A songbird who has soared
over life's roadblocks,
Tweet shares her thoughts with A & U's Dann Dulin on coping with
loss, her concern for our youth,
and the need for AIDS education.
Tweet, Tweet, Tweet. Let's just get
the whole bird-thing out of the way. You know, Tweetie Pie
and Sylvester, or "tweet" as in "chirp"?
This sturdy, silky, sultry soothing-voiced soul sister, however,
doesn't need wings to fly. Southern Hummingbird, Tweet's
debut R&B album arrived on the shelves in April, and entered
the charts at No.3.
Her single, "Oops (Oh My)", hit No.7 on the Billboard
Hot 100. She wrote most of the songs on her CD. This
past spring she toured Europe, performing in France, England, Germany,
Holland, and Sweden.
Fortunately, fame has not been overwhelming. "I'm
glad it's like that so I can continue to be myself,"
says Tweet via phone from a New York hotel. Though it hasn't
always been a smooth ride. At one crossroads in her life, she
was on the brink of suicide. Born Charlene Keys to two gospel
singers in Rochester, New York (she hasn't a clue about the derivation
of her nickname though she's been called Tweet all her life), she
was the youngest of five children. It was in Ms. Ingutti's
high school health class that she was first introduced to the AIDS
epidemic, and then the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia seared
her consciousness with the human tragedy of the epidemic. She
strongly supports AIDS education, as well as condom distribution,
in the schools. "So many young kids these days are..." She
pauses and says pointedly, "out and about—not even
caring. They're having more sex than ever...but these kids
need to get it together! We may not like that they're having
sex but it's happening, and we need to prevent these kids from contracting
HIV and STDs. HIV is nothing to play with. I'm not telling
them to go out and have sex, but if they can't wait till they're
married then they need to have access to protection. Because
this is about their lives!"
Tweet's own life was complicated by an early marriage
to her high school sweetheart. They had a child together but
after three years, they divorced. Tweet became a single mom. Now
twelve, Tashawna is on the verge of teenhood. How will Tweet
handle the subject of AIDS and STDs with her daughter?
"We've vaguely talked about it because our relationship
is very open. I want her to fell like she can talk to me about
anything." she says, fumbling. "This is scary. I
get nervous that here is this child that I have to talk to. We
will most definitely address this very soon."
Despite her responsibilities as a mother to a young
child, Tweet never gave up her dream of a singing career. In
1994, Tweet auditioned for rapper Missy Elliott, who formed the hiphop
group Sugah (though Missy Elliott soon turned the project over to
someone else). The rapper was so impressed she hired Tweet. For
six years Tweet was under a strict contract with hopes of making
It never happened. She and the rest of the girls also
endured being abused by a higher-up.
"He would call me a b-i-t-c-h. Had I not been raised
in a small town and known that I didn't have to take this [abuse],
I would have left the group long ago. I just thought that was
part of what one had to go through to get into the music business," she
says, adding, "but God took me through that in order to become
the person I am today."
The band soon split and all roads seemed to converge
because, nearly at the same time, a "true-love"
eight-year relationship was breaking apart. "I thought
I couldn't live without him," she confesses.
"The shit just hit the fan. Sugah was going nowhere. I
couldn't get a job to support my daughter. I couldn't even
get a job at McDonald's! Nothing was working for me." Desperate
and frightened, she plunged into a dark depression. "It
felt like the whole world was sitting on my shoulders. And
it wasn't like I wasn't trying. I was. I didn't want
to live anymore.
I don't remember if I was outside, or where, but at one point
I fell down on my knees and cried out, 'Please help me God. Help
Tweet was delivered from these depths by a woman
she now calls her "guardian angel"—Missy Elliott.
Just one day before Tweet was planning her suicide, Missy Elliott
called and invited her to do background vocals on her new album, So
Addictive. It was during this recording session that Tweet
picked up a guitar (she plays drums, too) and began to sing "Motel," which
would later appear on her album. Missy Elliott was so inspired
she arranged a meeting between Tweet and Elctra Record's CEO.
Her life now flourishing, Tweet is eager to bestow
her renewed faith and freedom. Indeed, many people who are
diagnosed with HIV, can fall into the pit of hopelessness and contemplate
suicide, just like Tweet.
"Yes, I imagined they feel like their life is over. When
you get to that level, I would just love to share with them what
I learned—nothing is that bad. I don't care what
your diagnosis is, or what life brings you. You can live through
it. God can make your life fulfilling in spite of things that
come. It's never that bad."
Recently, Tweet's own faith was tested again when
she lost a beloved aunt to breast cancer. She confronts the
loss in a rational manner. "I pray for strength. The
cancer fully ate her.
Eventually, she couldn't even walk. I think how much
better off she is now instead of being down here suffering. She's
And Tweet is finally at peace with herself and
ready to spread the joy. In October, she joined other artists
to benefit the Step Up Women's Network—a nonprofit organization
dedicated to providing funding for women's health issues and women's
advocacy organizations. She feels that sometimes people have
the false impression of musicians, assuming that it's all sex, drugs,
and rock and roll. "We, as musicians, have a duty to the
public to spread AIDS awareness. It's very important," she
Tweet takes her new position in the music industry seriously
and plans to divert that celebrity power to some important health
causes. For example, she wrote her hit song "Smoking Cigarettes" as
a message for people to stop smoking (she recently quit cold turkey). "I'm
very lucky, so I wanna give my time back." Lucky for us
she's now in the driver's seat.