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
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
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,
"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
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
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
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
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.