The Evolution of Cynda Williams
Film and music are two amazingly beautiful elements that come together to create something quite magical. Actors and singers have been granted the most glorious platform that allows their undeniable talent to shine bright like a diamond for the entire world to see. Cynda Williams has known the gift of song since she was a little girl. Growing up in a family of singers, it would be her move to New York which would spark the beginning of her professional acting and singing career. Her debut film Mo’ Better Blues was an unforgettable journey that showed the world she was more than just an amazing actor. Her song Harlem Blues went #1 on the R&B charts and will forever be a classic. Cynda has acted in numerous films and television roles and she has no plans to stop anytime soon. As an actress, singer, producer, screenwriter, songwriter, author, and inspirational voice, Cynda continues to show the world she has a beautiful voice in more ways than one.
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, you also spent part of your early childhood in Indiana, where you sang in your grandfather’s church. What do you remember most from this time in your life?
I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago up to about fourteen years old and then we moved to Muncie Indiana. My father stayed in Chicago, and my mother, my brothers, and at that point, my first youngest sister all moved to Indiana because the crime was getting quite bad where we lived. It was what they call The Wild 100s now. It was beautiful for the time we were there, but then the drugs and all of this and gang activity were starting to take over.
I was so excited to go to Muncie because that's where my grandfather Reverend J.C. Williams was pastor of the Trinity United Methodist Church. Methodist churches are known quite well for, you know, orthodoxy and stuff like that but our church was very different than that. It was a mixed congregation which was not very often seen in those days. We were a very creative church, there was a lot of music, a lot of dancing, acting, and writing. We did at all. I was very excited and throughout my childhood, I'd gone there every summer. I was a part of the choir and everything but unfortunately when I moved to Indiana things kind of fell apart in my family. My parents ended up divorcing, my grandparents ended up divorcing, my aunts and uncles. It was like everything fell apart, the church fell apart, so it was a difficult time in my life, so that's when I really started focusing on school primarily.
I had some wonderful teachers in high school that really encouraged me and it was a huge departure from my Chicago experience where I had primarily black students, and teachers, but now it’s almost all white. There was quite a bit of racism. My teacher Nancy Krause was an English teacher and a theater teacher and she did all the shows. She made so many opportunities open up for me against the will and wishes of many of the other parents, and of the students, but she didn't care and I will never forget her for that and that saved me. The music that I sang, I sang in the choirs and that really got me through that time of division in my life. It was one of the most difficult times in my life but it changed me and sent me in a direction.
As a lover of music, I lose myself in the way a singer is able to deliver a song and make it unforgettable. I am mesmerized whenever I hear Harlem Blues. As perfect as perfection can be, you have an amazingly beautiful voice and to put it simply, you sang that song! Did you have any idea this song would have such an impact on shaping the culture of music?
I have always been a singer and that's where I began before acting, before writing, before anything else, I was a singer. My uncle, James Williams taught me how to sing when I was a very little girl, he was a professional singer at the time and so he really knew what he was doing. More importantly to me, it wasn't just about the vocals because my parents both sang, a lot of people in my family sang, my grandmother sang, she sounded like Billie Holiday. Had a lot of singers, but what he taught me that was so important was how to perform, how to perform that song, and how to interpret the music. When I got the opportunity to do Harlem Blues I was very blessed by that because it was such a beautifully written song and it was originally by W. C. Handy. Raymond Jones came in and took the lyrics from that turn of the century song, put a more contemporary sound on it, and changed the melody, but they stuck true to those lyrics and it was impressive to so many people. To be honest, I really wasn't thinking about the impact that it was going to have, I really didn't know, it didn't even occur to me. I was just singing like I’d always been singing. I'm very thankful that people love the song. I look forward to the day when I can do more music that they recognize and love.
After graduating from Ball State University where you studied theatre you would eventually move to New York. Was that move intentional in pursuing your dreams?
I graduated from Ball State University's theatre program always having the idea that I was going to move to New York and become a Broadway star. That was my dream. I did musical theater using my vocals and my acting abilities, but I had no idea that my life was going to take the turn that it did. I went there for Broadway and I still have not done Broadway to this day, but it opened up this world of film that I never even thought about or considered. I'd had casting directors up to that point telling me, you should do movies, but I never really understood what they meant until I got my opportunity to try it and realized that a lot of my skills were subtle, quiet skills, not necessarily as big as the stage required. So, yes I went to New York for my dreams but my dreams shifted towards film.
Your debut acting career started with Mo’ Better Blues, directed, written, and produced by Spike Lee. Working with some of the biggest names in the movie industry, you hit the ground running straight out of the gate and came onto the scene as if you had always been there. What is the creative process like when you are preparing for a role and has there ever been anyone you were nervous to work with?
