Monique Bingham: talks about her Jamaican roots, touring South Africa, and her tribute to a civil rights activist.

Celebrity Culture

American-born singer-songwriter Monique Bingham is one of House music’s most popular artists. Known for her soulful voice, and poignant lyrics; she has been the favorite of House music fans for years. In 1998 the release of her track “We Had A Thing”.  was a huge hit on the House scene in The U.S. It quickly became a hit with South African House fans, and led to her becoming one of their most loved international artists.

In 2019 Monique released “Claudette”; the song; produced by Ralf Gum, was written in honor of civil rights activist Claudette Colvin. The song even received a mention from journalist Jonathan Capehart on his MSNBC show.  Today Monique Bingham is an internationally recognized artist with fans all over the world. This includes thousands of fans all over South Africa, Her fan base also extends to Lesotho and Botswana. What many people don’t know is that her family is from the Caribbean. Though the music, and culture were part of her upbringing, she chose a different musical direction. ” My sound is very much a Yankee sound. It just turned out that way. Most of the music I listened to as a teen and adult was created by American and British artists.  Bob Marley was also on in my house, and my grandmother’s house.”

As the world began to emerge from covid, Monique took her first post-lockdown – trip to visit Jamaica. She also embarked on her first tour of South Africa since the start of the pandemic. We asked Monique to reflect on her tour, her trip to Jamaica, and upcoming projects. We are pleased to present our interview with the incomparable Ms. Monique Bingham.

photo credit: R. Anthony Morrison

POSH: I’m sure there are lots of people who don’t know that your roots are Caribbean. Tell us about your roots there,\where is your family from?

MB: My entire family including a few siblings were born in Kingston. Three of us were born in New York.

POSH: What was your experience with Jamaican culture growing up?

MB:  Jamaica lived to me, through my mother and father’s accents;  the fried plantain, curry goat, the flag. Roots Rock Reggae. It; lived through Guinness stout with condensed milk,  tales of Jamaica, and aunts, and uncles. They had many friends who came to New York at that same time. While we were in Brooklyn there were often Jamaican people around, and food, and music. My mother and her friends were all so beautiful,  poised, and elegant. They were all educated women who came to New York to be as free to be as fabulous as they wanted to be. I’m actually researching a book right now about that time period.

POSH: You recently made a trip to Jamaica, had you been there before?

MB:  We went a few summers as kids, and stayed with my aunt who recently passed. I hadn’t been as an adult. Our entire family, save my aunty had moved to the States.

POSH: Was it your first post-lockdown trip?

MB: Yeah it was my first time out of the country since lockdown, it was fitting, and so inspiring, and emotional.

POSH: What was the most interesting part of your Jamaica experience?

MB:  Learning about my family’s history on the island. Again I’m researching a bunch of things for what I hope will be a book. We also went to this natural hot spring. It’s up in the hills somewhere between Ocho,  and MoBay. It is said to have healing powers, and when you get in they light the water on fire, that was wild.

POSH: In 2019 you released “Claudette” a tribute song dedicated to civil rights activist Claudette Colvin, What inspired you to write a song about a person many people weren’t familiar with?

MB:  A few things; My husband saw me struggling with the track, and a subject for the song. Melodies almost always come to me before the words. He’s a writer and keeps folders of pictures, and articles to peruse when he’s stuck. I saw an image from the segregated South and remembered Claudette’s story. It was 2018, and there had been another litany of incidents involving police killing unarmed Black people. The two ideas of the indignities of the past, and present clicked to me. What a Black mother had to tell her child in 1950s Alabama, and how to conduct themselves; juxtaposed to what mothers of Black children must say now. The colored only, and white-only signs in the image my husband showed me all coalesced at once, and the song revealed itself.

POSH: An exhibition honoring the life of Ms. Colvin recently opened in Paris. What are your thoughts on the exhibition, and the song four years after its release?

MB:  I think it’s all wonderful mostly because she’s still with us to see it, but it’s been long overdue. Rosa Parks was an activist. and incredible force in the movement. Her legacy remains but we know Claudette’s light was dimmed a bit to focus on the organized action of Rosa Parks, and the NAACP. But the spontaneous organic nature of Claudette’s action should never be overlooked. That is what’s so stunning, and deserving of acknowledgment. She did that at 15 with no support, no advice from anyone save as she said; Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman whispering in her ear. That takes a different kind of bravery, the kind I think we all aspire to.

POSH: In March, you returned from your first tour of  South African tour since covid. what was it like to be back on tour?

MB:   Wow, I have to say I was knocked out yet again by my Southy fans. They made me feel incredible, It was like I never left. I had been spending almost half the year there every year for almost 10 years. So a three-year break was crazy, but it felt just like home all over again. I love my fans in SA and Bots, Lesotho, and all over the region; they never disappoint. Though the scene has changed for sure. House music is not as huge as it was but the crowds I played still rocked.

POSH: You had an intense tour schedule, how many cities did you play, and how many shows?

MB:   Don’t do that to me I’m too old to remember, and my booking agent is no joke! She kept adding dates so I can’t remember them all. It was over a dozen dates, I do know. I stayed within driving distance of Jozi mostly. I made it to Durbs, made it to PE, and missed Cape Town but I will be back. I am making sure I end up at some point somewhere sipping on some Cape grapes; looking at Table Mountain before year end!

POSH: You are scheduled to return to South Africa soon, will it be another tour?

MB:  I will be there in August rehearsing a theater project. Touring isn’t even in the plan but South Africa always surprises me. Nothing is in stone as far as gigs. I’m very lucky to have a team there that is like family. I’ll just go, and we’ll work out the gigs later! It’s unlike anywhere else to tour.

POSH: Monique, thank you for making time for our interview –

MB:  Thank you so much.