The CoKo Cure
"Coko Motion"
Black Elegance Magainze - October 1999
By Raqiyah Mays

With a solo album behind her, and her family now handling her business affairs, the honey-voiced former SWV front woman isn't planning on missing a beat.

Coko looks good. She's munching on takeout from McDonald's and is deep in conversation. I can tell because she has that side-to-side Black girl head action going on, while she waves her finger in the air like an impatient child trying to get a point across. She's outfitted in a fierce long leather jacket and a fitted brown dress that ever so tightly outlines every move she makes while waiting for her Manhattan photo shoot to begin. Introductions are made, and Coko flashes a beautiful smile as she enthusiastically says, "Hi! Nice to meet you!" I like her vibe already. Close up, I see the makeup is on thick. But Coko has natural beauty. She's got this smooth mocha complexion that appropriately defines why Cheryl Gamble's nickname will forever be "Coko".

But what happened to SWV, or as it was officially known, Sisters With Voices? Why did Coko leave? Where's her head at? We all know the background. A year ago, Bronx native Cheryl "Coko" Gamble announced her dicision to leave SWV. There can be no replacement for the lead singer that carried the RCA group through three albums: 1992's It's About Time, 1996's New Beginning, and 1997's Release Some Tension. Fans like me were heartbroken to know that another one of our favorite female groups--the homegirls, the around-the-way girls, the ones who first rocked construction boots and miniskirts--would never sing together again. All the memories of old boyfriends come to mind when I think of their unforgettable love song "Weak"-a double platinum single that I remember dedicating to whoever I thought I was in love with at the time.

Although fans may be disappointed, Coko couldn't feel better about it all. Her debut solo album, Hot Coko (RCA), dropped last month, and the first single, "Sunshine", is getting regular radio play on stations across the country. The sole taint on her happiness? "I wanted to change 'Sunshine' to 'Sonshine,'" she notes, "but it was too late".

The "son" in "shine" is Coko's reference to her three-year old child Jazz, the light of her life who inspired her to write "Sunshine". "Jazz makes me feel good. I've been really happy since I had him. He's only three, but his conversation is like, 'Okay, mom, let's just sit down and have a talk.'" Like most parents do as they talk about their children, Coko glows. And her aura remains consistently bright as she speaks of Jazz's father, Ishmael, from the rap group Digable Planets.

At the height of the group's career, Coko presented a Grammy to Ishmael. And after months of playing cat and mouse, Coko says, their relationship progressed from Ishmael's off-hand remark, "Yo! Can I get a date," to their managers exchanging numbers, the twosome actually going out, their making a connection, a full-fledged love affair and, ultimately Ishamel's 48 hours of silence after watching Coko give birth to Jazz, named in honor of Ishmael's preferred choice in music.

But Coko says she's not in love anymore. "I think we were in love at one point. And we could actually get back together. But we're actually more like brother and sister," she says. "He tells me all about his girlfriends. I tell him who I'm dating. We get mad at eachother, but then next week we're back tight again."

A spiritual woman--naming gospel artists like Vicky Winans, Men Of Standard, and Karen Clark Sheard's sister Twinkie Clark as her favorites--Coko grew up in the Pentecostal church. Raised by her mother in a household where her father was "in and out," Coko seems to be a little skeptical about that so-called lifetime bonding line, "Till death do you part." "If I could have, I would have been married when I had Jazz. My mother was upset that I wasn't married," Coko says. "And I always say that if I do decide to have children again, I'd like to be married. Do it the right way. But even if you get married, you get divorced. I'm not into it as much as my mom."

Coko's mother, Tibba Gamble, is sitting in the photoshoot kitchen. She has long, brown extentions--braided midway, allowing for free-flowing hair at the bottom--with a curly bang on her forehead. She's an attractive caramel-colored woman, wearing a floral print dress that almost touches the floor as she sits in her chair. But I can tell that Mom is no lightweight by the way her penetrating eyes bear down on me with a look that says, "You better not ask me any crazy questions."

Tibba is sitting next to her brother, Bennie Diggs, a charming fast talker who's dressed in a cream linen outfit and has been in the business for years. A bit more open than his sister, he smoothly watches my every move. I can see why Coko feels so secure about her career's future. Since the beginning of the year, her mother, who heads up Lady Tibba Management, and her uncle, CEO of Abandon Artists, have been Coko's managers. Together they form a firm, protective team.

"When Coko got pregnant, one of her friends was like, 'Don't tell your mother.' But Coko said, "No, I tell my mother everything," Mama Gamble proudly announces. "She knew she could come to me with anything. I wanted her to be married, but I was still very happy she was having a child. That was the seed of my seeds."

