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Grammy-winning artist Mya takes it to the streets in ‘5th Ward’

The singer opens up about acting, a cherished moment with Gregory Hines — and even a one-way ticket to the stars

At just 18, Mya Marie Harrison’s 1998 hit “It’s All About Me” skyrocketed up the Billboard rhythm and blues charts, with several other top-selling tunes soon to follow: “The Best of Me,” “Take Me There” and “My Love is Like … Wo.” Sultry lyrics combined with an infectious sound and dynamic dance moves led to two platinum albums, as well as a Grammy award in 2001 for best pop collaboration with vocals for the No. 1 pop cover of Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” which also featured Lil’ Kim, Pink and Christina Aguilera. In a fickle industry that’s the home of either great acceptance or unkind rejection, 20 years later, Mya is always making strides. She’s appeared in CBS’s NCIS and will soon appear in Lazarus, along with Sean Riggs and Costas Mandylor.

The Washington, D.C., native’s latest project is Urban Movie Channel’s original 5th Ward, in which she stars as Mina. The show is set in the center of a historically black neighborhood in Houston, where Mina is a single mother of two children desperately trying to make something out of nothing. Staying true to the authenticity and raw imagery of H-Town, the show is an in-depth look at city life behind headlines.

Mya connects deeply with her on-screen character, especially when maneuvering through life’s many obstacles and detours — she left a major label in 2007 to become an independent artist and creator of her own label, Planet 9. She says it has been both challenging and rewarding.

The Undefeated chatted with the woman so loved (she has close to 2 million people in her social community, and that’s just Twitter and Instagram) that hip-hop blog impresario John Gotty instituted #MyaMondays.

How were you able to connect to your character, Mina, and the script?

My business partner, J. Prince, was born and raised in the 5th and has done wonderful things for his community. And being the oldest sister of two brothers in my family, I looked after them. I applied that dynamic to my character, Mina.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since becoming an independent artist?

Whatever makes you feel alive is going to carry you, make you go harder, and will give you the drive needed to succeed. When you love something, you will go after it, and no one will have to force you to do anything. Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music. This is why I’m still going, and my 13th and 14th projects are coming soon!

If your entire life could be summed up in the title of one of your songs, which would it be?

A song I wrote with Tricky Stewart called ‘Nothin’ At All.’ The song speaks to the journey of life, which is filled with winding roads, and ups and downs. But at the end of the day I wouldn’t change a thing, because in this current moment I am breathing, I am alive and I am happy. The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.

“The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.”

Who was your childhood hero?

My parents, first and foremost, and the women in my family, who I’ve watched sacrifice so much. However, I would also say the man that actually had a conversation with myself and my parents long ago. [He] pulled me aside to offer business advice: Gregory Hines. I performed at the Smithsonian, and he walked onstage during my segment and began going toe to toe with me. … He saw something special enough to dance with me.

What’s one thing about you that’s embarrassing?

I am goofy as heck! I can get really silly and go overboard sometimes. It’s very corny. I don’t allow too many people to see that side of me, but when I go there, I go there (Laughs.)

What’s one habit you wish you could shake?

I wish I could shake carbs. I’m in the process of retraining my brain and body to eliminate unhealthy carbs like pasta and rice and instead substituting them with quinoa and wild rice. It’s so hard to shake those things that instantly fill you up and make you feel satisfied.

The last stamp on your passport — and for business or pleasure?

Nassau, Bahamas. It was all business. I worked the entire time. I completed a photo shoot for both my single and album, as well as filmed a mini video for the single.

What’s a place you’ve never been that you want to visit, and why?

Outer space. I’ve been intrigued by outer space since I was 4 years old. My label is called Planet 9, and I study a lot regarding astronomy and astrological symbolism. Being able to look down at our planet and experience it from a different perspective would be an ultimate life experience, even if it’s just a one-way ticket. I’m fine with it because I think it would be very peaceful to me.

How did growing up in Washington, D.C., shape you into the woman you are today?

Washington, D.C., is known as Chocolate City! We are the land of go-go music, and it’s rich in culture. The diversity there has definitely shaped my outlook on the world and inspired me to want to travel and pursue a career that allows it. Although I attended a multicultural high school in Maryland, my roots are in Chocolate City, which is the black community. In a place where laws are made and bills are passed, you can walk a couple of blocks from the White House and end up in the projects.

“Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music at the end of the day. Nothing has destroyed that or come in the way of it.”

What’s one thing you would tell your 15-year-old self?

I’d definitely tell 15-year-old Mya to always define everything for yourself. Look to no other person to do that for you. When I say define everything, I mean beauty, success and validation. What it all means to you and what your happiness consists of. Don’t look to everyone else’s model of how they define those things to shape your decisions or your life because everyone is not meant to have the same life. I constantly have to remind myself of this because we can get lost in the sauce and look to societal standards. Always be programmed to think for yourself, think independently and define everything for Y-O-U.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.