Amid the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, actor, singer and activist Amber Riley learned to fully embrace the power of her voice. In the last year, Riley has released a self-titled EP, launched #unMUTEny as a movement to “end Black silence in the entertainment industry,” remixed “O Christmas Tree” into the carol “Oh Shopping Spree” in partnership with Straight Talk Wireless and landed a starring role (and a co-executive producer title) on the NBC musical comedy “Dream.” Asked what she will take away from 2020, Riley tells Variety: “I’m stronger than I thought I was. I’m more resilient than I thought that I was. I’m more creative than I thought that I was.”
After speaking out about the trials she’s faced as a Black woman in Hollywood, Riley launched #unMUTEny, encouraging other Black entertainers to share their experiences, in hopes of making change for those in the industry and beyond. Riley says that the pandemic and some institutional red tape have impeded her progress on taking the movement outside of social media at the moment, but she’s not giving up. “I’ve always wanted to [create] a hub or a place that helped people of color, Black people specifically, in this industry because I know what it is that we experience,” Riley says. “It’s gonna take some time, but it’s definitely still at the forefront of my mind.”
When it comes to that conversation about representation for Black and brown people in the industry, what changes have you seen since we last spoke over the summer, when Black Lives Matter protests prompted Hollywood to promise to do better?
Sheesh. If I could be completely honest, not much. One thing that we can say is acknowledgement has happened. My agency, CAA, has taken steps to get information, to talk to their clients [about their experiences]. I’m very proud of my agency; I think they are trying to be great allies and a great example for their clients. They have different clients that have different experiences than their white counterparts and, for them to acknowledge that, it’s really incredible.
But we have a long way to go as far as representation, not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera and having people in higher positions that are making decisions. That’s why it was so important to me to be a co-executive producer on my show; it was very important to me that I had decision-making power because we know ourselves in our community, and we know the stories that need to be told. So, slowly but surely, I’m seeing more Black executive producers, more Black women executives in a lot of different arenas. I think people are listening, but it’s gonna be a ‘climb’ as Miley Cyrus says (laughs).
In November, the actor announced her first series regular role on TV since leaving “Glee” in 2015, playing a former teen mom who chases her dream of becoming a musician after her son graduates from college. Producers Neil Meron and the late Craig Zadan fought for her to have a co-executive producer title on the project. “That’s real allyship,” Riley says. “They really, really believed in me, and they walk their talk.”
How did this project come together?
Honestly, I have to give so many props to Craig Zadan, who passed away, and Neil Meron. Doing this deal, they were adamant about me having a executive producer credit. So, I have to give it to them for their brilliance and their experience. I’m learning a lot from them as executive producers about how this business works. Then Lisa Muse Bryant, an incredible Black woman, writer, and friend, she created this show; this is her brainchild and we’re just coming in with our opinions and brainstorming in and creating. I’m in awe of her. Honestly, I’m a fan.
When you made the announcement, you also posted a comment on Instagram, writing, “I remember when they told me my career was over after Glee. They were right. Career ended, but my dreams began.” Tell me more about that.
Sometimes you have to let things go in order to find where you’re supposed to be. I am not meant to sit in the background. I’ve said from the beginning that I’m a leading lady; that’s what I want and that’s okay for me to say that. I’m not apologizing for that. I think that I have value in this industry, and I can bring value to a network, and a television show. TV is a passion of mine; I’ve loved it since I was a kid. I just love seeing stories unfold; it’s that part of me that loves watching people and seeing things play out. So, I had to walk away from what everybody else was telling me that I should be, and the work that I deserved, and I had to walk into what I really wanted. That was the harder choice — saying no to things that would just be jobs that aren’t my passion and saying yes to things that may not work or that I have to fight for. But that’s my dream.
Riley adopted a new persona, simply named ‘RILEY,’ for her new six-track R&B-flavored EP, featuring songs like “BGE (Big Girl Energy)” and “A Moment,” which she performed in tribute to her late “Glee” co-star Naya Rivera in August. “I finally got to a point where I felt like I could be vulnerable and open, and write, and really tell my story,” she says. “Riley was a reintroduction to everyone that’s been supporting me for so many years. I didn’t want to disappoint, you know, and I wanted to connect with everyone through music.” She says her alter ego has always been there, but she didn’t share it with the public: “It’s a side that my family and those that are really close to me know. There’s the spicier, sexier side; it’s the more open side.” Most recently, Grammy-winning icon Dionne Warwick tweeted that the actor-singer is among the young artists whose career she enjoys following. A shocked Riley responded to the praise with a video posted to her own feed, exclaiming: “Yes, yes, yes! Make my year, legend.”
I read that RILEY is an alter-ego, your ‘Sasha Fierce,’ how did you discover this side of yourself?
I think that was always there. It’s a side that my family and those that are really close to me know; there’s the spicer, the sexier side, it’s the more open side. And so as Jay-Z said, ‘Allow me to reintroduce myself… My name is Riley.’ That’s what it was for the public now. Being so sure and private about yourself, lets you live your life out loud. This EP was such a diary for me and it kind of chronicled lived my life a little bit and where I was in the in the past couple of years.
Where do you see your music progressing from here?
An album is coming; I don’t know what this album is gonna sound like at this point, but it’ll be R&B music and being honest about where it is that I am in life. I’m so happy right now, but I also want to tap into what the temperature of the world and this generation is too.
You do have one holiday tune – remixing ‘O Christmas Tree’ into ‘Oh Shopping Spree’ as part of you partnership with Straight Talk Wireless – where did this collaboration come from?
Straight Talk Wireless basically came to me and said, ‘Hey, we wanted to do a holiday carol remix.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m all about it. I love Christmas music and I’m all about spreading holiday cheer.’ It was a fun way to kind of partner and get everyone in holiday spirit and promote saving. We’re in a pandemic right now, saving is really important; people are really stressed out about having to get people gifts and making sure that they’re also paying attention to their pockets. I think It was just really dope of Straight Talk Wireless to put a deal together that takes the stressor out of and puts the fun back into shopping for the holidays.