Whatever happened to Dionne Farris, the vocalist whose efforts, called “arresting” by some critics, on the Arrested Development single “Tennessee” garnered her and the rest of the band two Grammy Awards (Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group) in 1993? Where is Farris, whose song “Hopeless,” from the Love Jones movie soundtrack, added the classic line, “as a penny with a hole in it” to the world’s lexicon?
You can find out how she now sounds on Saturday, July 12, when she performs a free concert with her new band at the Princeton Community Park-North Amphitheater at Pettoranello Gardens.
After years of inactivity in the music business, Farris has come out with a new CD, “Signs of Life.” “I’m relaunching my career,” says Farris in a phone interview from her home in Decatur, GA. “We’re going to be doing a full set with some old stuff and lots of new stuff. It’s time for me to renew myself and music.”
Farris, 39, was born in Plainfield to a schoolteacher mom and businessman dad, both of whom were very musical. She was raised in Bordentown and is a former Mercer County College student. “I had a great childhood in New Jersey,” she says. As a kid in Bordentown, Farris was a huge Diana Ross fan — one of Farris’ fondest memories was attending a Ross concert in Manhattan at the age of eight, and being invited onstage by Ross and kissed by the superstar.
Aside from singing in church, Farris was first exposed to music performance as a third-grader, when she was selected to perform in a regional children’s choir. In middle school, Farris was part of the New Jersey Singers’ Choir under the direction of Gary Farquhar. “Everyone in the group could really sing,” Farris says. “We did classical pieces, such as ‘Carmina Burana,’ and we really learned a lot because we were required to just jump right on into it. That’s a great thing to be able to do when you’re a child. You don’t realize it then but now you can look back on it and say ‘wow.’ It helped shape and mold me musically.”
After graduating from Bordentown Regional High in 1988, Farris attended Mercer County College, where she studied photography. She wasn’t really into it, however. “I really didn’t want to go,” she says. “I did enjoy it but I was mostly there because it was something my mother wanted me to do, and I wanted to try and honor that.”
But it was music that really drew Farris, and she moved to Atlanta, where her father lived, to try to establish herself in the then-nascent African American cultural renaissance that was building in that Southern city. After a short while Farris hooked up with then-wunderkind Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri (now Janet Jackson’s betrothed) and began writing songs for Atlanta-based acts such as TLC. She was also a member of a girl group known as Onyx (a name later co-opted by a semi-gangsta rap group).
Farris achieved her first fame in the early 1990s with the Atlanta-based alt-hip-hop group Arrested Development, which, when it came out during rap’s proto-gangsta days, was the harbinger of a new, Southern-focused, Africa-centered direction for African American pop.
Led by the eccentric, wry, visionary singer/rapper known as Speech (Todd Thomas), Arrested Development was a wildly divergent collective of singers, musicians, dancers, and an ancient “spiritual adviser” known as Baba Oje. In its appearances and music videos, the group — whose name came from Speech’s candid assessment of the state of black American culture — conveyed an impression that was bohemian, countrified, and African-oriented while, in subtle, tossed-off ways, espoused a radical political agenda.
In many ways, Arrested Development paved the way for many other smooth, organic Southern-associated acts such as Outkast, the Goodie Mob, Nappy Roots, India.Arie, and Gnarls Barkley, and, indirectly, even country-music acts such as Rissi Palmer and Cowboy Troy.
“They had the same management team as I did at the time, and they were looking for a certain type of vocalist,” says Farris. “Someone called me and asked me if they knew someone. I really didn’t know anyone who fit that model, but I guess they needed to do what they needed to do, and asked if I could do some vocals, and that’s how it happened.”
The Arrested Development experience, while certainly life-changing for Farris, was not, ultimately, a good experience for her. Despite providing a rousing, spiritually charged vocal on “Tennessee,” the band’s first and biggest hit in 1992, Farris was never an official member of the band, just an “extended family member,” and she left the group altogether in Atlanta in September, 1992, before a show after fighting with Speech and co-leader Headliner.
“I had been extremely reluctant (to join AD) because I had already been in groups and didn’t want to continue that,” she says. Musically and legally, “theirs was an exclusive agreement, and I was not interested in that.”
She was able to follow up her Arrested Development work with her first solo album, “Wild Seed-Wild Flower,” in 1994, after being signed by Columbia Records. The record, which featured cuts such as the breezy, bluesish “I Know,” hit fourth place on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. It transcended folk, pop, soul, and other categories. In fact, “Wild Seed-Wild Flower” didn’t fit in any one category, and in the ossified thinking of those running the music and radio businesses, that was a problem.
Although very much associated with African American culture, Farris fought the characterization of her as simply a “black” artist; she wanted the freedom to sing in whatever style she wished. “They were always playing to a stereotype and I said, ‘No, thank you.’ I couldn’t always express what I was hearing from the heart. I want to be music. I don’t want to just be in it.”
Although later Farris appeared on the “Love Jones” soundtrack, as well as the soundtrack for the film “The Truth About Cats & Dogs,” to which she contributed a version of the Stevie Wonder classic “For Once In My Life,” Farris says she was “tired of playing all the silly games.” She resolved to bow out of the business for good. Farris does occasionally speak with Speech (pun intended) and remains great friends with Sister Montsho Eshe, another member of the group.
In recent years, Farris has written and composed on many different levels, but she has devoted most of her life to raising her daughter, Sequoia, who is now 12 and whom Farris was homeschooling until recently. “It is a great experience for me, because it is growing me as well,” Farris says.
And now she’s back in the music game. “Signs of Life,” Farris says, is a continuation of “Wild Seed.” “There was and is a blessing in that seed, and it is now time to see the bounty in that seed.”
Outdoor Concert, Saturday, July 12, 7 p.m., Blue Curtain, Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater, Community Park North, junction of Route 206 and Mountain Avenue. Dionne Farris, formerly of Arrested Development, performs. Also performing is the African dance company Kulu Mele. Free. www.bluecurtain.org or 609-924-7500. For more information about Farris and her CD visit www.myspace.com/dionnefarris or dionnefarris.wordpress.com.