Icon, Unfiltered: Stephanie Mills Talks Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, and Why the Music Industry Doesn't Honor Black Artists

Illustration for article titled Icon, Unfiltered: Stephanie Mills Talks Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, and Why the Music Industry Doesn't Honor Black Artists
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET

Stephanie Mills has got opinions. Lots of ‘em.

The Grammy-award winning singer and actress best known for playing Dorothy in the original Broadway production of The Wiz is not one for holding her tongue. She’s now a woman of a certain age—read: She has no time for the BS. “I’m not apologizing about anything I say,” Mills told The Root. “If I said it, I meant it.”


Mills is an entertainer who came up in the mold of Motown—the “epitome of etiquette.” The label was a “school” that required musicians to have discipline and hone in on their craft. Most importantly, as she reminds us, artists needed to actually have talent. *Shots fired*

That innate talent and the discipline to sharpen said talent contributed to Motown artists having staying power. “The music that we made will live on forever. I don’t think a lot of the music that is recorded today will last and be here 10, 15 years from now.” Mills said. “Not even the artists—I don’t think there’ll be a lot of artists that will be here 20 years from now.”

Mills thinks that’s because today’s artists don’t understand what it takes to be of legend.

“These people make one record and they’re ‘legends,’” said Mills. “I believe that you have to work for it. I’ve been in the business since I was 9 years old.”

Ahead of her upcoming 2019 Jazz in the Gardens performance in Miami, Fl. on Sunday, March 10—because yes, her vocal folds are still perched—Mills chatted with The Root to share even more of her opinions—all of ‘em. (Well, obvi not all of them, but y’all get the point). Go off, Queen!

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity:

The Root: What were your thoughts on Jennifer Lopez’s Motown tribute at the Grammys?


Stephanie Mills: There were no Latino stars in Motown—only black people. So why she did that tribute? I have no idea. I didn’t like it. And you have Diana Ross there, you had Lalah Hathaway sitting out in the audience; you have all these people that you could’ve called, and I just don’t think it was appropriate for her to do that.

TR: What did you think of Aretha’s Grammys tribute?

SM: I thought it was nice but I didn’t think it was long enough. I think she had too many songs for them to get to split one song three ways. They could have each sang a bit of one of her songs. They gave Dolly Parton a lot of time; they should have given Aretha the same.


I think they don’t look at us like that. I honestly think that they don’t look at black artists—whether you’re been around for 100 years or whether you’ve been around for 10 years—they don’t look at us like that. They don’t honor us like they honor the white acts.

TR: Let’s talk about your performance in the 2018 Black Girls Rock! tribute to Franklin. How did they get you to sign on to the tribute?


SM: They asked me to come in and do the tribute. You know, I love Aretha. I had the chance to speak with her before she passed—Aretha was truly the queen and she let everybody know that.

TR: You used date Michael Jackson in the early ‘80s. I’m sure you’ve heard of HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary; did you watch it?


SM: I’m familiar with it but I won’t be watching it because he didn’t do the things—they said he was already clear. He went to court. So why are they doing it? It’s purely to make money. So, I will not be watching it, because I don’t believe any of that is true. I know for a fact that it’s not true.

TR: Any thoughts on R. Kelly?

SM: I believe that R. Kelly should go to jail for what he’s done. I don’t believe that his music should be muted. And I also believe that the handlers and his ex and his ex-wife and all of that to go to jail, too. You cannot tell me you live in a house with a man and you don’t know what’s going on. That is not true. I don’t believe that. She should go to jail, too. And so should the handlers that helped him.


TR: I’m curious as to why you don’t think they should mute his music.

SM: Him writing his music has nothing to do with that. Him being an entertainer and a star. And those parents bringing those children to the show and then allowing him— I have a son; there’s no way I would take my son to a Bruno Mars show, and say “OK, Bruno, you can mentor my son. I’m gonna let him stay with you.” There’s no way.


TR: Do you mentor any artists that are up-and-coming?

SM: I don’t think they have respect for us. I don’t think they would listen to us. Gladys Knight and I did the Soul Train cruise and we were having a conversation about how we would love to talk to our women. But I don’t think they respect us. I don’t think that they would listen to us.


TR: Any final suggestions for the next generation of performers?

SM: We go wrong when we try to be so “pop.” We have to stay true to who we are, because they don’t respect you, really when you’re trying to be like them. And we’ve seen that with your O.J. Simpson, and everything. Regardless of how popular you are, and how much you think you’re “in,” you’re not.


So you gotta stay true to who you are, do what you think is best for you and don’t do all the silly things—all the silly things that they want you to do, and tell you that if you do, they will give you ‘that.’ That does not work that way.

Afro-Cuban woman that was born and branded in New York. When León isn't actually creating cool videos, she's thinking of cool videos that she can create.



Not surprised she’s defending Michael Jackson. If she never watches Leaving Neverland her memories of him will never be altered.