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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 29, 2002

Singer's drive comes from humble roots

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer

 •  Tyrese with special guests Harry-O and Mr. Tan

8 p.m. Saturday

World Cafe

$15 advance


Like a lot of kids who grew up poor, Tyrese Gibson dreamed big and dreamed often of someday delivering a better future for his family.

"I was broke and I wanted to be rich so that I could do everything that my heart wanted me to do," recalled the 23-year-old singer/actor/model, who was raised by his single mom in Los Angeles' gang-plagued Watts neighborhood. "That was my biggest inspiration, you know? It's like, money rules the world when you don't have any."

So when Tyrese (he dropped his surname after being "discovered" in a Coca-Cola ad) appeared on a Mother's Day edition of "Oprah" in 2000 to surprise his mom, Priscilla, with the keys to a furnished four-bedroom home of her own, "it was a really big deal," the singer said. "People really sacrificed for me when I didn't have anything and ... you can't turn your back to stuff like that. My mother reaped all of the benefits from not giving up on me."

These days, Tyrese's career is marked by the myriad of choices and constant schedule juggling of a bona fide multi-hyphenate star. In addition to channeling his striking good looks and chiseled physique into long-running modeling campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger and Guess?, Tyrese last year stumbled into acting with a high-profile, well-received star turn in director John Singleton's "Baby Boy."

Still, Tyrese insisted any celebrity he has achieved thus far is rooted in and thrives on the strength of his voice. A smooth straight-outta-the-bedroom R&B croon that has graced a couple of modestly selling RCA albums (1998's "Tyrese" and 2001's "2000 Watts"), the singer's voice is the latest multi-platinum hope of industry legend maker Clive Davis and his J Records label, Also home to Luther Vandross, Busta Rhymes and Alicia Keys, J has been Tyrese's label since January.

The singer is in Honolulu for a concert Saturday night at the World Cafe.

Tyrese's drive to succeed and strong relationship with his mother — she also raised his three siblings — sprang from the departure of his father when the singer was 5. When not at work waitressing, Priscilla would fill the house with a mixed plate of Barbra Streisand, Barry White, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and even Barry Manilow. Tyrese absorbed them all.

Singing "just happened, you know?" insisted Tyrese. "I started singing at 14. My neighbor heard me singing and just reacted to it. After that, I was like, 'I can get used to this!' So I entered a talent show, and it was on ever since."

His goals may have revolved around moving his family out of Watts for good, but Tyrese still keeps mostly good memories of the neighborhood.

"All of the gangstas and criminals and whoever else was around ... took care of me and wished me well," Tyrese said. "They never wanted me to be involved in all of the negative things that they were doing. I knew 'em and I hung out with 'em, but ... they was always like, 'Go play basketball. Go run track. Go do anything else but what we're doing.'"

And so it was while still entering Locke High School talent shows and auditioning for school plays that a visiting talent scout asked the good-looking 16-year-old if he would be interested in auditioning for a Coca-Cola ad. Despite being more than two hours late for the audition — he missed a bus and had to catch a ride with his music teacher — Tyrese won the gig.

The nationwide spot featured him strolling on to a crowded city bus, headphones on, and sweetly crooning a cappella, unaware that all the passengers' eyes are on him. The ad touched off so much "Who's that guy?" zeitgeist, a bidding war erupted among a number of major labels. Tyrese graduated from high school and signed with RCA in 1996, eagerly accepting the modeling gigs and sitcom guest spots ("Moesha" and "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper") that followed.

Two years after the release of Tyrese's 1998 self-titled debut, "Boyz N The Hood" director Singleton approached him about auditioning for the "Baby Boy" lead of Jody, a brooding, aimless young man from Watts trying to make sense of his life. At the time, Tyrese wasn't sure if he wanted another career competing with his musical one.

"I was interested in it, but I wasn't as interested as John Singleton was interested in me," said Tyrese. "I didn't really believe that I was ready for acting. But John Singleton really believed in me and encouraged me."

Though "Baby Boy" was only a modest hit, many critics singled out Tyrese's nuanced performance as the glue that held the film together. In spite of the praise — or perhaps because of it — Tyrese has turned down almost every role offered to him since.

"It's been really exciting and I feel really blessed to be able to do a lot of different things," said Tyrese. "But there's no need for me to rush into another movie if the movie is not right.

"At times, I feel that my modeling and acting career has upstaged my music career. I would like to feel that my musical career is in demand as everything else but, at times, I feel like it's not."

While Tyrese insisted he would not turn down a good role or script tossed his way — he recently finished writing a screenplay of his own called "Extortion" — his main focus now is on his music. In particular, writing songs for his first J Records CD, which he hopes to have out this summer.

"With me signed to J Records and Clive Davis, I believe my music is definitely going to upstage everything else now. I have no choice but to make music a priority. It's still my first love and I have to give it my all."