In early 1995 I was six years old living in Rockville, Maryland with my mom. I can still vividly evoke those summers: matching short sets, and riding in the back of my mom’s white Ford Fox singing all the jams on WPGS 95.5.
At the time, the black community wasn’t vibing as much with Marvin Gaye’s muted melodies. Instead we opted for an emerging subculture entrenched in the unadulterated energy of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” On the heels of the LAPD’s nationally covered beating of Rodney King, Public Enemy’s track spoke to our frustrations. Female MCs started spitting, and we started listening. Queen Latifah started preaching U.N.I.T.Y in ’93 while MC Lyte spit bars negating the male gaze in “Paper Thin.” Hip-hop and R&B were evolving, ripening, with the rapidly increasing restlessness of Generation X. The urban music landscape was distancing itself from its more virtuous Motown roots, giving way to a sound that was socially, politically, and most noticeably, more sexually charged.
On comes Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me.” The track starts off with the familiar ‘wah wah’ of the bass guitar sampled from Bootsy Collins’ 1970s hit “I’d Rather Be With You,” coupled with a throbbing 90s beat. It felt like the beginnings of a classic west coast anthem, until Adina’s vocals dropped. Her voice blurred the lines between smooth, sultry R&B and the rawness of hip-hop. The track was—is powerful, candid. Without warning, uncontrollable butt popping and body rolling ignite. “Freak Like Me” embodies all the components of a pleasure pop single, whilst nodding to the streets.
Howard’s 1995 single immediately propelled her to the forefront of the hip-hop and R&B scene. In the “Freak Like Me” video, Howard donned silver ‘coochie cutters’ with a matching bra top and kneepads. She and her equally-ass sexy group of girlfriends provocatively popped their pussies, shamelessly shook their asses. The single was the #1 played music video on BET, hit #2 on billboard Hot 100 charts, and was the 8th most played video on MTV by May of that year. While Madonna continued to received the credit for breaking down antiquated female sexual ideals, Howard led a generation of black female artists that shook sexual politics. Before Lil’ Kim brought her lusty lyrics on Hardcore to music in ’96, Adina gave voice to the disenfranchised, black, sexually savvy, boss.
An iconoclast, her music was equal parts politically provocative and down right funky. Coded amongst a butt bouncing beat and a catchy hook she had a message: no one’s gonna fuck with her unless she wants to.
I want to freak in the morning
A freak in the evening just like me
I need a roughneck brother
That can satisfy me just for me
If you are that kind of man
‘Cause I’m that kind of girl
I got a freaky secret, everybody sing
‘Cause we don’t give a damn about a thing
During an appearance on BET’s Video Soul, host Donnie Simpson asked, “Does it bother you that you will be remembered as a sex symbol more than an artist?” Adina responded, “Why can’t I be both?”
It was that very candor that fueled controversy and ultimately dissolved Adina’s career. The media pegged Howard as the scapegoat for the ‘moral demise’ of the black community. Donna Britt, then columnist of The Washington Post, was one of many who spoke against Adina and her music. “We can, each of us fight back,” she wrote, “and say ‘Oh no you don’t.’ […] as [other] smart parents somewhere must have told their kids when they tried to bring Adina’s album into the house.” Howard even spoke of an airport encounter with legendary singer Nancy Wilson who scolded her for her goading lyrical content— as People Magazine recounts, “When [Wilson] realized Howard was the voice behind ‘Freak Like Me,’ the raunchy hit single that has established her as a soul siren, the cool jazz diva turned school-marmish. ‘Are you going to continue singing songs like this?’ [Wilson] asked.”
Her follow up single, “My Up and Down” was banned from BET airways, deemed too sexy after featuring a sex swing scene with supermodel Tyson Beckford. However, it was her falling out with Former CEO of Elektra Sylvia Rhone that ultimately disbanded Howard from major airway play. A freeze was put on the release of her sophomore album. Howard admits that it was her own immaturity and ego that caused her to be blackballed. She found some success in less acclaimed hits like the ’97 single “T-Shirt & Panties” co-written by a young Jamie Foxx. Still, nothing quite made such a poignant statement and garnered two decades of sexy sing-a-longs like “Freak Like Me.” Howard’s impact, although rebuffed, isn’t forgotten. She was referenced in J.Cole’s 2009 track “Grown Simba” and in Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” off his much-celebrated Good Kid M.A.A.D. City.
