The CoKo Cure

"FLY and SOLO"
Honey Magazine, Winter 2000
by: Felicia A. Williams

After six years of belting her heart out as SWV's front woman, Coko, one of the hood's most distinctive songbirds, has finally stepped out on her own.

In the late evening haze, peals of little girl laughter bubble from just behind parked cars on 37th street. Two afro puffs fly past Rocket Studio's metal door and continue to the end of the block. The girl, no taller than the cars that line the street, has on roller blades, but doesn't quite know how to make them work until her footwise, cornrowed counterpart pushes her from behind. The two giggle as they gain momentum, leaving a third girl back in front of the door to the studio. Without noticing, her friends fly past her, she spins around in her own roller blades in a kind of controlled reckelssness. First, too fast, then wobbly, then steady.

"In the beginning, we were friends, and that was the good part," Cheryl 'Coko' Gamble says of her relationship with Taj and Lelee, the other two members of the now defunct R&B trio SWV. She sits cross legged in the studio lobby where loud music drowns out the child's play downstairs. "We didn't need anyone else from the outside to have fun in the beginning. And on our first album, we learned together."

But that was then, before the mulit-platinum success of their 1992 debut It's About Time, and the two subsequent albums, New Beginning and 1997's Release Some Tension. Before they became Sisters With Voices singing memorable singles like "Right Here" and "Weak", they were the proverbial three friends from The Bronx (Coko) and Brooklyn (Taj and Lelee) who wanted to start a group. It was Coko's distinctive, statuesque around-the-way voice that gave the group their individuality.

Now, nearly seven years later, Coko, the unnoficial leader, is taking her voice on the road alone. Her solo debut, Hot Coko, presents Coko's progression of vocal and personal growth, capturing the singer's gospel trained talent in songs about love, trials and happiness. During rehearsal at Rocket Studios, Coko's voice flies above the DAT like something free.

"After the first album, everyone was shouting,'Coko! Coko!' and that became a problem," she explains, smoothing the bandana covering her shoulder-length hair. A cock of an eyebrown, then: "I didn't have a problem with sharing the microphone; I just felt like we are all in this together, we are all getting a check, we should all be happy."

After the release of Tension, the building resentment peaked, and neither friendship, nor work could keep them together. "We did not get along anymore. Bottom line." Coko explains, nodding her head for emphasis. "It was to the point where we would do shows and we wouldn't be speaking, and it's hard to perform if you're not speaking," Coko recalls, laughing back at the incredible difficulty the group was having. "You are supposed to interact with one another, and we were like, 'What is she doing here?'"

Coko, Taj and Lelee tried to reconcile their differences, but ultimately they all knew their working relationship had come to an end. Ironically, Coko, the one member who had proven she could sustain a solo career, was willing to try to keep the group together. "I'll put it to you this way: Two wanted [the group] and one didn't. I wasn't the one who didn't." With a tone of finality, Coko says that she hasn't stayed in contact with Lelee because their problems were "too big to get into." Every now and then she speaks to Taj, who is persuing a modeling career, because she is the godmother of Coko's four year old son, Jazz.

Four male dancers practice their brake dance solos while Coko's co-managers [her mother and uncle] sit along the wall yelling 'Sing it!' when Coko hits the high notes on "Bigger Than We," one of Hot Coko's impressive, stirring ballads. Between songs, Coko walks back and forth through the studio with the choreographer. Jazz, no taller than Coko's hip, runs around playing, making his way back to grab his mother's long legs in short intervals, as if she were base in a game of freeze tag.

When Coko returns to the mic, Jazz tries a brief sound check himself, singing the chorus on "Sunshine," the album's first single, in a surprisingly accurate, juvenile key. But the cutie who's missing his two front teeth in the "Sunshine" video has music in his genes. Coko's mom, Lady Tibba, is a gospel vocalist who sang backup for folks like Josephine Baker and Elton John. To hear Lady Tibba tell it, Coko's been singing since she was 11 months old and, at Tibba's urging, practiced for an hour everyday as a child. Not to mention Jazz's father, Ishmael Butler, also known as Butterfly of the hip hop trio Digable Planets, a man who has his own way with words and a beat. Just as Jazz (the genre) was borne of the unlikely marriage of gospel and blues, Jazz (the son) was borne into a love between two seemingly incompatible musicians.

"People would ask us, 'What do y'all talk about?' because we're really different," says Coko of her ex. A shy laugh gets caught in her voice. "I watch TV, he doesn't. I eat fired food and pork. He doesn't. So some things were really weird, but he taught me a lot and he learned some things from me. But I think we were too different for it to really last." Coko smiles as she talks of him, and though she initially claimed she was mad at Ishmael at the time of the interview, it's clear the two are still good friends.

"He's a good father," she continues, "and he was special. We have a special bond, a special relationship." Raising her eyebrows and lightening her tone, she adds, "He's a good man. He's going to make somebody a good husband." Her current beau, D-Roc, manages Lil' Kim and Lil' Cease.

You may imagine that breaking up with her man, splitting up with her group, an recording a solo album all within two years would leave Coko weary and frowning. She's smiling now more than ever. Instead of focusing more on the negative aspects of the changes she's gone through, Coko recognizes the blessings. "The past year has been really good for me. I've been happy," she says. Coko understands why some saw her as "the mean one" in SWV, as she spent much time angry. "I can't pretend I'm happy when I'm not. And when the group broke up, I just felt a release."

In the studio when everyone claps and yells after she hits a note clear enough to give anyone within hearing range goose bumps, Coko smiles like a little girl who just figured out how to spin on her own.

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