Rhonda Ross has carved out a unique, inspiring and rewarding career as an actor, musician, recording artist and performer for more than two decades. Her self-styled jazz-infused Neo-soul funk songs not only hit you right in the heart and spirit but also your mind as Ross wears her social commentary on her sleeve using the vehicle of music to get people thinking about issues that impact all of humanity.
There is depth to her lyrics that is indicative of her depth as a human being, a wife, a mom and a daughter, as evidenced on her latest album In Case You Didn’t Know, which was released last year. At present, she is touring North America as the opening attraction for legendary Motown artist Diana Ross … who also happens to be Rhonda’s mom.
The current tour, which comes to Casino Rama near Orillia, Ontario on July 21 and 22, is the first time that Rhonda Ross has toured extensively with her mother, previously playing a few shows on the elder Ross’s 2014 tour.
“I have been a professional singer and actor for more than 20 years, establishing my own career and my own sound and this is something we had never done before. Back in 2014 she asked me to open for her on just a couple of stops and I guess she liked what I am doing and what I built and the music I am making, so last year she asked me to join the tour on a more consistent basis and what’s what we’ve done,” said Ross from a tour stop in Jacksonville, Florida.
“It turns out that our music, though they are different, complement each other. My music is really soul, funk based and the lyrics are a little more social and more overtly spiritual than her music is, but it’s feel-good music, uplifting music and that’s what, ultimately, her music is too. So it’s been a win/win situation, and I think it’s good for the audience because they’re not hearing the same sort of music all evening long, but they’re still getting music that makes them feel good.”
Ross’s approach to music is that of an artist who wants her audience to take a hard look at the life around them and the challenges, contentiousness, division and pain that seems to be rife, and stand firm in their own self-belief, their own happiness and their own striving for a better life for them and their families.
“My music looks at how we can unpack all of that. I look at the social environment around me, the political environment around me, the current administration we have here in the States – all of that. My music looks to say, ‘how can I unpack all that? How can we unpack all that? How can we still navigate in the midst of that, how can we strong in the midst of that?’ Almost all my songs speak to that. and they have a similar thread that say that not only do we have the responsibility, but the ability to better our lives, despite what is going on around us,” she said, warming to the subject.
“Again as a mother, it’s priority number one that my son be able to thrive and survive in whatever circumstance is thrown at him. My goal, both as a parent and as an artist is to say in which ways can we change that environment. What can we do to better the way that we feel, how can we change things so that it’s better for everyone. It’s not Donald Trump’s job to make me happy. So what can I do?
“It doesn’t mean closing my eyes. It doesn’t mean ignoring the facts of the situation and the truth of the situation. It means looking at it straight on and facing it and then realizing that we have way more power, way more personal power than we often give ourselves credit for. We often give others, whether it be the president or the administration of any other government official or any other authority figure in our personal environment, way too much power. So though I am not a fan of our administration at the moment, I also know that I have personal power and my son has personal power. He has the power of his mind and the power of his will and the power of his spirit, which no one can dampen. That’s what I hope I am teaching him through my parenting and that’s what I hope I am sharing in my creative and musical life.”
Musically, as Ross has said, she infuses a lot of different elements to create a melange of sound that has both old school and modern appeal. She also uses the term Neo Soul to describe the core vibe her songs embrace.
“If I need to, I call my music funky Neo Soul with a pull towards jazz. I believe, and I think most artists believe this as well, that art cannot be categorized and compartmentalized – we, as artists, do resist that. And as an artist I am not trying to make a certain type of music. I am trying to express my spirit and I am trying to do the things that we talked about previously which is to expand and explore and untangle all the things that are around me, both in my lyrics and my music,” she explained.
“And I utilize all the music that has come before me to do that, so whether that means Gospel or funk or country or whatever kind of music that inspires this untangling, I will utilize whatever musical tools I need to utilize. It’s the record companies and radio stations that want to compartmentalize, but I think at their core, most artists are not like that at all.
“Neo Soul is a term that’s been used for at least 15 years. Neo means new so it’s a new interpretation of an older style of music, the modern incarnation of the soul music of the 1960s and 1970s. But I have also a real love of jazz and a lot of that comes from my husband Rodney. A year after graduating from Brown University I met Rodney and what he brought to the table for me was a real deep sense of the history of black American classical music, which is also known as jazz. That’s really what black American classical music is. He brought me a deep appreciation for the value of it, of the history of it, of the literacy of it.”
