Before a full house at the Bryant Park Hotel's screening room last night, singer/songwriter/reality TV genius K. Michelle told the crowd that she wanted to find an "over-the-top" way to commemorate the first anniversary of her debut album, Rebellious Soul. Her solution was Rebellious Soul: The Musical, a 30-minute hip-hopera that interpolates songs from her album and weaves them into a narrative about a stripper who falls in love with one of her clients. Like most of her output, this is based on K. Michelle's story (early on in her career she financed her demos via dancing).
Rebellious Soul: The Musical, which premieres tonight on VH1, is as furiously emotive as what we've come to expect from the Memphis-bred 30-year-old. It out-melodramas Trapped in the Closet, the pop opera from K. Michelle's mentor R. Kelly. We have perhaps never had a public figure as simultaneously suited for R&B and reality TV alike as K. Michelle. On screen and on the record, she is an explosion of feelings punctuated by sharp wit—she dominated the first two seasons of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta (also on VH1) with annihilating originality. I fell in love with her a little bit more when I heard her describe her co-star Joseline Hernandez as someone who "looks like she sleeps on beds without sheets."
I met up with K. Michelle yesterday at the VH1 offices in midtown Manhattan to discuss her hip-hopera, her injection of humor into R&B, her time on reality TV, and maintaining her edge. She was as quick as I expected, routinely answering my questions before the last word was out of my mouth. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: How did this hip-hopera come to be?
K. Michelle: I wanted to do something that was very creative, and something that was innovative. Music is very boring at this time to me, and if I'm bored, I don't stick around, so it's good for me to do something that's different. We have the hip-hopera Carmen from a while back, we have Trapped in the Closet, but no one has ever taken their own album and turned it into a conversational piece. That was very, very important to me. So I went into the studio and started the process.
Speaking of boring, one of the most striking things about your music is its sense of humor. There is not a lot of humor in contemporary R&B. Isn't that weird?
Yeah, well, I grew up listening to country music. In country music, there were songs like Deana Carter's "Did I Shave My Legs for This," and Toby Keith's ["Tired"], where he was rapping. You can have humor and still make good music. You just have to sing what people are thinking. I don't like anything boring. I don't want to be in a box. I feel like they're really trying their best to box me and with this [upcoming] album, I rebelled against that a lot. You're not gonna make me be the little black girl crying the blues, and, "Oh my life is bad." I haven't always had the best times in life, but my life is not bad, and you're not gonna put me in those shoes because you feel like it's time for them to be filled.
The consumers, the bloggers, my old management. I just got brand new management. When picking managers, I wanted to pick someone who had artists that could touch all formats. The management team I'm with now, Atom Factory, they're responsible for Gaga, John Legend, John Mayer, and Miguel.
You remind me a lot of Millie Jackson, too.
Oh, I've heard that before. I did something called "The Coochie Symphony" and she did "The Fuck You Symphony." I looked to her because I kept hearing that my attitude was a lot like hers. Also, people have said that the attitude of me was that of Nina Simone.
How did you hook up with Idris Elba?
We're friends. I was telling him about my projects, and he was like, "I'm in. I always wanted to do a musical, so let's just do it." The approval was super quick. VH1 was so supportive that I did not even have to give them a treatment. I went right in, I said, "Idris is doing this with me and you know that I can pull it off." And after that, it was the next day. They said, "How much money?" And Atlantic matched it.
The setup is simple—it's basically just a stage, and you're on it.
Idris didn't want me to have the regular setup. He got this amazing, huge soundstage. The way it's shot is so clean. The texture of it, I just love it. I thought I was going to do every scene [on location]. He was like, "No, that's boring, that's done, let's just bring it to the stage. You want a musical, so do it." I trust his eye.
Do you feel like you have control over your career at this point?
I do. I feel like I have a lot of control. There was a decision I was going to make today and it might not have been the best, because it was an emotion, and that's what management is for: to shut it down. So they shut it down, and I'm very happy that I did not.
What I gather from your music is that you're extremely emotional, but also that you need to be that way.
Yeah. That's a gift and a curse. The thing that makes me is also the thing that breaks me at times. I'm very emotional. I wear it on my sleeve. I can't hold my mouth about it. But when I get in the booth that's what needed. A lot of artists just sing and you don't feel what they are saying.
I have watched you on Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and wondered, "Does K. Michelle have a filter at all?"
(Laughs) I'm trying!
Yeah! [To woman who had accompanied her to interview] What are we doing...reflection? Yeah, reflection! She be like, "No, woosah, reflection!"
It seems that in the same way that you need to tap into this well of emotion while making music, you also need to do that with reality TV. You're there to put on a show.
You have to. And if I had gotten on TV with, "Reflection," I wouldn't have been where I'm at right now. I would have just been another character. But I was so, "Whoo!" But it was me. It was amazing to see people get in an uproar about little old me. I've been talking and doing this all my life.
Does it feel like self-expression to be on a reality show? Is there that creative satisfaction there?
You know what? I'm still on the fence about these reality shows. I feel like my fans need to really see me. My [forthcoming Love & Hip Hop spin-off] has been a journey and a struggle, and VH1 and I have spoken about it. It's been a struggle trying to find a balance in what the show is and what it's supposed to be. I'm a perfectionist. I want it right, but I don't think you can all the way tap into it like you do [in music]. I feel like my emotions show, but there's just something about music.
Some of the stuff you come up with is ingenious, like when you said that Joseline looks like she sleeps on beds without sheets. That's so specific.
But that's what I think!
It amazes me. When I watch you, I feel like I'm watching an artist whose medium is reality TV.