Howard was one of the first artists I remember wanting to immolate, to recreate the power and self-assurance she exuded. I still sing “Freak Like Me” with the same bright-eyed pre-adolescent excitement, as if I were riding in the back of mom’s Ford Fox. Twenty years later, with a recently released documentary on the impact on Howard’s sexual prowess, I got to know my fellow Scorpio sister post freak–if ever a thing exists.
Where were you at in your life when you recorded “Freak Like Me”?
Adina Howard: Ah man. I was in a happy place. I was free, free of responsibilities, free of worries. I was living exactly the way I wanted to. I was doing what I wanted exactly how I wanted to do it without any regard for how other people may have felt about it.
Did you know the track was going to be so controversial?
Adina: No, not at all! I was just being me. I liked the song, I connected with the song, and so I recorded it. My image with ‘Freak Like Me’, whatever that image was that you all saw, that was just me. Not that I walked around in those kinds of clothes, because I didn’t. But the attitude and the energy that the clothes embodied, I always wore that. That was what really caught the attention of everyone.
Did the public’s reaction to your unapologetic attitude differ from how the industry perceived you?
Adina: You know, one of the things about me is I didn’t care about a persons’ perception. I still don’t. It was really none of my business what they thought of me. It was you take me or you don’t.
Is that how you live your life? Take it or leave it?
Adina: Yea, but I’ve had to soften my edges, because I’m married now. That very hot or cold, black and white approach wasn’t always ideal. I’ve had to learn to compromise more. I’ve had to mature, to be more selfless than selfish.
How has your sexuality has evolved with your maturity?
Adina: Being more confident in what I want and how I want it. Being able to voice it in a manner that is more palatable. As I’ve matured, I’ve recognized that I can do things differently to get better results. What worked back then doesn’t necessarily work now.
What year was the most transformative for you?
Adina: Oh gosh, there are so many milestones in life I’d have to mention. Getting married, being a part of the music industry in the capacity that I was. That was life changing. Personally and professionally there isn’t just one. My mother raised four girls, so we weren’t around men at all. We just celebrated the birth of the first boy in our family.
Oh that’s so beautiful! But what happens when the young people in your family become of age to google you?
Adina: I have a nephew who says he can’t look at me the same. He’s a young man that interviews lots of celebrities. He had to do the research first before he interviewed me. He was very professional about it, but afterward he was like, ‘WHOA! Aunty Dina I never want to see you like that again.’ It was an eye opener for him.
I totally understand. That’s how my family’s reaction is to me writing about sex. Exploring sex and people’s perceptions of sex is pretty fascinating. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve never been to one of those sex workshops. Have you?
Adina: I have not, so let’s go!
Yaaas! That would be everything. Next time you’re in Brooklyn we’re doing it. What type of workshop would we take?
Adina: Hmm, I would have to do my research. I want to learn a few more techniques. Hands on techniques. It would have to be something where we could participate.
What would you wear to make you feel sexy? Talk me through the outfit.
Adina: I love long, maxi dresses. There’s something about maxi dresses that’s sexy. You can see your silhouette and use your imagination. You can take things so much further with a little imagination than when you reveal it all at once. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve matured in that respect. I did all the flashy stuff back then, which was great. Now it’s time to take it to another level of sexy.
Next level sexy. Ooh, that could be the workshop you teach. Adina Howard presents: Next Level Sexy. What would it entail?
Adina: It would entail not just women, but men to be vocal about what they want. What makes them feel pleased and satisfied in a manner that is very sensual and provocative.
I’ve always been curious to know what qualifies people to teach these workshops?
Adina: Right! Is it being college educated? Experienced? Both?
I don’t know if there’s a degree that prepares you for a blowjob workshop.