SWV emerged from the projects and conquered the world of music. Founded in the early 90s, they incorporated New Jack Swing & Hip Hop into their style of R&B. Making them a stand-out group, from the rest of their peers. With their tomboyish street soul, down to earth personalities, beauty and extreme talent…the world wasn’t ready, for what they were about to bring.
New York City-bred Cheryl “Coko” Clemons, Tamara Johnson-George and Leanne “Lelee” Lyons make up the trio known as SWV (Sisters With Voices).
The music for them started in their Brooklyn and Bronx school days as Female Edition, their so-called female answer to New Edition. Then it wasn’t to be stars themselves, they just wanted to meet NE. Having already gained the invaluable experience of singing weekly before a church congregation, Coko (whose mother is a noted gospel vocalist) and Lelee, as well as Taj, who attended a performing arts high school, had all the raw materials for building a successful music career. Motivated by their mutual quest for a career in music, as well as promising talent show performances, all three remained dedicated until fate led them to producer Donald “Dee” Bowden, who took them into the studio to record demos, and to their manager, Maureen Singleton, who landed them a contract with RCA Records.
In 1992 they dropped their debut album, “It’s About Time.” The album was recorded in six months.
SWV‘s debut album scored a string of top ten R&B hits. To be clear, every single released from the album hit the Top 10. “I’m So Into You”, “Right Here”, “Downtown”, “You’re Always on my Mind” and the classic “Weak.” “Weak” sold 50,000 singles in one day. This established the trio as a commercial force in early 1993. Teddy Riley helped the group craft their sound further with “Right Here/Human Nature, the remix to their hit “Right Here.”” The remix features samples of Michael Jackson’s hit, “Human Nature.” The remix also went #1 on the R&B charts, for seven weeks to be exact and went #2 on the Pop charts. “I had no goals honestly [when we started], I just wanted to get out of the hood. I had no idea that SWV would become so big!” Coko recently told UB.
SWV’s remix of “Anything” with Wu Tang Clan was released from the Above the Rim soundtrack and became a top R&B hit in the spring of 1994. The single went gold. All of this was achieved on the strength of Coko‘s voice and SWV‘s round-the-way girl appeal. Subsequently “SWV: The Remixes” was another gold seller for the group which featured the hits thus far from the ladies.
“It’s About Time” would go on to sell more than 5 million records worldwide, and would become the #2 best selling album of 1993. As LeLee once stated, SWV didn’t have an image, they were just being themselves with the first release. However Coko was known for her four-inch fingernails, which started a trend in the hood.
SWV garnered enormous attention with “It’s About Time.” They received nominations for a Grammy Award, an American Music Award and The Source Award in 1993. They won a Children’s Choice Award and a BET “Best of Video Soul” Award. The ladies also wowed audiences on a national tour with Bobby Brown. They were the “poster girls” for Cross Colours, appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “Arsenio Hall,” “New York Undercover,” hosted “Showtime At The Apollo,” and were chronicled in several notable publications, such as People, Us, Ebony, Essence, USA Today and Vibe.
“SWV are trendsetters! They don’t sing, they SANG! SWV opened the doors for a lot of female groups. They successfully mixed Hip Hop and R&B.
I love my sisters and they
deserve all the accolades they’re getting“
In 1995 SWV was asked to be apart of the song “Freedom,” the theme from the film “Panther” written by Dallas Austin, Diamond D and Joi. There’s a Hip Hop and an R&B version, SWV helped kicked off the vocals on the R&B version. Women played a major role in black resistance from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks to Angela Davis. “Freedom (Theme From Panther)” is an all-star recording that took place directly after the American Music Awards. Over 60 successful female Pop/R&B/Rap artists got together to record this tribute for the empowerment of women. Some of the artists included were Aaliyah, Mary J. Blige, Vannesa Williams and TLC.
SWV returned with their platinum sophomore release in 1996 “New Beginning.” Unlike their debut album, they were given more time to record. A process that took two years to complete. The album was preceded by the #1 hit “You’re the One,” which was written by Coko & Taj. The Neptune’s produced the follow-up hit “Use Your Heart” which was another top 10 hit for the ladies. The third single from the album, was a first from SWV — a single release with Coko not on lead vocals. The single “It’s All About U” features Taj doing the main leads on the song.
For “New Beginning,” Coko & Taj also wrote “Whatcha Need,” while Taj wrote “Love Is So Amazing” & Coko wrote “I’m So In Love.” The album went on to sell over a million copies, making “New Beginning” SWV‘s second platinum release.
