A New Beginning
While this transition is by no means novel, perhaps the quality and caliber of the artists are what’s most noteworthy. Such mainstream artists as Dave Hollister, Kenny Lattimore & Chante Moore, and Kelly Price have all released gospel albums within six weeks of each other (in this Fall of 2006). Perhaps the most notable name in this mix is the platinum-selling trendsetter named Cheryl Clemons, known to many as Coko, lead singer of Sisters With Voices (SWV).
GOSPELflava.com recently caught up with the trailblazer to talk about her career, her foray into gospel music, and her new album.
For Coko, Gospel music is by no means a new venture or singing experience. “I grew up in church,” she says. “I got my start singing in the children’s choir in Brooklyn New York. Hezekiah [Walker] and I went to the same church. Once he started his choir, I got into his choir. From there, I moved into SWV.”
Coko’s church experience was similar to many who grew up in the Pentecostal experience. With a strict upbringing, the transition into SWV was more of an expression of her dissatisfaction with church rather than a love for R&B music.
“At that time, I was a little fed up with what was going on in church and I just didn’t want to be there anymore,” admits Coko. “So when LeLee approached me about singing in the group, I just wanted to try a different experience. I went that route for a little while. I talked to a few people. Some understood and some didn’t. I had to do what I wanted to do for me, and that’s what I did. I went and did the SWV thing and did not expect anything to come of it or really blow up like it did. It all really happened so fast and there was no turning back after that.”
“When we were in church, it was just so strict,” continues Coko. “As a kid, it didn’t bother me because I didn’t know anything. That was all that I knew. As you get older and you’re in school, you learn other things. The things that the other kids were doing, I didn’t know about because we were in church all the time. As I got older, I just started to see things in church that I didn’t like. But, as I think back on some of the things we did in church and some of the things that I learned, I realize that it was good for me. I value that and use a lot of it in my life today.”
“It was a struggle at times because I knew that some of the things that we were singing we should not have been singing,” states Coko. “On the flip side, I just felt like doing what I wanted to do. Eventually, it got the best of me. I knew that I just couldn’t continue singing the things we were singing.”
After three albums with SWV, her own solo project, and a plethora of chart-topping hits, Coko opted to take some time away from the industry.
“RCA was closing down their Black Music department and they were just going to place me on another label without really asking me, so I just asked to be released,” reveals the former SWV lead singer. “I didn’t just want to be placed anywhere and they wouldn’t promote me or anything like that. I sat for a minute before they gave me a release. Once they gave me the release, I just went back to church. I was at Bishop Eric McDaniel’s church in the Bronx. His choir recorded and I did some features on his album while I was sitting. I also did some things with Youthful Praise and Brent Jones. I got married and had another baby. I was just enjoying my life, raising my kids, and growing spiritually and that’s how this Gospel thing came on.”
Coko began to enjoy life with a new marriage and family and had few concerns about resuming her musical career. But it was a musical contact that lit the fire that sparked her musical return.
“It’s weird. One day, I saw James Robinson [of GOSPELflava.com] and he was just like, ‘If I ever get in that position, I’m going to sign you to do a gospel record.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, Ok.” People talk all the time, you know?
Then, someone called me and told me that James was looking for me. I forgot how we finally got in contact, but we did. He told me, ‘I want to sign you. Remember what I said?’ [He was now VP of A&R at Light Records.] And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Really?’"
"It was weird because I had been just chillin’ for so long. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to just jump back out there and give up my privacy. But I knew it was just time for me to just get out there. There are certain things that I went through and I was able to make it. It was time to inspire people to keep going and not give up.”
Having been a prominent figure in R&B music for over a decade, the transition to the Gospel arena could be an interesting journey. Yet for Coko, it’s proven to be a welcomed adventure with great benefits for all of her followers.
“I have a lot of fans that are telling me that they have never even listened to gospel music and will listen now that I have a record coming out,” says Coko. “I think that’s awesome. On the Gospel side, a lot of people have said, ‘We knew you had it in you. We were just waiting for you to come on over and do what you needed to do.’ The response has been pretty positive. There may be some that are thinking one way but no one has said anything to me.”
There are many believers who work within the secular music industry both behind the scenes and in artist capacities. While some have made the transition to sing exclusively Gospel, Coko doesn’t necessarily see that as the blueprint for all to follow.
“I think that it’s all about what you sing and how you present yourself,” says Coko. “Everybody that sings Gospel is not saved. Let’s just keep it real. Just because you get up there and you can do all of the shenanigans, come on…don’t play with me!! I’m just saying that I know people in the secular world that are Christians and they sing love songs. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s all in the way you present yourself. You have to be careful what you say, how you present yourself and how you dress. You have to make sure that you’re getting across the right message.”
