Interview by Belinda Huang
With this month’s release of Black Nativity, a modern-day film adaption of Langston Hughes’ Christmas musical, it is crucial for us to feature Grace Gibson as November’s artist of the month. Grace played a dual character role in the movie and performed alongside acclaimed stars Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige. Originally from Manhattan, New York, Grace is currently a voice principle in her fifth semester, majoring in professional music and minoring in philosophy. An example a true performer, she is devoted to all of her intrinsic passions, whether it be singing, songwriting, composing, acting or dancing. With an infectious attitude of positivity, genuine ambition and learned humility, Grace chatted with us and shared about her experiences being a part of the movie as well as her musical background.
Check out the interview with Grace below!
Berklee Groove: Can you give me some background about how and when you got involved with Black Nativity?
Grace Gibson: I got involved with the film about two years ago. [Producer Kasi Lemmons] asked me to help put together and be in the pitch film she was doing to get Fox to green-light the project. I had sang for [Lemmons] and she said, ‘I can’t imagine anyone else—I really want to secure this for you.’ So ever since the film got the green light, I’ve been auditioning in different increments until Thanksgiving of last year when I found out I got the role.
BG: It must be crazy right now with the film coming out. What have you been doing leading up to it?
GG: Since September, I’ve been doing different press things. I went to Fashion Week so I had to miss the first week of school. I hosted a few events there, did some interviews, shows and presentations. This week after the premiere [in New York], I’ve just been doing a lot press. I went to D.C. and filmed a Christmas special with Tyrese Gibson, one of my co-stars. I just filmed Better TV this morning and Pix11, which is the local news. And I’ve just been running around a lot—I think I’ve been to seven screenings, but it’s been really fun!
BG: Can you tell me about the role you play in the movie?
GG: I play the role of Maria. The film is an adaptation of Langston Hughes’ play, so they needed someone who could sing, dance and act. They also needed someone to play two characters. In the beginning, I play a pregnant teenager who is one of the first people [the main character] meets. Then when the Nativity story begins, I play the virgin Mary.
BG: Judging by the trailer, Black Nativity seems to deal with the themes of family tied in with religion. Do the themes in the movie resonate with your personal life?
GG: Definitely. You know, you go to Berklee and you start to question yourself. At that time, I had just finished my summer semester and was going into the fall. I was just trying to find my place and figure out what I wanted to do there, and I started comparing myself to other people. All of that was going on and I was really doubting myself, but I decided to do things on God’s time and stop judging myself so much. When I made that decision, I got a call four months later being told that I had gotten the role. So it definitely means a lot to me about redemption and forgiveness, really challenging people to treat others how you want to be treated and living out the morals in the Bible instead of just talking about them—and not just the Bible, but any morals that go with any spiritual belief.
BG: How did it feel to be working alongside so many big names?
GG: Oh my gosh, it felt really humbling. But at the same time, it felt like it was exactly where I always wanted to be and where I’ve worked to be for a long time. This just wasn’t an overnight thing—I’ve been auditioning for films since I was 14 or 15 years old. It just shows you that sometimes it takes learning and maturing to get to where you want to be. So being around them, I was so grateful to have had the experience I had beforehand with all the teachers and friends who challenged me better because it really prepared me to be in such amazing company and learn how to hold my own while still being in respect of my co-stars.
BG: So was it intimidating in any way?
GG: Absolutely, initially. Like I had to slap myself, like I couldn’t believe sitting in the make-up trailer with Forest Whitaker was going on in my life. But basically, you can’t let that stuff get to you on a day-to-day basis because you have a job to do. It’s just like acting class or classes at Berklee, but a bigger version of the same thing. So yea, initially it was intimidating but you have a job to do so you have to get your sh*t together. [laughs]
BG: Is this what you envisioned yourself doing when you were younger?
GG: I’ve always wanted to be a performer, more than just a singer, dancer, actor or any one of those specific things. I just knew that something was given to me when I was born, like it was a passion for singing and dancing and performing. It was making people’s lives a little bit better through my stories. At first, I didn’t know how it was going to happen. Like I thought I would just sign a record deal one day and be the next Bonnie Raitt or Beyonce’s little cousin or something [laughs], but then I just had to slow down and see that you can’t control everything and that this was the way that it was supposed to happen.
BG: How did you originally get started in music?
GG: I used to love musical theater. My parents and I would watch musicals all the time—Mary Poppins, Singing in the Rain. One day watching Bye Bye Birdie, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I love this song.’ And then it became these full on productions where I would get everyone in the house to watch me sing along to the actual film. When I got a little bit older, I begged my parents to send me to performing arts camps to get my feet wet, so I got to be in a highly competitive environment early on and see how cutthroat it can be with the audition process. Then after some dance classes, I became a very serious dancer and went to a national conservatory in France, and later I picked up a guitar at 17 and started writing, singing and performing around New York.
BG: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from being a Berklee student?
GG: I’ve learned so many things—from other people at Berklee and from my professors. I learned that if you can break things down to a fundamental level in a really solid way, whether it be music theory or tonal harmony or the process of film scoring, that if you have the skill set to break things down fundamentally, then you can do anything. It’s kind of like learning how to learn, putting your mind in that space of being able to analyze what you need to know. And sometimes it’s like being a sponge, just shutting up and not talking smart.
BG: Do you consider your role in “Black Nativity” to be your biggest accomplishment so far?
GG: I feel like everything I’ve done has led up to this, that without one there couldn’t be the other. I just think that this is my most public success achievement. I don’t look at this like my biggest accomplishment because there’s so much more. I don’t know when, I think I’ll be 90 when I have my biggest accomplishment because I’m definitely reaching for the stars. But this is definitely my biggest public achievement.
BG: Who are your biggest music influences?
GG: Prince is my favorite, all time across the board favorite. Then, I definitely appreciate Joni Mitchell’s songwriting. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Susan Tedeschi and Bill Withers. And you know, sometimes I get a little ratchet with my Tupac. I also listen to a lot of my friends’ music.
BG: What are your ultimate goals as an artist?
GG: As an artist, I want to make the most out of all my sources of instruction—to be the best songwriter, singer, composer, actress, and dancer that I can be. I hope to be able to speak to the world about my life story, influencing humanity in the fact that we all have the same life story in different circumstances. Growing up and being an only child, it gave me confidence knowing that other people were going through the same things that I was. And those people were performers, so I hope to be able to speak to others the way those people spoke to me.
Black Nativity is in theaters now! Find a local showing.