Lenora, a singer from Houston, Texas, (the Hiram Clarke area to be specific) stops by the campfire to get a little vulnerable, tell some stories, cry a little, and laugh a lot.
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Howdy y’all and welcome to The Nostalgia Mixtape, season 3, hosted by yours truly. So let me tell you a little bit about today’s guest. Lenora is a singer and songwriter from the southside of Houston who made a fan out of me with her 2019 single “Relax,” which sounds like a crisp drink on a hot summer day. We met not long after the song’s release at an event honoring Houston’s culture leaders and thought it was cosmic that our work had brought us together so organically. She soon built up a huge following on Instagram and the rest is history that’s really still being written. I think you’ll connect with Lenora for her vulnerability, her honesty, and the way she understands the connection between her past and her present. And also she sings really, really well, so there’s that too. And you’ll get to hear that in our conversation. So, please, join us as she walks us through the memories of her childhood in the neighborhood of Hiram Clarke, opens up about the loss of her beloved grandmother — R.I.P. — and the time she was in for a serious whoopin’ for the love letter that she wrote to none other than everyone’s favorite 90s RnB singer: Ginuwine.
Here’s my conversation with the singer Lenora.
Sama’an: Where are we? Where are we?
Lenora: So, we’re in Hiram Clarke.
Lenora: Hiram Clarke, Texas.
Sama’an: Where is that?
Lenora: That’s on the south side. It’s kind of by Pearland. In between Pearland and 90. But my neighborhood is off of Almeda, so it’s a little more rural. I was in denial about living in the country for a long time. You know Riot Muse? The first time we worked together was the end of 2017 and she’s like a storyteller so when we first met she was like, “Let’s just work. I’m interested in knowing your story and hopefully telling an accurate story.” I was like, “Okay,” and she was like “Let’s go back to your home.” I still live there now, so, you know, it was personal. She comes to do the fitting and she was like “You live in the country, girl.” And I was like “No I don’t. I live in the hood, in the city.” She was like, “This is the country.” But then I realized. I was like, “Man, I do see people riding horses at least once a week in front of my house, on the streets, in the neighborhood.” There are roosters and chickens right behind my house that crow … I told you, they crow … They used to crow every morning, like, 5:00 am.
Sama’an: That was your alarm clock.
Lenora: As an alarm clock.
Lenora: Then, I guess they started multiplying because they crow and cock-a-doodle-do at all times of the day and night. It’s crazy. And then, they’ll congregate in front of my house when I’m going to work. It looks like a mama rooster, and little chickens and chicks. It’s actually really cute. It makes me happy. But, yeah. I knew then that I live in the country. I do. So, Hiram Clarke is, like I said … Where I live, it’s pretty rural. And the interesting thing about my neighborhood is that … So, my grandmother raised me. Her name was Lenora as well, also. And she was just a brilliant woman, an entrepreneur, had two successful businesses when I was a kid, Forward Times Newspaper, which is still around now. It’s 61 years old. And then, she also had a club called The Dollhouse, like a country club off of Holmes Road. And the thing is … Well, her nickname was Doll, so that’s why it was called Dollhouse also, which is pretty iconic to me. But everybody used to go to The Dollhouse, from Aretha Franklin to Richard Roundtree, Richard Pryor. It was a big deal because she loved to entertain guests and stuff. But, anyway. She’s a legend, icon at that time in the community and stuff. But, anyway. She had three homes in that neighborhood. Well, still, but she passed in 2010, so we do. Her house is on one street. On the other street, my auntie, which is her daughter, had a house on the very next street where she raised by cousins, who I call my brother and my sister because we all pretty much grew up together. And then, we had a rental property on the next street over. So, it was three houses in the neighborhood, and then, even the family who lived in that rental property, we knew them, we knew everybody in the neighborhood, so it was a really familial kind of vibe growing up. The interesting thing was all my friends in the neighborhood, I couldn’t do anything. My mama was strict. So, they would get to go to the park and play basketball, be gambling, smoking, hanging out at the corner store, trapping, you know what I mean? And my mama was like, “Absolutely not. You can’t pass the speed bump.” I could not-
Sama’an: That was your kingdom, was just to the speed bump.
Lenora: Right. The driveway, and then the speed bump. And then, at one point, she let me go to the stop sign.
Sama’an: Okay. So, since you only had to the speed bump and eventually the stop sign, how did you entertain yourself as a kid?
Lenora: Well, most of my friends in my life, they weren’t in my neighborhood. It was school and arts and stuff like that. So, most of the time, we spent most of our time at school. And then, from there, like I said, I was in choir and … I was always in choral stuff and summer programs, AFA, American Festival of the Arts. Stuff like that. So, a lot of times, I was making music … Or, not making music, but singing in choir, singing classical music, stuff like that. And then, in terms of entertainment, I would go to the movies. We used to go to the movies just to walk around, go to the mall. Stuff like that.
Sama’an: If you were at home, what would you be doing?
