Depending on who you ask, Brandy Norwood is either an incredibly underrated cultural icon in music and film or she’s just another 90s R&B singer who had her ‘moment’ but failed to achieve sustained success.
Brandy was recently honored at the 2016 Soul Train Awards, and her live performance didn’t disappoint. She delivered a medley performance of some of her greatest hits, including “Baby,” “Almost Doesn’t Count,” “Full Moon” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” with a special appearance by Ma$e.
Unfortunately, Brandy’s moment of glory was quickly overshadowed by what many saw as shade aimed at her long-time musical rival, Monica.
— theJasmineBRAND.com (@thejasminebrand) November 28, 2016
Changing the lyrics to her Kanye West-produced record “Talk About Our Love,” Brandy sang, “Then your whole fan base jumps in, now the whole [Insta]gram’s buzzing.” The one-liner was an obvious reference to recent tension between her and Monica. In August, Brandy clashed with the singer’s loyal following online after she replied “chile bye” to a fan asking her to participate in the “So Gone” Challenge — an Internet craze that had people rapping to the instrumental of Monica’s 2003 hit of the same name.
Brandy’s response reignited rumors that the two songstresses didn’t get along — a saga that dates back to 1998 when the pair recorded their Grammy-winning duet “The Boy is Mine.”
Though the R&B divas both continually denied and downplayed their supposed beef during the 90s, it was not enough to squash the rumors, which included one report of a fist fight during rehearsals for the MTV Video Music Awards. The media-hyped and fan-fueled rivalry was so volatile that neither singer could escape it.
The public often compared their voices and, sadly, their looks. Monica was “Miss Thang,” the homegirl from around the way who had the more traditional voice suitable for ballads. And then there was Brandy, America’s girl next door, whose deep voice and rich tone was more subdued than her counterpart.
Monica was the tall, model-esque beauty, while Brandy had more exotic features — Asian-like eyes, small button nose and full lips — which she was both praised and ridiculed for. Despite how different they were as artists and young women, their careers were constantly pitted against each other for over a decade, and for years, the singers would later admit, they never spoke.
For most, Brandy’s public display of so-called pettiness seemed odd, considering the ladies appeared to have buried whatever hatchet existed after they recorded their follow-up duet “It All Belongs To Me” in 2012.
That same year, Brandy and Monica seemed to bond over the loss of their shared mentor and friend, Whitney Houston. Their reunion was quickly embraced as a testament to women putting their differences aside and starting anew, and at one point, there were even talks of a joint tour.
But the sisterhood apparently didn’t last long.
Days after Brandy’s “chile bye” comment made headlines on the blogs, Monica addressed it during an appearance on the daytime talk show The Real:
The old me and the new me are two different things. This journey of self-progression and self-love and empowerment that I’m on, I can’t go backwards. I think that was just a test from God for me. I think that some of it’s been blown out of proportion to a degree, but I can’t tell my kids to do something that I can’t do. It was just a test for me to always take the high road and know that in anything that happens in this life, if it’s meant for you, it’s yours. Nobody can stop it or stand in the way of it.
Brandy quickly clapped back on Instagram after the show’s airing, suggesting that Monica was “fake” and that her brand of positivity was all a cover-up. Following the Soul Train Awards, Brandy continued her social media attack on Monica after the singer’s appearance on OWN’s “Where Are They Now?” in which she recalled her relationship with Whitney.
Monica described Houston as her “fairy godmother” — a term that was often publicly used by Brandy, who considered Whitney both her figurative fairy godmother in real life and literal one in their 1997 TV film Cinderella:
Everybody wanted what we had/have and I am blessed enough to have been your friend, #FairyGodDaughter and make history with you as my #FairyGodMother — and now you’re my angel— I wish that you were here in the physical to witness so much of my courage that you stayed on me about– but I know you are watching and I know what you expect me to do. Our bond is unmatched… I love you Nippy👁 P.S. so many people liked my performance at the #soultrainawards , I think you would have too. #fingerscrossed
The series of social media posts caused Monica fans and the like to go on the attack, yet again, calling Brandy “petty” and bitter.
“It’s a shame how [Brandy] carrying on toward [Monica]…you know they say misery loves company and you can see she’s miserable,” wrote one fan in an Instagram comment directed at Brandy’s mother, Sonja Norwood. The fan continued, “Ya’ll can’t be mad bc Monica beautiful and has beautiful children and a fine husband. That bitch rich and still can’t keep a man…you can understand why they don’t want her ass who wants a petty ass woman.”
The shade throwing may seem in poor taste for the typically low-key and bashful singer, but it’s important to follow the old adage that says there’s always three sides to every story. In a lengthy response back to the commenter, Brandy wrote:
“Problem with everybody is ya’ll don’t [know] anything about the streets…but I have the guts not [to] hide shade in class, diamonds and pearls..I tell the truth just like it is…I will never allow another person to belittle me publicly and have the discernment to know that that’s exactly what’s being done and not use my voice to defend my position as [a] person and a polished entertainer. This has been going on for a long time, I’m just no longer a punk and won’t allow anyone to bully me. Like I said before I will choose my battles wisely but there are some I must fight! Call it what you want…petty??? I wouldn’t go with that. Always know there is something deeper and some things I know that no one else does.”
