To a government official, she would be Mrs. Cheryl Clemons, but to anybody else, she’d really rather you just call her Coko.
Coko took a permanent place in the hearts and CD players of legions of R&B fans as lead singer of the 90’s female hip-hop soul trio SWV. Her street savvy style had many a young lady attempting (with varying degrees of success) to mimic her soprano prowess on genre-defining hits like “Weak” and “Right Here.”
Fast forward to the present day and Ms. Coko is now a wife, a mother, and a Grammy-nominated singer who last year released her second gospel album The Winner In Me. Recently filming a music video for the title track and latest single from the album, Coko took some time to chat with me on a Thursday afternoon.
ELEV8: First question… I heard you switched to the iPhone and were bashing BlackBerry. Please tell me that’s not true.
Coko: (laughs) Ahh… yes it IS true!
ELEV8: Why you gotta be like that?
Coko: ‘Cause Wackberry gets on my nerves!
ELEV8: You just called it a Wackberry. I don’t know if I can do this interview now. I need to talk to my manager.
Coko: (laughs) Sometimes it just freezes up on me. And I’ve had it for a while, but it always gives me problems! I haven’t had any real problems with my iPhone yet.
ELEV8: Okay, okay. That’s fair, but you know, once you go Black, you never go back.
Coko: Oh stop it! (laughs)
ELEV8: Hey, you tweet faithfully as @CokoClemons. Was it easier to tweet from iPhone or from BlackBerry?
ELEV8: Fine. I’ll get over it, take a minute, breathe… We’ll be good.
Coko: (laughs) Uh huh!
ELEV8: So I worked with my friend James Robinson for years. And now he’s the VP of A&R at Light Records. He told me he convinced you to start your career at Light. What did he say that sealed the deal?
Coko: A lot of times in the industry, you meet people that do a whole lot of talking and they’re not talking about nothing! I saw him one day and he was like, “If I ever get in that position to sign you, I will.” I really didn’t think much of it because I’ve had a lot of people that say they wanna do stuff and then they never do it.
ELEV8: I’m sure of it.
Coko: I got a call saying, “James Robinson is lookin’ for you.” I was like, “For me?!” So I got in touch with him and he said, “I wanna sign you.” I was like “Whaaaaaat? Wow!”
ELEV8: How you gon’ say it like you’re surprised though?
Coko: I was surprised! People say that they wanna do things and then opportunity opens for them and they just forget about everybody. But he didn’t forget. He really came back and he just was like, “When we gon’ do it?” I was like, “okay, cool!” You know what I mean? He was a man of his word and I really appreciate that in this day and time. A lot of people are not like that. So I’m always grateful to him.
ELEV8: I might be brand new, but why weren’t gospel and secular labels bangin’ down your door like, “Okay, Coko is not attached? Somebody get her. Put some headphones on her. Quick!!”
Coko: I don’t know! (laughs) But I think things happen for a reason. I wasn’t supposed to be with nobody else. I look at it like I was supposed to be at Light.
ELEV8: Weren’t both of you guys in Hezekiah Walker’s choir?
Coko: Who? Me and James?
ELEV8: Yeah. James probably gon’ cut me, but I know he used to sing. Tell the truth and shame the devil.
Coko: No. I did. I don’t think James was in Love Fellowship. I think he was in Restoration Choir. James was singin’ somewhere!
(James Robinson breaks in on the interview)
James: I WAS IN TRI-BROTHER MASS CHOIR! THAT’S WHERE I WAS AT!!
Coko: (in the background laughing)
ELEV8: (laughs) What’s up, kid!
James: Hey Mark! Won’t you interview Coko and stop [name] droppin’, hear? It ain’t even about James! It’s about COKO!
James: I’m only playin’! A’ight, man. So you talk to Coko. I’ll holler at you!
Coko: (in the background still laughing)
ELEV8: I love that dude! I really do! (laughs) So I gotta talk about the album, which is easy. You hit #4 first week on the Billboard charts. You gotta be happy about that.
Coko: I’m excited about everything good that happens with this record!
ELEV8: The sound changed on this one from Grateful. It brought in some pop and rock elements. What inspired you for this new evolution?
Coko: I just like to be different. I don’t always wanna do what everybody else is doin’. I march to my own beat. Sometimes that gets me in trouble! I’m happy that Light just allowed me to be myself and to do what it was that I wanted to do, and it worked!
ELEV8: You went with a ballad for your new single and video “The Winner in Me.” It’s a beautiful clip. But who’s the pretty little girl who gets the autograph at the end?
Coko: Everybody asks me that! I don’t know her!
ELEV8: What?! You’re supposed to lie and say it’s your baby cousin or your niece or something.
Coko: (laughs) No, you won’t get no lies here! I don’t know her. She was a little girl that, I guess they hired in Chicago. She was very pretty. She was soooo sweet!
ELEV8: The video sort of portrays an unhappy side to fame. Watching American Idol, it seems everybody’s competing to get what you already have. So how much of a downside could there possibly be to having thousands of people love you and think you’re the absolute best?
Coko: I mean, that’s great to have people lovin’ you, but then there’s a flipside. You have people always in your business. Your privacy is gone. You never know who is being your friend for you. It’s always some kind of ulterior motive for why somebody wants to be cool with you, and a lot of other things that you have to worry about. You have to worry about topping the next record and just stayin’ on point. So, you know, while it’s always good to have all the fans lovin’ you, there’s still a flipside with a whole lot of negative to it.
ELEV8: So now that you have this status, how do you pick your friends?
Coko: I don’t have a lot of friends!
ELEV8: Awww, but that’s no way to be.
Coko: It’s a GREAT way to be! That way I keep people out my business! The people I do have as friends, they’re not in the industry. They’re people that I’ve had in my life for years. And honestly, I talk to a lot of people, but I keep a lot of people at a distance as well.
ELEV8: The title song “The Winner In Me” seems autobiographical. Was it written specifically for you?
Coko: Actually, “The Winner In Me” was not written for me. My pastor actually wrote that song for his wife. We were having a function and he had my mother singing it. She was in the house rehearsing and I heard it. I was like “That’s my song! I need that song!” I asked him about it and he said “Of course!” But it wasn’t written specifically for me.
ELEV8: Well, you sing it like it was.
Coko: Yeah, I felt that thing!
ELEV8: Wait. What about the lyric “the pleasing of my fans and friends still had demands on me”?
Coko: Okay, I did change that. Yeah!
ELEV8: But you sold it. I’m tellin’ you.
Coko: Thank you!
Stay tuned… there’s a part two to this interview where Coko gives some more behind-the-scenes insight on her latest album The Winner In Me. Plus, Coko tells the story behind the R&B album that almost was but never got a chance to be.
You can purchase The Winner In Me online at iTunes, Amazon.com, and other digital retailers, as well as anywhere gospel music is sold. For more info, visit her official website www.cokosplace.com or follow @CokoClemons on Twitter.
Written by Mark Chappelle Coston for Elev8.com.
Add him on MySpace or follow @MarkChappelle on Twitter.
The interview continues here:
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW — Part Two:
Coko Talks Lost Music And Recording Her New Album
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