It’s inspiring when people find a way to transition one career into another, especially when the job moves are out of the ordinary. Multi-talented entertainer Nicci Gilbert just so happens to have transitioned from working with Michael Jackson as the lead singer of Brownstone (signed to Jackson’s MJJ label in 1995) to working with Tyler Perry in theater. Both situations encouraged Nicci’s personal and professional growth, and she is brimming with more creative ideas each day as she forges ahead.
After receiving critical acclaim and awards for her work with Brownstone, Gilbert sought out to pursue theater as a producer, writer and actress in musical stage plays. Her current work, Soul Kittens Cabaret, has been made into a DVD starring Fantasia and Faith Evans.
We caught up with the 40-year-old Detroit native to get her involved in UrbLife.com’s new ‘Tough Love’ feature. How does Nicci Gilbert stay sane juggling her hectic career and a family? What is the hardest advice she’s had to take? And how will she dish her own tough love out to anyone wanting to follow in her footsteps? Read on…
Obviously you’ve done a combination of music, acting, writing, and producing. What do you feel is the biggest challenge for you day to day to keep up with yourself?
Nicci Gilbert: The biggest challenge for me day to day is just reminding myself that I can’t do it all. I think I learned doing the DVD that you can’t do everything at the same time and you can’t micromanage the little details. Coming up in a music industry family – my dad worked for Motown and my mom was a jazz singer – I was privy to the inside stuff. My dad would give me little nuggets of information like, “Make sure you handle all of your business, and make sure you know every dime.”
What I learned is [balancing]being the business person and the producer and the bringer-together, and a creative person. A lot of times it becomes a little convoluted if you’re not careful.
What do you feel is the best piece of advice that your dad or mom gave you that has taken you through life with a level head?
NG: Gosh, they have given me so many. Actually the most profound bit of information came from my aunt. I was kind of having a break down like two years ago. I’m doing this and I’m doing that. I can’t be taken serious as a writer/director if I’m still trying to sing, but I need to sing because that’s how people recognize me. I was just like, “Why me?!”
My aunt told me, “Michael Jackson signed you to his label. Tyler Perry picked you to do one of his shows. God has something in store for you. You just need to learn how to pace yourself and be confident moving forward. Ultimately you have a large goal you’re trying to accomplish, and you need to pace yourself.” That has really stuck with me.
I think that’s a problem that we all have. The epiphany of, “I’m not going to live forever. What do I now?”
NG: Right. Just pacing myself… and the advice I would give to anybody is to never quit and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t. Can’t is the biggest lie in the world. I’m a chubby girl from Detroit, in the hood… one day I’m going to meet Michael Jackson, oh yeah, right! “You can sing, but you’re not that cute. No one is going to give you a record deal.” I’m like, whatever.
I used my college money to go to L.A. and what happens? I get a deal with Michael Jackson as the first artist on his label. He pulled me to the side and filled me with knowledge and confirmation that I don’t need from anyone else. And when the career sort of falls, I’m like, “Oh God, what do I do now? I’m a washed up, ’90s has-been artist.”
Then Tyler Perry is sitting in the audience of 500 people on a play that I agreed to do for a friend. He pulled me out and said, “You’re too talented,” and gives me this newfound vision for writing and directing in plays. I just say keep going, don’t stop. No matter how ‘bottom of the barrel’ or low-brow, people may want to say something. It is beloved. It is art. Just do it, and the success will find you.
We’re always taught to make out New Year resolutions and have goals, but what a lot of people fall short on is work ethic. You mentioned Michael Jackson and Tyler Perry, who have impeccable work ethic. What are some things that you take from working with people like that in your life? What are the most important lessons that you learned about work ethic?
NG: The most important thing is, when you find people who are good, it doesn’t matter if they are not top of the charts. With Tyler, most of the people that he works with on his shows you have never heard of until now. So you find people that are talented and really good at what they do, and allow them to be who they are and do what they do. Don’t put a meter or a gage on it. Tyler has the ability to surround himself with really talented and creative people.
In the case of Michael Jackson, I would say the same thing because if it wasn’t for Jerry Greenberg, who is a diehard feel good music guy, looking at Brownstone like, “Yeah, you all are a little awkward looking. You all aren’t necessarily TLC, but you guys sound amazing. Let me take this to Michael and see what he thinks.” I would say get good people who know what they do. Have great ears, great eyes, and surround yourself with that.
I’ve been working on doing that for years and as I’ve done it, I realize that things are starting to come together. I can put my touches on it, or take my “baby” so to speak, and hand it over to this person and they are going to deliver.
You’ve created different characters for your plays. Did you have certain actors in mind when you wrote the parts? What are the most important things that you put into these characters?
NG: By being real. I grew up in old, smoky supper club venues by my mom being a jazz singer. I’ve always been a people watcher. Like, my mouth would be open and I would be stuck. I just absorb people and their actions ever since I was little. I think that has helped me. It’s weird, I can’t explain it. My mom would be like, “Stop looking at that lady!”