In 1997, SWV released their third album “Release Some Tension.” “Someone,” the first single from the album, paired SWV with Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, who both produced the track and raps on it. The second single, “Lose My Cool,” a rhythmic duet between SWV and rapper Redman. The albums biggest hit “Rain,” is a trademark torch song ballad written and produced by first album collaborator Brian Alexander Morgan.
SWV also teamed up with none other than rap icon Snoop Dogg, on “Gettin’ Funky.” Not to be left out, other hip-hop notables came to the SWV party: Foxy Brown is on the title cut, the saucy, sensual “Release Some Tension.” There are also songs with Lil’ Ceasar, Lil’ Kim and with rapper E-40, on “Come And Get Some,” a tune co-written by Coko.
The album also features their smash “Can We” featuring Missy Elliot and produced by Timberland, which was also featured on the Booty Call soundtrack. Some feel that album was rushed, due to the huge success of “Can We.” RCA pretty much tried to change SWV‘s image off of that one song, and rushed them in the studio with other artists. This album was more, SWV & Friends.
They followed “Release Some Tension” with their acclaimed “A Special Christmas” holiday album and 1999‘s “SWV: Greatest Hits.”
Participating on the “Booty Call” soundtrack was only one of many SWV endeavors during that time. Coko was the featured vocalist on Will Smith‘s huge hit “Men In Black,” from the hit movie’s soundtrack; she also did a duet with Johnny Gill on the “Booty Call” soundtrack; and she did a song and video with rapper AZ. Taj and Coko appeared in Lil’ Kim‘s video for “Ladies Night” and “Tell Me How You Want It” was recorded for the “Money Talks” soundtrack.
SWV also participated in the tribute song to the Notorious B.I.G.; the “Red, Hot and Blue” song written by R. Kelly, and earlier, the “Waiting To Exhale” soundtrack (“All Night Long”), the “Quincy’s Jook Joint” album (“Slow Jams“) and did a duet and video with Blackstreet on “Tonight’s The Night.”
After the third album, Coko was encouraged to go solo. Given the sometimes tension, lack of communication and trust among the girls, Coko decided to give it a shot on her own. The decision to disband created a rift and it would be years before it was repaired between the three.
Coko released her first solo album in 1999 entitled “Hot Coko.” She later followed that with two gospel projects, the Grammy nominated “Grateful.” The album includes an all-star cover of The Clark Sisters‘ “Endow Me” featuring Faith Evans, Fantasia Barrino and Lil Mo. “The Winner in Me,” followed that release and hit #4 on the Gospel Music Billboard charts. Coko married musician Mike “Big Mike” Clemons and has two sons. Coko is also the owner of C & T Shoe Bar with partner Tamiya Davis in Virginia Beach, VA. As well as a Juice Bar with her husband.
Tamara Johnson-George married former NFL player Eddie George and also has two sons. Taj starred in her own reality series, “I Married a Baller“, alongside her husband. Taj, is also accomplished writer, of the book “Player HateHER: How To Avoid The Beat Down And Live In A Drama Free World.” Taj also appeared in the hit CBS reality series Survivor in 2008 and gained national attention; she finished in fourth place.
In Leanne “Lelee” Lyons words, SWV’s split left her, “depressed and all over the place.” After the break-up, her savings was soon depleted. Tormented and in a very dark place, Lelee stood on the ledge of a NY hotel’s 17th floor, ready to make the ultimate choice to give up. She called her sister to ask that she continue to take care of her children and thankfully her sister answered the phone. Without Lelee saying a word, her sister simply said, “come home.”
SWV reunited in 2005 and have been going strong ever since. They’ve had tour dates with New Edition, Keith Sweat, Doug E.Fresh, Slick Rick, El DeBarge, Bell Biv DeVoe, Dru Hill, Salt-N-Pepa, Kelly Price and more while traveling extensively all over the world.
In 2008, SWV was also an honored guest at the BET Awards performing with Alicia Keys, En Vogue and TLC. June 2009, the ladies helped headline an event for late singer/actress Della Reese. We covered the event, which included appearances by Jon B. Shanice & Flex Alexander. In 2010 the trio got together to record the single “Doozit” with Naughty By Nature for their album “Anthem Inc.” In October of that year the group was apart of the Where I Want To Be R&B 90s concert in NYC along with Lil Mo, Jon B, Avant and Donell Jones.
After a 15-year gap between studio albums, “I Missed Us” arrived in 2012 as a smart update of SWV‘s ‘90s sound. The release debuted at #6 on the R&B chart. The album earned them a Grammy® nod in 2013 for “Best Traditional R&B Performance.” “Co-Sign” was the lead single that featured a hot video directed by Derek Blanks.
