The late ‘90s/early ‘00s is a revered era in music for so many fans under 30. It’s not hard to understand why: it’s a period when pop artists took over the airwaves after a decade that had been mostly dominated by grunge, gangsta rap, adult contemporary and nu metal. Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, *NSYNC, J. Lo and a host of others recalibrated popular music in a way that set the table for pretty much everything we see dominating the charts today.
And Mya was right there at the forefront. The leggy R&B chanteuse with the coy-but-sexy persona and serious dance moves had already been somewhat famous as a dancer on BET when she was still in high school. She’d performed with Gregory Hines and studied with Savion Glover, was classically trained in tap and ballet, and her early videos made it clear that she knew how to cut a rug. Mya burst through back in 1998 at the age of 18, and, with her impeccable dance skills and sultry voice, was put in a similar vein as established artists like Aaliyah and Janet Jackson. Her self-titled debut was a platinum-seller that spawned hits like “It’s All About Me” and “Movin’ On” and thrust her into the swarm of pop stardom. She followed it with the hit “Take Me There,” a collaboration with Blackstreet and Ma$e that hit the Top 20, and another hit guest appearance on the Pras single “Ghetto Superstar” with Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
But the onetime girl-next-door has been a grown-ass woman for a while now. Her latest album TKO (The Knockout) dropped this spring and she just released her newest video for the sexy single “Damage.” Mya was never shy about flaunting her sex appeal, but she admits that it comes from a different place these days.
“Well—now I mean it!” the 38-year-old says with a laugh. “It comes from a real place versus some songwriter writing it for me and me delivering it from no experience. Now I own it. I own everything that’s me and that’s one dimension of who I am and who all women are, y’know? One dimension. And I know it’s often suppressed and looked down upon. That’s the difference between then and now. I was just a young girl fresh out of high school, but life experience and yearning and desire and being very clear in expressing how you feel—even that takes time.”
And its apparent that for Mya, taking her time is important in everything that she does—but especially as it pertains to self-expression: “You have to take a leap of faith before exposing yourself completely in terms of feelings and desires—especially if you’re a woman.”
Many of the R&B superstars of the ‘90s were very young at the time, and after the “Jodeci-fication” of R&B circa ‘92/‘93, a singer had to have some edginess to thrive in the era of body rolls and shirtless album covers. Stars like Usher, Aaliyah and later on, Mya may have been teens—but they sang about some undeniably “adult” fare. But Mya doesn’t view her early career or that era as oversexed—at least not by comparison.
“It was very grown and in-your-face, but the music balanced out and countered some [of the] lyrics that were very ‘adult,’” Mya says. “I think now it’s oversexualized, but then, there was some mystery—and clever writing. It was suggestive but not over-the-top. I think because of hip-hop, oftentimes you’re rebellious and very outspoken and that becomes a part of the culture. Outside of lyrics and music, it’s an attitude. Music is influenced by that and that carried over into R&B. Young people relate to things that are more rebellious and it’s much more interesting. Now you have a different type of sexualization where its desensitization, because of the internet and kids growing up faster because of technology. Music dictates culture and culture dictates music, they go hand-in-hand. Now you have no shock.”
As her career exploded, she joined Pink, Lil Kim, and Christina Aguilera for their era-defining cover of “Lady Marmalade” in 2001, appeared in the Oscar-winning Chicago and other films like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and Cursed. Her sophomore album Fear Of Flying was another commercial success, and it continued her run of hit singles: “Case Of the Ex” shot all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 200. 2003’s Moodring would be her most critically-acclaimed release up to that point, showcasing a maturing singer and featuring collaborations with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Missy Elliott, and Timbaland. The Elliott-produced “My Love Is Like…Wo” would be another Top 20 hit for Mya.
She signed with Ford Modeling in 2005 and it seemed like music was going to take a backseat to her diverse interests outside of recording and performing onstage. She was urged to date superstars for publicity and refused, but that didn’t stop the rumor mill from fixating on gossip. She wound up in a feud with rapper 50 Cent after he claimed they’d had sex in a 2005 diss track aimed at his longtime rival, The Game.
“Yes, it’s not true. 50 and I never dated, never cuddled, never did anything, period, despite what he chooses to believe in his own mind. I don’t know how he would get Lloyd Banks confused with me,” Mya told VIBE in 2006.
