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Spreading Her Wings: Amber Riley Takes A Bold Step In Reshaping Her Creative Evolution

Updated: May 5, 2023

Whether you know and love the character Mercedes Jones, the empowering and inclusive music of Riley, or you identify with the Broadway thespian of note, Amber Riley, who has bought "Dreamgirls" and "Cotton Club Parade" to life on Broadway and has evoked emotions and curated unforgettable memories on films like "The Wiz Live!" and "Nobody's Fool," as well as on television shows like "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Dancing With The Stars, there is something sacred about how the Olivier Award Winner carries her young, gifted and black energy that fuels the purpose bubbling in her body.

With her voice being the core artistic instrument of her body Amber recently won the Unmasked Singer Season 8 with groundbreaking finale renditions of John Mayer’s "Gravity" and Lady Gaga’s "Edge Of Glory" which outshined "The Lambs" better known as pop trio Wilson Phillips, it was seamless how "Harp" became both a favorite among viewers and the show's judges alike. Despite her challenges with ADHD, Amber continues to be a status quo-breaking thespian who dedicates the mastery of her trade to redefine the very essence of craftsmanship, making her a justified cover star for our latest issue My Body Is Art.

Photographed by Jon Dailey, Photography Assistanted by Normulis, Art Directorion by Lay Ford

Asst to Art Director Phoenix Beauvais, Creative Direction by Ty Brown, Hair Styled by JSTAY READY Wardrobe Styled by Manny Jay, MUA Rebekah Aladdin, Videographer Matthew Golden

Publicist Savoy Jefferson Publicity, VT Studios

Words + Interview by Cedric Dladla

Amber closed 2022 on a high starring in Lifetime's much-buzzed-about film, "Single Black Female”, garnering a network high of over 5.1 million total viewers. Amber also appeared on the three-part docuseries “The Black Beauty Effect”, which premiered on November 25th on the Black Experience on the Xfinity channel as well as co-starring opposite of the legendary, Debbie Allen in the iHeartMedia and Will Packer Media scripted dark comedy podcast, "The Lower Bottoms", In addition, to making a hilarious guest appearance on Showtime's critically-acclaimed late night variety show, "ZIWE".

Through her authentic on-the-nose, representation of self music moniker "Riley", Amber successfully introduced herself into the music landscape as an envelope-pushing class act with her self-titled debut led by the singles “BGE” and “Creepin” which served as a culmination fusion of R&B, soul, gospel, and pop. On the cusp of a cementing yet-to-be-titled sophomore EP, we caught up with Amber to unpack her relationship with musicals, Broadway, acting, performing with Muni Long, Winning Season 8 of The Unmasked Singer, the importance of her#UnMUTEny platform, body politics, future plans, and more for our bodacious cover story instalment.

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Colorbloc Magazine: Before the lights, mics, and action there was a different Amber Riley. How would you describe yourself before the fame? Can you share the journey of becoming a thespian?

Amber Riley: I don't think that before I became Amber Riley, the public figure or singer I was different. As much as I underwent profound and necessary growth from who I was when I was 18 to who I am now at 37, I feel like I'm still the same in a lot of aspects. My journey to becoming an actor had its fair share of ups and downs, I started out doing theater in school and then doing theater programs like theater summer programs at camp. A lot of my background is either going to school for theater or singing in church. I was raised by a lot of plays and musicals growing up. So the musical theater element of my upbringing, especially in my formative high school years shaped who I have become.

Colorbloc Magazine: The Performance arts is an outpour of service that often takes more than it gives. Has your career ever made you feel like your time doesn't belong to you? How has that affected your well-being?

Amber Riley: The performing arts are often extremely time-consuming. I remember when I was on Glee, like, I didn't see my family for like a year, which is why I feel like myself, and the cast kind of bonded and became as close as we did, because we were pulling, I think the longest day that we ever pulled was an 18 hour day.

So it does feel like sometimes your time doesn't belong to you and that affected my well-being in a way where I had to learn how to make rest, self-care, and quiet time important. Being quiet and with myself had to become important because if not, I would have completely just belonged to everyone else and forgotten who I am.

Colorbloc Magazine: On a lighter note, Congratulations on winning Season 8 of the Masked Singer! In the age where visibility is currency and mystique has grown taboo, would you say the element of mystery is what drew you to enter the competition? Was it exciting to wow an audience and also build anticipation about who is behind the mask?

Amber Riley: Yeah it absolutely was, again with how mystique has become taboo, It was really exciting and intriguing for me to join The Masked Singer because that was just a show where my talent got to speak for itself. I wasn't selling myself. I was just displaying, you know, the gift that God gave me. So it was intriguing to me to do something like that.

Colorbloc Magazine: You also were recently brought out to perform the Iconic “Heartbreak Hotel” by the late Whitney Houston alongside Muni Long and JoJo at The Echo in LA. What did you cherish most about sharing the stage with these artists?