In February 2014, Coko released a new solo gospel single “At Your Feet,” Taj & Lelee joined Coko on stage to perform the single at BET’s Celebration of Gospel. A month previous, fans saw as Coko recorded the song on SWV‘s hit WE tv reality show “SWV Reunited.”
Coko talked to UB about “SWV Reunited” at the time and told us what we could expect, “You know us as SWV the music, but I don’t think you guys know our individual personalities. You think you know us, but you don’t really know us. Like most people would consider me to be a b*tch and whatever! But you really get to see like who we are. How we operate in our everyday life with our family. Our family and how we come together within the group. You get to learn about our break-up. You have three different stories, so you guys can believe whatever story you want.”
The show didn’t disappoint, and aired for three seasons. 2016‘s “Still” was SWV‘s fifth album and the best SWV album since “New Beginning.” The album was led by “Ain’t No Man,” a typically sweet mid-tempo track that showcases Coko, Taj, and Lelee‘s harmonies while referencing the 1980 quiet storm classic “Love’s Calling,” originally recorded by the James Ingram-fronted Zingara.
2016 also saw the ladies being spotlighted on TV One‘s hit series “Unsung.” Although the episode showcased the ups and downs of the trio throughout their career. The ladies wasn’t necessarily happy with the way the episode was edited and presented. Regardless it was one of the most watched episodes of the series.
Which brings us to 2017, the 25th anniversary of Sisters With Voices! The ladies started the year, recording with childhood idols Bell Biv DeVoe for their album “Three Stripes,” on the hot single “Finally.”
BET honored the ladies with their first ever, televised musical award throughout their 25 years, at the Soul Train Awards. SWV took to the stage to perform a melody of their hits; “Weak,” “Right Here” and “Rain.” They closed out their set with “Anything” remix with appearances from Wu-Tang Clan members Method Man & U-God. The honor was a long time coming and well deserved!
Coko told us recently the best part about receiving that honor, “Just finally being recognized. We’ve been in the industry for so long. Never part of any cliques, just us.” She went on to say “So we’ve always had to fight a lot harder than the rest. So, to finally be recognized was awesome! I just wanted the flowers before I was dead and gone.”
What’s next for SWV? Coko tells us “I’m not sure, as we haven’t started yet. But of course I’ll keep everyone posted on what’s going on.”
Happy 25th Anniversary SWV!
The Voice of Coko – UB Interviews Speaking on The Voice!
UrbanBridgez.com: How did the duet with Coko come about, she’s one of our favs?
Keith Sweat: Well you know I wanted to work with people who I was fans of and I am a big fan of SWV, they have great music. Same thing with Johnny, you know I worked with him on the LSG projects. So my whole thing is, I love the music people are putting out right now, but I’m stuck in a certain time zone (laughs). So I just got to do certain things that make me feel good musically! And working with Coko, Johnny and people like T-Pain and Charlie Wilson the people doing R&B, well good R&B! Those are the people that I love to work with!
UrbanBridgez.com: I know you have many industry friends, but I know you and Coko from SWV are really tight. I for one have always wanted you guys to collaborate on something.
Shanice: I would love that too, oh my god. I am such a fan of hers. It’s funny because her husband Big Mike travels with me sometime, he’s my musical director when I’m on the east coast. I was in DC recently and he said Coko is coming, I was so nervous to sing in front of Coko (laughs). She’s my friend, but I’m such a fan. She’s so dope, so yeah I would love to do a song with her. I’ll mention that to her, see how we can make that happen. She’s so amazing.
UrbanBridgez.com Some of your favorites?
Jody Watley: I mean Coko, she’s just like a ridiculous singer come on and I love SWV. And I’m biased because when you meet artists and they’re nice you’re going to like them anyway.
UrbanBridgez.com: Umm Coko of SWV.
Miki Howard: Chile I love Coko, oh okay you talking about people like them too because they’re grown (laughs)! I love Coko, oh my god she can sing!
UrbanBridgez.com: Your discography as a songwriter is sick, like you really have some impressive credits, what would you say are your top three favorite and why?
Ivan Matias: Coko of SWV. I was already an SWV fan. Coko’s voice does it for me. She was very pregnant & sat on a stool also. She was effortlessly pushing those notes out & all I could see was hearts floating around her when she opened her mouth. She could do no wrong in my eyes. I would try to show her part of the melody in my raggedy falsetto & she would giggle & sing the melody back exactly as I meant to do it. Her musical choices & instinct are impeccable.
UrbanBridgez.com: Who are some of your favorite current recording artist?
Taral Hicks: I will always love Coko (SWV), she will always be my favorite!
Stream Our SWV 25 UB Playlist & Watch Classic SWV Visuals