I Have So Many Sides People Don’t Know: CeCe Peniston Talks Writing “Finally,” Being Boxed Into Dance Music & More
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re profiling four women who have helped shape history and culture in prominent and impactful ways. Today, we’re featuring recording artist CeCe Peniston. Peniston was one of the most successful dance artists in the history of the U.S. Billboard charts with her hit record “Finally” and four additional singles that secured the number one spot, within a three-year time period. Peniston has enjoyed quite a few historic moments in her career, including singing at Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremonies. We discuss those, her start in the music game, and the future in the music industry below.
How did you get started singing?
Basically, I was in sixth grade and I didn’t realize I could actually sing. It was one of the teachers there and she said, ‘You should come out for this play.’ This is when you had mandatory music class. I got on the stage and I fell in love. I fell in love with music and singing. And I said, ‘This is what I want to do with my life forever. This is where I’m home.’
You have a very distinct tone, so where would you say that came from?
I would say it definitely came from me wanting to be different from other people. I wanted a piece of this and a piece of that. I used to listen to Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle and Angela Winbush so I grabbed from different music that I heard. And part of that came on by accident because when we were doing “Finally,”–Remember that “daa att daa yay aye owww” so the story behind that is I really like, forgot the words. Girl, I forgot the words! And they were like, ‘Oh, just loop it.’ So they looped it and it became a thing. Then, I was able to just do it and that’s how that signature came about.
Speaking of “Finally,” you wrote that in college. Can you tell us how that song came about?
I was in college and I had started writing poetry because you know everybody gets, ‘Oh, they don’t understand me. I want to write it down. I’m writing poetry because they don’t get it.’ So I started writing poetry and poetry turned into music for me. And I wasn’t really dating at the time and I used to think, ‘If I met a guy, what would it be like?’ And I said, ‘What would I say?’ I said ‘Finally.’ Then I said, ‘What would he look like?’ Then, I wrote down what he would look like. And girl, that’s how simply the song came about, really.
Did you have any premonitions of hopes for the song?
I had idea. I had no premonitions. I just knew it felt good. Then, they called me and said, ‘You have a hit.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ Because it was the first time! You don’t expect that your first time of your recording something for yourself, something you wrote becoming a hit that it is even til this day 26 years later.
This is your signature song. I’m sure people probably still sing it to you in the street. Do you wish people would recognize you for something else or are you grateful people are still responding to it so many years later?
Oh, I’m always thankful when they do it. In fact, sometimes I repost people singing my song. Or I’ll go like their post and comment on it like, ‘Get it boo.’ I will engage with people because they’re doing that. But I do feel like there’s so much more to me that people don’t know. It would be nice for them to see other sides of me. A lot of people consider me just a dance artist. And I’m like, ‘I don’t see how they consider me just dance because I did ‘Keep On Walkin’” “I’m Movin’ On,” “Inside That I Cried.” I did all these R&B songs. I think that’s the challenge because you get to gain new fans and new people who love you every single day when you get to do live shows.
You were the first foreign female artist to perform in South Africa, post-apartheid. So can you speak about what that experience meant to you?
Before, after and during, I felt overwhelmed. I felt overwhelmed just having the honor and opportunity to engage in a piece of history and to be asked to do that. There was a promoter who asked me to do several events there, we were doing a mini tour. When I got there, I was like, ‘’Oh my God I’m in the Motherland.’ I was like, ‘Ooooo this is the feeling that no one can explain to me.’ You look on a map and you say ‘Oh, this is South Africa and this is how it’s shaped. People can tell you about the culture. But then you go and experience it, firsthand. Also, being an artist and everyone knows your song and they’re singing it, people are running and dancing. It was really exciting for me.
You’ve also performed for the Vatican, how was that experience?
Oh that right there?! That was another piece of history. I was performing with some greats, Mavis Staples, Thelma Houston, Dianne Reeves, and Lois Walden, Phoebe Snow, we all came together. To be around great women of soul, R&B and Jazz, and I was the baby of the group. There’s so many different pieces of music within that. These are the greats that have paved the way for me. So I looked at it as a lesson. These are people that I love and me doing what I love and people appreciating me at the same time.
