Twenty four years ago, Detroit native Nichole “Nicci” Gilbert burst onto the music scene with her powerhouse vocals. She, Monica “Mimi” Doby, and Charmayne Maxena “Maxee” Maxwell were the founding members of Grammy-nominated Brownstone, the first group signed to Michael Jackson’s MJJ Music record label. Brownstone had 2 successful albums that spawned the hits including “If You Love Me,” “Grapevyne,” “I Can’t Tell You Why,” and “5 Miles To Empty.” The group won a Billboard music award for “If You Love Me.”
Fans of Brownstone saw Nicci show her acting chops on TV in Martin, Living Single, Sister, Sister and in the movie Woo. She also starred as Vera Brown in Tyler Perry’s stage play Meet The Browns in 2004. It was not until 2012 that Nicci reemerged on TV on R&B Divas, a show she created, cast and executive produced for TV One. The reality show brought R&B singers Faith Evans, Keke Wyatt, Syleena Johnson, Monifah and Nicci together and documented their lives in Atlanta as they worked on their music. They recorded an album, “Faith Evans R&B Divas,” in memory of Whitney Houston. Nicci performed a duet with her mother Helene Gilbert on a song called “Sometimes” on the album. The show aired for 3 seasons in Atlanta and a LA spinoff aired for 3 seasons as well. Nicci appeared on the first 2 seasons of the Atlanta show.
R&B Divas was not the first reality show pulling back the curtain on the lives of beloved singers, but it was the first in the age of social media. Whitney Houston appeared on her husband Bobby Brown’s reality show back in 2005 to the disapproval of fans, but other than on radio shows, fans did not have a public forum for fans to converge at once, in real time, and give their disapproval. Enter Twitter. Black Twitter specifically. Although Twitter launched in 2006, 2012 is when the momentum came with more than 100 million users posting 340 million tweets a day. If people loved you, they hailed you and created loving hashtags and even made you a star but if they weren’t checking for you, you might as well have been left dead on the side of the road. By the time Nicci left the show, she had felt the brunt of black twitter and then some. She had been labelled the villain of the show she created and fans dubbed her as trash and cancelled.
Nicci went from being on top of the world to tired, broken and broke. She had put her own creativity, talent, and resources into the show and it continued without her. She saw the clothing line she created and launched on the show skyrocket and plummet within days. I ask Nicci if while creating R&B Divas she saw black twitter coming, “Honestly, we weren’t ready for what came with social media. I wasn’t ready. I loved Twitter, it was actually how the girls and I communicated as I put the show together, it was a great tool for that.” It took some time but Nicci remembered her core; who she really was and found a way to drown out the noise and not believe what was being said about her that was untrue. She found out who her true support system was and got back to doing what she does best; being creative.
|Charmayne (Maxee) Maxwell
Nicci expressed her newest idea to fellow Brownstone member and best friend Maxee to create a show about women who achieved success then hit rock bottom in the public eye just like she had and how they built their lives back up. She wanted a show where women could turn their mess into a message and their test into their testimony. She felt that it was only right to name the show after their debut album ‘From The Bottom Up.’ Maxee loved the idea and gave her blessing, Nicci took it to Queen Latifah’s camp and the show was born. In the midst of putting the show together, Nicci received another setback, this time the worst one of her life; Maxee had died suddenly on February 28th, 2015.
From The Bottom Up premiered in 2016 with cast members Stacii Jae Johnson (Atlanta political fundraiser pulled over for DUI), Christine Beatty (Chief of Staff for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick caught up in a sex scandal), Sara Stokes (former member of Diddy’s Making The Band 2 with domestic violence charges), Kim Smeadly (administered illegal butt injections to women across the US), and Chrystale Wilson (known from her role in the movie The Players Club). The show was well received and the women worked through their issues and found their footing through season 2. The third season, with a brand new cast, including Angela Stanton, Brandi Davis, Tamika Wright, Danielle Jones, and Iesha Jeng, premieres on March 3rd.
It’s evident just by looking at Nicci and hearing her speak that she has found her stride again. She radiates positivity and empowerment, goes hard in the gym, and is overall happy. Her rebirth has been for her mind, body and soul. When asked to pinpoint where the change began Nicci responds,
“I went through so much that could have easily broken me and it didn’t. One day I decided to be my authentic self and work on things that made me happy. Everything fell into place after that.”
Brownstone’s “If You Love Me” was reintroduced to the radio in 2016 when Tory Lanez used the hook in his hit “Say It” and even had the ladies join him for a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. It was a bittersweet moment for Nicci, “Maxee always wanted us to be current and she would have been so happy with Tory’s song.”
After a long break, Nicci is giving us some new music too.
“People may find this hard to believe but I had insecurity to sing alone after being in a group. I suffered a creative singing block that got worse after Maxee’s death. I just didn’t think I’d be able to sing again without having her by my side. I’ve decided that fear can’t hold me hostage and to sing again to honor Maxee.”
In addition to recording her first single “Fly” available now on Itunes from her forthcoming EP due this Spring, Nicci is one busy lady. She’s working on finding a home for her documentary, Broken Things; The Sara Stokes Story about sexual abuse. This is the ultimate #MeToo story that needs to be watched by everyone. She was recently awarded with the BET Her 2018 Woman of Impact Award and it gave her even more zeal and purpose.
“I’ve been thinking about what my legacy will be lately and I know that it will include my encouraging, and empowering women to speak their truth and to just be who they are.”
Nicci plans to have many things under the From The Bottom Up Foundation umbrella including mentorship for girls in High School and College, speaking to and encouraging incarcerated women, and establishing a scholarship in Maxee’s name. Tune into Season 3 of From The Bottom Up on March 3rd on BET Her and purchase Nicci’s single Fly available on Itunes now!