If you were to ask Amber Riley what she’s been up to since COVID-19 swept across America this past March, she’d tell you, “Honestly, staying my ass at home.” But that’s not entirely true.
Since the spring, the actress and activist has taken to the streets of Los Angeles to use her voice to protest everything from the criminalization of the mentally ill to the silencing of the Black experience in Hollywood with her newly launched platform #unMUTEny. Most notably, she led a group of peaceful protestors in singing Beyoncé’s triumphant anthem “Freedom” as they demanded justice for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in front of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home at the end of May.
The scene of the entertainer belting out “I break chains by myself” while compelling the crowd to sing along with her was the truest representation of who Riley is: naturally gifted, firm in her identity, and tenacious when it comes to making things happen. It’s a commanding side of the 34-year-old some may not be familiar with, but that’s only because they haven’t been paying attention.
Before I go on, I should let you know there’s been a bit of a name change in the past month. Coinciding with the release of her six-track debut EP “RILEY” on October 2, the singer adopted the name for herself as well.
“RILEY is my Sasha Fierce, you know, but at the same time, it’s me,” she explains. “I wanted people to understand that they’re about to be introduced to who I really am as opposed to what everyone has already decided that I am.”
It’s a common conundrum for entertainers who are introduced to the masses before they’ve had a chance to form their own identity or achieve a level of fame that doesn’t render them disingenuous. “I was on ‘Glee’ which is a very predominantly white show that geared toward a white audience but I am very Black. I am from Compton, California. I had a very hood upbringing. You know what I’m saying?”
RILEY details aspects of life growing up in the largely working-class city on the track “Hood Living” with BJ The Chicago Kid. Lyrics like, “Saw the world how we want it to be/ sometimes we couldn’t face the reality/ that it’d be no lights, no heat, sleeping head to feet” dredge up memories of RILEY’s dreams as a little girl.
“I wanted the opposite of that in some ways. I wanted to be able to take care of my family. I wanted us to live in a home, not an apartment. I wanted a backyard. I wanted dogs!”
Time has revealed RILEY’s wants weren’t far off from what would become her reality as a young adult. She recalls an instance at the age of 8 when her mom asked her to clean up her room and she told her, “I don’t need to clean my room because I’m going to have a housekeeper when I get older and I’m never going to learn how to drive because I’m going to have a limo take me everywhere.”
Having starred as Mercedes Jones on the hit Fox comedy-drama “Glee” for six seasons, portrayed Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, in NBC’s live performance of “The Wiz,” and taken the stage as Effie White in the Savoy Theater production of “Dreamgirls” in London’s West End, RILEY most certainly doesn’t have to get behind the wheel of a car if she doesn’t want to. But that’s not her style; nor is it the image she wants to portray with her debut project. “I wanted to show the different side, another side of myself– the real side, the everyday side of myself and that’s the homegirl. That’s the hood chick.”
If you’ve seen more than a few IG photos with the caption “Big Girl Energy” lately, you can thank RILEY, who took the phrase to the next level with her song “BGE.”
“Big girl energy is so many things,” she says excitedly. “It’s about putting your big girl panties on doing exactly what it is you need to do. It’s a feeling. It’s a mood. You know what I’m saying? It’s a lifestyle. It’s how you present yourself to the world.”
RILEY laid the BGE blueprint with the video for the single which was directed by Child. There’s a sensual cockiness RILEY, who describes her style as “girly tomboy chic,” displays as she sways to the beat in moves choreographed by Jemel McWilliams while wearing pieces from the Slauson Super Mall styled by Casey “iCON Billingsley”. In a word, the audiovisual project could be described as a vibe. But there’s a bigger message being conveyed as RILEY cruises down the street next to her real-life boo – a former model whose DMs she slid in (“I just wanted to say hi,” she claims)– in an old-school Cadillac singing about her man watching her while she’s asleep.
“Big girls are not out here [desperate]” she says, detailing a line in the song that asks a man when he’s leaving. “I literally wrote that to talk my sh-t.”
“There may be some that have low self-esteem – for good reason— because this world tries to make it seem like fat women shouldn’t exist. Not fat men so much. They don’t get the same bullsh-t that we have to deal with.”