I heard a snippet of your new song on your Instagram page and it sounds kind of funky. So, how would you describe the new music that you have coming?
The good thing is I have R&B. It has live music and I feel like there’s not a whole lot of live music out there anymore, everything is programmed. And the good thing about that song is that it’s not only one version. I have five other versions a dance version, and EDM version, another R&B version. We’re just going to be a little bit at a time. And I feel like when I came out in the ’90’s, people knew me not only for my music but for my remixes as well. With me being an independent, I can say, ‘You might not like these two but you’ll like this one.’
You’ve gone independent, what influenced that decision?
The fact that we’re able to be the record company. We’re allowed to be the record company, why wouldn’t you want to do it? It’s a difficult process, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s so many different, little pieces, especially with streaming. Streaming is a whole different animal. Social media is another animal. Before, when I was out, you had a publicist. You can control your content. Music is more programmed than live. You don’t have to be a vocalist anymore. As long as you’re an entertainer and have the look and the sound, you’re good to go.
In this music business, you still have to find a way to stand out. even after all the years and all the things that I’ve done, I still have to keep it new and relevant. People have to see that I’m always doing a new look.One day you see me blonde, one day I’m short, one day I’m long. I like that part actually because it gives me a chance to be as creative as I want to be.
Speaking of reality television, I remember seeing you on “Celebrity Wife Swap.” [CeCe Peniston swapped with Kellie Williams, best known for her role as Laura Winslow on “Family Matters.”] Can you speak about that experience? Are you still with the man you were with at the time?
You know what, we are not really together like we were before. And a lot of it has to do with me traveling around the way that I travel. He has his own thing that he was doing. He works with a lot of athletes. It makes it difficult on a relationship but we’re good. We still talk, everything’s fine. It’s just not going in the same direction.
But [Wife Swap] was a fun experience I absolutely loved it. I got to step into her mommy shoes and I loved her kids. Loved her kids! Little John and Hannah. Those were my aces! Those were my buddies right there. They were so cute! I loved the experience of stepping into her life and her stepping into mine. I learned a lot and it was fun. We got to talk a little stuff, it was cool.
Would you consider doing reality tv again?
I definitely would. I’ve been pitched some other things but they didn’t come through.
Do you have any reservations about reality tv ruining your brand? Because reality tv doesn’t always show Black women in the best light?
It can be like that. I think you have to gauge and pick the right fit for you, where it’s not damaging how you are as a person. You have to know what you’re getting into and the positives and the negatives of what it could bring. It’s both. We all watch it, still!
Why do you think the American audience has a shorter attention span when it comes to R&B music from Black people versus audiences overseas?
I wish I really knew the answer. In my mind, the problem is in America we are very euphoric. We constantly want to be on a roller coaster ride. R&B is probably slower than most people like. A lot of music you hear, it’s Hip Hop on the radio. I just think sometimes it comes from selfishness too. You complain about R&B music but you don’t go and support the artists that do it. If Ginuwine and all these people stopped doing concerts, you would feel a void in the industry for real. And it’s coming because people want to keep streaming instead of downloading the music from the artists.
Why don’t you love what they’ve done, instead of ‘What are they doing now?’ People need to love the songs that they loved and quit putting pressure on the artist to always do something new all the time. When you think about Xscape, they have a whole hour show off of hits. Also, in Europe I think people just have a general love of music. If you listen to the radio stations there, they don’t have things broken up in to R&B, pop. They play stuff across the board.
People get past the moment and it’s like, ‘Ok, what else is new?’ We don’t have the patience. We’re too busy scrolling on Instagram and it takes away from the real parts of our lives, instead of engaging. Music makes the world go ‘round. It makes the heart feel good, it makes the soul feel good. A body of work is a body of work, respect that.
Anything else we should know about?
I have a non-profit organization called Lifting Others To Succeed. New music! I have shows in Indonesia. We’re working on Australia. I have LA Pride. I have West Palm Beach. I have a lot of shows on the calendar.
I’m getting more into my acting. I’m getting with my agent on that. I’m also working on more poetry too. That’s a whole ‘nother CeCe though. That’s Cadence. I can be more raw in my poetry than in regular, everyday.
Look me up!