Brandy, one of the biggest music and TV stars of the 1990s and early 2000s, has stayed busy in the years since with a stream of singles, TV and movie roles, reality show appearances and the occasional Broadway detour. But the summer of 2020 amounted to a kind of pop culture re-emergence for her.
First came “B7,” her seventh studio album and first in nearly eight years. The day after the record’s release, Netflix began streaming all six seasons of “Moesha,” the hit UPN sitcom that tackled social issues through the lens of a Black upper middle-class family and turned Brandy into a household name. Then a few weeks later after that, she reunited with the singer Monica on the beloved hip-hop and R&B webcast Verzuz, in a battle that has garnered over six million views.
Coincidentally, last summer was also when producers began developing an even more high-profile project for her: “Queens,” a prime-time musical drama premiering Tuesday on ABC. The series centers on four estranged women in their 40s who reunite hoping to recapture the glory they had as the Nasty Bitches, a fictional ’90s hip-hop group.
Brandy, 42, will play Naomi, also known as Xplicit Lyrics, who was the highly skilled engine of the group but failed to find mainstream success as a solo artist. When the group gets back together, Naomi must confront her past by repairing her relationship with her distant daughter, who is also a musician, and by getting reacquainted with both the only man she has ever loved, played by Taylor Selé, and the bandmate who stole him from her, played by Nadine Velazquez. Eve, another former chart-topping performer, Naturi Naughton and Pepi Sonuga round out the primary cast.
With its combination of melodrama and musical performances, “Queens” offered Brandy a chance to flex all of her performance muscles. “I remember how Broadway made me feel,” she said in a recent interview, referring to her acclaimed four-month run, in 2015, as Roxie Hart in “Chicago.” (She has since reprised the role on Broadway and in touring productions.) “I felt so good doing Broadway, and I was like, ‘If I could do something like this for television, this would be amazing.’”
The “Queens” creator Zahir McGhee, a longtime rap fan best known as a writer and producer on shows like “Scandal” and “For the People,” conceived the series with the specific goal of mining ’90s hip-hop nostalgia. He enlisted the help of Sabrina Wind (“Desperate Housewives,” “Devious Maids”), who signed on as an executive producer, and Swizz Beatz, the rapper and co-creator of Verzuz, who is the executive music producer. For the cast, he wanted to find artists who could not only rap and sing but also felt authentic to the era, and he had two names in mind from the beginning: Brandy and Eve (who plays Brianna, who performs as Professor Sex).
McGhee received a production commitment from ABC last summer. He later came across a profile of Brandy in The Washington Post, in which she spoke openly about her struggles away from the public eye, that made him even more determined to bring her into “Queens.”
“I became obsessed with Brandy the human as a character and saw all of these things that were analogous to Naomi in the show,” McGhee said.
Brandy finally signed on in March. She said that McGhee’s pilot script spoke to her more than any other she has read, given her personal experience with navigating single motherhood and rediscovering her voice after a time away from the spotlight. “Music is my first love, so to be a part of a show where I can actually sing, dance, rap, act — it’s like a dream role,” she said.
In a video interview from Atlanta, where she has been filming the 13-episode first season of “Queens,” Brandy spoke about her biggest rap inspirations, the show’s exploration of womanhood and the possibility of a “Moesha” reunion. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The rap from the ’90s has a distinct sound and lyricism, so how have you managed to find your own tone and cadence for Xplicit? Do you have any specific models or inspirations?
Oh my God, yes. I haven’t had much experience, but I’ve been rapping for a little bit and I’ve always wanted to push my instrument to whatever level it could go to. I’ve been inspired all my life by hip-hop. For Xplicit, it’s been Nas, Jadakiss, Cam’ron, Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj.
I love the challenge of having to find a certain tone to become Xplicit. Because the way she’s written, she’s the glue that holds everything together, so I had to find this certain kind of swag that I don’t naturally have. I had to really work on that.
Beyond the musical elements, the themes of sisterhood and second chances seem prominent.
What I love is that no matter what, no matter how old, no matter how young, your dreams are important. If you still have your desire, if you still have a passion for what you do, there are always second and third chances. That’s how the universe works, especially if you’re putting in the work.
I think the show really shows that bond that we all need. For [the Nasty Bitches], it’s not just about coming back together to be famous again. It’s really about us speaking and having a voice, being an inspiration to other women, needing each other as friends, and keeping together in a way that we didn’t do before, because we were too young and dumb and immature to realize that we had something special.
In a 1996 New York Times profile, you said you weren’t worried about burning out by the time you turned 20 because you had a long career ahead of you. What has been the key to your longevity?
I’ve had a beautiful relationship with my family being my foundation. I have a beautiful daughter [Sy’Rai, who is 19] who keeps me going. She also is a musician. She wants to create her own lane, but she wants to do the same things that I’m doing, so setting an example for her has been an inspiration for me. Just having that passion for what I love — that is my driving force. You can’t stop when you have that. You can take a break, but that thing — that desire — will haunt you until you feed it. And I think that’s been the key to still being here, talking to you, all these years later.
Do you have fond memories of your early years, or do you feel as if you were caught between two worlds as a teenager with all of these adult expectations?
Everything was happening so fast, to be honest. I do have beautiful memories — some of them vague — but I do remember having two lives. I was a musician, and I was acting. I didn’t even know that acting was going to be a part of my journey. Somebody threw that at me, and I was like, “OK, I’ll try it,” just to see if I could do it. I was that girl. But my worlds have always collided, and it’s just so interesting that, all these years later, I’m back on TV doing music. I can satisfy all the things that I’ve been blessed to be able to do in one show.
How would you say your perception of fame and your understanding of who you really are has changed overtime?
Searching and finding yourself and discovering things about yourself is the work of your life. I wanted something real. I didn’t know who I was for such a long time, because I was identifying myself with my persona and what people were telling me I was.
I really wanted to find that person behind those names and behind that persona, so I had to take a break to really find the true me and have a foundation within myself. And a lot of that had to do with me having a daughter at 23 as well and really pulling myself together. Over time, doing the work and practicing faith and journaling, I was able to find my center. Now I feel like I’m at a place where I can handle anything when it comes to this industry, and I can handle it with grace and with humility.
With the streaming releases of “Moesha” and your groundbreaking TV adaptation of “Cinderella,” from 1997, your past work is now being discovered — and rediscovered — by multiple generations. Do people still want to talk to you about those projects?
I met someone in the trailer the other day, and she was like, “Oh my God, you’re my Cinderella! You’re the only Cinderella that I know.” And people come up to me and say great things about “Moesha”: “Are you guys coming back? When is the reboot?” [Laughs.]
Considering that the final season ended on multiple cliffhangers — a kidnapping, a mysterious positive pregnancy test — are there still talks to do a reboot or a reunion special for “Moesha”?
Yes, there are still talks about that because I feel that we owe it to the fans, because it was a cliffhanger. We didn’t end on the best note with our fans. I definitely feel that we should give them something special, and that’s all I can say about that. But I’m working on it! But “Queens” has got me busy right now! [Laughs.]
It’s also worth noting that all of the main roles on “Queens” are played by people of color, which is still rare on TV.
To have women of color together in a group, fighting for friendship, fighting for sisterhood, even through their drama and their struggles — to see this is just going to blow people away. I just hope it inspires other shows to be as diverse. It’s a great time for people of color on TV, and I just love that I’m still a part of it.