire in my heart that I couldn’t explain, but one of the things I’ve learned in my four years of being a mother is that we must follow our hearts. God has put a guide in our hearts for our children, and we as parents really know what’s best for our children. We know better that pediatricians and politicians and PhD’s — we know. So we started doing Mandarin playgroups, and Raif just fell in love with the language. It’s such a fun language! I’ll give you an example: the word for “run” is “pow”! He was running around the house yelling “Pow! Pow! Pow!” How fun is THAT for a kid! We continue to pursue all four languages — the fourth being english — simultaneously. It’s a lot of work, but it’s in my heart and in my husband’s heart to make it work, and it’s also a lot of fun so we make it work.
HUB: How can other parents who don’t have the resources you have give the same gift to their children?
ROSS: If you have the ability to have help — and everyone doesn’t — but if you do, hire a person to help you who can speak exclusively in the language you want your child to learn. That’s such a great way to do it. Ideally, you want 20 hours of that per week. If you cannot afford to have somebody, this is a diverse world. You might find that someone you know speaks another language, and can speak to your child in another language for however many hours are possible. There are public schools — more and more every day, around the country — that offer bilingual education. The key is immersion. You don’t translate — you just speak to the child in that language. Up until a certain age, even a monolingual child only knows so much english! You can speak to a 2, 3, 4 year old and they won’t understand half of what you’re saying! But he’s figuring it out from your tone, from your facial expressions, from your body language. We don’t send a two year old to school to learn english — we just talk to them. And they’ll get it. Children are BRILLIANT. People ask me whether I think four languages is too much. I tell them it’s on the verge of being too much for ME to juggle the schedule (laughs), but children are brilliant.
HUB: Tell me about your solo theatre project, “Relativity”.
ROSS: This is a really exciting departure for me. It’s a one-woman show, but it’s not an autobiographical type of show. It is a piece that explores some of the same themes I explore in my music — life, and the survival of it. We touch on race, gender, spirituality and hopefully we’ll have some humor in there. I’m quite excited about it.
HUB: Speaking of the stage, what do you think of Motown: The Musical? I’ve not had a chance to see it, yet.
ROSS: I LOVE that play for a lot of reasons. I’m extremely proud of my father, because he got to do what many men of his stature never get to do, which is to tell his own story. He fought for it, and he did it even though some people wanted him to stretch the truth or fabricate certain things, but he was true to his memoir (“To Be Loved”) and his memory. He really is someone who has walked to the beat of his own drum even when there were extreme challenges and consequences. He’s always made art for the people, not for the critics — neither he nor my mother did, in fact. And you can tell this is another example of that — this play is selling out most nights, and breaking box office records. This is a great play, a great story that’s told in a wonderful way, and the music is off the chain! You leave feeling so proud of what Motown was able to accomplish. It’s opening soon in Chicago, as well — you really need to see it.
HUB: I’ve never really thought about Motown’s body of work being for the people instead of for the critics, but you’re right.
ROSS: It kind of goes back to what I was saying about my mother raising us to know who we were despite what people said about us or thought about us, and she got that from those years with Motown. If the work is good, it’s good. You don’t need everyone to agree with you. And if it’s good, people will find it.
HUB: Speaking of performances, you’re an Emmy nominated actor. I know you’re in the music zone right now, but would you ever consider returning to the screen?
ROSS: I’m really glad you asked. I’m an artist. I am always looking for avenues to express myself. Right now, most of that expression has come through the music. But with “Relativity” I’ll be acting, and there are dramatic and comedic elements in it. I am always available to work as an actress, if the project is right. I have so much that I want to do and want to say. And I love acting — I’ve always loved it.
HUB: You’re also a very talented writer. A few days ago, I became aware of some words you’ve written that weren’t associated with melody, a powerful essay on race that was published by Essence magazine a few years ago. You wrote “No one cared that I was funny, intelligent, dependable and kind. No one even planned my career before the camera because society’s definition of attractiveness did not include me. I prayed to be lighter, to be taller, for my nose to be slimmer.” You have clearly overcome those feelings, but the sad reality is that there are girls here in Sacramento and all over the world who are still struggling with feelings like that today. Can you talk about how you overcame that, and offer a few words for someone who’s struggling and praying to one day become something other than what they are?
ROSS: [Deep sigh] First of all, thank you for bringing it up — I’m glad you found that. It is SO complicated, the finding of self worth and self love and self appreciation is complicated and challenging, and in this society it can be very difficult. And not just for black girls. There’s a range of reasons why it’s hard to find self acceptance and self love. [Long pause] In the essay, I talk about my journey taking a turn when I met my husband, which was huge, but earlier than that, in high school, I remember making a decision that this body, this face, this hair is who I am and what I’ve been given. It’s my challenge to find a way to love and accept that. And the reason I phrase it like that, is because no matter what the “thing” is — skin color, hair texture, sexual orientation — I really felt from a relatively early age that whatever I am and however I was created, my mandate was to figure out how to love THAT. That doesn’t mean you don’t grow, but the foundation is self love and acceptance. This society doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but it’s still your job. And it’s OK to work at it. And it’s a daily work that I believe is our mandate. Anyone who’s struggling with that needs to know that they’re not alone, know that it’s not by accident, know that society and influences bigger than us are influencing how we learn to feel about ourselves — especially black people and black girls — but also know that it’s our job, our responsibility, our mandate to figure it out and to learn to accept and love ourselves. That’s what my song “Nobody’s Business” is about. I made a conscious DECISION to love myself. THEN I was so blessed to meet a man who agreed with me! He didn’t have to pull me out of self-loathing, but as I was learning to love myself, he agreed with me. He comes from a family that loves themselves and their blackness. And it just all came together. I’m still amazed at how many people, how many women, beautiful women…I mean DROP DEAD GORGEOUS BLACK WOMEN, with relaxed hair, walk up to me and tell me how powerful it is that I wear my natural hair. And I want to say to them “It’s your hair too, baby!” (Laughs). These are beautiful women who, if they really knew their real beauty, they would let themselves be natural. Let me be clear…I don’t denigrate anyone’s journey or choices. I just know, when I look at my sisters, I see beauty, and I want them to see it too.
HUB: I really want to thank you for your time.
ROSS: Thank YOU. And let me tell you that I REALLY enjoyed this interview! I mean, I’m exhausted (laughs) but it’s been great! Your questions were thought-provoking, and now I’m like “Whoa! I need an energy drink!” (Laughs) I’m looking forward to my west coast shows in January, and hope to meet you soon!
Ross performs Saturday, January 25th at 7:30pm and 10pm at Vitello’s Jazz Club in Studio City, CA. Tickets are available at www.vitellosjazz.com and 818-769-0805
Email Michael P. Coleman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP
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