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September 22, 2014

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Black History Month: Johnny Gill Talks a New Edition Reunion, Obama and Music Influences

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Johnny Gill is one of our favorite R&B crooners, who will always be remembered for his contributions as part of New Edition, and for sizzling solo hits like 'My, My, My.' An important figure in the New Jack Swing music era, Gill continues his career today through acting, international touring and other amazing developments (which you can read about below). To celebrate Black History Month, Johnny has partnered with TV One on their 'Way Back When series,' which its producers describe as "a look back at dramatic, musical, and comedic portrayals of African American life from the 70s, 80s and early 90s." As a co-host of the series, Gill has brought his soul music expertise to bear on a deeper understanding of the black roots inherent in our pop culture past.

Mr. Gill took some time to talk with Black Voices about our inspiring music history, President Obama and our future as a community.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I am sure the Black Voices audience will be excited to hear what you have been up to lately. Do you have any exciting projects on the horizon?


Yes, there are actually several things that are going on. I am in the middle of finishing the first Johnny Gill CD after 14 years. I feel like you go through a period where you work hard, and you feel somewhat unappreciated in a lot of ways. But I've grown up a lot, and now I understand that it's not a question of who wants to hear from me, it's a matter of what I feel I need to say and where I'm at today.

I truly got a reality check when I watch my friend Gerald Levert pass away. When I watched my friend Luther Vandross pass away. I watched someone I didn't know personally, but who I met in passing over the years, pass away – Teddy Pendergrass. It really makes you put things in perspective.

What is most important to have when you leave this planet is a body of work. It's not about what sells. It's important to know that as an artist, you have to continue to express yourself. It took me a minute to get that. I'm still not sure that people want to hear from me. But I know that I have a lot of catching up to do, and not for myself – for my son. I've got to leave a legacy here that's for my son. I've gotten off to a great start, but there is so much more that I need to do, want to do and can do.

You will always be remembered for your work with New Edition. Do you still keep in touch with any of your former group members?

Yes! Ralph, myself and Bobby, we formed a group called The Heads of State and we've been touring for the last two years. We just got back from Spain, London and Amsterdam. It's just been incredible. And to watch Bobby come full circle has been more rewarding than anything. He's been doing so well. All it took to help him at this stage in his life was to acknowledge him for the good things he was doing. The more I acknowledged him, the harder he started working. And it taught me a lesson that we all need that, I know I do.

And I'll let you in on a little secret. We just finished up our final paperwork. We've signed with Irving Azoff of the Front Line Management company – we are putting all the pieces together for a New Edition reunion – all six of us. That's possibly going to take place some time this year. Everybody thought that they were ready to come together and go full-steam – and it's going to be all six of us.


Your fans will be glad to hear of this, because New Jack Swing was a favorite period in black music. What do you think of today's male R&B singers like Tyrese and Trey Songz?

I had the pleasure of working with those two guys. It was wonderful. The response was so great that people were talking to us about forming an actual group together. We did a tribute for the O'Jays, and the response was just overwhelming.

Let's talk R&B music history. Who are some of the great male singers of the past who have most inspired you?

Let's start with Stevie Wonder. Donnie Hathaway. Luther Vandross. Teddy Pendergrass. Marvin Gaye, obviously. Peabo Bryson. There are a slew of vocalists that have come before me and had a great influence.

How were you affected by the death of Michael Jackson?

Ironically, right before I got on with you, I had just hung up with Janet. I'm kind of like everyone else. It goes beyond Michael as an artist. I've only met Michael a few times, but because of my relationship with Janet – we've been very close for many years – my heart goes out to the family first and foremost.

Then you take a step back to look at what he contributed to the world. That record he has for giving the most as a celebrity? When you look at him giving to so many charities, at his love for kids, which was found never to be anything but that love – to be crucified for it. But, he never wavered. He never got angry. He never said "I'm going to be selfish now." At the end of the day, you have to see the truth about where his heart really was.

In a strange way, I can identify with what Michael went through. I work hard. I give all day every day to people, and it's never reported. But it's not about me being acknowledged. But to work so hard, and then to be crucified. To be lied on. It really has an impact. He really, truly got crucified.

Can you talk about the importance of black music to our struggle in America? How has music strengthened and supported us as a community?

Music for us has been like food. Like air. It has taken us and carried us for many, many years simply because it's all we had. That's why when you look at trends in music we are normally at the forefront of it. And if you look at music in general now, everything started with rhythm and blues. Now it's taken a new shape.

Musical is so magical. It can take you on a journey, from being happy, to being sad. When you look all over the world, even with hip hop, you see kids who, through music, are trying to emulate what we do. I've been all over the world. The love and respect they have for soul music, for black music – it's amazing.

When you look at Elvis, Jackie Wilson had an influence on him. When you look at the Rolling Stones, you are seeing Howlin' Wolf. The Beatles, everyone, if you look back and start to see where their influences come from, it speaks volumes.

There is a big debate every year about whether Black History Month is still relevant. Please share your thoughts and feelings on the month.


I think Black History Month is definitely still relevant. I just think it needs to be on a bigger scale today. It should go above and beyond just a month of reminding people about black history. We are truly some of the most remarkable people on the planet when we think about where we come from. We've had to make something out of nothing. There should be more taught about black history in school, and all over the world. We've come a long way, and we've still got a ways to go.

But when you look at what we have accomplished, it speaks volumes. We have our first black president. That's why I get angry when people act like the honeymoon is over, and they now want to criticize Obama. There is no one man, short of God, who can turn this situation around in one year. Give him some time to work. It really disturbs me to hear people like Danny Glover, people who I have great respect for, talking about what Obama did do and isn't doing. We have to support him and hope that he can continue to pave the way for others to have an opportunity to sit in that position one day, and to have the country have faith and believe that we are capable.



What are the key issues we as a group need to work on as we move forward?

In my 43 years of living, the one thing that I've noticed about our people is that we have many people in our community that think small. A lot of our people are entertained by looking into entertainers' lives. They dwell on it, and talk about it everyday. I wish that we would take a step back and look at people who have made an impact through their work, and get the message that "if they can do it, I can do it."

I did not get where I am today by worrying about other peoples' lives, who's sleeping with who, who's gay, who's straight, who's in, who's not, who's hot, who's not. There has been a focus on who's inspired me and what I want to do with my life from that. We need to look at the people who are accomplished, whether it's Obama, or some of the athletes, or the list goes on to people in different areas. If we look at what some of our African American heroes have accomplished, it's important for that to be the focus. That way we can continue to grow and develop and make headway for the next generation that's coming.

I find that we waste more time in tearing each other down in our own community than anybody. There's nothing that we have taken over, that when we decide to do it, we don't master. Whether it's golf. Whether it's tennis. Whether it's running a country. The list goes on. It's only the people who are focused who understand that you have to keep your eyes on the prize. It's not going to come through sitting around and watching television, or being on the Internet.

Do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement to share with the BlackVoices.com audience?

I want us to continue to grow as we have over the years, so that we will be able to look back and see the progress that we've made and that we are making.



Be sure to catch Johnny Gill and other "back in the day" stars as TV One celebrates Black History Month with it's "Way Back When" month of programming.

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