Monica Brown is no rookie to the game—whether its R&B tales of heartache or real-life woes, she’s been up and down and everything in between. She’s now a mother of three and a basketball wife, but don’t let the stability fool you. Even with the current success of her eighth studio album, Code Red, she’s hungry for more and has never felt quite as resilient. It’s time to get reacquainted with everybody’s favorite homegirl.
BY SATCHEL B. JESTER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DREXINA NELSON | STYLING BY SHUN MELSON | HAIR BY RAY DODSON | FACE BY MARSHA SAINTIL
“People wouldn’t really be able to imagine the things I’ve seen and been through,” says Monica Brown, in response to the suggestion that she’s guarded. Never one to shy away from a challenge or discomfort, the singer jumps right in. “My talent has always been there, along with the spiritual foundation my mother laid, but there was always another side, a side that belonged to the streets. When my parents divorced, I became two different people.”
I first met Monica Denise Arnold in 1991, when we were both students at North Clayton Middle School. And the two sides of her persona were evident then. She was an older soul, “grown-acting” as we say in the South. Today, as we speak at the photo shoot for this cover, I notice that Monica, 35, has not changed that much since we first met in junior high school. She’s always flaunted a bravado that was undeniably more massive than her featherweight frame. From a presence that dominated our neighborhood school bus, to singular vocal ability that filled our school’s gymnasium as powerfully as the coterie of Friday night cheers, Monica has always been an amalgam of confidence and power in motion. But, there’s an indescribable element about Monica that can draw someone in, but also keep them at a specific distance as if to protect her aura. She’s the girl next door, yet an enigma all the same. Both her fans and critics easily champion her success, while in the same breath roll off a list of what she should’ve or could’ve done. But, make no mistake, Monica is absolutely conscious of her winning. It all began with a young girl audacious enough to introduce herself to the world as “Miss Thang.”
The year is 1995 and a 15-year-old Monica Denise Arnold is at the moment of reckoning. Although she isn’t quite old enough to attain a driver’s license, she does not mind calling the shots with her producer Dallas Austin, who is already a stamped superstar for his multi-platinum success with Boyz II Men, TLC and Madonna. They were working tirelessly at Austin’s D.A.R.P. studios, placing the final touches on what would become her triple-platinum debut album, Miss Thang. The project’s three-year developmental period transformed her from a wide-eyed and power-piped College Park, GA innocent, into the feisty and focused fireball, who would become the South’s newest MVP.
The album’s title track declared how she wanted to be recognized:
“Couldn’t wait to understand, I grew up faster than the rest/ it affected the ways of my attitude /but don’t take it as I’m rude/ Now, I’m fly as I can be/ got responsibilities/but I know when I’m right, I’m right/and when I’m wrong as I can be.”
Twenty-one years later, Monica only remembers just being herself. “Dallas would bring producers in the studio to play records for me and I’d be quick to say ‘No’ if I didn’t feel it. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say.” She pauses and smiles. “That’s where ‘Miss Thang’ came from. He’d say, ‘Miss Thang don’t like it!’” She laughs, but only for a second, as she instinctively reverts back to her signature steeliness.
Monica has never been one to lurk in the past, but she also refuses to gloss over the pivotal moments of her journey. Often paved with violence, death and steady tears, her experiences have been, at times, arguably too intense for someone her age at the time. However, she showed up, smiled and sang while attempting to hold fast to being music’s promising new darling.
Aside from “normal” occurrences such as opening a door and witnessing heads being bashed in or having a front row seat to the the drug game, there was the arrest of her first love Corey Miller (brother of Master P), allegedly for murder and the suicide death of her next beau, which she witnessed. But, she knows the tragedy and her ultimate triumph all occurred for reasons bigger than her.
“As I think back over everything I’ve accomplished in my career—the awards, opportunities and exposure are all there, of course. But, what gives me unspeakable joy is the fact that I’ve touched countless women, and some young men, along the way with my music and my message,” she says with a blend of pragmatism and passion. “To know that I was helping to save lives while feeling like my own was in the process of ending, means more than any manufactured victory ever could.”
Our chat is interrupted as the singer is pulled away for a quick wardrobe fitting. Hair tied, chilling with no makeup on, Rodney (10), Romelo (8) and Laiyah’s (2) mom looks as fresh-faced as she did decades ago in the black-and-white, Rich Murray-directed Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days) video. As she peruses the rack of clothes pulled for today’s cover shoot, she’s quiet, yet confident. She eyes a few matching, paired pieces and disapproves. “It’s too baby doll and I don’t do baby doll,“ she informs. The small collection of meaningful tattoos placed carefully around her body are colorful proof. Another look is referenced as one she’s recently seen on the runway, another concept she’s also no stranger to. During her long career, the leggy, 5’10”, sample-sized dame has donned exclusive couture, pumped down runways around the world and was a muse of Chanel’s Karl Lagerfield pre-Rita Ora, Kendall Jenner and Janelle Monae. “I’ve been there and done that,” she says easily, but impressively, without a hint of jadedness. “I remember speaking with Karl and him telling me what ‘we’ were going to wear, and what his thoughts for me were. I’ve had moments that some [will not recognize] because social media wasn’t a thing back then. They weren’t done for the ‘Gram, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.”
Monica’s now seated at the well-lit vanity and the primping and polishing is yet again underway. In the midst of the beauty process, I transition to a subject that could potentially get ugly—the tendency for people to deem her an underdog.
“I know people have called me the underdog,” Monica says. “I was even told the kiss of death would be the four years I took off after the birth of my boys,” she begins. “I’ve executed my career exactly how I’ve wanted to and that’s the most important thing. And if I am an underdog because I’ve chosen to put my family first, to be guided by my spirituality or allow true love to be my solace, then so be it.”
Monica’s phone rings with an incoming Face-Time call from her husband of six years, NBA player Shannon Brown. “Hey babe,” she answers, her eyes glowing brighter than her snowy white teeth. They discuss Romelo’s coming birthday and the exciting surprise gift they’re giving him. She feels my stare and looks my way, “We try not to go overboard,” she says to possibly downplay the oft presented “celebrities spoil their kids” notion. I smile in acknowledgement and leave the room.