Lenora: I’d be watching TV, trying to cook. I had a Easy-Bake Oven. I remember my grandpa … I was the only person he would tell he loved. He was not a very sentimental or affectionate person with everybody else, but for some reason, with me, he was like that. And keep in mind, he was married to Mama, my grandmother, and so, he wasn’t my blood grandfather, but he was by marriage, and he was the only grandfather I knew because they got married a year before I was born. But, he would let me do anything I wanted. So, I would put barrettes in his hair.
Lenora: And he had a big bald spot on top of his head, so it would just be barrettes on the side and the back.
Sama’an: Wait. What was his name? What was your grandfather’s name?
Lenora: His name was James.
Sama’an: Grandpa James. Okay.
Lenora: And what’s funny is I never called him … When I refer to him, I say, “Grandpa,” but I never called him Grandpa. I always called him James.
Lenora: But I had this Easy-Bake Oven, like I said, and I would make … I would take bread, white bread, and put cake icing on it and sprinkles, and put it in the Easy-Bake Oven and give it to him, present it to him like it was a chocolate cake, and he would eat it.
Sama’an: He would just play right along.
Lenora: Sama’an, he would actually … He wouldn’t eat the whole thing.
Sama’an: I love this man already. Wow.
Lenora: But he would eat it. God rest his soul. He would eat it. And I would be like, “How was it?” He’d be like, “Delicious!” He kind of talked like Tony the Tiger, too. I remember being kind of embarrassed as a kid because he was such a peculiar man, but now, I respect it so much because, and he just really didn’t care.
Lenora: And then, music. Of course. How could I forget? I grew up playing a lot of music around the house, especially being around grandparents, they had the record players. My mama had a crazy vinyl collection, but she was a big blues fan, so we listened to a lot of … Her favorite was Johnny Taylor, so we listened to a lot of Johnny Taylor, little Milton.
Lenora: Of course, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Little Milton, Buddy Ace. I listened to a lot of blues growing up. Then, we had a piano in there, and an organ in the house. It was always music around the house. And then, I took piano lessons as a kid, but I quit because I was just not wanting to do it. I literally cried one day and was just like, “Stop wasting your money. I don’t want to do it.” And I should have never done that. I should have kept playing. Everybody say that when they stop playing. They get older and realize you would have been so much more lit if I had that skill. But I learned basic stuff, you know? So, I’d pluck around on the piano at home. I did that. I spent a lot of time talking to myself, for sure. I still do that.
Sama’an: You’re doing it right now.
Lenora: Especially, I was an only child, so … That was shade. “You doing it right now.” You right. Listen-
Sama’an: I’m just kidding. I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Lenora: … I can interview myself.
Sama’an: You’re doing great.
Sama’an: Can you tell me about Ginuwine?
Lenora: Yo. First of all, now, as an adult, when I think about Ginuwine, I think about when you had him sing the lyrics to “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
A while back I had the idea to get artists who aren’t from Texas and had never heard “Deep In The Heart of Texas” to try and sing it just from looking at the lyrics. This one with @ginuwine was the first I ever filmed, never shared it before — what do y’all think? 😂😂🥺😭😭 pic.twitter.com/yG8JjXJYHJ
— Sama’an Ashrawi (@SamaanAshrawi) April 6, 2021
Lenora: That is easily now one of my favorite Texas stories. Oh, my Gosh! Okay. No. But my story about Ginuwine … Oh, my God. So, let me take you back to a seven year old Lenora.
Sama’an: Let’s go.
Lenora: I was in second grade, and I went to the Rice School, La Escuela Rice, Spanish technology magnet school. And I was in, I don’t know, I think in class one day, and I wrote this letter in orange crayon because I loved Ginuwine. I was a big Ginuwine Stan at, like, seven, and I would be dancing around in the kitchen in silk pajamas to be like that and I just loved him when I was a kid. So, I wrote this letter in orange crayon and it was like, “Ginuwine is so fine. I want to kiss him.” That was all it said, but I was seven.
Sama’an: Aw, yeah.
Lenora: And I put it in my backpack, and I went home, and then the next morning, I’m getting ready to go to school. I wake up, I’m happy. Everything’s all good. My mama made breakfast, and she is pissed, and I’m like, “What’s wrong with her?” She’s upset. She was like … Because she would go through my backpack to either put stuff in there. I don’t know. Check homework. Make sure stuff was … I don’t know. So, she looked, and she saw the letter in orange crayon about Ginuwine.
Sama’an: Oh, no.
Lenora: And she flipped-
Sama’an: Oh, no.
Lenora: … a shit. She was so mad. She was just like, “When you get home …” What did she tell me? She said, “It’s going to be a pow-wow.” I was like, “A what?”
Sama’an: Oh, no. Oh, no.
Lenora: That was bad. So, she was just like, “Yeah. It’s going to be me and you.” And I was like, “Man!”
Sama’an: “I messed up, I messed up, I messed up!”
