Chrisette Michele is singing to nearly empty audiences. She says she's finding a new path to happiness.
Chrisette Michele held hands with her band members during a final prayer, posed for a pre-show Instagram photo and stepped out into what remains of a career battered by a five-minute-18-second association with Donald Trump.
The Keswick theater in this suburb of Philadelphia sits in a region that is the mecca of the neo-soul music that earned Michele a dozen years of fame, a record deal at 23 and a career-validating Grammy. The last time she sang at the Keswick, her manager and husband, Doug Ellison, reminisced, nearly all 1,500 seats were filled.
But a few days after Christmas, the die-hard fans clotted near the stage to hear Michele sing were surrounded by a phalanx of empty seats.
It has been two years since Michele made what many predicted would be a career-ending decision — singing at one of President Trump's inaugural balls. She accepted the gig against the advice of her fans, former collaborators and even her husband. She believed the performance would be an opportunity to "be a bridge" in a fractured nation.
Instead, it sent her life into a tail spin.
The 36-year-old lost an album distribution deal and radio stations stopped playing her songs. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and endured a miscarriage that she publicly attributed to stress from death threats and a hydrant of criticism. The singer who wrote "Strong Black Woman" wondered if she should just stop singing forever.
Now, Michele is back on stage with a new perspective. Amid the fallout, she told her critics that she is "no political genius," but she now recognizes that's irrelevant. In the age of social media and partisan politics, it's impossible to separate the artist from the person. Her music, she acknowledges, can't exist in a cultural vacuum.
"While I felt like people took so much away from me in those two years, I'm more grateful for finally having time to look at the last 12" years, since she released her first album, Michele said. "And I think that is the bright side. ... I want people to know that it's okay to expect more from me."
While trying to rebuild her career, Michele is mentoring other black women and focusing on her mental health. And she's using her social media platforms to call on followers to vote.
"On November 6th, we get the opportunity to change the narrative and REBALANCE the scale," she wrote before the midterm elections, below a 2016 photo of her at the White House with the Obamas. "Your voice matters, my voice matters."
She still feels the sting of former fans who saw themselves in her music, then accused her of selling her blackness to a presidential candidate who, while on the campaign trail, repeatedly cast black Americans as impoverished people living in hellholes and dependent on food stamps.
Part of her worries it might be too late. As legions of fans have refused to come back, she realizes that a footnote of her career — or perhaps its epitaph — will be her connection to a man she didn't vote for, whose rhetoric she disdains and whom she has never met in person.
Fans take their seats ahead of the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pa. for Chrisette Michele's concert on Dec. 27.
A large swath of people who flocked to her brand of music wrote her off — and never returned, certainly not to the Keswick on a chilly December night.
"People didn't feel hopeful from that moment," Michele said of the performance that changed the trajectory of her career. "They didn't feel represented in that moment. They felt misrepresented. They felt further misunderstood, and they felt the person they were depending on to speak on their behalf just betrayed them."
Chrisette Michele Payne's first solo performance came when she was 4 years old. Michele recalls wearing a pink silk coat from Macy's and walking down the aisle of her church near her home in Central Islip singing "Yes, Jejus," because she hadn't fully mastered the letter "S."
A child of soloists and choir directors, there was never any question that her life would be defined by God and music. She remembers trips to the library as a child, dissecting the music of Billie Holiday and speeding up the melodies of Charlie Parker.
Even before aspirations of R&B stardom, she had a feeling that her voice had power.
"I just remember knowing that I can change the feeling of the room when I sang," she told The Post. "From the time I was a kid, I knew that notes did things to people."
By age 23, when she signed with Def Jam, she was seen as the latest in a line of neo-soul singer-songwriters that included Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, said Tammy Kernodle, a musicology professor at the University of Miami, Ohio, who, until that inaugural event, was a Chrisette Michele fan.
Even people who didn't know Michele's name knew her voice, as her four-octave range complemented R&B and hip-hop tracks by Jay-Z, Nas and The Roots. She had a brief stint on the reality show "R&B Divas" on TV One. Then-First Lady Michele Obama made a secret trip to hear Michele play in Virginia in 2014 — then she played at an official state dinner.