Antonio "L.A." Reid
Since she's been a part of R&B's musical landscape and a recognizable part of pop culture for practically 20 years, it's hard to imagine us not hearing Toni Braxton. But before she became that signature sultry voice, a cautionary tale for bad business deals and a darling of reality TV (via WE TV's Braxton Family Values), Toni Michele was actually the oldest of six sanctified siblings hailing from the decidedly-unglamorous Severn, Maryland, a journey chronicled in Braxton's revealing and reflective memoir, Unbreak My Heart.
It's been decades since Ms. Braxton was a meek and malleable college student with dreams of becoming a star, but just because her 1995, self-titled debut sold over ten million copies doesn't mean that her path to stardom was an easy one. In fact, from the very moment Braxton experienced even a a glimpse of success---the solo deal at LaFace Records that omitted her younger singing sisters---those rose-colored glasses were clouded with a heavy guilt that would take her years to escape: "Through six Grammy Awards. Through sixty million albums sold around the world. Through two humiliating bankruptcies, a heart-wrenching divorce, and an illness that still threatens my life. And at every major milestone along my path, my mother's admonition echoed in the background: 'Don't forget your sisters.'
"Born in Severn with firm roots in Cayce, SC, Toni came of age in the midst of southern traditions, homegrown gardens and women who could make a request for toilet paper sound like a gospel hymn. Daddy Michael and Mommy Evelyn settled in MD to raise their brood and kept them in line with the severe rules of their first church, The Pillar of Truth: Pants were forbidden, pantyhose were required and wearing makeup was grounds for being banned, which likely led to Toni's desire to vamp up her image so readily as an adult. The Braxton's emphasis on religion may have helped to keep the family foundation strong, but they all still paid a steep price: "...what is true in many families was also true at Pillar: The ties that bound us together became the ties that strangled us."
In fact, reading of all the burdens placed on her narrow shoulders----Toni's parents were so fanatical that she felt guilt and damnation nipping at her heels about practically every aspect of life--- makes it a wonder that she honed in on that smoky contralto to begin with. But the choir singing that she and her sisters spent their lives cultivating built up her name and reputation, landed her a prime opportunity to sing on a demo, get training with seasoned pros and catch the ear of her one-time crush, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds. The rest is practically history.
Unbreak..... fleshes out the bumps and bruises along the way personally and professionally: the cheapskate beau, Anita Baker's dismissal of a song choice that led to the fateful Boomerang soundtrack, how L.A. Reid's wife, Pebbles, helped to solidify her image, and what went on behind the scenes that led to her bankruptcies (Toni's explanations make it clear that overspending was never behind them). She also carefully, yet clearly, details how her parents' messy breakup tainted her own wedding and spells it out that the stress from working as the main breadwinner, hastened her health crises and unraveled the once-happy union to husband and former Mint Condition band member Keri Lewis: "Don't get me wrong: I believe that Keri wanted to earn more money for our family, and he has always been a hard worker. But from his perspective, working for me didn't leave him with enough time to pursue other income."
In her straightforward, yet non-salacious manner, Braxton breaks it all down about her famous career highs and lows, including the date that ruined her first Grammy win, what led to her suing her first label (a decision Babyface supported), how subsequent manager and label owner Barry Hankerson's duplicity ruined her rep with Tyler Perry, how she handled her diagnosis of lupus (privately) and second son Diezel's autism (publicly) and what made her sign on for the reality show in the first place (you guessed it, more familial guilt-tripping). After seeing the pictures and reading to the end, you gain a stronger respect for the songbird, learn how deeply her love for family runs, and the struggle to make sense of it all: "Just because someone hands you a weight doesn't mean you have to take it. I know that now....That's why I not only took the burden----I willingly carried it around on my shoulders and allowed it to rob me of some of the most amazing years of my life. I can?'t get those years back....But there's still one powerful thing I can do----put down the weight."
Like the hip-hop duo Gang Starr once rhymed, "It's mostly the voice that gets you up, it's mostly the voice that makes you buck," and the way Toni Braxton uses hers, literally and figuratively, is one that you can't forget. For fans, Unbreak underscores her strengths, spells out her truths and demonstrates how we all can turn obstacles into opportunities to, pun intended, breathe again. Highly Recommended.
By Melody Charles