Lenora: “How could I be so stupid? Why would I leave it in my backpack?” So, the whole day at school, I don’t know if you ever had this feeling or if you grew up getting whoopings, because I know it’s frowned upon now, but when you knew you was about to get a whooping, you went around … Like, school, it was solemn all day. I was just like, “Man.” And then I got home, and I was being extra sweet because I was like, “I don’t want her to be even more mad,” so I was being over-the-top sweet, and she just forgot.
Lenora: She forgot, so I got spared because she was so busy, she would often forget things, so I got away with so much from the fact … I know it sounds terrible, and I know my mama is looking down from heaven like, “I ought to beat your ass right now.”
Sama’an: “I’m coming down there!”
Lenora: “I’m coming down there.” But, so much stuff, I would get away with for that fact alone because she was so busy. I remember with report cards and permission slips and stuff … Or, not permission slips. Progress reports. My grades were never a problem, it was my conduct, because as you can see, I talk excessively.
Sama’an: I can relate.
Lenora: So, I would get in trouble for that. And so, she would tell me, “If you bring home another P in conduct … If your conduct’s poor, it’s going to be a pow-wow.”
Sama’an: Oh, man.
Lenora: So, when I would get it and I would see it, I’d be like, “Man!” So, what I would do is I would wait until she would take me to the bus stop in the morning, and then when the bus would pull up, I would take my progress report or report card out at the last minute and be like, “Oh! I forgot to give you this. I need you to sign it. If you don’t sign it, I’m going to get in trouble.”
Sama’an: Oh, no.
Lenora: So, she would just sign it really fast, and then give it to me, and be like, “Go, go.”
Sama’an: Wow. So, you had a strategy of-
Lenora: Sometimes. That only worked sometimes. You can’t do it every time.
Lenora: So, there were times where that didn’t work and I resorted to other things that were not successful. My plans were thwarted. Yeah.
Sama’an: What? You’d try to distract her or something?
Lenora: Yeah. I would do that. Or even, if she would be giving me a whooping or something, I would be more extra. I never tried to run. I never was stupid enough to do that, but I would just move around a lot on the bed to where she would have to exert more energy and be more tired. Or, I would … This is so bad. I would scream and just be extra, so it seemed worse, and then she’d stop. Like, you feel bad.
Sama’an: Played it up a little bit.
Lenora: Yeah, I played it up.
Sama’an: I respect that.
Lenora: I turned on the theatrics and the dramatics, and I did what I had to do.
Sama’an: You did do what you had to do. But I’m glad in that specific instance, you got away with the Ginuwine love letter.
Lenora: I did.
Lenora: And then, after that, I never saw Ginuwine the same.
Sama’an: He doesn’t know what you went through.
Lenora: He doesn’t know what I went through. I was just like, “I can’t believe I almost got a whooping over this guy, this man.”
Sama’an: This guy. Jeez.
Lenora: But he made up for it with the Deep In The Heart of Texas rendition. Single-handedly.
Sama’an: You made a very wonderful album called Girls.
Lenora: I appreciate that.
Sama’an: Put out a couple singles, one’s called Relax. One’s called Cool. Red Flags. These are songs that we enjoy. But, I’ve heard that there is a very Texas story about the Cool music video.
Lenora: This is true, this is true.
Sama’an: Can you tell it?
Lenora: Yes. So, after we met … So, Beanz N Kornbread. Shout out Beanz N Kornbread. Beanz N Kornbread produced “Relax,” and then Relax did so well that we were like, “We need to do another one. Another one.”
Sama’an: Another one.
Lenora: So, we got together, and then “Cool” was made, and we cooked it up from scratch. It was really, really precious.
[Editor’s Note: Another piece of the team that makes up Lenora’s creative orbit is Riot Muse. She’s a Houston-based art director with a powerful, provocative, and cinematic style. Her work has been featured in Vogue and High Snobiety. And once Lenora had recorded “Cool,” Riot Muse stepped in with some inspiration for the video. That inspiration got them started, but serendipity took them the rest of the way. ]
Lenora: And so, after we finished the song, Riot Muse, who of course collaborates on everything with me visually. She’s a genius. She was like, “For Cool, I see this very at-home vibe, very Texan. Very where you grew up.” So, we end up strapping an air mattress … Like, blowing it up, strapping it to the back of my brother’s truck, getting sheets and clothes pins and stuff, and rope. And we go driving to the location we scouted close to my house, and it’s this abandoned school. It’s weeds and stuff, but it’s very country, and right next door to it, over this fence, is a ranch. So, we’re getting some cool shots. It was a magical day. We were convinced that my mama’s spirit was there that day also because her favorite color was green and there was this green orb that kept getting in all the shots, and it was circling around me.
Lenora: And so, anyway. After that, she was like, “You know what? I wonder if we can go next door to this ranch and shoot over there.” And so, I was like, “Well, let’s just try.” So, we drive over there, and there’s this old saloon and then a fence, but you have to go through a gate to actually get to the ranch, but we could shoot in front of the gate where the old saloon was. So, we shoot some material right there. I kind of lean on the fence because the horses and everything are behind me. And then, there’s this man, he pulls up in a truck, and I’m like, “Oh, my God.” And keep in mind, every time Riot Muse and I shoot, she has me dressed in briefs, and panties, and lingerie and cowboy boots. So, I’m in front of this man’s ranch with lingerie and cowboy boots on like, “What up?” And he was just like, “I’m the owner of this ranch.”