Being careful with her energy and whom she allows in her space has protected RILEY from a lot of negative dating experiences. But she’s keenly aware of the self-hating stereotype that causes some men to mistake big girls’ kindness for weakness “because you know, I am kind but I am not nice,” she says in a tone that lets me know she doesn’t play.
“I wrote that song ‘Big Girl Energy,’ that was part of the reason that I wrote it, to just be like we not out here chasing y’all. What? You think I have low self-esteem and you just gone treat me any kind of way? I’ll move on to the next.”
The significance of a big girl being desired on-screen is magnified by the inclusion of influential women in RILEY’s life who reciprocate the magnetic energy she gives off as they surround her with their essence.
“I wanted a bunch of beautiful Black women in my music video—all different shades, all ages, sizes personifying big girl energy, whether that’s I’m with my man, I’m with my woman. I had Mayor Aja Brown, the Mayor of Compton, my hometown. She was in the video. She’s taking care of business. I had Jordin Sparks who’s a mommy but also a freaking superstar. Gabourey Sidibe, director, actor, writer, author, producer, all of those things— big girl energy. My mother was in there with my niece. My sister was in there. My homegirls— I specifically curated and asked certain people in my life to be in the video.”
When you learn the bigger picture RILEY has in mind with the movement she’s creating, the significance of each of those women is obvious. “BGE isn’t just a name,” she shares. ‘It’s actually the name of my company, BGE, Inc.”
In the future, a potential project under that umbrella could include launching a fitness clothing line, but for now, RILEY is focused on music. As executive producer and writer for her EP, she’s gaining the type of experience needed to accomplish her longer-term goals with her label and production company, BGE Entertainment.
“Eventually, because I do know so many amazing artists, I really want to be able to sign people and kind of launch them. I want to do it in a way where people have ownership of their creative. Have ownership of your masters. I’m not trying to take anything that’s created, but I do want to figure out how to help you distribute and all that kind of stuff and that is because I had the learning process from this last year of doing all this trial and error, so I’m really learning the business of music.”
It was RILEY’s therapist who encouraged her to begin recording music again last summer. The singer was actually starting to get comfortable with the idea of releasing music early in 2019, but then she was struck with what she describes as a terrible bout of anxiety and depression.
“I’ve dealt with anxiety my whole entire life and didn’t know I was dealing with depression at all so I ended up having to take the time to get help, to talk about stuff, get some stuff out, and then as I’m going through the healing process I was like, alright, let’s get back into the studio. I’m still going through this depression and anxiety pretty badly, you know what I’m saying, but let me use music as my therapy.”
Keisha is the name RILEY gave her depression after her therapist encouraged her to personify it, and as of late, she’s been kicking Keisha’s ass. She’s been handling anxiety pretty well too after realizing one of its major causes.
“Part of my anxiety had to do with my size,” RILEY says, explaining she’s had curves since she was a kid. “I was overly sexualized when I was young so I’d always dress in big t-shirts and shapeless stuff my whole entire life. I didn’t like that I had hips already. I didn’t like that I had boobs. I hated it because I didn’t like that kind of attention. Being young, I didn’t know that people oversexualized Black girls in general.”
As a means of coping, RILEY attempted to draw people’s attention away from her physical appearance by overplaying other attributes, like the fact that she was smart and funny and could sing. Eventually, she began to feel like people only appreciated her for how she could entertain them and that didn’t feel good either.
“That doesn’t work. You can’t live your whole entire life ignoring yourself and that’s what I did. It got to the point where I didn’t know who I was because I didn’t accept myself wholly. I accepted myself as a talent, that’s where I found my value, but I didn’ accept myself and where I was in my body. Although I thought I was beautiful and I did get attention, that wasn’t the issue; it was an inner issue. It didn’t have anything to do with guys. It had more to do with me being able to look in the mirror and mean it when I say that I’m beautiful.”
As RILEY got older, the inner work of self-acceptance began to manifest in different ways, like recognizing food as a language and discovering how eating and exercise affect her mood. But outer forces continued to prey upon the TV star, again relegating her body as an object to be dissected by others.