Amber Riley: Man, I've been such a big fan of Muni Long for a long time back when she was Priscilla Rene, not just as a writer, but also as an artist. Honestly, she's made it encouraging for me to put out my project because her project is R&B, straight up! Her pen? Undeniable and I love how she's made R&B cool again, especially for black women and people as a whole.

It seems like the industry thinks that the world wants their R&B to be racially ambiguous or white and her as a black woman just coming and singing her heart out is phenomenal. "Hours & Hours" was such a phenomenal song, her entire project is amazing.

So to be a fan of hers and for her to ask me to come out and sing with her on her show and share the stage and share her audience with me when I am a new artist, I'll be forever grateful to Muni for her to using her platform to uplift me and let me do my thing. Artists don't do that anymore and I'm honored to have been gifted with such an amazing opportunity.

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Colorbloc Magazine: The Masked Singer and The Echo have made me notice how the element of surprise seems to be a favorable character trait of yours. What is it about surprises that you love the most? Do you prefer delivering or receiving surprises?

Amber Riley: I love delivering a surprise. I try to surprise my boyfriend all the time and he hates it because he doesn't like surprises. I'm the opposite, I love to surprise people with gifts or a special gesture, and I don't mind being surprised either. I just think somebody's putting the time to do something thoughtful for you, and just knowing that something unexpected and great is coming? The thought of that is exciting to me.

Colorbloc Magazine: A little birdie tells us you are working on your second EP. You've made a name for yourself with Iconic Covers spread across culture staples such as Glee, He's The Wizard and Dream Girls. What do you enjoy more? The process of singing and songwriting or honoring timeless music with original music?

Amber Riley: I've always been very adamant and saying I'm not a cover singer. Glee was a job, I've done open mics and all that kind of stuff but I am an artist, a songwriter, and a singer. The process of songwriting and singing is very cathartic for me. Music is my lifeline. It’s part of the reason I'm here on this earth. It has been an incredible vehicle to get me where I am. It's also the gift God gave me to connect with other people. I believe God gave me the gift of healing in my voice also so definitely my artistry and my music is what I lean toward what is, original music is favorable to me not only in the spiritual nature of creating but also on the business end, factoring in publishing rights, royalty collections and relevant streams of income.

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Colorbloc Magazine: I tend to be a conceptual enthusiast and I must ask what made you go for Riley as an artist name? Why not Amber Riley? I still feel the presence of Amber in the RILEY EP so I’m curious.

Amber Riley: Though it wasn’t a radical change as Riley is my last name I honestly changed my name because I feel like everyone kind of felt like they already knew who I was. It felt like they had me pegged as Amber Riley and I wanted to bring attention that Riley the artist is different. She's a part of me that you haven't been introduced to or you haven't paid attention to.

It’s not some persona that I created that is different at all. It's just sometimes you have to rebrand, I had to introduce everyone to who I am and I truly believe that my EP honestly did that, people are seeing more elements of myself in general and are accepting of that. I've gone from Mercedes Jones the black girl on Glee that sings well to Amber Riley the multifaceted talent and now my next level of recognition will be Riley the musician.

Colorbloc Magazine: Have you decided on a theme for your second EP? What is the sonic direction for it? Can you tell us who will be featured on the EP? Please spill as much tea as you can without giving too much away. What part of your spirit are you sharing with us this time?

Amber Riley: What I can say about this EP is I'm working with Harmony Samuels, a super producer who’s worked with everyone from Ariana Grande, New Edition to Usher you name it. The man has done it. He's absolutely incredible. He's actually one of my closest friends and this is our first time working together. The EP is full-on R&B, and it's nostalgic and very now at the same time.

I'm paying homage to the singers that came before us that kind of paved the way and I'm also giving you all of me, I'm really in love right now and super happy. So I'm giving you elements of that, of happiness and love songs. I've also been through heartbreak so I'm giving you elements of heartbreak, but I like to call it healed girl music. It's never going to come from a place of brokenness. It's always going to come from a place of triumph and growth and I hope that people feel that.

Colorbloc Magazine: As you know, our theme is “My Body is Art”, which you embody time and time again. From records such as “Big Girl Energy”, to rocking a Victoria's secret number on your recent performance- you own your sexuality with pride, something that society tends to criticize about curvy women. Do you believe that society as a whole thrives off objectifying women and their choices about their bodies?

Amber Riley: Oh, absolutely, I believe that this world objectifies women, puts us in a box and it doesn't see us as people. From how they always want to say if someone's a mother, they shouldn't be sexual, to the unwritten laws that predicate body politics, women are often bags of flesh subject to extreme policing.

It's baffling how difficult it is for society to accept everyone's differences, countless trends, systems, norms and people tell us who dictate clothing, wellness and lifestyle choices, our exercise regimen all these things that force us to sometimes take extreme measures in changing ourselves often not for the health and personal authenticity but to quell the opinions of those who feel they own our bodies.