Sama’an: Oh, shit.
Lenora: My name’s Cedric. They told me y’all was shooting over here. I had some cameras set up. I was like, “Oh, my God. We going to get shot.” But he was just like, “I’ll show y’all the ranch if you want.” And he shows me this ranch, and it’s so crazy. I never knew what was back there. He has stages, two stages, like a whole band could set up. There’s a couple houses he has, and one of them is an old recording studio.
Lenora: This man-
Sama’an: What are the odds of that? That’s crazy.
Lenora: What are the odds? This man used to run a record label or something, him and his son. And now his son was just chilling and grilling meat and stuff. And so, we looked at him and we were like, “Yo. Can we finish shooting the video back here?” And he was like, “Sure.” They cleaned it up for us to shoot there, and yeah, we ended up shooting it on a iPhone, the rest of the video as well, using the horses, the horses were so sweet. And it’s, to this day, everybody’s favorite music video of mine. So, shout out to Cedric and Treehouse Ranch because they really came through in the clutch. I wanted to do a festival there, or something. That would be really cool.
Sama’an: That would be so cool.
Sama’an: So, if we could go back and visit a really, really happy memory, a memory that you maybe would go back to if you need a little pick-me-up. Can you think of something? What’s running through your head?
Lenora: Hm. I would say, it would probably be our times in the country. We had a house in Livingston and we would go there on weekends or summers, and stuff like that. And she loved Livingston. She loved country life, gardening, and cooking. My grandpa be hunting, and just stuff like that, fishing. We would do all of that. Take the boat out and go fishing, and just really country, simple life. And I just remember when both of them were alive, just how simple things were but how wonderful they were. And I remember, we would have these Saturday night dances, and my grandpa would take me and they would play … The only hiphop or R&B song they would play was “Yeah.” That’s all they had. I’m lying. And “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” by Will Smith.
Sama’an: Classic, classic.
Lenora: Those were the only ones they had. So, when they would play Yeah and Getting Jiggy With It, me and my little sister would turn up. We would have those white people looking at us like we was Destiny’s Child, okay? We would turn up, and they were just in-awe because we would just be dancing. And it was just so simple. But, the Saturday night dance was in this park. It was in this state park.
Sama’an: Oh, wow.
Lenora: So, it was so country, and we would just go out there and wear whatever we wanted to wear. They would let us wear whatever we wanted. So we would wear a little psychedelic sparkly top and some jeans and some shoes that don’t really match. Just simple. Watching scary movies with my grandpa in the living room. And I remember we would watch those … I forgot the name. I think The Hills Have Eyes.
Sama’an: Okay, okay.
Lenora: And it’s like the cannibal … Yeah, it was wild. But we watched … There are a million of those. There’s one, two, three, four. He sat up and watched all of them with us, me and my little sister. Three or four of those movies back to back. At least three. And at the end of the night, we were so scared because we were in the country.
Sama’an: You’re like, “The hills do have eyes!”
Lenora: Right. The nearest house is down the street. And so, we were like, “Bruh, what if the cannibals come eat us?” But that was so much fun. We could just walk up and down the streets. We didn’t have to abide by a speed bump or a stop sign. It was just so simple. And playing with worms in the soil as you use for bait to go fishing. We would play with the worms, and that was so much fun.
Sama’an: Let’s try to find a time when you realized what your passion is in life.
Lenora: Yeah. I feel like I’ve known that I could sing or I would sing, and I did sing since I was a really small kid. I was probably four or something crazy. They said I was always like that. I was always extra. I would always put on little plastic toy heels, or even my mama’s heels, and entertain people. When she would bring people to the house, I would go get dressed up and then come out and be like, “Okay. Sit back, I’m about to perform.”
Sama’an: Wow. Wow.
Lenora: Very extra. So, I’ve always known that. And I feel like, honestly … We didn’t talk about this yet, but like I told you, my grandmother raised me, but it was really a whole village. Because like I told you, my auntie was on the next street over. And when it came to school and stuff, my auntie took care of all of that. So, my mama, my grandmother, who I called my mama, she would be the busy one, right? She was running the businesses. But her favorite thing was being a mom to her kids, and then, obviously, to me. She would be the one that took us to do fun stuff, to Discovery Zone and Astroworld. She would come on all the field trips. That was her thing. My biological mom and her … My biological mom’s name is Constance. So, Constance, and my auntie’s name is Karen, so Constance and Karen, they’re sisters but literal opposites. My bio mom, she’s super eccentric, very artsy. Just a wild child. And then, my auntie, she’s more conservative. More of a homebody. She was more like that. So, yeah. And so, because Constance was more on the wild side, they were harder on me. So, they were like, “Hey, we don’t want her to be wild,” so they were a little bit harder on me. And also, I feel like my auntie was already annoyed with her sister growing up, so when she would see me do stuff like that, like get dressed up to perform for my mama’s friends or whatever, she would be like, “Oh, here she goes, being extra.”
