By Perry Busby
In this social media age, where a viral video can turn a barely known artists into a rising star and superstars are anointed after a couple of YouTube hits, sitting down and talking with a Grammy award winning artist who’s had multiple chart topping hits and still drawing crowds after forty plus years in a business full of one hit wonders and has beens, was an opportunity this R&B fan wasn’t going to let slip away.
Stephanie Dorthea Mills rose to national prominence and became a household name in 1975 when she played Dorothy in the Broadway musical, The Wiz. She was eighteen at the time but far from a novice to the stage. Before starring in The Wiz Stephanie had already appeared in the Broadway musical Maggie Flynn, won Amateur Night at the Apollo for six weeks straight and opened for the Isley Brothers.
With such a broad and lengthy career, I was pretty much at a loss for where to begin our interview. From the moment she answered the phone with a cheerful, “Hi, this is Stephanie!” in her familiar soulful alto voice, I knew this wouldn’t be your ordinary interview.
We scrapped our plans for a standard interview and decided to have a one-on-one conversation. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, from the music industry, to today’s entertainers, education and Black children, and the importance of maintaining the Black community.
When I caught up with the legendary singer, she had just completed an outdoor learning exercise with her middle school aged son, who she home schools. “My son was diagnosed with a form of Down Syndrome. I felt it was important that he not view his condition as a limitation, so he attended mainstream schools during his elementary years. The social environment in middle school is drastically different as well as the overall education experience. I decided homeschooling was the better option for multiple reasons, but primarily for his safety and exposure to broader leaning opportunities.”
As she talked about the differences between today’s schools versus the ones she attended, I could definitely relate, having attended and graduated from a segregated school. When I made her aware of it, we shared a few laughs about those days. Finally, Stephanie said, “I believe it is crucially important for our children to have an African American teacher in their formative years.”
I could not agree more.
Regarding today’s artists, Stephanie says many of them have a hard time surviving in the business because they don’t understand the value of fans. “I enjoy doing concerts like the upcoming show with the Whispers, in Fort Lauderdale because we are around people who we have a forty plus year relationship with. It is a wonderful feeling. There’s nothing like it.”
I asked her what it was like being an eighteen-year-old with all the accolades and attention. She talked about how Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughn visited her backstage after one performance and the conversation they’d had. “They were trailblazers. Legends. They were talking like my Mother but sounding like aunts.”
If you follow Stephanie on Twitter, then you know she does not bite her tongue. She reminded me that she was and will always be a Brooklyn girl. “It is unfortunate that we have some African American who do not know their worth. I know my worth and it does not require that I withhold speaking truth and biting my tongue.”
Spoken like a true Brooklyn girl.