I do love me an old soul. And my next “Renaissance Man” guest embodies that spirit from her oozing self-confidence to her taste in music. Actress and singer Mj Rodriguez is only 30, but her musical roots suggest someone born in a much earlier decade.
“My mother raised me on music ever since I was zero,” Mj told me. “So you’re talking about Earth, Wind & Fire … You’re talking about Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross. We’re talking about the Whispers, the Spinners. My dad had me listen to the Spinners all the time, Teddy Pendergrass, a lot of great influences in my life.”
As for acting, she idolized some of the best actresses of the ’90s whose careers have endured into 2021.
“I didn’t see a lot of trans women [in Hollywood]. I saw a lot of cis woman, like Angela Bassett and Halle Berry and even Nicole Kidman, like these were really high-end actresses that I really was inspired by,” she said.
Mj has been blazing her own path in show business, so surely she’s been providing her own dose of inspiration to a whole new generation of kids coming up. Last month, MJ, who plays a house mother on “Pose,” which explores the early ’90s “house ball” scene in New York City, became the first trans female to be nominated for an Emmy in a lead role. She has a new single “Something to Say,” which has a throwback R&B pop sound that just makes me feel happy. And it made me want to put on a pair of roller skates and let loose. She’s doing it all with the unapologetic brashness of someone who hails from Brick City.
Like my friend Queen Latifah, Mj is a proud product of Newark. And like me, she has always been attached to her mama’s apron strings.
“[Newark] had its ups and downs for me, obviously, because I’m a woman of the trans experience. I mean, for the most part, it was nothing but love from Newark,” she said. “I grew up in a space of strong black people and I had a great foundation with my mama. And my mom knew everybody around Newark.”
Mj attended New Jersey Performing Arts Center theater program and Berklee School of Music in Boston. In 2011, she played Angel in the off-Broadway revival of “Rent” before she took a break from singing and acting to transition. As someone who has been in the public eye for so long, I sometimes look back at old photos of myself and cringe, including my phase around 2009 when I was a tad out of shape. I like to call it the “butt and gut” Jalen and yes those pictures are still floating out there. It’s not a fair comparison but it’s me not feeling like my confident, true self. So I wanted to know how she feels about her old photos and performances from before she blossomed into the Mj we know today. And her answer showed me that Mj Rodriguez is so comfortable in her own skin.
“I love looking at my old videos. That’s why I like that I haven’t taken them down. A lot of girls of the trans community, they take those down because they feel like it can inhibit them as a person. But me, I don’t think it inhibits me. I think it makes me a bigger person and it makes me grow. And people get to see the growth,” she said. “And I’m very happy where I’m at right now and I’m very glad where my music is taking me right now. So again, all I see is growth. And all I see is beauty and those beautiful old clips and the new ones.”
However she admitted that not everyone is at ease in her presence, particularly some men. It was disappointing to hear that there are still people out there who were as stuck in another era like a VHS tape. Especially when you see how her talent proceeds and dwarfs any label attached to her name. So how does she move in spaces where she feels like the welcome mat has been rolled up?
“I’ll be honest with you. A lot of them are not comfortable around me. I don’t know why. I don’t think I’m intimidating at all. I think I’m actually a good girl. It’s sometimes nerve-wracking. It’s sometimes scary as hell, because sometimes there are certain kinds of men that like to ignite you simply to get something out of you … But that’s how I navigate,” she said. “I actually address it with love. I don’t address it with aggression because that’s not going to get anyone anywhere, especially with a man … I’m a small girl … I always want to keep the peace … It’s up to you to be open enough to penetrate that space and be like, ‘I respect you.’ Or can I ask you some questions because I don’t know about this. You know, ask me the question. I’m open for it.”
She puts you at ease with her strength and openness. And she’s quick to recognize that before our skin color or sexual orientations, we’re all humbly sharing the human experience.
“I have to realize that I’m human as well, and that there is education that I have. That there’s a lot of education out there that I have not received,” she said, adding that no one has all the answers. “And we both have to figure this out together. This is not just a one-way street, and I feel like that’s how I navigate.”
Mj, however, is fully embraced by the fashion world. And she has been known to make a splash on the red carpet. She developed her style with help from her house father, Timothy J. Smart, with whom she connected in high school while sneaking out to vogue. Her favorite labels: YSL, Versace, Gucci and Louboutin.
“I love a red bottom. They hurt like hell. But you got to suffer for fashion,” she said, adding that she can be thrifty and likes to hit up Zara as well.
Her dream collaborators would be Bruno Mars and rapper Anderson .Paak, as well as Chloe x Halle. Mj would like to play “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts in a biopic. And she’d like to be on a Broadway stage in 10 years. That is when I plan to be elected mayor of Detroit, so I am setting the clock for both of us.
I came away from this episode with so much respect and admiration for Mj. And I also learned that she is really just getting warmed up, so get to know her if you haven’t already. And since the great Mj Rodriguez has broken so many barriers, I will end on her indispensable advice for new artists entering the fray.
“Keep hustling, never let your head sink below your shoulders, always keep your head held high and never let anyone tell you how to live your life. Live through perseverance, happiness, joy, liberation. Be respectful, be positive as much as you can be. Be humble. Show humility and just storm, storm the world,” she said. “No one can stop you. You are the only person that can stop yourself.”
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.
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