If you’re like me and are one of the millions life-long New Edition fans, you’ve been glued to your television the last couple of nights watching the New Edition movie on BET. To many, this is just a movie about guys in a band. To me, this is more than a movie; this was a major part of my childhood. New Edition was our Beatles, our Rolling Stones. For a little ten year old black girl growing up in Newark, New Jersey, New Edition was life. You may think that’s a bit dramatic but it’s true.
In their debut album, Candy Girl, they sang about girls who look like me; they looked like me and were thought to be beautiful. This is not about exclusion. When you watched TV in the 80’s, like most decades, the black woman wasn’t always a symbol of desirable beauty. Whitney Houston made us feel beautiful. New Edition said we were beautiful. In the New Edition movie when Ralph and Ricky serenaded Zena on the playground, all of us were Zena. That’s what New Edition meant to little black girls: they reminded us we too were the prize.
In 1985, two friends and I went to see New Edition at a concert at Symphony Hall in Newark. We were in the fourth row rocking bright neon sweaters; so they’ll see us. At one point when they were singing Lost in Love, sweat from Ralph flew onto us. Our sweaters never saw a washing machine again. Our eyes looked up at them in awe. If the world ended, we wouldn’t have known. The talent was understated and the performance unforgettable. Screaming girls yet they never missed a beat. They were little boys doing grown men work.
One of my favorite lines from the movie is when Brooke Payne says to the young new Edition before their very first practice, “I ain’t promise Imma make y’all into no stars. That ain’t what I do. But if you put in the hard work and do what I tell you, I’ll make you into a professional.” This was the most powerful moment in the film so far for me. In a world where everyone wants to be famous, no one wants to put in the work. A great reminder that while we all can’t be stars, we all can be a professional. Brooke’s presence in that moment was a representation of honesty, integrity and fatherhood, a loud silence throughout the movie.
Where were New Edition dads? From the moment the movie started, the missing links were visible: there were no Dads, none. Lots of kids, dedicated mothers, but there were zero fathers. Single black women living in the projects raising their children alone. Five boys with no one to teach them how to be men. It made me sad for them. I believe I’m a pretty strong woman but not growing up with a father impacted me in many ways, especially in identifying love. Manager Brooke Payne was their only connection to a father-figure. I was sad when the Moms fired him and was elated as the group was when he came back. I believe Brooke Payne was and has always been a critical lifeline for New Edition.
Speaking of male figures, I kept wondering: did Ricky’s older brother ever leave home? Why was Ricky’s older brother still living at home 12 years later? There’s a scene in part two when their mom was on the phone and Ricky’s brother who had to be in his 30s went to ask her for a dollar. I was like: why are you still living here and why do you not have a dollar?
With the exception of Brooke Payne, all the men in these boys’ lives either abandoned them, lied to them or cheated them. They didn’t have a consistent model to fatherhood or manhood. They struggled. Yes those with two parents households also struggle, but the fact that not one of these guys had a present father broke my heart. But the scene when they sung “Can You Stand the Rain” brought everything back to focus. That song brought tears to my eyes and a certain peace to my heart. New Edition’s drama really started to be stressful. That song was the peace in the never ending storm of what was their life as a group. It was a turning point of growth and serenity. Or so I thought until I saw previews of the finale episode…
Fifteen years ago, as a producer for a morning show on NBC 10 in Philly, I booked New Edition on our morning show where they sang live. Ralph, Ricky, Ronnie came on set. Mike stayed in his room because he fell ill if memory serves me correctly. They looked so handsome and had aged so well, especially Ronnie who I’m convinced is the black Benjamin Button. When we met before they performed on the morning show, I introduced myself professionally, though my inner ten year old girl was losing her damn mind. I gleefully told them about the 1985 concert at Symphony Hall in Newark when they sweated on me. Ralph responded,”Oh that was you?” I said yup. That was me in the neon green sweater.
Last year at the ESPN Magazine party, I randomly got the opportunity to sing “Mr. Telephone Man” on stage with BBD. Yes, you read that correctly. They didn’t know who I was, but to me they will always be unforgettable.