story by mary ellen thompson photography by susan deloach
Gwendolyn McKinnon, whose stage name is Gwen Yvette, is a force; remember her name and keep an eye on this woman because she is going to take her passion and go great places.
Having wanted to be a singer since she was a child when she stood in front of the mirror singing into her hairbrush, Gwen has just recently pushed away all doubts, cleared the playing field, and taken a leap of faith. In June of 2015 she quit her teaching job; in January 2016 she left her drug and alcohol counseling position, and, as she says, “Trusted God that I would be ok.” She began volunteering as a radio host on WKWQ 100.7 FM, the Gullah radio station with her show, “Afternoon Glide with Gwen Yvette” on Wednesdays to Fridays from 3:00 to 6:00; “I use that time to say things that need to be said. I try to use my platform to empower other people.” On February 9, 2016, Gwen released her first single, So In Love; the video will debut on April 2. Her second song, Victorious, will be released this May and we can look for the entire album, Love, Dreams, & Visions, in November.
“I was born in New York and we moved here when I was six. When I first met my grandaddy, Joseph Legree, the cast net maker (Beaufort Lifestyle – June/July 2011), I couldn’t understand him. It took me years to understand the Gullah language. It was a big change from New York to Saint Helena but I still have friends from first grade; we try to do at least one event annually where we can hang out.
“I don’t even recall my first singing experience because I was three years old, singing with my mother, Connie, at church in the choir. She tells that story all the time, about me singing loud and proud, in the adult choir with her. I do recall loving it when I sang in the sunbeam choir at church, the Beaufort High School Gospel Choir when I was in tenth grade, and singing in the choir as an adult now at Bethesda Christian Fellowship.”
When Gwen graduated from Beaufort High, she boldly headed for New York where she planned on a career in singing. She met with producers but they all told her the same story, “You have a great voice, but….. None of the producers would work with me because of my size; we hadn’t had a plus size artist at that time. They said I needed to change my look. I was young and rebellious, so I came home. When I was nineteen to twenty-one, I sang with Dr. Patch and the Enterprise Band. That was a great experience, six guys and me as the only female vocalist. Over the years I sang at probably one hundred weddings!
“I got married when I was 22, and somehow, I knew on that day that it wasn’t going to be forever, and I was right – it lasted one year. At 26, I got married again and that day I thought it was forever, but fifteen years later we divorced. I had wanted babies, but that didn’t happen so I tried to compensate for what I was missing, and threw myself into education. I have two masters degrees, one from Capella University in Human Services with counseling emphasis, and the other in Education, School Counseling & Guidance from Cambridge College, and am three courses shy of a PhD in human services. I am a behavior management specialist and state certified guidance counselor.
“I have always known that counseling was part of what I would do with my life because it came naturally. In retrospect, others would seek my guidance without either of us really recognizing it as such. I miss working with the kids, but I don’t miss the bureaucracy associated with being an employee of the school district. I have to use my education and talents to help others.”
To that same end, Gwen became involved with “Women of Greatness” when her friend, Deborah Martin, heard her singing in the hallway when Gwen was teaching at Saint Helena Elementary, and asked her to sing at a fashion show benefit for Family Promise of Beaufort about two years ago. This past February, Gwen shared her story by singing her song, Victorious, at an empowerment breakfast Women of Greatness hosted. “I want to inspire women to do their thing; to focus on what it is that they were created to do. Overall, I want people to see that you are never too old, too fat, or too anything to pursue your dreams! Pursue!”
Part of a large family, with seven brothers and one sister, Gwen remembers, “We grew up tight with each other. We didn’t have much money, so for fun we would put on family talent shows and our parents were the judges.” When in 2011 Gwen’s beloved father, Algerene McKinnon, passed away, and in 2012 one of her favorite singers, Whitney Houston, died, Gwen told herself that she couldn’t put her dreams off any longer. “In 2012, I went to Atlanta to audition for Sunday Best which is a reality television gospel music singing competition series. I stood in line for seven hours to get fifteen minutes of audition. I chose the song He Touched Me; we had ten seconds to sing a part of it and I chose the wrong ten second part.
“In March of 2013, I went to Charleston to audition for The X Factor. There were thousands and thousands of people there! They liked me and I got the first ‘yes’, then I got another ‘yes’; then I waited and waited and filled out paperwork, after that I was told to go home and they would let me know in a month. In May, I was invited to the celebrity round and there I got all ‘yesses’ and they sent me to Hollywood. In Hollywood, the judges decided to choose from audition videos as opposed to another round of competition and I was sent home. I have never been able to view my audition, which is hurtful because that was a huge moment in my life and I wanted to see what my audition looked like from the outside.
“I, along with Charlotte Embry Fletcher and Panda Ross, will be touring each other’s cities to help broaden our audiences. We met at The X Factor and we decided to make dates to visit each other’s cities and perform. We will be here, if I can get the right venue, on May 28, in St. Louis on May 21, and Dallas, Texas June 4.”
In the meanwhile, Gwen’s band, TC Soul Playas, has perform regionally at several prestigious events. The band is comprised of notable local musicians: Nakika Riley on keyboard, Jerome Robinson on bass guitar, Tony Brown on lead guitar, Isaiah Singleton on drums, and vocals by Jonathan Brown, Adriane Johnson, Deeric Coaxum and Tomi Washington.
Upon reflection, Gwen says, “This is very important to me: I realized at about age thirteen that when I sang, people were moved. I recognized their expressions and their movements that indicated to me that they felt me, and it felt good to them. That made it feel good to me. I remember thinking, I like this, I like how this feels.” When you hear Gwen sing, it will make you feel not only “good,” but also inspired in many ways. It’s her voice, her inspiration, her courage and, at the end of the day, her outright enthusiasm and dedication.