While the social transition from the secular to Gospel industry was successful, there were other differences that were immediately apparent during this move. “It’s a lot less money,” says Coko jovially. “The budget is a lot smaller. So you’ve got to do everything you’ve got to do on this small budget. For me, I kept going over my budget and I really wasn’t used to that. You also work with some people that are not used to dealing with someone like me or whatever and they don’t really know what to do, but we’re working it out. It’s a major adjustment but James [Robinson] warned me in the beginning. He said ‘I’m telling you right now. This is how it is.’ It’s different but I’m happy that I have somebody like James to tell me what’s what and to guide me. You can’t go wrong when you have somebody that knows what’s going on and that’s leading and guiding you in the right direction.”
Coko’s full-length gospel debut is titled “Grateful” and features twelve songs that masterfully showcase Coko’s vocal prowess and musical style within a gospel context. The album launches with “Look At Me”, a cover of the Tramaine Hawkins’ classic of the same name.
“Growing up in church, Tramaine was the biggest inspiration to me,” states Coko. “When I would get up in church to sing a solo, I would sing one of Tramaine’s songs. I thought I looked like her. I wanted to be like her. Whenever she came to town, my mom would try to take me to see her. She was like the biggest thing to me. I wanted to be a gospel singer and I was going to be just like Tramaine. ‘Look At Me’ was one of my favorites back in the day. I knew that I wanted to remake the record and I wanted it to be the first song on the album. Everybody saw that vision and supported it.”
In addition, Coko covers another gospel classic, The Clark Sisters’ “Endow Me”.
“I have ALWAYS loved The Clark Sisters,’ states Coko emphatically. “’Endow Me’ was always one of those songs that just stuck out in my head. I always wanted to remake this song with Faith [Evans] and Lil’ Mo. When we first started talking to James, I told him that this was one of the first songs that I wanted to do. He thought it was cool. I asked Faith and Mo and they were with it. Then Mo went and talked to Fantasia and Fantasia was like ‘Yeah, I want to do it!!’ I didn’t even know that she had said yes. I’m sitting in the hotel and they are playing the finished version and I hear this voice starting the song. I asked, ‘Who is that?’ My manager said, ‘That’s Fantasia!’ We weren’t even in the studio together. We all did our parts separately.”
As Coko has re-launched her solo career, she has found favor with her partners from SWV as they are doing appearances again as a group. “They love the project, especially Lelee,” says Coko. “They respect where I’m coming from. Now, there are a few songs that I don’t like to perform anymore and they have been removed from our show. They didn’t give me a hard time or anything about it. They know where I stand and how I feel and they are cool with it. I am grateful for that.”
Connecting back with the group was a challenge for Coko.
“It was hard, you know,” admits Coko. “Our friendship was the most important to me because we hadn’t spoken in years. Then we started speaking again because Teddy Riley wanted us to do something and I said ‘I don’t know because I don’t really talk to them anymore.’ But once we started talking, things just fell into place and we picked up right where we left off. We did this one show and the response was really crazy. Tons of other shows just started coming from that and I was a bit uncertain. Everyone suggested that I give it a try and I did and it was cool.”
As an established veteran within the industry, the award-winning vocalist offers keen advice to those interested in entering the music game.
“The industry is not what everybody thinks that it is,” states Coko candidly. “You can make a lot of money sometimes, depending on who you are. But the industry can really chew you up and spit you out. It’s crazy. The same people that will crown you and love you today are the same people who will dethrone you and won’t pay you any mind the next day. So you have to really, really know who you are when you’re getting in this industry. You have to stay focused. Don’t get caught up in the hype. That’s hard because everybody gets caught up in the hype when they start feeling themselves, gospel and secular. It’s easy to do but you’ve got to pull it in because it can really get out of hand. You have to surround yourself with positive people that can tap you on the shoulder and keep you grounded. A lot of us don’t have that.”
While many encouraged and desired Coko to do a gospel project earlier in her career, she’s convinced that the timing then was not right.
“I wasn’t ready then,” declares Coko. “I had to get to that point in my life where I was just ready. I tried a few years ago but I wasn’t ready. Spiritually, I wasn’t ready. Now is the time to just go ahead and do what God has called me to do.”
Being prepared spiritually for this new journey could not have happened without the presence of her new church family. Coko attributes her spiritual growth to her interaction with her local assembly.
“I go to a really small church and I love it,” states Coko. “We’re like a family. My pastor always prays for my husband and I when we have to go out on the road. He’s always checking up on us to make sure we’re OK. It’s not because it’s Coko and it’s Big Mike that plays with Israel [and New Breed], he really cares about our soul. I really like that. I appreciate him and his wife because they are there for us if we need them. He’ll tell you that he’s not trying to be perfect or like anyone else. He’s just trying to be what God’s called him to be. I respect him for all that he’s doing for the community and for the church. I really like that. He lives what he preaches and that is WAY important.”
As things have come full circle for the artist, Coko is poised to make a significant impact on the musical world with her Gospel debut, adding another chapter to her remarkable career while cementing her legacy.
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