Amber Riley‘s Christmas came early this year. The 34-year-old, who as a performer goes by Riley these days, partnered with Straight Talk Wireless to help get consumers in the holiday spirit by releasing a remixed holiday carol called “Oh Shopping Spree.” She also received a life-changing Christmas present ahead of the holiday, as the singer and actress announced her engagement to Desean Black in November. When asked how she’s feeling about becoming Mrs. Black, she couldn’t hold back a wide grin during our Zoom call. And if that wasn’t enough to celebrate, she released her first solo EP, RILEY, recently, and has also been cast as the lead of a new NBC musical comedy called Dream. No pun intended, she says it’s a dream come true.
There are so many things Riley has to look forward to that she can be excited about, and she hopes to help bring cheer to others through her Straight Talk Wireless partnership. We talked to her about that partnership, as well as her new projects, her husband-to-be, and what tips she would offer other women to possibly meet their future husbands through social media DMs as she did.
MadameNoire: How are you feeling about everything?
Riley: Really happy, excited — so many different words, so many different superlatives [laughs].
I know you said you were introduced to Desean through Instagram by sliding in his DMs. When you did it, you started by just saying hello to him. But what were your hopes? What were you hoping to get from that initial correspondence?
I mean, I think it’s just as normal as going to a party and seeing somebody cute and asking your homegirl, “Oh who’s that?” Or staring at them long enough until they catch your eye and then being like, “Heeey.” Of course, the only thing you can go by is looks when you’re on Instagram, so I was like, “super handsome!” Then I kind of did my Inspector Gadget on his Instagram page [laughs]. Looked at captions and all that, and I liked what I saw and I liked what I heard.
I think one thing, my brother actually said it, he was like, “You can’t be afraid of rejection,” especially with women shooting their shot. Men have probably been rejected a thousand times over. They’re usually the ones given the responsibility to make the first move or whatever. He was like, “We’ve been rejected a million times over our whole lives.” You can take one or two ’cause you ain’t gon’ take that many shots and not make a basket [laughs]. Most men are just waiting for the green light. A lot of them are waiting for the green light. We live in a different time, generation, and people wanna screenshot and embarrass people so it’s a little harder for the rejection thing with men, but I think sometimes when you give them the green light, they take it from there and that was exactly what it was with me. Let me just say hi so he can see, “hi, I see you, see me.” And then the ball’s in your court. So let’s see what happens from here.
You have a lot going on outside of getting ready to be a Mrs. Tell me about your partnership with Straight Talk Wireless this holiday season and the remixed holiday carol you did, “Oh Shopping Spree.” It’s amazing!
It’s been really fun partnering with Straight Talk Wireless. I did do the song “Oh Shopping Spree” to kind of get people in the holiday spirit. Everything that’s been going on this year, the holidays, trying to shop for that special someone or even just shopping for yourself, Straight Talk Wireless has an amazing, affordable deal going on right now where you can get a Samsung Galaxy phone. I think that it’s about making it easier, and I think that’s dope that they’re doing that, making it easier for people to find a gift cause everybody, we live in an age now where everyone kind of needs a phone. If you don’t have one, it’s a little…a little like you’re living under a rock. I think it’s really dope and I really enjoyed the process of putting that song together. I love being creative. I hope [“Oh Shopping Spree”] lifts people’s spirits and gets them in the mood to shop.
As somebody who can sing people under the table, you know good singers as well. Do you have a favorite Christmas song you listen to every year?
I really love Nat King Cole. Obviously, the staple album is the Boyz II Men Christmas album. That’s nonstop, and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas.” She goes platinum every single year [laughs]. But I’m going to say, Nat King Cole. I like my Christmas music a little jazzy, a little bluesy.
Speaking of music, you have your EP out titled Riley. It spawned the single “BGE,” “Big Girl Energy.” Why was it important to have a distinction between everyday Amber Riley and your persona that is Riley? What differentiates them would you say?
I think for the most part I’ve been very, kind of private with my life. That was always on purpose. I kind of just gave what I wanted and I got into this space of vulnerability throughout my mental health journey to where I really wanted to introduce the new person that I was becoming and am becoming. We’re always changing, we’re always growing. So Riley was kind of my way of, in the words of Jay-Z, “Allow me to reintroduce myself.” That’s kind of where I was going with it. It’s still my name. It’s familiar enough to where people can understand why I would go by that but also kind of puts a difference between what people think they know about me and what I’m telling you is who I am.
Were you ever nervous about putting out your first solo EP? Sometimes it can be a little difficult for people who sing but who are known for TV to be taken seriously in the music realm. So how was that for you?
I was absolutely terrified [laughs]. I was. I was very terrified. I was really nervous because that comes with wanting people to accept your art. When somebody rejects your art it almost feels like they’re rejecting you in a sense. And I was really vulnerable on this EP. I really wanted to be honest and it was very cathartic for me. It was like therapy. It was almost like people were reading my diary. I was definitely 100 percent scared [laughs]. But it’s been 10 years. The girls have been putting pressure on me for 10 years like, “When you putting out music? That’s cute, but when you putting out music? Oh you did a movie? That’s cute. Where’s the music?” That’s how they were [laughs]. I didn’t want to disappoint. I just didn’t want to disappoint anybody.
And how has the reception been?
Oh man, it’s been better than I could have ever imagined, especially since I’m independent. I did this not by myself but on my own. I have an incredible team that’s been around me, so the reception has been amazing because I know I put everything I put into this project. And people are rocking with it. And people who don’t even know who I am are rocking to it. People that didn’t know I sing and just thought I was an actor are rocking with it. That’s been the best part of it.
And in other super exciting news, you’re set to be the lead in the upcoming NBC musical comedy called Dream. How does it feel going from an ensemble project like Glee, having supporting roles in different projects, then getting the chance to be front and center, and in a musical comedy like this when music is your thing? How is it to be able to get to this point at this point in your career?
I’ve always said, “I’m a leading lady and I’m gonna prove that.” I felt like my first experience with that was doing Dreamgirls on [London’s] West End. I played Effie White and that’s a huge role for me to carry. So that was my way of proving to myself that I could do it. And having people like Neil Meron, Craig Zadan, may he rest in peace, who was also a producer on the project, and Lisa Muse Bryant, who is the creator and writer, having them believe in me and bring me on as a co-executive producer is more than I could have ever imagined. And finally doing something and representing something and to be funny and to have fun and have a fully realized character, it’s literally a dream come true. I pinch myself. Seriously, it’s a dream come true.
Check out the “Oh Shopping Spree” jingle here, and the EP RILEY is out now.