It took a pandemic, a national reckoning over race, plus some well-timed words from a friend, but after nearly 17 years away from recording studios, R&B icon Stephanie Mills is back in the business of making music.
Last week, Mills, 64, who recorded some of the best love-making music of the 1970s and ’80s and famously portrayed Dorothy in the Broadway musical “The Wiz,” was inside a historic church in uptown Charlotte, where she and a local crew filmed a music video to accompany the release of her upcoming single, “Let’s Do The Right Thing.”
Unlike the love songs that earned her a 1981 Grammy Award and countless other honors, Mills’ latest offering delivers a message of Black empowerment.
“The message is for Black people to come together and do the right thing for us, not to look to others to help us or give us a helping hand,” Mills said during a break from filming inside Historic Grace AME Zion Church on Brevard Street.
The song will be released on June 19 — Juneteenth — a date rich in Black symbolism.
With all that has happened over the past year, Mill said, she wanted to “come out with something that was positive.”
Her manager, Amp Harris, compared the song and its socially conscious message to the 1971 classic “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye.
“Stephanie is really about uplifting her people. She is really about Black power,” he said. “It’s just a moving, positive, uplifting song for people of color.”
Harris said he and Mills, who has called the Charlotte area home for 30-plus years, talked often during the pandemic and what he calls “the George Floyd Movement.”
“She didn’t want to just do another song about, you know, love, relationships,” he said. “She wanted her first single coming out to be talking about bringing our people together.”
The video, which will debut in New York City, also around Juneteenth, includes four local artists who are seen painting interpretive images of Mills as the diminutive performer — she stands about 4 feet 9 inches — intones around them. (Vocally, she hasn’t lost a step.)
Although Mills has continued to tour, she has not released a single since 2012 or a studio album since 2004. “Her first and main priority,” Harris said, is caring for her son, who has Downs Syndrome.
Mills admits to being somewhat surprised by her own return to a recording studio. She had vowed to put that part of her life career her, said Harris, who has managed Mills for the last four years.
“She started in the business at nine, ten, eleven years old, and she’s been going ever since,” he said. “And so just the ups and downs, the political things that artists have to deal with behind the scenes with record labels and contracts and all of those things.”
What changed, Mills said, was the persuasion of Charles Randolph-Wright, a writer, producer and director for television and Broadway, who grew up in York, S.C. Randolph-Wright was an executive producer and producing director of the television series “Delilah,” which was filmed in Charlotte and aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). He and Mills describes one another as longtime friend.
“I said to her, ‘I need some new music… Your old music costs too much. I need some new music to play around with,’ and Stephanie started writing music,” he recalled.
Randolph-Wright said that when he first read the lyrics, he declared the song an “anthem.”
Both sides agree that the project came together quickly, and somewhat unexpectedly. But now with the song done and the video nearing completions, the two are making plans for further collaborations.
“None of this was really planned,” Mills said.
As Covid-19 led to months of fear and social isolation, Mill spent much of her time writing music and working on an upcoming book about raising a special-needs child. Parents of children with Downs Syndrome, she said, often attend her concerts.
Mills makes no bones about her political beliefs.
“I am so glad that we have a new president and a madam vice president,” she said, recalling days last year when she “cried and cried and cried” while watching the news.
“I think we are climbing out of that darkness, and I think we are going to come back to, you know, some kind of normalcy, which is very, very important,” she said. “This year and a half has been tough for a lot of people — for everyone — so I’m glad we’re finally coming out of it. A lot of people have passed away, people in my family, other family members I have known who had people pass away.”
Mills said it feels good be writing and performing new music, especially since she is doing it all this time as an independent artist.
Harris, her manager, calls it “Stephanie Mills uncut, with her own heart, her own vision, her own mindset.”
“That was really important to her…having her own independence as a black woman and still having a voice that people listen to,” he said.
When asked whether “Let’s Do The Right Thing” marks the emergence of a new Stephanie Mills, the singer was quick to shoot down any such suggestion.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a new Stephanie,” she said. “This Stephanie has always been there. I just think this is a more maybe conscious Stephanie that wants to really express how she feels about what’s going on in the world. That’s important to me. We live in this world, and I have an opinion, and I want to talk about it and say it.”