Till this day Cheryl Gamble’s distinct voice cannot be denied. Most remember her as Coko, the lead singer of the early nineties New Jack Swing trio SWV (Sisters with Voices) who repped Bronx-girl swagger along with her partners-in-song Taj and Lelee. Coko’s soul-stirring shrill was filled with raw emotion that captivated millions of R&B lovers with hits like “Weak,” “Right Here” and “Anything.” Nowadays, the wife and mother of two retired her rhythm-and-blues legacy to heed a calling for gospel ministry. In 2006, Coko’s gospel debut, “Grateful,” reintroduced the New York native to fans and new listeners in the faith community. This month, she puts us in the mood for the holidays with her latest offering, “A Coko Christmas.” ESSENCE.com caught up with the powerhouse singer to discuss her fondest holiday memories, eloping six years ago, and the real story behind her departure from SWV.
ESSENCE.COM: Ms. Coko, we miss you! So you just released a Christmas album. What holiday memories inspired this album?
COKO: Well, this is my first solo effort with a Christmas album, but I also released one when I was a part of SWV. Although this album was my label’s idea to release before my next gospel CD, which is due out in March 2009, I grew up listening to Christmas albums. Of course Nat King Cole and the Jackson 5’s songs played every holiday in my house. I don’t have just one fond memory. I remember every Christmas being special. I grew up in the South Bronx and was raised in a single-parent household, but my mom always made sure I had a good Christmas. If she was struggling, I never knew, and those are the fond memories I have of spending quality time with my mom.
ESSENCE.COM: You are married to Mike Clemons, the drummer of the gospel group Israel and New Breed. Growing up in a single-parent home without a blueprint of wifey duties, did you learn by trial and error?
COKO: My mom was very independent, so it was hard for me to learn how to be submissive to my husband. What I mean by submissive is simply supporting him in whatever he needs and allowing him to be a man. Too often as independent women we don’t do that, and I don’t even think it’s intentional. I think we are just so used to doing things on our own that we overlook our men. So I’ve grown a lot and learned to work together with my husband and allow him to support and help me with things that I might need. Now I don’t cook, but my husband is a great cook, so I do everything but that (laughs). Besides, nobody likes me to cook. I think I cook okay, but my kids just go over the top saying, “Ma, I don’t want this food. Can grandma come and fix us some food?” (Laughs.) So I stick to the mic and leave the pots and pans alone.
ESSENCE.COM: (Laughs.) Kids will always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So how’d you and your husband meet?
COKO: We met in 1995. He was actually SWV’s drummer, but we never dated, flirted or anything. We had a professional relationship. He eventually went on to bigger and better things, playing for everyone, including Mary. J. Blige, Usher and a bunch of other folks. About seven years ago, we ran into each other at Hezekiah Walker’s church. His group was doing a recording there and we talked and there were sparks. We only dated for six months, but when you know, you know. So we eloped in a church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I suggested Vegas, but my husband wanted to be in a church, so we found one. Eloping is something I’ve always wanted to do and I had to convince my husband to do it, and that was six years ago and our anniversary is Oct. 19, but he’s in Africa now, where he performed for MegaFest and the group ended up staying there for a month. The funny thing is, when Taj and Leelee found out we were married they were like, Huh? Of course they thought we had something going on on the low back in the day, but that wasn’t the case at all.
ESSENCE.COM: Wow, that’s a beautiful thing. So are your kids aware of what their mommy contributed to the girl-group phenomenon, and do you let them listen to R&B?
COKO: My sons—Jazz, 13, and Jalen, 5—don’t really understand what SWV contributed to R&B and that’s okay. Recently, I was in Los Angeles for Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Divas Simply Singing benefit concert, and I was backstage hanging out with Raven- Symoné and Jalen thought I was the coolest mom ever because I was hanging out with Raven-Symoné (laughs). Honestly, I’m enjoying myself as a mom. I’m so proud of my kids and I look forward to their futures. They get tired of me kissing on them though (laughs). As far as allowing them to listen to R&B, I listen to some of it, but I don’t listen to rap at all; it’s just not for me. I don’t like my Jazz to listen to it, but the reality is you can’t always shield these kids because they pick it up at school or outside because you aren’t with them 24/7. Jazz likes Soulja Boy and I have to let them know that most of these rappers are fronting and not living the lives they claim to be and that most of what they hear and see is not real. And he listens to me and my husband, who also used to rap, because he knows that we were in the business for a long time and can speak from experience.
ESSENCE.COM: So was there any truth to the rumors that you left SWV without even talking to Taj and Lelee because you felt jealousy and they only found out you were done when your manager called them?
COKO: No, actually Leelee was the one who left first. She said SWV couldn’t do anything for her and we could continue but she wasn’t. We had some shows, and Taj and I showed up but no Lelee. I was like, Oh, she’s serious. Once I saw that, I left, but I didn’t walk away first. No one ever tells that part of the story, but we’re all so much better now. We never had any physical fights as someone once reported. That’s one thing we always promised—that we’d never put our hands on one another and we didn’t. As far as jealousy, I felt jealousy but I really wish someone was there to talk us through it, but no one was there to help us. Thank God we’re all good now. In fact, I asked them to be on my next gospel album and they both said yes.
ESSENCE.COM: So does that mean there will be an SWV reunion album?
COKO: We were talking about a reunion album, but I’m not interested. I don’t want to cheat the girls and our fans. I don’t want to start something I can’t finish. Taj and Lelee understand where I am and they respect my decision. There’s no tension or beef. Occasionally, we do special shows like the BET Awards, but a whole reunion tour and album? Spiritually, I’m not there. I want to stay on the path that God is leading me and that is to continue my ministry and continue to reach out to others and spread the good news.