My husband is like, “You’re a weirdo,” because when I write, I literally go into a zone and I’ll be speaking out loud as I’m writing stuff. I guess that’s what prevents me from being on Prozac or some crazy medications, because I either let it out in the songs or in the pages of whatever script I’m writing.
I try to keep the characters real. I think that the true answer for anybody that has written anything is that every character is based on, in some capacity, people that you’ve seen or the experiences that you had. So I try to keep it real. In Soul Kittens specifically, the DVD is the second presentation of the show I did back in 2005 for my backers audition performance. It was with Tatyana Ali, Angie Stone, and some other sistas. I was like, “Please do this for me y’all.” You know I paid out of pocket, hustled it up.
It’s funny, because different women played these characters in the DVD, and the interpretations were both so incredible but so different. I think that the characters are open enough so that everyone can find, Fantasia said it best: “When I read the script I understood so many of these women and so many of these stories.” I think that everyone could interpret for themselves with the lines the experience that each character brings to life.
It’s good that you say that you put your own life into it, but then other people can put their lives into it and make it more than the dimension you had on it.
NG: Absolutely. That’s about having good people. I hate to call Tyler out, but this is an example. When I went to read for Meet the Browns for the role of Vera, Vera’s character was an older woman in the funeral that was upset and being very loud because her father died.
As I started to read the script, I remember a lady that I met when I was younger who had gold teeth and was always popping gum and drinking. So I put that in. It was crazy. I just remember this and I don’t even remember her name. I just remember her presence and I incorporated that into my character.
Tyler was like, “You’re just going to make my character an alcoholic?” I was like, “Well, I thought it would be something cool to add.” [Inside] I’m like, “This man is going to send me home!” He was like, “Keep it,” so Vera became a drunk who dressed crazy and the audience loved it. There would be no Vera without what obviously what Tyler put on the page. I’m not in any way, shape, or form trying to take credit for the character. Just one of the nuances that people add when they are good at what they’re doing.
What is the best piece of tough love advice for someone who wants to be where you’re at now?
NG: I have a lot of those. First of all be realistic about your abilities. Don’t come in thinking you’re going to be the lead, or come in playing a certain role and that you’re the only person in the world that could see yourself there. Really look in the mirror and determine what you’re capable of.
Once you made that choice, find someone that will make you better. I don’t care who you are, how developed you are, how great of a singer or actor you are or whatever. You can always get better. Kobe Bryant goes to practice every day.
Ego… my company is called NoeGo for a reason… leave the egos at the door, because you’re going to go in for one role and they’re going to say, “No, but we’ve got two lines you can do at the end as the janitor.” You better do those two lines at the end as the janitor. If you’re new and trying to get there nothing, unless it compromises with you morals or ethics, nothing is not worth doing. Every experience teaches you.
When I met Michael Jackson, I got stranded in the desert trying to be nice to someone. I was literally stranded until 3am or 4am. To make up for it, someone introduced me to someone who ultimately led me to meeting Michael Jackson.
When I met Tyler Perry, the promoter didn’t have the money to pay the cast. He was like, “Sorry, but I can’t pay you all. Obviously there is no one in the theater and no one in the audience. If you want to do it cool, if not then go home.” Half of the people went home and half of the people stayed. I was in the group of people that stayed. He didn’t tell anybody that Tyler was in the audience. Then Tyler came back and offered me a job.
So I would say to do anything creative, but realistic about what you can do. The tough part about it is chances are 9 times out of 10, you’re not able to make a living unless you can lead wholeheartedly. Go into it knowing that it’s a hard job, and be realistic about what you can do.
That’s good advice. Now, you’ve been the subject of gossip and rumors during the course of your career. Some people are devastated by that, but you seem to have been very resilient. How do you deal with gossip? What are your inner workings that make you able to brush that off?
NG: Honey, the same way I dealt with it in high school. Go to the choir room, stay practicing my song, and daydream about getting a deal with Michael Jackson. When people start talking that crazy stuff like that, “Oh she’s overweight” or “She took some woman’s husband,” I’m like what?! You don’t even know, and it’s not worth an explanation.
Luckily I had a friend in the media that helped me clear that up. I go to my creative zone. It’s funny because I’ve been told that you can’t always do that. That you have to ‘deal with things.’ I’m like, “What, deal with them with medications? Talk them out with a psychiatrist?”
The way I deal with things is to either write a song about it and sell a whole lot of records. I’m at the Grammy’s with a nomination and the Billboard [Awards] and I’ve forgotten about it. Or I write a play about it and I hustle and grind to get that picked up. I think that people need to find things that they love and are passionate about. Things that make them happy and really dedicate themselves to keep them happy. That’s what I do.
I need to go to Weight Watchers? That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll write a song and submit it to Weight Watchers so it can be a theme song and I can get a check while losing that weight!
You worked with both Fantasia and Faith Evans on the Soul Kittens Cabaret DVD and they’re both women who have been through the wringer. What commonalities were you able to build with them as you worked with them? What do you feel they add to the story as women?
NG: Faith and I have been cool since before she had her deal I think. We were at the Apollo. Faith and I have been cool forever, We always had that sister thing. Our kids hang out. I came to Faith seven or so years ago when I started talking about this idea to start doing this play stuff. This was after I was exposed to it through Tyler, and I was like, “He’s making a whole lot of money.”