Doing Mo’ Better Blues was an exciting experience, though as I stated earlier I wasn't really a film buff so all the people that were involved were not big names to me. I didn't know them. I remember Denzel from an earlier movie that he did and also on an earlier trip that I'd taken to New York. They were casting for a movie that he was doing and for fun, I got a chance to audition for that movie, though there was no way I'd ever get it, I was a young college student. But, I heard of his name but I really didn't know how big he was. Spike, I had an idea, I'd seen She's Gotta Have It and School Daze by then. Do The Right Thing was just coming out when I got involved. They were already starting to cast for Mo Better Blues.
My creative process for preparing for that role was the same as it's always been. I am a theater person so once I understood what he was trying to do with the character it really created a background for her. As a matter of fact, Spike Lee and I spoke throughout the six weeks of my audition almost every day about the character, who she was, and what she did for a living. I am very good at impromptu creativity so I would just tell him in a storytelling fashion all I thought she was, and he took all of that and created this character. When we started rehearsing once I finally got the role, we did have rehearsals and we did a lot of improvisation and that is how Spike wrote the dialogue. He used what we said. Denzel, Wesley, and I, all would talk together and all these different scenes Spike would write it down, and then we did it. I wasn't at all nervous, I’d been doing some kind of acting for a very long time up to that point. I did have some experiences that were difficult during this project, so that I was nervous about, my personal experiences, but my professional experiences were phenomenal and I learned so much from everyone.
Pink Pantie Confessions, released in 2016, steps the readers into the struggles, insights, and triumphs of your life and career. How did writing this book change your life and how did it prepare you for your PPC Podcast?
I was very fortunate to be able to write the book Pink Panty Confessions over a period of time that I really wasn't sure what I was going to be able to do creatively. I had left Los Angeles to raise my daughter in the Midwest. I wanted her to grow up with family, my parents. Her grandparents on her father's side had already passed away, so I wanted her to have that experience of grandparents, aunts, and uncles, cousins, so we moved back to Chicago, and so I had time. My husband at the time was living abroad working and he said why don’t you, you know, do you, take care of the kid, so that's what I did. That’s when I thought it would be a great time to sit down and write. Basically what I did is, I took journaling that I've been doing for years and expounded upon it and also took excerpts from a post that I’d done on Facebook and I wrote poetry, I wrote insights, I wrote my thoughts in essays on all these different subject matters. There's no chronological order to it, it's just remembering and sharing my story, and it was very very beneficial to me therapeutically. I had been in therapy at that point once before which had been very helpful, but there's nothing like sitting down and remembering from an objective point of view, your battles, your struggles, your life, your trials.
I really enjoyed the process and really cannot wait to do more writing. I want to write novels, I want to write a sequel to Pink Panty Confessions. What I've been writing primarily is screenplays, which I enjoy tremendously but I'm ready to sit back and sit back down and write another book.
I had the opportunity to listen to many of your ‘Walking Meditations with Cynda.’ One of my favorites is when you spoke about finding your way back to hope and faith. I believe we have all needed that push from time to time. Where do you pull your inspiration from?
I am very excited that you have had the time to listen to my walking meditations. I just started doing that recently. Some young people were saying you’re on TikTok but you don't do anything, what are you doing. So I took their advice and decided I was just going to start sharing from my walks, and I also have my segment that I call Show Biz Cyn. I have found that people are very interested in life from an actor's perspective, so I'm sharing little things on there, I try to keep it at one minute because people are busy, but give some encouragement and love out there. I personally listen to books and read books from all different kinds of sources. I read my Bible every day. I listen to different speakers on manifestation, on spiritual growth. I have always been attached to and attracted to learning anything that might help me take better steps in my life and have some clarity in my life. I love being inspired by teachers from all over the world and hopefully, someone is inspired by me.
Let’s step back to the year before you moved to New York. Would there be anything you would change?
The year before I moved to New York was a very big year for me. I had missed Ball State my junior year and I was blessed enough to become Miss Ball State. The first black woman to have that role. I was also doing a lot with the black expo and then of course all the shows I was doing. I never stopped doing something at that time. I was either singing in my band, singing solo, acting in shows, or doing my Miss Ball State duties. I did a whole lot. So really I can't say that there was anything that I might have changed before I moved to New York because I was in preparation mode for what was to come and I was ready when I got to New York. My parents weren't happy about me moving there, they wanted me to stay in Chicago. But I followed my heart, I followed my instincts, and I'm so thankful that I did.
What would you say are the biggest obstacles women face in Hollywood?
Many people face many things in Hollywood. There are obvious obstacles. Women have long fought to be seen. In this patriarchal world, our stories to be told. Our paychecks to be equal. That's not new for Hollywood. It’s the same in Hollywood as it is in every industry. Women are fighting an uphill battle, but once we realized that in order for us to have our stories told, we needed to take the initiative to make sure our stories were told ourselves. Now that we're doing that, things are changing in Hollywood.