“I don’t really f-ck with the body-positive community. I was pushed into it when I was on ‘Glee,’ which was crazy because I was young. I hadn’t even decided who I was and what I wanted to be. I just was this size on national television.”
It’s an all too common quandary for women who enter the entertainment industry at any size above a six and dare lose so much as a pound. Personal decisions to lose weight suddenly become public debates as assumptions about motive and accusations surrounding self-esteem flow freely from fans’ fingertips.
“How the f-ck am I fat-phobic and I’m fat?” RILEY says in reference to criticism she’s received. “Please make it make it make sense!”
The once unspoken expectation for plus-size women in the entertainment industry to remain plus-size – lest they be seen as giving in to societal norms— has morphed into an obligation, and those who don’t play the game are often ridiculed.
“My body is mine. I don’t need a community telling me what to do with it. I always have to be 100 percent real with myself.” She also has a word that might help others be more real with themselves as well. “Honestly, if your confidence is predicated on the way that I look, it’s not confidence. I’m not anybody’s idol. Don’t worship me. Don’t get used to me being any size. I can get bigger, I can get smaller. I’m going to love myself either way, but I’m not asking for permission.”
Being forced into the position of a role model for women and girls while playing a character that didn’t have quite that same agency, as was the case with Mercedes on “Glee,” presented its own challenges for RILEY. “I did feel sometimes like I was the punching bag on the show and what I mean by that is that everyone got made fun of, which I’m not opposed to, but I don’t feel like I ever got that moment to show what I could do. It’s a difference when you are the butt of a joke but you get the last laugh, but when you’re just constantly just the punchline or the butt of the joke that wears on you.”
RILEY has since had conversations with the show’s creators about her experience on the series which she says involved “More laughing than crying for sure.” But being outside the bubble of television hasn’t stopped people from continuing to project their weight issues on her.
“It’s unfortunate, as a Black woman, I put a picture up of me in a bathing suit and all I see is ‘Confidence! Oh my god, your confidence.’ No, my ass! I look good. I look the f-ck good. That’s why I posted it. I think I look amazing. It doesn’t have anything to do with confidence, but it’s sad that it is that way because the world makes us feel like we should– this is women in general– the world makes us feel like I’m here to please you or I need to be aesthetically pleasing to you in order to move in this world comfortably. And if you don’t want to have sex with me or if you don’t desire me sexually, then I should not consider myself sexy, or I am some kind of an anomaly because I do.”
Seeing RILEY so settled is soothing to my spirit, even if it is through a camera lens on a Zoom video conference call. Like many this year, she’s had to process deeply personal losses within the context of larger societal ills coming to ahead on a national and international scale. One such loss was the death of “Glee” castmate Naya Rivera who drowned at Lake Piru on July 8.
“I think grieving is a never-ending thing,” she says. “Many people often think that grieving is a destination. Some days I think of her and I laugh and some days I think of her and I cry. I also lost an incredible friend to suicide this year who is an incredible writer and I was looking forward to working with her, Jas Waters. So that was really difficult. She committed suicide and she died a couple of weeks before Naya so it was like a double blow. It was very, very hard to come to terms with, but we’re making sure that we look out for her son because she was an incredible mother and if anybody knows Naya, she loved Josey. She loved that boy and I’m looking after her mommy too.”
Music continues to be a big part of her healing process, and with her EP officially released, RILEY’s attention is now turned to completing her debut album, which she plans to release next year. “We need feeling, we need heart, especially with everything that we are going through. … It was very interesting to me to see when coronavirus happened, everyone turned to the arts because we know that’s where you find healing and that’s where you find your peace.”
Prioritizing her mental health and protecting her energy, big girl, and otherwise, are also of utmost importance to RILEY as she looks to 2021.
“I live a life of gratitude and I try to just be satisfied. With every level that I’m at, I try to find satisfaction there that if this is where it stops and this is as good as it’s gonna get, I need to be happy with that. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying and achieving and going after what I want, but finding some kind of satisfaction and happiness with where I am because it could be worse.”
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