Besides being able to spend lots of time with her mother, Rhonda is also getting a chance to see what life is really like for an artist of Diana Ross’s stature and the day to day pressures and professionalism that have allowed her to sustain a career of well over 50 years, from her early days with The Supremes through a varied and highly successful solo career.
“Of course I have known what she has done and what it has taken for her to build and sustain the career that she has had over the past almost 60 years. I was aware of it because I am her daughter and I grew up around it. And it has been amazing, as a professional myself, and being next to her, I witness her doing it all, at this age  no less, is incredible,” Ross said.
“One of the biggest things that I see is that she has such a sense of self-responsibility and I know she always has. The buck stops with her; she makes no excuses. She makes sure that show is perfect for that audience every night. It does not matter what craziness went on backstage, things like flights getting cancelled or buses breaking down, all that stuff – the audience never knows. She goes on and she gives that show her best, and she is always punctual. These days you hear of artists who are two or three hours late: my mother doesn’t show up two or three minutes late.
“And it doesn’t matter what you have to get through for that to be the case, even though she is juggling a big band with all their individual personalities and issues and an entire crew and everything that can happen to human beings. She is very clear that the show must go on and she is the one who will make sure that it does. So I have definitely seen all that from a different vantage point.”
Ross and her husband, accomplished jazz musician Rodney Kendrick, have been married since 1996 and have a son Raif-Henok, who turns eight in August. Besides seeing the professional side of her mother, Ross also saw the efforts Diana Ross put in to being as effective and as doting a mom as she could, considering she was one of the most famous singers on the planet. It’s that perspective and the importance of getting one’s priorities in order that Rhonda has carried into her life as well.
“She was such an incredible juggler of her career and her motherhood when we were growing up. She never worked on our birthday or on holidays. She was there for Christmas. And she would commute; she would do shows far away and fly back that night so that she could be with us in the mornings and get us off to school. To watch that and, now that I am doing a similar thing because I have a seven year old, I am understanding what that takes and its mind blowing to try to do that and build and sustain a career, and build and sustain the relationship that she has with all her children is amazing. She has incredibly close relationships with her five children. I have so much respect for her and hope I can do as good a job as she has done,” Ross said.
“As I mentioned earlier, my mother has such a sense of responsibility and I got that from her. I believe that it is my job to figure out how to live my best life, what is going to fill me with joy and with peace, what is going to allow me to raise my son in a way that will allow him to live his best life, to give him a sense of himself, self-esteem, in a world that doesn’t necessarily hear self-esteem on him.
Rhonda is the eldest of Diana Ross’s five kids. She was born out of a relationship between Diana and the founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy, although Rhonda would be raised by Diana Ross and her first husband, music industry insider Robert Silberstein, with whom she would have two more daughters. A second marriage, to Norwegian billionaire Arne Naess Jr. produced two sons in the late 1980s.
Rhonda always knew her parentage and appreciates is but never wanted to trade on it for career advancement, which is perhaps why her creative career began in TV and movies, including a stint as a regular on the cast of popular daytime drama Another World in the late 1990s, as well as the TV miniseries The Temptations and 1999 film Personals.
“I didn’t have trepidation about becoming a performer because of my parents. I wasn’t worried about what people might think, and the only reason that I think I didn’t was that my mother raised me and all her five children to believe that we had our own value to offer the world. If I had tried to be Diana Ross Jr., I would have experienced some major trepidation because there is only one Diana Ross and I would never try to copy that,” she said.
“So I purposely spent the time to figure out who I am as an artist, what is my authentic and organic reason for doing what I am doing. Once anyone has that, there is no comparison with anybody or anything, because we are all individual spirits and what I have to offer is mine, the same way that what my mother has to offer is hers.
“That being said, I still, even as recently as yesterday, have to remind people that I am not interested in being a Diana Ross clone or doing a Diana Ross tribute show. I got a call yesterday asking if I would do a Motown tribute show and the answer is no. I don’t because that’s not who I am as an artist and it’s not what I want to do. The fact that my mother and my father are who they are and are my parents – I am proud of that, I am happy to talk about it. But when it comes to me, my art is mine, and if you want to see what Diana Ross and Berry Gordy’s child is making artistically, then come to my show. But if they are looking to relive the 1960s, that’s not happening.”
For more information on Rhonda’s music, visit www.TheRhondaRoss.com.
For more information on the Diana Ross shows at Casino Rama, featuring Rhonda Ross opening, visit https://www.casinorama.com/Live/Artist/Diana-Ross.aspx.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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