Photographed by Ruven Afanador

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 an album.  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 me!"

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 at peace."

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 says.  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.


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