Whether you are dressed sexy which in turn creates commentary around you being naked or being fully clothed and still being sexually objectified for the clothes being “revealingly” tight there is little to nothing that stops the world from turning their heads and saying something when a woman leaves her house and finds a place for her womanhood to thrive and be safe.

We're seen as objects, as things, as seat fillers or need fillers, but not just as people and you know, it does suck. Through the mess, I continue to love myself and wear whatever it is that I want to where I'm going to look like however, it is I want to look like, whether I'm in this body or bigger body. I've always been that way, despite the world telling me that I shouldn't be.

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Colorbloc Magazine: You’ve shared a bit about your weight loss journey and I’m sure Black Twitter (we have it in South Africa too and sis, it's worse) have voiced their opinions about it. Let's take the power back. How has your journey with weight loss impacted your relationship with yourself, and what did you discover about yourself in the process? Have you felt more empowered?

Amber Riley: Honestly, this is not a question that I answer, because I don't like to talk about weight loss because I don't think weight loss is a triumph. I think it happens. It's a personal journey. We don't know why people lose weight. Some people lose weight because they're sick, depressed, and starving without money to buy the food they need to eat, there are different reasons why people lose weight. So I'm not a person that celebrates weight loss.

Yes, I did lose weight and I understand that I have a body type. Despite there being a little more acceptable in this world I honestly feel like it’s stupid and it sucks to be at the mercy of body politics. I have the same voice and the same talent that I had when I was in a bigger body, but because I'm in a smaller body, more people want to pay attention. There's a privilege that comes with a smaller body, I'm not gonna say that I don't benefit from it, but it’s disappointing to be overlooked because you don’t fit the mainstream criteria for what’s deemed attractive.

I just feel empowered to take care of my physical and mental health. I never had one point when I was in the gym, I couldn't stand for more than two minutes (not to shame anyone that can't), it was a personal goal of mine to be able to last the entire workout. Now I beast in the gym, and I'm consistent, I never thought that I would love working out but I do.

In terms of my mental health, I have ADHD, so working and being able to focus for that 45 minutes that amount of time has helped train my brain. Things like meditation and mindfulness practices also play a crucial role in my mental wellness. So yeah, the weight loss thing is not something that I talk about and I never really have because I've never wanted to be celebrated for that.

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Colorbloc Magazine: I love the intention behind #UnMUTEny and the fearlessness you have taken on. From your time in the entertainment industry, what do you feel needs to change from the experiences shared with you? In music, there are ongoing conversations about ownership of masters and publishing rights to make real money. Could you share more from the theater, acting, and other art forms that have been shared with you?

Amber Riley: I started on #UnMUTEny based on what happened with me and my former classmate in Glee, I had a lot of actors in my DMs, some well-known others not telling me their stories of how they've had similar issues, especially black people, both male and female on set. I wanted to compile those stories, share them with the world and make Hollywood face itself and how it treats people of color in general on set.

Anything that's outside of the Cis-Heteronormative, white community on set, gets the short end of the stick, we are ostracized often, there's no thoughtfulness behind us in our characters, and we as people. So I wanted to create a community in a safe space, and I'm trying to figure out what to do with it.

Now that my vision makes more sense, I have tons of ideas that will help be a haven in a safe space for people to not only tell their stories but also do something about them. So moving forward, I want to take #UnMUTEny to new heights I have some ideas and some things in the works for it. But yeah, I want to take that and continue to run with it.

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Colorbloc Magazine: If you could write a letter to yourself 10 years into the future, what would you say? Tell us in your own words what you would say to yourself from who you are now to whom you are growing to be.

Amber Riley: Dear Amber, you are in a space where you're trying to figure it out. You're in a space of trying to be authentic but you don't have to rush that. You don't have to be authentic for the world yet. You need to be authentic for yourself. I know that you are moving towards 40 and there are so many places and things that you thought that you would have accomplished by now, but be gentle with yourself, be patient with yourself.

37 is just a number. A part of your life may have ended but your life is still beginning. There are so many doors that are going to open for you and it's going to blow your mind. So this time, just get ready. Keep on loving yourself. Keep on discovering yourself. Keep on being you keep on being the great sister, the great friend, the Great, the great godmother keep on forming this human being so that when you finally take that step out into the spotlight, nobody will be able to shake your foundation and tell you who you are because you will know who you are.

Guess what the mental health journey never ends. The journey to joy never ends. It is ongoing, but you're going to get better and better and better. And you're going to find yourself in a place in 10 years where you can look back and chuckle at all the worries that you had because you got through it and you should be very proud of yourself. So keep being you. Keep being fly. Keep being goofy, keep being weird as they say. Keep being loud. Keep shaking the table. Keep being big and make the room for yourself that they don't want to make move them over girl. But remember you got this. You got this and you will be exactly who you are supposed to be!


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