NEW YORK (AP) — “I Am Your Woman” marked a major milestone for Syleena Johnson: It was the major-label debut single for the singer, then in her early 20s, and it was written and produced by R. Kelly, who had not only crafted his own No. 1 hits but also successes for Michael Jackson and others.
That was in 2001, when dozens of artists wanted to sing songs written by R. Kelly and when Johnson could happily perform “I Am Your Woman.”
Today, she can’t do it. And she won’t.
The 42-year-old said she began to look closely at the lyrics behind the song after attention intensified about R. Kelly’s alleged abuse of young girls and women thanks to the #MuteRKelly campaign to the recent Lifetime documentary series that may have put the nail in the coffin to the Grammy winner’s career (Kelly has denied all allegations of abuse, and was previously acquitted of child pornography charges).
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“No, I didn’t tape the song knowing what I know now, but when you know better, you have to do better,” Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The R&B song includes the lyrics: “Now I’ve been dealin’ with you since sweet 16/Woman enough to let you raise me/You used to call me daddy’s ghetto queen/And you still mean the world to me.”
“Essentially you’ve put me in a predicament where I’m a young woman talking about being with an older man. That’s what my song says. … So, when I see what’s going on, I’m in tears because I’ve been singing that the whole time,” Johnson said. “I’m thinking of it as, ‘We 16, we grew up together, in a relationship together. But no, now that I know what I know, that’s not what that means. How can I sing ‘I Am Your Woman’ ever again? It brings me to tears almost when I think about it.”
During this phone interview, she recalls another lyric from the song: “I run to you like a corner store.”
“Who runs to corner stores?” Johnson asked. “Children.”
“And just think, I’m the one singing it all these years, singing the praises of someone’s pain,” she added. “That’s hard for me to digest. That’s why I don’t be wanting to talk about it. That’s tough. Like, I can’t undo all those years.”
Johnson was signed to Sony’s Jive Records, also home to R. Kelly before the label closed in 2011 (most of the label’s acts then moved to Sony’s RCA Records.)
Johnson and R. Kelly are both from Chicago. She said because R. Kelly wrote “I Am Your Woman” as well as “Guess What” — her biggest solo hit and the first single from her 2002 sophomore album — it seemed like he played a larger role in her career. But he didn’t.
“I was not a R. Kelly artist. We were label mates — that’s the difference,” she said.
She said she thinks “I Am Your Woman” was a reflection of “where he was at in life, which is jacked up. That’s his perspective,” she said. “He thinks that was good. He thinks that was acceptable.”
Johnson has released multiple albums, including a collaborative album with soul singer Musiq Soulchild, and is widely known for her soulful vocals on the Kanye West hit “All Falls Down,” which earned her a Grammy nomination and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2004.
She appeared in the reality series “R&B Divas: Atlanta” and co-hosts the TV One daytime talk show, “Sister Circle.”
Johnson is the chief writer behind most of her songs, including women’s anthems and tracks detailing relationships — the good, the bad and the in between.
While she’s ditching “I Am Your Woman,” she’s written a new powerful, hard-hitting track called “Woman,” which is reflection the current state of our times. It was released Thursday.
“This is frustration. This is anger. This is confusion,” she said.
She wrote it two weeks ago and knew she needed to release it as soon as possible.
“In the midst of MeToo, Times Up, and everything that’s going on in our country; with our sons being killed, #MuteRKelly, and all the different things that are going on, trafficking … Michelle Obama being criticized, called names as our First Lady. There’s been a lot of things, a lot of disrespect of woman that is just very flagrant,” she said.
The song has a dose of sarcasm, as Johnson sings lines like: “You gotta think like a woman but act harder than a man/Show love like a woman but take advantage like a man/Sacrifice like a woman but tell lies like a man/If you want to make America great again.”
It is the first single from her new album also titled “Woman.” She said her role on “Sister Circle,” where she’s reporting on stories that are heavy and trying, drove her to write the new song.
Being on the show has also forced her to deal with another topic: R. Kelly.
“It’s very hard because Robert was like a big brother for me at one point in my career and we grew apart after a long time,” she said. “I’m a woman first. That behavior is unacceptable. I can’t stand behind it. I’m sorry. No.”
Johnson said throughout her working relationship with R. Kelly, he never acted inappropriately with her.
“I was never around him alone,” she said. “There was always a bunch of people there. There were always parties or a bunch of people. I never encountered that. That’s why it’s a little heartbreaking but that don’t mean it wasn’t going on. My experience does not exonerate him from the other experiences that people are saying they have gone through because, hey, everybody ain’t lying. Man, come on.”
And while she plans to never sing “I Am Your Woman” again, other songs that R. Kelly has written for her, such as “Guess What” and “Hypnotic,” will still be on the setlist at her concerts.
“‘Guess What'” is a song that women have been empowered by because the lyrics are positive,” she said. “Women are coming up to me saying, ‘Guess What’ made me leave my relationship. He was beating me.’ Am I supposed to take that away from women?”