Strong Voices

‘R&B Divas’: The TV Show That Resurrects a Genre

The women who helped make R&B music a force in the ’90s are back with a new reality show. Allison Samuels talks to the unstoppable voices that defined a genre.

08.19.12 8:45 AM ET

Nicci Gilbert and Faith Evans know all too well the joy and pitfalls of fame, fortune, and the so-called good life. They learned about it up close and personal as Gilbert fronted the popular R&B group Brownstone during the ’90s, while Evans had double exposure with a successful solo singing career and a not-quite-as-successful marriage to late rap icon the Notorious B.I.G.

Musical success for many R&B and hip-hop artists peaked in the ’90s, when bling, Puffy, and over-the-top music videos ruled the market. A new decade of iTunes and YouTube changed the game completely, which didn’t bode well for many artists—particularly black females. The industry shifted its focus from traditional grassroots and radio artists to the likes of Justin Bieber, leaving few opportunities for other recognizable faces with a track record of sales and significant talent.

But a few of those artists weren’t content to just close up shop and ride off into the sunset. On the new TV One reality show R&B Divas, which debuts Monday, five women who at one time dominated the music charts in some form now hope to show their loyal fan bases, and possibly a new audience, what the journey is really like once the music stops.

“This is a project that Faith and I talked about and worked on for a while,” says Gilbert. “We wanted something that would show what this life is like for career women who are navigating work, family, and business in a crazy world. We wanted something that would show us as real women but without the foolishness of fighting and of tripping over men, because that isn’t who we are.”

Evans and Gilbert recruited R&B blasts from the past such as Monifah Carter, Syleena Johnson, and Keke Wyatt to join them on the show that all insisted they have considerable control over.

“We spent our own money to film the pilot before they shopped the show,” says Evans. “We wanted to go into talks showing the executives how we wanted to be portrayed and that was the only way to do it. We have children and families, so we had to represent ourselves in a certain way. Yes, we have problems and issues like everyone, but we handle them in a way that is entertaining, because it’s a television show, but also respectful. We respect ourselves and the audience.”

Gilbert adds: “I didn’t want the vanity title of executive producer with no power in the end like many people with shows have. Whatever happens with this project impacts all of us, and so I wanted real power in what the end result would be. The fallout is on us so the power should be with us.”

In reality, this reality show needs little extra drama. The complicated lives of each woman give audiences a bird’s-eye view of just how hard fame can be when accompanied by frequent betrayal and disappointments. Drugs, divorce, violence, and legal problems have all touched their lives in some form, and the daily impact of it all is riveting to watch. At the height of her career, in 2001 singer Wyatt was arrested for stabbing her husband in a case of domestic abuse. Charges were later dropped.

Ironically the show kicks off with the women all coming together to record a charity album for a singer who inspired and served as a cautionary tale for them all: Whitney Houston. The proceeds from the album will go the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts in New Jersey. Evans says she became good friends with Houston years ago, and while she was rattled by her sudden death earlier this year, memories of the good times help keep the sadness away.

“My favorite memory is when she attended my 30th birthday party a few years back,” says Evans. “She called me beforehand to ask what I was going to wear and all these things. I wasn’t even sure she was coming, but lo and behold, later that night there she was. She came in riding on Bobby’s back [Brown], yelling my name, and having a great time. I’ll always remember her like that. Happy and having the time of her life.”

Houston’s often very public troubles throughout her storied rise to fame even caused several of the women to reconsider their careers in music. Gilbert, who not only knew Houston but also was signed to the record label owned by Michael Jackson in the ’90s, says she continues to struggle with the idea of singing as a way to make a living. She says she regularly thinks of the tragic fate that befell many of those who have come before her.

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“I watched what this industry did to Michael and what they did to Whitney,” says Gilbert. “Those two gave so much to the industry, but the industry turned their back when they started having problems. Problems that came as result of being in the industry in many ways. Watching them struggle and lose their way broke my heart and really made me do some soul-searching when it comes to my own singing.”

To their credit both Gilbert and Evans have focused on other ventures to bolster their careers. Evans has written a book about her life that became New York Times bestseller and developed a multicultural hair-care line that will sell in stores and salons. She’s also working on her next album, due out in 2013. Gilbert has written and appeared in several popular plays and recently debuted Curvato, a clothing line for full-figured women that received rave reviews from such fashion bibles as Marie Claire.

“I struggled with my weight while performing and so many other things during my career,” remembers Gilbert. “This show lets people know what those years were like and how we’re doing now. It’s not all fun and games, but we’ve survived.”