My Career Choice: CeCe Peniston – Bestselling Recording Artist Opens Downtown Urban Arts Festival

R&B and Billboard Top 100 Dance Club recording artist CeCe Peniston, best known for her number one 1991 classic “Finally,” opens the 17th annual Downtown Urban Arts Festival with a one-night only concert event on Thursday, April 11 at 9:30 p.m. (doors open at 9 p.m.) at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street.

In 1991, Peniston’s hit single “Finally” hit the charts, and due to the song’s success, CeCe soon inked a deal for her debut album. Four more hit singles from the album of the same name followed. By the end of 1992, Peniston received several awards for her achievements in the music industry including: Best New Artist (Dance), three ASCAP Awards and POP Songwriter of The Year, Best Dance Solo Artist, Best 12” Dance Record at the Annual Winter Music Conference, and the BMI Urban Award of Achievement. The album itself was a 1993 Soul Train Music Award nominee for Best R&B/Soul Album (Female Category). By year’s end, Peniston was named the No.1 Billboard “Hot Dance Music/Club Play” Artist. “Finally” remains at the top of all club/party playlists to this day.

A multi-disciplinary arts festival showcasing music, poetry, live theater and film, the Downtown Urban Arts Festival this year performs April 11-May 18 at Joe’s Pub, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, The Wild Project and Tribeca Film Center, respectively. With a mission to build a repertoire of new American work that echoes the true spirit of urban life and speaks to a new generation whose lives defy categorization along conventional lines, DUAF has realized this in more than 200 new plays created and refined for the stage by more than 170 writers from a burgeoning multicultural landscape. The addition of poetry, music and international film selections has positioned the Downtown Urban Arts Festival (DUAF) as a unique cultural blend of other festivals’ offerings such as the NY Fringe Festival, Toronto Film Festival and SXSW. For more information, go to CeCe’s website and the website for the Downtown Urban Arts Festival.

Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Back in Arizona, when I was 11 years old, the teacher of my music class saw something in me and encouraged me to try out for the musical, which was H.M.S. Pinafore. And when I did that show, I remember thinking, when I felt the power of performing for an audience, “This is my calling.” And then, a few years later, when I was in college, I remember I was sitting in chemistry class. I was bored. I had just broken up with my boyfriend. So, I started writing poetry. That was beginning of what turned out to be “Finally.”

What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I can release whatever I am feeling when performing. Singing is telling a story, and the audience takes what you give them and gives you something back. The way that feels! Making people happy. That makes me happy.

What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
When I was younger, I would take advantage of any opportunity to perform around Arizona. Talent shows, karaoke contests. If there was a cash prize, I would for the opportunity to perform … and the possibility of getting a new pair of shoes. From there, people started booking me for local gigs, and that eventually led to being hired to sing background in studio for artists such as Marvelous JC and Overweight Pooch.

Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
For the most part, people were encouraging. I mean, there’s always going to be a hater, but you can’t listen to them. You have to believe in yourself first. I remember my grandma saying, “You once told me, ‘I’m going to be famous.’ And now my baby in on my TV in a music video!” I’m very much a “Vision Board”-type person. I make one every year.

Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Absolutely, yes. So much happens over the course of a long career. There was a time when my accountant stole a lot of money. And for women, career change is often considered about when you think about having children. And, in music specifically, the business started to change in the late 90s, around the time of my third album. The rise of streaming … all that. But my mother, Barbara, who was my manager at the time, always encouraged me to stay with it. Together we learned all we could about the business, and took control. That made me smarter and stronger. It’s important to be on top of your business. She has passed, but she’s still managing things … as my angel. And she has pearls and beads and glitter on her wings, because that’s how her daughter wants it.

When did your career reach a tipping point?
My life changed in late 1991, and that amazing ride continued throughout 1992. “Finally” was released as a single and because of the song’s success I quickly went into the studio to record my debut album. There were 5 top 10 hits on that album, and that allowed me to travel the world.

Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think an ongoing challenge is trying to keep a sense of normalcy. And to just stay true to yourself as a person and an artist. Sometimes I’ll run into a situation in which there’s pressure to create another “Finally.” That song is a “classic,” and I am beyond grateful to have had a classic song. But I don’t want to recreate that, I want to grow and evolve. I’ve recently recorded with jazz pianist Bob Baldwin (“(Don’t Wanna Be) The Fool on a Hill” on “Bob Baldwin Presents Abbey Road and The Beatles”) …I’m recording R&B, House, EDM and Dance.

What single skill has proven to be most useful?
This skill is my ability to effectively and constructively harness my natural curiosity. I’m the person who you’ll find researching online late at night.  I’m always looking to grab more knowledge, and looking to see where I can go next. Don’t get stuck!

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
There are so many, but I am very proud to be the first foreign female entertainer to perform in post-apartheid South Africa … And to have performed privately at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II with Andrea Bocelli was a blessing. And it still makes me happy to see all the gold albums on my walls at home.  It makes me think of the time I once told my grandma, “I’m going to be famous.”

Any advice for others entering your profession?
Stay focused. Be who you are. Don’t let other people tell you who you are. Just follow your dreams!

Photo Credit: Angelique White