Long, dense braids of black hair. A crisp, curved brow over rich, brown eyes. Full lips that part to release a sultry, soulful voice or, during conversation, a sincere smile. With all the makings of a modern-day diva, and none of the entitlement, Wynter Gordon has a remarkable ability to be at once both completely disarming and unequivocally confident. Since beginning her career as a singer and songwriter in 2005, Gordon has spent the last year developing her latest project, a band called The Righteous Young, which blends influences of R&B, hip hop and soul.
“As an artist, Wynter has always kept people on their toes,” said Tim Anderson, an artists and repertoire manager at Harvest Records, who recently signed Gordon. “She doesn’t limit her sound stylistically or allow herself to be put in a box. When you see her perform it all becomes clear. She’s so dynamic onstage, there’s a classic vibe to it. She reminds me of the great singers from every era of music.”
Dyanmic progression is a recurring theme for Gordon, who has encountered some harsh truths about the music industry. And while a younger, more naïve Gordon would have simply accepted these circumstances, the outspoken and confident woman she has become loves to challenge them. “I feel current artists—the ones that are making the money at least—kind of just fell in line,” said Gordon. “They do what they have to do to make their money.”
Gordon’s new project stands as an indictment against the current state of the music business—one that she feels recycles the same unflattering stereotypes for female recording artists. As this latest venture comes together, so too does the ever-evolving omnibus of her experiences as an artist still discovering herself.
Years before Gordon began writing hits for R&B queens like Mary J. Blige and having her own songs play on the radio—Gordon’s smash single “Dirty Talk” has nearly 15 million YouTube views—she was a passionate student attending the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York. The education Gordon received here became a powerful means of self-expression for the otherwise shy teenager. “School was a freeing place,” she said. “I grew up very poor and was raised in a strict Christian, cult-like household in South Jamaica, Queens, so all I had was my imagination and music became my escape.”
After interning at MCA Records, where people started noticing her talent, and a six-month stint at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, Gordon realized she had the chops to land a record deal. In the meantime, she supported herself by waiting tables and working coat check at Reign, a nightclub in Bedstuy. When Gordon found out one of her coworkers at the club, Don Pooh, worked closely with Mary J. Blige, she was resolute about playing her music for him. “This is so cliché, but I played him my CD in the basement of the club,” said Gordon. “He thought I was good so he gave me a track that Mary J. Blige had chosen for [her new] album. I went home and wrote to it. Mary J. picked my song. That was my foot in the door. ”
From there, Gordon signed with Atlantic Records where she worked with an artists and repertoire executive named Sickamore. Shortly after inking the deal, however, Sickamore—who Gordon credited as “her biggest champion”—left the label. “Every time I worked with someone new, they had a different vision of me and I didn’t yet have a vision of myself,” said Gordon, who worked with various managers after Sickamore. “Because of the way I was as a kid, I would just back down and do what I was told.”
Gordon’s last A&R, Mike Harin, encouraged her to pursue dance music. Although she did not feel passionate about the genre, Gordon thought it might be a viable way to prove herself as a recording artist and eventually make the music she wanted to.
Her debut as a dance artist came in the form of a chart-topping hit called “Dirty Talk”—a song Gordon had several qualms about releasing because of its sexually suggestive lyrics. “In this day and age, music goes everywhere and I knew there would be kids listening to the song,” said Gordon. “My niece was 10-years-old and I heard her singing it. I felt a social responsibility. I know that as an artist I am free to do what I want, but that was not the message I wanted to express.”
Despite Gordon’s uncertainty about the song, fans loved it. Soon she was touring and collaborating with the likes of Skrillex, Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki and although she felt personally unfulfilled and creatively stifled as an artist, Gordon found continued success creating dance music for other musicians including Flo Rida, David Guetta, and Jennifer Lopez. But by the end of 2012, Gordon had to make a tough decision. She had the option to continue her career as a dance artist or to drop her label and, with it, all the money she was making from tours and radio play. “I think it was Christmas morning and I called up Julie Greenwald, who was a VP at Atlantic at the time,” she said. “I was in tears and I just said, ‘Julie, I can’t fucking do this anymore. I’m not singing what I want to sing, I’m not touching the people I want to touch, and I just can’t push this agenda anymore.’ ”
The following year, Gordon used her earnings to buy studio time and record music on her own terms. She used this period of reflection and experimentation to discover herself, not only as an artist, but also as a woman. “I felt like I was living my twenties for the first time,” she said. “I finally felt like I was my own person.” She released her debut album, The Human Condition, as an independent artist.
Feelings of betrayal and anger had long been churning within the impassioned singer and finally she had found her voice as a means for releasing this pain. “I wrote this song called ‘Stimela,’” she said. “It was my own version of a song that Hugh Masekela did.” The song, which featured afrobeat and jazz undertones, marked Gordon’s first departure from dance music. Pleased to see fans resonating with her more experimental sound, she thought, “I think I found something here.”
With 2014 comes The Righteous Young, a five-piece band for which she is the frontwoman and has been developing for the last year. Since beginning the project, Gordon has been experimenting with her sound and testing her chemistry with other artists. Collaborations with famed producers D’Mile and Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Dr. Dre and Eminem, have encouraged Gordon to hone a style that is all her own on the still-nameless album slated to debut at the end of the year. A song off the upcoming release that Gordon is particularly invested in, “Get Back,” features vocals by rapper A$AP Ferg and a compilation of old African songs. “It’s about how long I have struggled to get to this point—the people I have had to deal with, the times I had to play a part that wasn’t me all the while knowing what I wanted.”
Freed of the insecurities and restrictions that plagued her earlier years, Gordon has embarked in a new direction with honesty and conviction. “People need to start saying something with their music. Tell a story, move someone, strengthen, inspire—those are my goals,” she said. Through the process of writing and recording the debut album with her new band, Gordon has recalled struggles from her past with a new, more purposeful perspective, and is now writing songs about the strength she has found, both as a women and as an artist, that she lacked in her earlier years. “My music sounds like revolution,” she said. “The songs I write now, they are about freedom and self-discovery.”