Lady Tibba is no stranger to the music business. In her younger days as a gospel singer with the New York Community Choir, she traveled around the country singing in various states, always bringing her daughter along with her. It's no wonder Coko takes her son wherever she goes. And if she can't bring Jazz with her, mom is right there to baby-sit. Like mother like daughter.

"You should see them together. They need to be a sitcom, they're so close," Uncle Bennie explains. "They think alike. They react alike. When my sister grew up, she was kind of withdrawn. Coko was like that." Coko interrupts Bennie as she peeks her head into the kitchen door and walks over to give her mother some jewelry to hold. Uncle Bennie continues," They're like the same person. When I look at Coko now, I remember my sister when she was that age--that same kind of attitude with an incredible voice."

Coko's family is tight, blessed with an abundance of love and spirituality. That's why she keeps them around her. She says they keep her grounded--keep her real. Their presence alone reminds of of the time she was in first grade and ran home to tell her mother she heard one of the kids say, "She got those pants on again." Mama Gamble never stopped making Coko's clothes for years thereafter. You always remember where you came from when your family is around, staring you right in the face, ever so ready to tell you, "You're wack. Sit down." And these days, women need all the support they can get. Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige, who often travel with their family members, have come to this realization. If anyone is going to be there for you, it's family.

"I take Jazz with me. I don't leave him home with a nanny," Coko emphasizes. "Even if you're on the road, you can still watch your kids. My mother helps me out a great deal. I don't know what I'd do if she wasn't there. They key is letting your children know they are loved, you're here for them, and they can talk to you."

Coko is also ready to get open about the breakup of SWV, and admits that the decision wasn't "mutual--it was me," she says. "I didn't feel like I could grow and work in that situation. I was very unhappy." Coko sounds sincere. Like someone who's thought about and rehearsed an answer to a question she will be asked for the rest of her career.

In a recent interview on a nationally syndicated radio show, Coko shared her discontent. "To me, the worst thing is not speaking at all. That you hold everything in and it keeps building up and building up. There was no communication. I got to the point where I felt like I was going to explode.

"From the beginning of the third album (which was ironically called Release Some Tension)," Coko goes on to say, "I tried to stick it out. I thought we just needed a break from one another, I could work on my solo project, and we could come back, but I knew it was time. I really don't want to go back. There is no reunion."

So SWV turns out to be another chapter in the ongoing saga of female groups that break up and never make up--The Supremes, En Vogue, Jade. Why can't sisters get along? Why is it that so many Black women only have a few close female friends, but a slew of platonic male friends? What's up? "We go through things," Coko says point-blank. "Females are catty. That's the bottom line. We've been like that for years."

Dawn Robinson, formerly of En Vogue, a group that, like SWV, took a trip to Splitsville after ten years of togetherness, has her own theory. "I think men are smarter when it comes to putting their personal stuff beside," she says. "I think guys do that all day. They speak to eachother." And Dawn has a different take on women. "There are so many little things that women get jealous about. It's sad. When I find the women that I really like to be around, it's rare. We uplift eachother instead of bringing each other down. It's not about who sings better. It's about supporting."

Friends since high school, SWV originally appeared under the name "Female Edition". Group members Taj, Lelee, and Coko got their big break after meeting the mother of record producer Donald Bowden. But, unfortunately, long-lasting female friendships do not always endure. Coko has remained friendly with Taj, the godmother of Jazz. But her friendship with Lelee seems to be much like SWV--dead. Coko doesn't believe, however, that it was jealousy that killed the sisters. She attributes outside influences as one reason. "I don't think Taj and Lelee started thinking about singing lead until other people started talking, making them doubt themselves. If we were tight and strong, other people wouldn't have been able to come in and feed things in one another's minds."

Drama! Drama! I guess we'll have to wait till the VH-1 special or the tell-all book to find out what really happened behind the scenes. But today, in 1999, Coko is happy. SWV is behind her and she's in control of her life and career. She's co-writing with Rodney and Fred Jerkins, producing and manifesting her future as Cheryl "Coko" Gamble wants it to be. This is only the beginning. "I'm looking at longevity," she says. "I want to continue to sing. I want to get into movies. I want to start a gospel label. I want to get married and have different businesses. I want to be well-respected in the business. I'm the happiest I've ever been. I can see myself where no one can see me." Coko is on her way to getting everything she wants, because she's taken the first and most difficult step--finding happiness with herself.

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