To truly understand the rift between Brandy and Monica is to look at their long-standing musical rivalry with greater context. For one, women in music, whether it’s R&B or hip-hop, have always been pitted against each other. Many have succumbed to the temptation of buying into the narratives often dramatized by fans and low-brow “journalism.” We’ve seen it time and time again, from Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown to Mariah Carey and J. Lo, and yet “petty” was hardly used to describe the aforementioned women during their times of public shading. And even when Mariah Carey, for example, came close to such criticism, it was often passed off as simply a part of her diva ways.
Brandy does not seem to be afforded the same shade-pass.
Brandy fans have often cried foul when it comes to the singer receiving her proper respect in the business, which spans over 20 years. The singer and actress has been historically overlooked by the masses, they argue, despite having a voice so distinct that it’s earned praise from contemporaries like Beyoncé and Jazmine Sullivan.
“Don’t you ever dare speak that 6 letter name, without understanding the value…Like you really should know about deep Brandy album cuts before you are giving a grade or a score to any R&B artist,” Solange once tweeted of Brandy’s music catalog, which spans six studio albums.
That reputation has earned Brandy the moniker “The Vocal Bible.” Even the legendary Whitney tipped her crown to the vocal talents of Brandy, whom she handpicked to play America’s first black Cinderella.
Despite this backdrop of praise from industry peers and fans alike, many have argued that Brandy never quite got her just due as one of the most distinct and talented voices of R&B. Here was this brown girl with box braids breaking color barriers as the star of her own hit sitcom “Moesha,” having a Barbie doll made in her likeness and inspiring generations of African-American girls.
But why so seemingly petty? Or shady?
Discovering this answer requires a deeper understanding of her story. Yes, she was a child star who ascended to become one of the biggest pop stars of her time — but she was also the target of harsh and oftentimes undeserving criticisms of her looks, her sound and some of the low points in her personal life.
In 2004, Robert Smith, the father of Brandy’s daughter, Sy’rai, revealed that he and Brandy were not legally married despite claims they were, particularly in the MTV reality special “Brandy: Special Delivery.” Smith told Wendy Williams that he went along with the marriage to protect Brandy’s squeaky-clean image. Years later, Brandy confessed that it wasn’t the best idea, but admitted, she felt the pressures of being an out-of-wedlock mother. Even though Brandy was dragged and ridiculed, she never publicly lashed out.
But it was her involvement in a 2006 car accident that left one woman dead that truly brought on a storm of hateful comments. “Murderer” and other hateful online comments were often sent directly to the singer, even years after the fateful incident. Brandy was not criminally charged in the multi-car smashup, though she settled a civil lawsuit filed by the family of the deceased.
“I didn’t feel like I deserved to be alive,”Brandy said on Centric’s “Being” docu series earlier this year. “I felt like why not me? There were moments I wanted to just salute and check out. That really f**ked with me in how I felt. If I was to listen to what everybody said about me…I would’ve gone insane. ”
For the better half of her career, Brandy has had to endure not only being an underdog but someone who continues to be disregarded and wholly misunderstood. In today’s social media crazed world, it’s easy to join in on the degradation of our celebrities and public figures because it’s just a fun thing to do.
Celebrities are often inundated with messages of hate and negativity, and yes, sometimes their humanness causes them to respond accordingly.
No one truly knows what transpired between Brandy and Monica behind closed doors, and for all we know, Brandy could very well have legitimate reason to feel the way she does about a woman who has long been her musical rival. And while Monica often projects herself as an innocent bystander in the on-and-off feud, the history books say otherwise.
In a 2012 radio interview with Angie Martinez to promote “It All Belongs To Me,” Monica admitted to putting her hands on Brandy during the height of their “Boy Is Mine” days.
In that very same interview, Brandy politely expressed to Monica that the revelation could have been “discussed off-air.” Even more, Monica has often expressed how quick-tempered and “hood” she was during her youth and has routinely played up her violent streak not only in her personal life but also in her music (“Kick down the door and smack yo’ chick”). While Monica has certainly matured as a woman, mother and wife, it’s not that far-fetched to imagine her having some responsibility in her falling out with Brandy.
Maybe Brandy was indeed bullied by Monica, as she suggested in her response to fans. It wouldn’t be the first time for the singer, who’s long been the target of online harassment and admittedly suffered from bullying as a child. Even a school teacher once told her that she was not beautiful enough to make it in the entertainment business.
It was that very criticism that motivated her to become the icon she is today, no matter how much she may be overlooked.
The once cookie-cutter, play-it-by-the-rules Brandy has evolved. And while her evolution may seem shocking to many, it’s certainly her right to stand up for herself if she deems it necessary.
Generalizations and conclusions about Brandy’s actions, however, aren’t particularly fair, especially when we are not privy to any details outside of what has been expressed publicly.
From the stage to social media timelines, the once-timid singer who suffered from stage freight at the height of her career is now using her voice like we’ve never heard before. Hopefully, people, not just her throng of fans, will actually take the time to listen.
Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Homepage and Opinion Editor at theGrio. Keep up with him on Twitter @MrGerrenalist.