The CoKo Cure

"Miss Understood"
Vibe Online
by: Joanne Eustache

There is always one star who outshines their counterparts. And they know this. Perhaps they suppress the urge to split because the thought of taking center stage as an individual made them insecure. Maybe they stay out of loyalty to the others. Lionel Richie experienced it with the Commodores. Diana Ross with the Supremes. Pattie LaBelle with the Blue Bells. To stay or not to stay--that was their perplexed question. The public always pushes for an immediate answer. They wait for the opportunity, then put a bug in the star's ear to consider going for dolo. The group members are not unsuspecting. They see it coming and brace for the inevitable. Eventually the equilibrium shifts, the observers win and the star finally decides to fly the coup.

History has repeated itself with trio SWV--the '90s version of the Blue Bells. But instead of Pattie, group siren Coko Gamble is the one jumping ship.

It comes as no surprise since, at 25, she's the oldest and the boldest of the three. Her temerity had always busted through with every pungent note she hit.

Despite it all seeming rosy from the outside--the glamour, the money and fame--things were not very sisterly in the SWV family. Needless to say, Coko isn't coy when telling the story. The Bronx, New York native candidly states the sisters fought about "anything. And it's not like we argued. I think if we would have argued and talked, it would have been better. But we just didn't say anything. The worst thing to do is to hold things in and not talk about it, and then it just builds up and builds up. Then it's just like, 'Okay, I can't take this anymore.' So we didn't argue, we didn't talk. The tension was thick."

But SWV was more than a family, it was a business. A multi-million dollar venture which had produced two platinum and one gold album and received nominations for Grammy, American Music and Source awards since its establishment seven years ago. Although Coko and group members LeLee and Taj didn't have much say in the biz, hardly wrote their own songs, and no longer got along, they did have an obligation to their label and each other.

"It's kinda' hard for me 'cause I'm not a great pretender." Trying to remain diplomatic, she continues, "And it comes across on stage and in the recordings and I don't feel like the fans should have to suffer because things aren't going well. I had the solo deal anyway, so I just pursued that."

Not to mention there were always the observers standing by. They knew just how to stroke a star's ego. Like a tiny devil on her left shoulder, they'd remind her of her lead singing prowess. She made the group. So why continue splitting the money three ways? But Coko insists her decision was not out of greed. "I make my own decisions, I do what I wanna do. To me it wasn't about the money, 'cause we were getting paid. It was deeper than that. Just like in a relationship, if I'm not happy, I'm leaving and that's that. And this is the happiest that I've been in a while."

What's keeping the singer happy these days? The completion of her new solo project, Hot Coko, for one. Like SWV's albums, Hot Coko maintains that same round-the-way girl feel, sandwiching danceable R&B grooves with hip hop beats. Some of the more generic crossover-wannabe tunes have been replaced with ones more personal to Coko, hitting topics specific to young, urban relationships like her song "Trifling" featuring Eve of the Ruff Ryders and "Try-Na Come Home."

With super-producer Rodney Jerkins blessing half the album with his platinum tracks, it's a given Hot Coko is banging.

Monica, Brandy, Jennifer Lopez and Whitney Houston and is now working with mega-pop acts like the Spice Girls, LeAnn Rimes and pop's king-Michael Jackson. But once again, Coko contends that snagging Jerkins wasn't another covert power move after America's most-wanted producer.

"I've known Rodney since he was like 15. When SWV was working on our second album, we wanted him, but people weren't giving him a chance 'cause he was so young and they didn't really believe in him. But he really did some nice stuff for SWV that didn't make the album. So throughout the years, we kept in contact and we would talk and I would say if I ever do my own thing, I'd want you to work with me. When he found out I was working on my solo album, he came through."

Coko's biggest joy, though, is her three-year-old son Jazz--the product of her former relationship with Ishmael a.k.a. Butterfly of the defunct group Digable Planets. She dedicates her first single, "Sunshine," to Jazz--which is also one of the five songs she got to co-write.

Her impenetrable demeanor melts away to expose her vulnerable side when she speaks of her child. Gratefully, she utters, "When I look at him, I'm like, 'He's mine, really?' I just can't believe it. Just little things he does, he just makes me so happy." Her motherly grin stretches from ear to ear when she brags about the trophy he just won in karate. "He's a yellow belt," she grimaces. "He wants to be a black belt really bad. I have to explain to him, 'You have to go through the different stages to get there.'"

Beyond sharpening her motherly expertise, Coko has grown in other areas. Her relationship with the Sisters has improved. While she no longer speaks to LeLee she says there is no more tension or bitterness. As for Taj, Coko maintains a friendship for the sake of her son, who is Taj's godchild. "I know for a fact that I've matured a lot. When people see me they're like, 'There's something different about you.' When I was in the group, I was dark. I was angry all the time and I couldn't even tell you what I was angry at."

Coko isn't unaware of the reputation that preceded her, either. "Everybody's like, 'She's the bitch of the group,' or 'She's real mean or nasty.' But you know, they don't know me. You don't know what I'm going through or what's going through my head. And, like I said, the group was having problems."

As the singer ventures out on her own to prove herself once again, there is only one thing she wants the observers to make note of. "To know me is to love me. That's all I have to say."

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