COVER STORY | With each new year brings new goals. We set resolutions for ourselves to become better people; some vow to diet, some vow to gain financial freedom, others simply aim to be better than they were the last year. In the 90’s, Hip-Hop artists like Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, and Ice-T paved way for a transition from concert stages to movie studio lots, inspiring some of our favorite R&B voices to take the brave step to share their own acting talents. Proving to be more than one-trick ponies, some saw career-changing success. Let’s look at the vocalists who stretched themselves to become multi-hyphenated singers-turned-actors!
It’s no secret that Janet’s first love is acting. The baby of the Jackson bunch had recurring roles as Penny Woods on Good Times (1977), Charlene on Diff’rent Strokes (1980), and Cleo on the Fame television series adaptation before declaring Control over her career with her 1986 landmark album. Following the release of 1990’s Rhythm Nation, it seemed that music would be Jackson’s resting spot until 1993 when she received her first starring role as Justice in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. Jackson was able to show her range alongside the late Tupac Shakur and Regina King, set to the poetry of Maya Angelou. Aligning with her latest album, Janet, the success of her music career reached a new zenith as she became one of the industry’s highest-paid artists, delivering songs like “That’s The Way Love Goes”, “If”, “Any Time Any Place” and the Academy Award-nominated “Again”. With intense touring schedules, the Earth-stopping duet “Scream” with brother Michael and her most vulnerable studio album to date, The Velvet Rope (1997), we wouldn’t see Janet on the silver screen until The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps opposite Eddie Murphy in 2000. With countless broken records as a black female artist, the icon has done it all, and we continue to bow down in her presence.
Vanessa L. Williams
Since she made history as the first African-American woman to be voted Miss America, Vanessa Williams has been a force with graceful staying power. She released her debut album “The Right Stuff” in 1988 and was crowned musically with a Billboard No.1 hit with “Save The Best For Last” from her 1991 sophomore classic, The Comfort Zone. Success in music allowed her to explore her passion for acting with guest roles on television shows like The Love Boat, and The Red Foxx Show. In 1992, she starred in Stompin’ at the Savoy, a tv movie directed by Debbie Allen and starring Lynn Whitfield, Jasmine Guy, and Vanessa Bell Calloway. Finding balance between music and acting, Williams performed “Colors of the Wind” in 1995 from the Oscar-winning Disney’s Pocahontas. In 1996, she landed her first starring role alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action film, Eraser. In 1997, Vanessa triumphed in two movie roles; Francine Hughes, girlfriend of 1930’s drug trafficker Bumpy Johnson (played by Laurence Fishburne) in Hoodlum; and an outstanding performance as Teri Joseph, eldest sister in the classic film, Soul Food. Who can forget her classic kitchen scene? (Cousin Faith, surely can’t.) Williams continues to exhibit her acting prowess throughout the new millennium on Broadway stages, film and television, remaining an iconic who always shines in the talent competition.
As a teen music heartthrob, Usher Raymond IV seized the opportunity to also flex his acting muscles. Inspired by idols who incorporated theatrical elements into their performances, Usher always channeled Ben Vereen and Michael Jackson in his own short form music videos making the embarkment a natural progression. Fans flocked to the “My Way” singer’s 1997 acting debut on sit-com Moesha as Jeremy Davis, love interest to Brandy Norwood. He landed a recurring role as Raymond on The Bold and The Beautiful soap opera in 1998. Poised to take on the big screen, Usher made his debut in ensemble casts: 1998’s sci-fi thriller The Faculty and 1999’s teen romantic comedy, She’s All That. Raymond stepped into his first starring role as Lester Dewitt in “Light It Up” alongside Forrest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson, and Vanessa L. Williams in 1999. In the new millennium, Usher would continue to make appearances on television; however, the rising star’s music career was about to reach new altitudes as release of his third album, 8701 skyrocketed him into superstardom. Usher’s acting experiences on screen and Broadway have strengthened his stage presence but music is king.
Before dominating the music industry, Whitney Elizabeth Houston had her sights set on acting. A teen model with radiant personality, Houston was given the role of Sondra Huxtable on The Cosby Show in 1984 but chose to turn down the role to pursue a career in music with obvious success. Ordering her steps, the opportunity to act resurfaced when the Grammy Award-winner was offered the starring role of Rachel Marron, a music superstar who needed protection in 1992’s The Bodyguard. With a performance catapulted by the monumental “I Will Always Love You”, the doors were open for Houston to step into more roles. In 1995, she starred alongside Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon as Savannah in the Forest Whitaker-directed film adaptation of Terry McMillian’s best-selling book Waiting To Exhale. Sky was the limit when she played Julia Biggs in 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington. Whitney ventured into a film production relationship with Disney, co-starring with Brandy in 1997’s iconic Cinderella Whitney and 2001’s The Princess Diaries. Whitney Houston found a way to meet her two passions, always bringing music along for the journey.
Brandy Norwood has had quite a storied career. We were first introduced to the ingénue as Danesha Turrell, the sassy and strong daughter on the short-lived 1993 sitcom Thea. When an episode featured Norwood singing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, we were all hooked in reverence. The following year, she would shift the sound of rhythm & blues with her debut eponymous album with hits “I Wanna Be Down”, “Baby”, “Brokenhearted”, and “Best Friend”, selling six million copies worldwide. With acting credits under her belt, she was offered the leading role of Moesha Mitchell for a new sitcom in 1996. Initially timid to get involved in a new endeavor that might deter her focused music career, Moesha was a primetime success that established the singer as a weekly, household name. Navigating through teenage life, we grew up with the singer on the show which aired for 6 years. During the show’s run, Norwood amalgamated her talents by releasing new music (“The Boy Is Mine”, “Have You Ever”, “Almost Doesn’t Count”) as well as accepting an acting role she simply couldn’t refuse. She received a call from her idol, Whitney Houston, to star as the first black Cinderella in 1997’s Wonderful World of Disney tv-musical event, even sharing a song with her deity. In 1998, she starred with another legend, Diana Ross, in the made-for-tv film Double Platinum. Ready for the big screen, Brandy tried her hand at horror in the 1999 teen slasher sequel, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and actually survived – another victory for a black character. Throughout her career, Brandy has taken roles that extend beyond her musical persona yet enhance her black girl magic.