Lenora: You know? Whatever. And I realize now … Because I would still do it. Let me be clear. I would still be like, “Whatever. Y’all still going to get the show.” But I realize how, as an adult, I feel like if that energy was harnessed more, who knows what could have happened? Because I was definitely interested in TV and film, and stuff like that, but they didn’t know anything about that. They were busy running a business and stuff. So, I settled for the performances for her friends, which were some legit friends. She had legit friends. But I loved that. I always loved that rush of performing for people. And what’s crazy is I think, as a kid, I was more fearless. I was never nervous. And then, I think … Not to throw my auntie under the bus because she’s a lot like my mom now too, especially after my mama passed away in 2010, we got a lot closer so I refer to her sometimes, most times, as my mom as well. But I think that hearing that so much, “That’s extra,” or, “That’s whatever.” And then, not being around anyone who was like me in my family … Because my brother and sister played sports. My sister, I told you, was like a basketball star, and then my brother was a football star, and Mama was a business woman. Auntie’s a mom. So, I didn’t have another creative person to fuel my passion like that. It was just me. So, I think a lot of times that, as I got older, even though I stayed in music, I started studying opera when I was 13 and all that, I still was more self-conscious, more nervous, more … I would do it, but I still had those, “Am I good enough,” thoughts in my head. Doubtful. That I just am starting to get out of my own way now, as of recent, and just addressing that and being like, “Hey, I think this is when I started feeling this way or assessing myself rather than just being fearless.” And yeah.
Sama’an: Wow. Wow. When you were a kid and you would do those performances, do you remember any of those songs that you would sing?
Lenora: Oh, yeah.
Sama’an: What would you sing?
Lenora: So, the song that shaped me wanting to sing forever was I’m Going Up Yonder. I don’t know if you know that … It’s, like, a church song, a Gospel song.
Lenora: And so, I went to this pre-K school, or whatever, called All God’s Children. It was a private school, and it was a Christian school. And for our kindergarten graduation, we were doing this song called I’m Going Up Yonder, and the whole kindergarten class was backing me, or whatever. And I got picked to do the solo. So, I took it home and I told my auntie … Because she was the one that would always coach me for everything, through a song, like a solo or something for school. I would always come to her. Because the other odd thing is everybody in my family could sing, they’re just not singers. Like, my little sister can sing, my auntie could sing. They would sing in church and stuff. So, I came to her and I told her, “I’m leading this song for kindergarten graduation.” So, she’s working with me on it, and she’s like, “Now, when you do this part, when you do the last (singing oh, oh, I’m going up yonder),” she was like, “I want you to growl and go (singing I’m GOING up yonder).”
Lenora: Right? She was like, “That’s going to bring the house down.” So, I’m doing the song, I’m feeling it, and I realized how I felt when I did that … That was my first time singing alone in front of a crowd, and I was probably, what? Six? And I was doing the … Or, five. (singing If anybody asks you where I’m going). And I think, at that point, that’s when people knew, “Okay. This kid can sing. She’s on pitch.” Or, whatever. So, they were excited, and they’re clapping, and then she I did the (singing I’m GOING up yonder) the whole auditorium stood up and went wild, and they were clapping, and screaming. You know. That’s how a Baptist church is, the feel of that. And I just looked around, and I was like, “So, this is what fame feels like. This is amazing. I want to feel this forever.”
Sama’an: Wow. I just got goosebumps thinking about that.
Lenora: So, that shaped … I always talk about it. Literally. I remember my first bio that I ever wrote for myself as an artist, I talk about that moment of the thing that made me know, I want to do this. The feeling that I saw that everybody got. I think, at one point, I thought it was the gratification of it, but it was really what it made people do. It stirs something in their spirit to see a kid believe in themself like that. And that’s why, even now, I chase that feeling as an adult, just the feeling of being a child again. I’m really in-tune with my inner child because I think it’s so important to have that because whenever I’m in that head space, I’m not scared. I don’t know … I don’t even think to feel fear at all. I just know to feel free. I do whatever feels natural and free to me to do.
Sama’an: Wow. Damn. DAMN.
Lenora: This is some deep stuff that it’s evoking, I’m thinking about, you know? It makes me so … I don’t know. It feels me with all kinds of emotions, thinking about these things, when you say them aloud.
Sama’an: When was the last time you sang… “Going Up.. (Over?) Yonder” ?
Lenora: “Goin Up Yonder?” I never sang it again.
Sama’an: You never sang it again?!
Lenora: I never sang it again. I thought about that.
Lenora: I never sang it again. Maybe I gotta revisit that.
Sama’an: Maybe you should.
Sama’an: I’m just asking because I know that you sing now professionally… Is there a song that you sang as a kid that you now sing as an adult?
Lenora: Hmm. I feel like definitely, I’m just trying to think of what it is. But a lot of the songs I used to sing as a kid, I don’t sing any more which is wild. But I know, I used to always sing [sings] “But I just got to be freeee” by Deniece Williams.