The rumors didn’t stop there, Mya had to address more gossip in 2009 after rumors surfaced that she was dating Gucci Mane. “No diss, but the way people turn things around—I’d taken a photo with him at a club and I went to say bye,” she told DJ Whoo Kid at the time. “My manager was present and I went to say bye to Gucci and I said something in his ear but I had to get closer because the club music was so loud, they caught me in the wrong pose looking like we had just finished kissing or that we were kissing. The photograph was not big enough for you to see the real deal. And the rumor started that Mya was dating Gucci Mane which is so not true.”
The chatter kept her name plastered across gossip sites. Now that kind of din is even louder because of social media, and Mya’s advice to young women navigating the murky waters of pop stardom and internet gossip is to commit themselves to “conditioning yourself for this world.”
“There’s a double standard and women are punished more for accusations,” she says. “Get your mind right, get your spirit right and get your body right. And keep it there. That requires working out, that requires fasting, eating well, prayer and getting to know who you are. And not bending. You’re going to have to put yourself through disciplinarian challenges so that you can understand that you can be without anything that you were taught that you need. People will always have an opinion. Even if you’re over here saving the world, there is a group of people that will love you and a group of people that will always hate you no matter what you do.”
“It’s tricky on the internet,” she acknowledges. “There’s a lot of bullying. The way I [manage] is I do crazy stuff [laughs]. Work hard at the gym, remove stuff frmo my diet and lifestyle. Jump out of an airplane! Whatever it takes, so that there’s no fear attached to me. If you’re worried about people liking you, you’re in the wrong business. Life without fear.”
As the 2000s progressed, other names like Ashanti and Ciara had emerged as major stars, while Beyoncé broke from Destiny’s Child and became one of the biggest artists in music. Mya signed with Universal Motown for 2007’s Liberation but would opt out of her contract only a year later, dissatisfied with the label and determined to control her own music. 2008’s Sugar & Spice would be released in Japan, as would the follow-up, 2011’s KISS (Keep It Sexy & Simple). She independently released three EPs in 2014 and 2015 and released Smoove Jones exclusively via Apple in 2016, which would go on to garner a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album in 2017. With this year’s release of TKO (The Knockout), it’s clear that Mya’s Planet 9 label (which she founded in 2008 after leaving Universal Motown) gave her autonomy that she has clearly relished. She isn’t against major labels at all, but she’s committed to partnering on her own terms.
“I’ve always wanted to make sure that I have a body of work to present to my fans before I go back into a system that only wants radio music,” she explains, “so that I can always leave the art available just in case another album gets leaked or I get into a contract and get held hostage [laughs]. Because it is a great marriage if its right and if you’re a priority.”
That freedom has served her well. In her late 30s, Mya is healthy and happy and navigating her career her way. She promotes healthy eating and veganism on her Instagram account. She joined the cast of streaming Urban Movie Channel’s drama series 5th Ward playing a single mother of two. She admits the role is outside of her comfort zone but she was eager to tell stories that reflect real issues: “From gun violence to gentrification to young men fearing for their lives and coming of age with those factors, single mothers trying to make ends meet…it’s the human experience. It was a meatier role for me that I felt I was ready for. At my age, being an independent artist and caretaker of my family, I relate to those stresses.”
Mya’s a trailblazer for artists like Kehlani and Tinashe, and a veteran who is still standing in an industry that constantly shows how tough it can be on ambitious young women. She talked to Essence earlier this year about #MeToo. “Understand that you are going to have to address several things navigating through the world as it pertains to men who have been conditioned to think that they are superior, which I don’t believe in the natural world that is the case,” she said.
“There’s a balance of feminine and masculine energy,” she continued. “Unfortunately, it’s an imbalanced world because of the people that are in charge, and that’s egotistical men...Understand that you can create your own door (and) your own company and it will be harder, but ultimately you, at the end of the day, decide what you walk away from and what you’re willing to deal with.”
It’s clear that 20 years after she broke big, Mya is more assured than ever and as artistically engaged as she’s ever been. Her legacy is one that warrants celebrating. She’s not a tragic figure, and she’s not an omnipresent megastar. And that’s why we should talk about her more: she’s done this thing about as gracefully as anyone without compromising herself and without resorting to shock tactics or social media drama or silly stunts to “stay relevant.” She’s still Mya. And that’s all we’ve ever needed her to be.