EXCLUSIVE: Kelly Rowland talks playing Gladys Knight & representation
When I said yes to watching American Soul with my mother, I knew it was a bad idea. I was right. From the opening credits to the last song sung, my dear mother was there, singing along.
It felt as if she was auditioning for the role of Gladys Knight, which was already taken by Kelly Rowland. I wanted to change the channel but I couldn’t because just a few hours earlier I had had a chat with the American superstar, about her role on BET’s new drama, American Soul.
American Soul is the story about the struggle to make the dream of Soul Train come true. Set in the early ’70s, the series is filled with music, dance, fashion and glamour, and follows the untold story of how Don Cornelius launched the first nationally-syndicated black music show in America – and what happened when the music stopped.
It stars some of the biggest names in black entertainment, including Kelly Price and Sinqua Walls, and guest appearances by K Michelle, Shannon Kane, Bobby Brown and Michelle Williams. Rowland said the rich history behind Soul Train attracted her to the series.
“It has a rich and unique history and not to mention the legend that is Don Cornelius, these things drew me to American Soul,” she said.
A former member of Destiny’s Child, Rowland shot to fame in the 1990s and has gone on to cement her name in the entertainment industry as a solo artist and actress, and has given us hits like Lay It On Me, When Love Takes Over and Commander.
Throughout her career, Rowland has sold over 30 million records as a solo artist, and a further 60 million records with Destiny’s Child.
Her work has earned her several awards and nominations, including four Grammy Awards, one Billboard Music Awards, and two Soul Train Music Awards.
“Playing Gladys in this series is an honour. She was the first artist to perform on Soul Train and has been in the game for so long. She has so much grace, so much class, so much love for music and still sings as if she just started yesterday. I admire and love that about her,” Rowland said.
The star said she found herself watching videos of Gladys Knight in preparation for her role. “Whether it was interviews or performances, I’ve watched videos of Gladys over and over again, studying her hand gestures and even the way she moves her mouth when she sings to embody her best I can”.
Rowland is no stranger to the camera. She is currently a coach on The Voice Australia and has been a judge on the X Factor US and UK version, alongside Simon Cowell.
“Being on the set of American Soul was such a beautiful experience. When I got to set I feel like I started to feel like Gladys. There was even a moment in my dressing room, I said a prayer and just wanted to be moved out of the way to tell her story with Don, best I could. It’s an incredible story to tell,” she said.
For Rowland, her favourite scene was when she got to sing Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia. “It’s one of Gladys’s signature songs and one of my most memorable moments on set. The very first verse always gets me choked up. It’s one of the deepest and most personal love songs ever written,” she said.
American Soul also comes at a time where shows with a predominantly black cast are being universally embraced. Something Rowland said was exciting. “It’s a beautiful thing, representation is so important.
I know for me, growing up, Soul Train was one of my first memories of watching all these different beautiful black people dancing and having a good time.
“I remember wanting to dress like the women, who had expressions of self and freedom. “I remember watching so many different girl groups like En Vogue and SWV and seeing them just making it look so fun.
"I would emulate the dancers, whether it was pop- locking or jumping from that one platform and landing in the splits,” said Rowland.
American Soul airs every Thursday at 21.50 on BET, DStv Channel 129