Sama’an: You’re putting me on right now.
Lenora: You don’t know that song?! Oh I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that.
Sama’an: It’s okay! It’s fine! You’re good.
Lenora: It’s a beautiful song. I remember being a kid and people asking me to sing, and I’m like, eight, and I start singing this like grown-ass song because it’s like the first words of the song are [singing] “Whispering in his ear, my magic potion for love.” What are you talking about a magic potion for love? Girl, you’re seven years old at the YMCA, what are you doing? But that’s what I was singing.
Sama’an: Wow. Wait. Tell me the name of the song again.
Lenora: It’s called “Free.”
Lenora: But it’s such a beautiful song. And even now, I sing it. I really relate to that song more than ever, like right now in my life. The words like always just do something to me. Because the ultimate goal is to be free, whatever that means, to feel free to feel present to just be. Yeah.
Sama’an: Wow. I just really like the image of you singing and as a kid, and then…
Lenora: Singing it as an adult. Yes!
Sama’an: That’s really sweet to me.
Lenora: Oh, man. I would always sing that song. That’s such a random song for a child to sing like “Hey, can you sing?” “Yeah, I can sing.” Sing somethin’.”
Sama’an: You want to hear some Deniece Williams?
Lenora: Right. “You want to hear some Deniece Williams? Who? Look it up.”
Sama’an: That’s amazing.
Lenora: I also got in trouble in fifth grade and got sent to lunch detention because we were supposed to be quiet and line going to the next whatever we were doing a class or whatever. And I was singing (singing) and they were like, “We told you to be quiet. Why are you singing I need a word ma’am.”
Sama’an: You’re like, “We don’t need the school bells, just let me do it. Let me do the bells.”
Lenora: I was 10 then. I was 10 years old.
Sama’an: That’s so funny.
Lenora: I was such an old child because I was always around old people that’s why. And that’s why even now, well I love all kinds of music but I really, really love disco music. I’ve been into disco for the past several years. I thought it was like a phase.
Sama’an: It’s not though.
Lenora: It lives inside of me.
Sama’an: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Lenora: I love, love, love it. I love the feel of a good disco groove, it does something to me every time because disco music is the perfect music for me to spin to. Spinning is my thing. A lot of times I like to just go out to dance, and like put my arms out and just do a good spin.
Sama’an: Not everyone has a spin down. I don’t have a spin down. I don’t know if I have the balance for that.
Lenora: It’s not like a Michael Jackson spin, let me be clear. I put my right foot down almost like a little stomp to like balance myself and keep myself spinning and on my feet.
Sama’an: I think probably the first song that made me feel like I could get into disco was “I Feel Love.” Donna Summer.
Lenora: Oh, my God. Do you know what that means to me that you just said it was that song?
Lenora: That’s an incredible song.
Sama’an: It’s one of the best songs.
Lenora: It’s one of my favorite songs of all time.
Sama’an: I want to hear the long version
Lenora: Every time. [crosstalk 00:41:30]
Sama’an: Every time. You know what I mean?
Lenora: It’s so ahead of its time. That song is relevant today.
Sama’an: Yeah. If it came out today, it would still sound fresh.
Lenora: It would still sound fresh. Yep.
Lenora: I love me some Donna Summer. Sometimes I think to myself like, “What would Donna do? What would she say right now?” And I don’t know the answer to that. But I still like to think of what she would say or doing response to something that I hear. I love her.
Sama’an: Can you tell me if there’s a time where you lost something or someone special to you, and how you got through it?
Lenora: For sure. Yeah. No. I’m glad we’re talking about it because I’ve never spoken about it publicly. I made mix tape before, and I dedicated it to my mama, or whatever, a year after she passed, which was really fresh. And that’s the only time I’ve ever said anything because I did a spoken word poem or something. But anyway. It was really hard because, to me, growing up, the worst thing that could ever happen to me was losing my mama. Because, see, my grandmother, she raised me since I was two days old. So, when I would think about it … I don’t know why, but every time I would hear a slow song as a kid, even if it wasn’t sad, I would think about losing her. I know that’s weird because she wasn’t sick or anything. She was a very active person. But, I would get very sad and overcome with emotions, and I remember, she passed in April 2010. So, that was my freshman year of college. When I was home for winter break in December 2009, we went to Mama Ninfa’s to eat. That was her favorite restaurant. She loved to get Mama Ninfa’s. And we had margaritas. I was definitely 18. We had margaritas and we got lit. We got lit. And she started talking to me about serious stuff, and she was just like, “If I pass, this is like this, and this is yours, and this is this, and this is that.” And I was like, “Mama, I don’t want to talk about that.” And she was like, “Baby, we have to. That’s life.” And I said to her, “If something ever happened to you, I would kill myself. I wouldn’t be able to live. I wouldn’t at all.” Because we were so, so close. It was just me and her in the house a lot because her marriage to my grandpa … It was, like, rocky abyss. They never slept in the same room. It was very distant. A lot of times, I felt like I was the only thing that kept them together. So, a lot of times it would be me and her in the house, especially when he had his own place. So, it would just be me and her, and she was very affectionate, very … With her words, with her actions, always would kiss me, always would tell me I’m brilliant. We had a song, and it was Special Love by Johnny Taylor.
