The word diva has fallen on hard times. Polluted and mutilated by music-industry hacks who insist on using the description for Nickelodeon showgirls (see Selena, Demi, Vanessa), its meaning has been gravely compromised. Which explains why so many song lovers serve up serious cut-eye when the noun is uttered — even Mariah has moved on to “elusive chanteuse.”
Robin S feels it’s time to reclaim the D-word’s true meaning. The 52-year-old, NYC–born dance vocalist — known for such hits as 1993’s “Show Me Love” and “Love for Love” and a 1997 cover of Alton McClain and Destiny’s “It Must Be Love”— believes the title should be reserved for its old-school definition: “a woman of great artistic power.” That other definition, of a demanding, piranha-like caricature? Ms S wants it shot dead.
The Georgia-based performer — who is booked to sing at the WorldPride closing ceremony — is unapologetic, however, about owning the diva title. “Don’t even try and take that away from me, honey,” she warns, chuckling over the phone from her home in Atlanta. “I have no ill will to those who sing very light and very dainty, but women like me, we have a gift, so I don’t mind people calling it out the right way,” she says. “So many of us house vocalists have these rich, hard-to-describe voices that come from deep within the church — which means we can sing rings around some of these airy pop singers. ‘Diva’ fits our bill.”
Ms S recalls her early performances and public appearances during the era of HIV/AIDS fear and men and women living on the down-low. “At the time I recorded ‘Show Me Love,’ gay and lesbian life was rough,” she says. “I remember singing at a lot of underground events, top-secret parties and clubs where so many people in the audience were [closeted]. It was tough, but I’m glad we have moved on. Everyone should be afforded happiness. That’s the one thing that’s free. I used to get so agitated when people would ask me why I was so supportive of the [LGBT] fans because it was a foolish question for me. Why would I want to deny anyone happiness?”
Her embrace of the children led the legendary godfather of them all to reach out to her. In what she calls a highlight of her career, she recorded a song in 2012 called “Right Now” with the late DJ and producer Frankie Knuckles (it is featured on his last album, Tales from Beyond the Tone Arm). She first encountered Knuckles at New York City’s Paradise Garage, where she learned what “transcending music” was. “You could close your eyes and go to whatever lovely, warm place you needed to get to at the Garage. It was an escape route from the hate and darkness of life outside the club.”
Knuckles and the other Garage men and women weren’t the only ones to inspire and be inspired by Ms S; she admits she doesn’t know how many times “Show Me Love” has been remixed over the years. The song has charted numerous times in Europe and North America in various mixes and stands apart as a house anthem, blending the chutzpah of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with the rawness of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
“That song is not a story about one life,” she says of the hit that earned her two Billboard Music Awards. “It’s about many lives. It keeps evolving because people keep going through the same situation. I see young gays and lesbians in the audience that weren’t even born when that song came out. They went back, heard a remix and as young adults are reliving what I lived when it was released.”
For her upcoming set at WorldPride, Ms S wants to thank her fans with pure fire, not smoke and mirrors. “Mama’s gotta be comfortable if you want to hear the high notes,” she says with a laugh. In other words, expect no Gaga-like wardrobe. “Back in the day, I had these fantabulous costumes that wore me out to get in and out of them,” she says. “Nowadays, I’m coming in stretch pants and white high-top Converse sneaks so I can lock in onstage and let it rip without being in pain because of high heels and a sweaty sequined dress.”
Ms S has a list of rules she abides by when she’s performing. The main one? Refusing to use any audio tricks that will fool her audience. “It’s always my live voice you are going to hear when I show up,” she says. “I refuse to sing over vocal tracks. I will not do it. I’d rather not sing at all. When I finish with my crowd, I usually have no more voice to speak because I lay my heart and soul down for the people! That’s the way it should be,” she says. “No one can ever say I’m not tired when I leave that spotlight to go home.”
She hints that her set will include all her hits and possibly her favourite covers: a funk-laden version of Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do” and a nu-disco take on Phyllis Hyman’s “You Know How to Love Me.” What may also make the cut are the under-wraps “spiritual house” tracks she is working on, which blend her gospel roots with her signature sound, as well as a new single she released with DJ Escape called “Shout It Out Loud” (one of a few she plans to roll out with Escape).
“I’m going to give it to you real, so get ready,” she promises. “House music in its rarest or rawest form — especially when I witnessed it in places like the Garage — is good mood music and should be regarded to be as important as rock and roll. There is still a big need for the diva, and house is an integral part of the past couple of generations. People are just catching up.”