There is, of course, the Me Too movement that has happened, it’s kind of disappeared it seems, and I believe that it's an ongoing battle, not just for women but for young men also. That is certainly something that I faced and it affected my career. Definitely affected my career, because I was a church girl and I wasn't doing the things that were often times expected of a young woman. I'm praying that now that my daughter is getting ready to start her acting career, she's getting ready to graduate from AMDA in California. I pray that she won’t have those same issues that I had.
As an actress and singer, your life is in full living color for the world to see. Was there ever a time when you were concerned with how to manage the pressures of being in the entertainment industry?
Being an actor or any kind of artist for that matter is not an easy thing to do. We are paid to create characters, create music, and people love those things, but there are many many talented people, beautiful people from all walks of life so the competition is harsh, it's real. For me, I had to come to the understanding very early on that what is mine will come to me. There were quite a few projects that I thought I was going to get and I did not get. I’ve been blessed to have worked on quite a few things but I'd say ninety percent of my journey has been rejection.
I had to come to the place where I understood that that rejection was not personal. As a matter of fact, I believe very very much in God and in the universe making things happen perfectly for me. So although I didn't get the fame or the fortune of some of my friends, I never look at them with disdain, I look at them with celebration. And I know that the work that I've done was the blessings that were just for me. And that is how I managed to get through that rejection. And I also can myself be creative in other ways. I was always creating, if not acting, I was singing, if not singing, I was writing, if not writing I was directing. I'd do it all, I teach. I've always managed to keep my sanity because I know what is mine will come to me.
Gifted as a songwriter and scriptwriter, do you find that gives you the freedom to truly be artistic in whatever way you desire?
I absolutely love writing screenplays and songs. Both! I can't put one above the other, although screenwriting has become a day job for me. I write for other people, I write for myself, and I excel at it. I am a good storyteller, always have been. My music is much the same, I don't compose. But, someone will give me a track or they’ll write music and I'll put a melody and lyrics to that music and tell a story. I know writing lyrics is different than writing poetry. It has to be more concise. The hooks have to draw people in if you want your music heard. I had to really work on translating my poetry into lyrics, but I find that it is a beautiful experience because I can express myself in ways that no one else does. I tell my stories in ways that hopefully lift people up, I'm all about that. And also give them some movement in their hips! So yes I enjoy it and it gives me the ability to create any time I want to because I can always do it on my own if I'm getting paid or not.
As a student of the arts, how does it feel each and every time you walk onto a stage?
I am a student of the arts, of music, of theater, and every time I walk onto a stage, to be honest, I have stage fright, especially when it comes to singing. I haven't done it as much as I used to in the past. I have anxiety, I have fear. In the very beginning, I don't always enjoy myself. I really don’t. I have to focus and bring myself back to the reason why I am there, and once I find that place, then I just fly. I truly enjoy the experience of the interaction between other actors, in between the audience. There's nothing quite like feeling the energy in the room and changing up your performance based on that energy. I never do anything the same way, it's always different. Every song is different every time I sing it. Every time I do a stage play I might do something different with the character. I don't mess with the blocking, I don't want to mess up the other actors but my interpretation might be different based on what I feel in the room and what I feel inside, and it's a wonderful experience.
What’s next for Cynda Williams and how can your fans find, follow, and support you?
Well, I have a lot going on right now. I am working on producing some of my own projects. I also have the PPC podcast which is on Anchor, Spotify, Apple podcasts, and other platforms. I also have the PPC radio show which airs on Wednesday from 2-3 eastern on www.grownefolksradio.com, Facebook and YouTube live. And my podcast drops weekly, by the way, every Friday. I also do my TikTok and I communicate with people that way. I'm writing screenplays. I have three screenplays that are in pre-production so I have a lot going on. I'm also acting. I have a movie I'm getting ready to shoot in Philadelphia this fall. I have a movie that I'm doing in Georgia in the spring and I have a new movie that's streaming on September 14th, called Mad As Hell, so there's a lot going on.
If anybody wants to contact me they can always check me out on Facebook, I have three pages, I have the official fan page of Cynda Williams, I have the Cynda Williams personal page, and the Cynda Wil page. I'm on Twitter @cyndacindy although I really rarely check it.
And then on Instagram, I'm @CyndaWil and I post on their daily. And I’m on LinkedIn.
So I'm everywhere. I hope you all come on and support me and check me out. Also if you get on those pages you can find out when I have live performances. I have a live performance coming up in New Orleans at the end of September at Sweet Lorraine’s, on September 30th, I have two shows. I'll be posting about that, so that's going to be some great music.
Thank You so much!
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AJ is a creative writer and storyteller writing from her home in Indiana.
"This is how you do it; you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard." -Neil Gaiman