Lenora: And all her stuff, her passwords and stuff, a lot of them would contain, “Special Love,” because she would always say, “To my special love,” which was me and she was my special love. And I remember right before she passed away, which was April 10th, the night before … I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I went to Loyola, New Orleans, and G-Eazy also went there with me. And so, I would record at his house sometimes. He’d record me in his closet. And he had a show at The Republic the night before my mama passed, downtown. And we were going out, and I told my mama, “We’re getting ready to go out.” And I think this was the year the Saints won the Superbowl, so it was wild in the streets in New Orleans, and she was always worried about me. She was like, “You go to school in New Orleans. You need to be careful,” blah, blah, blah. So, she text me and the last thing she said was, “Please be careful. If something were to happen to you, I wouldn’t be able to live.” Or something she said like that. And she was just like, “You are my life.” And then, she also told me a couple days before she passed, she text me and said, “There aren’t enough words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to describe how much I love you.”
Sama’an: Aw. Aw.
Lenora: [crying] Sorry.
Sama’an: It’s okay. It’s okay. Take your time.
Lenora: So, that Saturday morning, my brother, he also lived in Louisiana as well because he went to school there too. So, he was in Metairie. I was in New Orleans. Which is, like, Pearland and Houston.
Lenora: So, he was home for his friend’s wedding. He was back home in Houston that weekend. And I was in New Orleans, like I said, and I woke up, and my brother called me from my auntie’s phone. His mom. From her cellphone. And he said, “Hey, what are you doing?” And I said, “I’m just waking up. It’s Saturday morning. I went out last night.” And he was like, “Okay. Can you get on a plane and come home?” And I knew that, immediately, something was urgently wrong because my mama would always take care of my travel arrangements. I would never go to … I don’t know. I would never book my own plane ticket, and I knew it was bad, but I still didn’t want to ask because I think, deep down, I knew. And I said, “I can’t fly, but I can drive.” Like that. Very just confused. And he said, “Okay. I need you to come home now.”
Lenora: So, I literally packed what I can in a bag. I didn’t barely back anything because I was so distraught. And then, I got in my car, and I just was driving to Houston, and I was listening to the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and there was this song. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It’s called “Like the Water.” It’s like, [singing]. I just kept listening to that on repeat, for some reason. It was just on repeat, on repeat, on repeat. And I got pulled over in LaPlace, in a little town right outside of New Orleans, because the officer said I was speeding. He was like, “You were going 80 in a 70.” And I’m, like, literally shell-shocked, crying. And then I kept telling him, “My mom died. My mom just died. My mom …” because I kept saying it out loud. And he was just like, “Your court date is June 6th.” He didn’t even say anything to acknowledge what I said. And I realized … My brother told me later a lot of people probably use excuses, so he didn’t know, but I was like, “You can tell when somebody’s legitimately traumatized.”
Sama’an: You can be a human about this.
Lenora: Right. I was literally traumatized. So, I keep driving, which is wild. And when I’m driving, my brother was telling me that he was going to meet me somewhere. He was like, “I’m going to meet you here. Stop at the state line.” And then, I stopped at the state line and he was like, “Okay. I’m not going to get there in time.” He was like, “Keep driving. Stop in Beaumont,” or whatever. And so, I ended up stopping in Beaumont because he told me this address or whatever. I guess I put it in, and I stop at this motel, right? And he told me he was going to meet me there. And keep in mind, he’s giving me fragments, and I still don’t have the courage to ask him if what I think is the worst thing that could ever happen to me happened. So, he was like, “Yeah. I’m going to meet you there.” So, I pull over and it’s not him. It’s my family friend. At the time, my best friend’s mom, who was like an aunt to me, and then my little sister comes out of the car, and she’s riding with them. And she comes out of the car, and she comes over to me, and she’s trying to kind of fester a smile up. And she looks at me, and I get out of the car, and she was like, “Chelsea …” No. She was like, “Mama died. Mama passed away.” And then I just fell on the ground, and I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” Like, how? I just talked to her. She was not sick. I just talked to her. And I was just home the week before because of Easter, so she just packed food in my trunk. And I remember, the last time I saw her, which was that Sunday before I came back to school, which … Yeah. I think that was, what? The fourth of April? Usually, she’ll tell me bye in the driveway, give me a kiss on the lips, and I would leave. But, this time, she walked all the way down the driveway. We had a long driveway. And then, she walked into the street and was waving goodbye, and she stayed there to the point to where I couldn’t … When I turned, that’s the only time I couldn’t see her anymore. She watched me leave the street.
Lenora: It was wild.
Sama’an: So she must have known.
Lenora: She must have known.
