One of R&B’s favorite girl groups gives ESSENCE the real deal on their history and what’s in store for the future.
When you think of girl groups who dominated the music scene in the golden era of R&B with a style unlike any of their peers, Total is usually one of the first to come to mind.
Their perfectly balanced blend of femininity, fearlessness and attitude resulted in a fierce trio of songstresses who carved a lane all their own both individually and as a group.
Today, the ladies are back in action and heating up the stage like they never left on the highly-anticipated Bad Boy Reunion Tour, while also connecting with fans through a unique opportunity from media maven Steve Jones and his Brand Maverick Entertainment company. We caught up with Kima, Keisha and Pam after their recent performance in Baltimore to chat about everything from their humble beginnings, to their resurgence on the music scene, to what’s in store for them next.
WANT MORE FROM ESSENCE? Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the latest in hair, beauty, style and celebrity news.
Although Total was one of the first acts singed to the Bad Boy label by Diddy, Kima and Keisha say the ladies actually coming together to form a singing group was very much their own doing in the beginning.
“There was history before meeting Sean Combs or before meeting the person who introduced us to Sean Combs,” Kima tells ESSENCE. “I remember Keisha. We weren’t friends at that time but, I remember her. She’s definitely a leader and has always inspired me as someone I’ve always looked up to. She heard me singing Mariah Carey in the car one time and said, 'Let’s start a group!'"So, she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She gave me that confidence and encouragement.”
From there, the two friends met a local producer who introduced them to Pam.
“One day, our producer was like, 'I think y’all should hear this other girl,'" Keisha said. “She’s got a dope sound and I think y’all would all sound great together.”Keisha admits Pam wasn’t completely convinced that the group was a right fit for her at first, but says it didn't take her long to come around. “So, we took a listen to her stuff and she came and met us. When we asked her what she thought, she was like 'I really like your stuff but, let me think about it.' So, in hindsight, Pam thought we might be a little too prissy for her [laugh]. But she got over it. She called us later on the next day and was like, "let’s do it.'"
Kima says it was their devotion to the hustle that then landed them in the good graces of the mother of Diddy’s godson, who ultimately became their manager. Before they knew it, Total was face to face with none other than the Bad Boy bossman himself.
“So, one day our manager pulled up and was like, "You know your Total song that you guys made up? Put Puffy’s name in it." After we did it, she came back and told us to get ready to meet him.”
Despite impressing Diddy with an impromptu vocal performance, Keisha says the group was slightly caught off guard by his initial response to their meeting.
“He asked us a few questions and then after we answered them, he was like, 'You girls are really good. I wish you a lot of luck. Just stay together and don’t give up.' We kind of felt a little bad when we left.”
The trio later found out that Mr. Combs was much more interested in them than he let on.
“I remember when we got the call later on that night,” Keisha said. “So, Total, BIG and Craig Mack were the first artists that he signed to Bad Boy. And the rest is history.”
Like many who start out young in the music industry and end up trying to navigate their way through adulthood in the public eye, the ladies admit that their journey back to the stage wasn’t always a united one.
“It was finished for the moment but, this is the next chapter. We bowed out gracefully after our first run. Because of the circumstances, we never got to finish what that journey was,” Keisha says.
For Kima, the hard times that the group members went through both individually and together are a testament to their authenticity.
“I believe real respects real. And we’re real. When we were at odds, we were at odds. When it was real, it was real. And that’s what people gravitate towards.”
Kima also opened up about how her own reality changed during the group’s hiatus.
"Some people assume that because you have an opportunity to do this or that, that there won’t be any downs to the ups. But that’s just not how it is. You think because I have a record deal with Puffy, I don’t have the same struggles you have. But, I’ve always looked at the industry as like, yeah, I got a record deal but, that sh*t is just like borrowing money from a bank. You gotta pay it back. At the end of the day, it’s a job. You get out what you put in. To elaborate on my journey, I went to school. I have a 9 to 5. I work a regular job. Although I love Total, at some point, that sh*t was non-existent for me and I still had to feel good about me and feel like I was accomplishing something. Everybody’s walk is not everybody’s walk.”
Today, the ladies are excited to be starting a new chapter and are truly counting their blessings.
“It feels good to be able to cross over into a different generation,” Pam says. “But, I would also say that when something is anointed, you can’t stop that. You can’t stop the anointing because it breaks through every barrier. So, that’s exactly what it is that’s going on with Total. Because of the anointing, God is breaking through every barrier that tried to stop us.”
At 20 years in, Keisha says it’s a humbling feeling to still have such a massive fanbase.
“You know, it’s a blessing. To be celebrating our 20th year reunion, we’re humbled by it. We’re gracious. We’re thankful for this opportunity to come back. You’re just forever grateful for people supporting you and holding you down and loving you and still wanting to see you together.”
In addition to performing on the Bad Boy Reunion Tour, Total is the face of the Beauty Chronicles Women’s Empowerment Brunch Series along with a few other women from the Bad Boy family. Created by media industry guru Steve Jones, in part with his Brand Maverick Entertainment company, the traveling series is bringing fans face to face with the ladies of Bad Boy for a much-needed chat on rising above industry stereotypes and empowering other women through lessons learned.
“This has been a blessing for us to be able to connect with our sisters because there’s a lack of connection in the world in general right now,” Keisha continues. “So, anytime we can do something like this where we can connect with them and give some type of insight and give an uplifting moment or share something that we’ve gone through, it’s a blessing. So, it’s been a blessing to be a part of this and we look forward to doing more.”
Of course, along with “doing more” comes being seen more — a concept the group got reacquainted with when the “Cant You See” challenge took over social media this summer.
Despite the widespread attention from the on-stage moment with Diddy that sparked the challenge, Pam says her reaction was to be careful not to get too caught up in it all. "In all honesty, the spirit of the Lord said to me, “don’t believe the hype.” So, that was a moment for me to sit back, because moments like that, you don’t know that things can get to you inadvertently. You just think like, “Oh, I’m in the moment.” But, God said, “don’t believe the hype.” And when he said it, I let it go. I thought it was great to see people doing what they were doing but, for me personally, I couldn’t get pulled into it because it was either pride was gonna come out of it or humbleness.”
As far as what’s next for the group, the ladies look forward to finishing what they started on that unforgettable day back in Jersey. “The sky is not the limit,” Keisha says. "Of course new music, that’s what we’re hoping for. This tour is a great platform to reintroduce ourselves to the world as Kima, Keisha and Pam. Wiser, more mature and together."
Simply put, Total is back and better than ever.
“This group has always been an inspiration, even when we were on our hiatus,” Kima concludes. “Total was destined to be great.”