I was at an event, and Jamie Foxx, I didn't even know he would know little old me, he walked up to me, and said, "K. Michelle, you are the funniest woman on earth. I promise you you're going to be a huge actress." I said, "No. I'm a singer." He was like, "Yeah, until you see an acting check." He brought up a sitcom—I was originally and still might do it with him—he was like, "No more reality, you have to do scripted." He turned to [Love & Hip Hop creator Mona Scott Young], and was like, "No. She got to do scripted. This is her calling." Idris also said, "You need to do comedy." It's difficult to get opportunities for black actresses, so I'm just gonna create my own.
I hate to hear that. I hate to hear this high and mighty, "Oh my God, we're killing black women! And we're killing the world!" No. What are you saying? It's not our responsibility to fake our lives so that we can raise your child. That's your job. If this is my life, that is my reality, and that is what I have to live through, and if this is how I act, you're not going to judge me and say, "Oh you're destroying all African American women," because all of them relate to me. Some of them relate well to me. I think some people just like to talk to hear themselves talk.
That's for damn sure.
I think they be talking because nobody listened to them, and their mother didn't take good care of them. I think they just need that so they're going to fight against anything to get any response.
Is it ever hard to go back and watch yourself?
Never? You stand by everything?
I mean, everything isn't perfect. I didn't even watch Love & Hip Hop all the time when I was on it, because I already knew what was going on with the cast. I didn't really watch it then, I don't really watch it now. I watch some things because some things concern me.
Do you miss being on it? [K. Michelle left LHHA after Season 2, and only made a cameo appearance on the show's current third season.]
Is it stressful to be in that situation?
Yes. It's like you're fighting for your life. No one wants to get embarrassed on TV. It's like a war every time the cameras start rolling. It's a lot of pressure, it's like going to work. It's like a fight.
It seems like you're less embarrass-able than most people, even in your music.
'Cause I'm going to tell on myself. I'm going to say what it is. I'm not perfect. I feel like you fall higher from grace when you are faking and putting yourself on this pedestal of perfection. So I'm very open in saying, "This is what I do wrong. I shouldn't do it but I do it anyway." I'm just honest with it.
That honesty is a huge part of your brand. I'm not trying to box you in, but if you look at Mary J. Blige, that was the same case, and then over the years, she became more and more mainstream. She ironed out the kinks, and she lost some of her edge. Do you worry about losing your edge, and if you do worry about that, what will you do to keep your rawness?
I think with Mary, we grew with her. You change when you get older. Now we look at her as this legend and icon and we're grateful for the edge and the growth of her. We're happy about that. I think for me, I don't think I'm ever going to lose my edge because it's just...it's just me. Because of the honesty of Mary, I get that comparison. I'm always going to be honest in my music. With this album, I get to focus a lot more on me playing instruments and me doing the music I love. I grew up on country, so I have a country song on this album, I have records that can play in all formats. I think people will start to know who I am. Nothing wrong with being compared to a legend, but you still want to have your own identity.
With the instruments...
...and [I] can read music...
...you see very few female R&B singers who are playing their own instruments.
I've never pulled it out. People don't understand that I've been brought up in this. This wasn't something I just did because.
Does it frustrate you that people don't understand that?
Yes. It hurts.
Do you feel underrated?
Everybody says I'm underrated, even people that don't like me. I think you have to focus on the good. This year, I was nominated for three different awards, I won two. People never thought I would win Best New Artist [at the Soul Train Music Awards], Best New Artist at the NAACP Image Awards. It's a step. It's a process. There are artists who did good, and then they did great. You have to keep working at it and keep showing people who you are. That's why I'm so happy that VH1 allowed me to do this because they do get to see another side of me.
You have said variations of, "I could give two fucks what you think about me." But your paycheck depends on what people think about you, right?
No it doesn't.
How not? You have to sell records, right?
My paycheck depends on the music, but the thing is people want music. We are in need of music. I have had several people be like, "You know what? I don't like when you did that, but I love your music." That type thing.
So when you say "me," you mean you the person...
You don't have to like or agree with all of my actions, but you will respect my music.
Your personality is so tied to your music as a brand, though.
Yeah, but... The biggest problem people have with me is my opinions about others and my opinions about things. I tend to voice that.
And will never stop.
Do you see any other musicians as your peer in terms of honesty?
Pink. The Dixie Chicks, Natalie [Maines]. She'll say anything.
She paid the price for saying anything.
She sure did.
Are you willing to pay the price?
I'm doing it now. I'm always paying the price. If you pay attention, the greats who are really great took the biggest risks for the biggest payoffs. People say to me that to stray so far from my demographic with this sophomore album is a really tricky thing. "It could go really good or really bad—what are you gonna do?" I'm gonna be me as an artist, and musically I didn't put color or what you think it should be on this album. I didn't go in to create anything for another race, I just went in and did what I've been doing.
Are there deviations besides the country song?
Yeah. I still have R&B there. We're picking the single tomorrow. The one I really love is a rock song. It's rock and it has some R&B to it. It's really good.
When you talked about the greats, the one thing that they didn't have to deal with until recently was social media.
Yeah, I wish we didn't. It's good and bad. It's my downfall a lot. I wish we could still just be artists. I get mad at my comments, but I'm like oh my god, it's like that with all artists if you read their comments. It's just really bad.
It seems like that amount of feedback—good and bad—could be terrible for your work.
Well, now I don't read the comments. I put out a statement last week saying, "No longer." Because you're not going to ruin my day.
It hurts you.
I'm out here trying to do better. I'm a single mother. People don't ever talk about the fact that I go to shelters and talk to women. I'm out here doing things, and you're under my comments, trying to bring me down. I never understood the world was that miserable until social media. I did not know that many people were that unhappy.
[Image via Getty]