R&B vocalist Marsha Ambrosius is not your typical diva. Her debut album "Late Nights & Early Mornings" — which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's 200 Albums chart and No. 1 on the R&B Albums chart — features music about passionate romance, bitter breakups and gay suicide.
In her latest music video for her current single "Far Away," the singer showcases scenes of gay bashing and homophobia — subjects that are still taboo in the African American community.
Expanding The Boundaries of R&B
Ambrosius spent the early part of her career as half of a neo-soul duo, Floetry. She's also written hits for Alicia Keys and Michael Jackson, so she's chosen to take some risks as a solo artist.
"Far Away" is a song written by Marsha after a close friend of hers attempted suicide because he was gay. The singer said she realized she was getting into untested territory in the world of R&B.
"It would be easy for me to write a song about a relationship I was in with my boyfriend at the time," said the Grammy Award nominee. "We'd be going through it — fighting, back and forth — and I'm standing in the rain with the big hair and the eyelashes — that's standard! That's all been done before. But for me, I wanted to tell the story that wouldn't be told otherwise."
The Controversial Music Video
The lyrics of "Far Away" are not too explicit, but some consider the video to be a bit of a shock.
In the clip, Marsha and a male friend — who appears to be her boyfriend — are both walking in a park. They're hugging kids, getting smiles and high-fives from a group of guys wearing hoodies. Later, that same man is shown kissing another man. When the men return to that same park, they are now holding hands as boyfriends. Parents are pulling their kids away from them and others look away in disgust. When Marsha's friend finds himself alone in the park, the hooded men confront him with clenched fists and deliver a beating. Finally, we see his body lying in his living room — a spilled bottle of pills, a note, the cell phone blinking right by his hand. The video ends with a number to a suicide hotline.
Online reaction to the video ranged from praise to fury. One commenter stated, "They're really trying to push their homo-agenda." Another said,"Being gay is a sin and is wrong for our children."
"I remember seeing that quote, and I believe I responded to that and many other comments like that. And when I say many others, I'm talking about 10 for every 100," Ambrosius said. "And for me, it was explaining that I'm not talking about what you think God believes. I'm making real music for real people and this was a real situation that not only my friend had gone through but others also."
Cultural Shifts in Homosexuality
"Black gay people aren't going anyplace," said Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. "Folks are getting much more comfortable coming out and being honest about their sexuality. This is a generation of young black folk who just do not process gender and sexual politics the same way their parents and grandparents do, and I think as that next generation of folks gets older and much more influential we'll start to see these kind of shifts."
There has been a big shift in attitudes toward gays in America, but less so among African-Americans, according to Pew Research polls. But if some R&B fans are upset, it's not hurting Marsha's career. The video for "Far Away" has been shown on BET and VH1.
Marsha said despite the video controversy, communities are opening up to more dialogue on the issue: "Whether it was negative or positive ... people have opened that line of communication now. Because the end result is suicide — the death of loved ones we care about. Gay, straight, black, white ... whatever it may be. And I have to deal with me being the singer/songwriter of a song that was personal to me which is now so personal to so many people and I can hold that responsibility."
Marsha Ambrosius is slated to perform on Tuesday, April 5, at Irving Plaza.