Lenora: I ended up finding out that once I got home, my auntie was there. She hugged me and it was just crazy. And she was like, “We’re going to be okay.” And we found out she had a heart attack. So she literally that Saturday morning, she was gardening like always, and she went outside and she was kind of doing her thing. And then she went inside of the house. And they think that maybe the paramedics think she must have just collapsed and started having chest pains and tries to get to the phone. And she just kind of fell between the bed and had a heart attack. So, after that, it was tough. And I think that it took me a while to … I don’t think you ever get over something like that, but you get through it. And I think that I was really, really sad, clearly, all of college because it was just … My reality changed. Everything that I knew changed. So, I think I kind of got through it, I guess, but I was really sad. I felt alone a lot, even with people around me, I always felt alone. But I think I didn’t really … When I got, I guess, quote/unquote, “through it,” to the point to where I learned to live with it without it feeling like a gaping hole in my heart all the time, I think was when I had to accept a lot of things, a lot of family dynamics, a lot of hurt, a lot of resentment, a lot of trauma. I had to accept it and not personalize it. And I think that, once I was able to compartmentalize those things, I wasn’t as bitter anymore. You know? So, I think that once I realized what me and her had was our thing. No one else has to understand it. No one else has to know how I feel about it. But, I was blessed to have that for 18 years. I was blessed to be able to spend that time one-on-one with her, for her to comb my hair in the mornings, to take me to the bus stop, you know?
Sama’an: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lenora: But even now, it’s tough. It’s been 11 years, but I miss her. That’s the hardest thing…
Sama’an: Let’s take a water break.
Sama’an: I’m gonna come give you a hug.
Lenora: Okay [laughs through tears].
Lenora: I know. It’s good to..
Lenora: Grieving is such a touchy but important topic because grieving is very individual. It’s very unique. Everybody’s experience is personal with it, and I think, in the Black community, a lot of times, we’re very private. So, I can imagine certain family members would freak out to know that I’m sharing thoughts like that, but I think it’s so important because a lot of people feel that way. They feel so alone, so just in a dark space, and especially to say it’s been over a decade since that loss, and to say, “Hell, you know what, I miss this person. I miss them.” That’s okay. There’s going to be days that are still tough, that you miss them. But, I think the important thing is to remember and cherish the great memories. There are so many unique memories I have with my mama that I just hold onto forever. And I really hate that social media wasn’t a thing like this in 2010, because if I had videos and stories of her, it would be a lot better for me because I don’t have … I can’t hear her voice. You know what I mean? Or see a lot of videos of her. We have, like, one video that’s really funny of her, but … Yeah. Technology and social media, we weren’t documenting everything with phones then, so it’s kind of tough. But yeah. It’s important. And it’s life. Life is about loving and losses and getting through those things, and still recognizing your purpose and your power. And it’s like, I still allow myself, clearly, to feel those ways and to express it, and to cry, sometimes to scream. But I have to keep going. That’s what she would want, of course. She believed in me so, so much. She would be, like, “Girl, my friend, she’s like Magic Johnson’s PR,” or whatever, “And she knows Jay-Z, and I’m just going to walk up to Jay-Z and I’m going to be like, ‘You need to sign my granddaughter.'” And I was like … Or, she would say, “My baby.” She never said, “Granddaughter.” And I was like, “Mama, you can’t do that. I’m sure it does not work like that.” She was like, “Yeah, it does. I’m going to walk up to Jay-Z and I’m going to tell him.” And I was like, “Right.” But she had that much faith, for real, for real. So, I think just remembering those things, clinging to the sweet, sweet memories … That’s a song. I need to write that down.
Lenora: But clinging to those sweet memories is so, so important. Because they shape you. They make you whole. They make you who you are. All that stuff. I know that, honestly, that definitely shaped me as a person, for sure.
Sama’an: It’s good that you care so much about preserving her memory, because, to me, I think that’s some of the most important work we can do as humans is preserving-
Sama’an: … the memories of people who are special.
Lenora: Do you know what’s wild? You know my first name is Chelsea and my middle name is Lenora. I did a name change and I started going by Lenora to honor her so that her name could live on. And that’s why I made that change. And when people associate whatever I do with … Whenever I put it out and whenever I’m gone, I want them to say, Lenora. I want people to say her name for as long as I live and even after. I want that name to continue to be said, to be remembered, to be cherished.
Sama’an: Those stories of the fun Lenora used to have out in the country, the trouble she got into on account of Ginuwine, her first performance at church, were all so vivid. I felt like I was right there with her, didn’t y’all? And how about the epic stand-off with Cedric, the guy who owns Treehouse Ranch? That reeeally could have gone south, but it didn’t! Thank goodness. We are so grateful for that. And how sweet is it, too, that she adopted her grandmothers name as her stage name? What a beautiful way to preserve her life and her memory and to honor her. For that reason, Lenora, we’ll always be rooting for you. Until next time, this has been another wonderful night by the campfire with The Nostalgia Mixtape. This episode was recorded by engineer Bob Vance at Wire Road Studios in the Historic Heights of Houston, Texas. We’ll catch ya next time. Wow, wooowww, what a trip. Thank you, Lenora.