So I talked to her about it, and she was like, “As soon as you get it together girl, let me know and I’m down.” People say that and you think, “Yeah, ok.” Even though as friends we don’t expect each other to be involved in our professional stuff, because that’s not how real friendships work.
I was like, “Ok, but I won’t bother you with it until I get a check and someone is ready to fund it.” That’s exactly what happened. She loved the idea, loved the story, and said that it was time for something different. She did it because she supported me as a sista-friend.
Fantasia initially just got off of The Color Purple, and she was on a break and working on her album. That was her focus. I said just read the story, it’s very empowering. She read it and hit me up and was like, “I’m doing it. I want to help women and I want to inspire them.” I told her that I had the perfect opportunity. “You’re the good conscience and the voice of reason.” She immediately understood the stories and identified with the women.
We have women that are addicted to diet pills and have body dysmorphic disorder. We have women that are products of rape and women who had children at a young age. Each of these women has a story, and they deal with their issues by going to the club at night and performing and forget about it. The next day it’s just another issue on top of another and it all just comes to a head. Also it’s this venue about love and it’s been around in the community. People come there to pursue their dreams. That comes from childhood.
Working with Faith and Fantasia was incredible. They were so supportive and so understanding. Do I think they would have dropped out of the sky and been like, “Hey, I want to do a stage play and DVD for a stage plays just randomly?” No. But the fact that I come to them and was like, “I’ve been working on this forever. This is my dream and now I have the opportunity to make it real.” This is what it is.
They were in support of another sista doing something else. That’s basically what this project is about. Women coming together to help each other and in this industry.
Over the years, fans of Brownstone have been asking you to come back. What part of you wants to have that music side of things long term? What side of you wants to be more on the production and film end of things?
NG: I’ve been struggling, girl, I have been struggling. Really because it’s like an eye opener. For a real long time, I didn’t want to sing because I wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, playwright, and director. Then I started doing research and saw Barbara Streisand and Cher, but it wasn’t a lot in our community which surprised me. It’s ok to be a singer-actor-director-writer. It’s ok to be all of that. As long as you do it well and not throw out garbage.
Stevie J has been at my house playing music like, “You need to do some records,” and I’m like, “Yeah, ok.” He played a smash that Jazmine Sullivan wrote with him. On the Brownstone thing, we had so many false starts. I’m not blaming any one person, but I think that we had so many false starts because it lets you down when you’re used to being at a certain level in the industry.
It kind of goes to the tough love part of it. You hear that you have fans. Everytime you go to the airport, people ask where’s the album. You talk about Soul Kittens, but people be like, “Yeah… but where’s Brownstone?” I mean I get it, so I’m like what am I going to do?
At this point, I decided [to focus]as a creative person as long as I keep putting out good creative products. [As for] Brownstone, we are going to release a single next month. We have been touring – a lot of people aren’t aware of that. We toured last summer with Cameo and The SOS Band and that went great. We’re going to do some new music, record, and try to get some buzz again. We’re going to do it because we love it. I don’t aim to have a Top 10 record, I aim to satisfy people that are interested in our music and enjoy it.
Do you have any more plays coming up after this one?
NG: I do. I’m doing The Florence Ballard Story with Faith Evans. I’m playing her sister Maxee Ballard. This is the true story of Florence Ballard. The script is incredible. Martha Coolidge, who directed Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, is directing it. I’m really excited about that because the role is incredible. I’m like, “Thank you God for putting this in front on me!” Faith actually connected me to that, and the producer is a good friend of mine.
I’m also working on a TV show. I’m not going to be on the show, but I am creator and executive producer. The show is going to be called R&B Wives which is Coko from SWV, Lil Mo, Solé, Miki Howard, Syleena Johnson, Tweet, Meelah from 702, Keke Wyatt and Monifah. I’m putting together a live show for the summer. It’s a women empowerment thing with live musical performances.
The R&B Wives whole idea is what we all have been doing, and what it’s like to be a real wife and mother, because we all are. It’s us coming together and to the realization that, “Hey we are all has-beens as far as the industry is concerned, so we need to step up and get people interested again.” They all laugh at me because they are like, “Whatever!” So this R&B Wives TV concept, I hope we get a deal in the spring because we’re just moving forward with it.
Then I shot a short film with Fantasia for her tour called Rubes Café. The tour is over but I did all of her video stuff. We did four different video scenes and one included a short film. That short film is now being in the process of negotiations. It’s like a period piece – it’s in the ’60s and it’s like Sex in the City, which is really cool. Terri J. Vaughn is in it as well so we’re really excited about that.
Then I’m actually directing my first feature which is an independent drug movie based in Detroit. It’s about women in the drug game. They called me based on what they saw on the Rubes Café project. I was real; I’m like, “The only feature I directed was the short.” They were like, “We’re going to bring in the right people and put the right people around you, and we’re going to make this happen.” I’m not turning it down!
Soul Kittens Cabaret trailer w/ Faith Evans, Fantasia, Monifah and more!