Maxwell has some words of wisdom for his longtime music listeners and aspiring stars alike amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Days ahead of his performance at the 52nd Annual NAACP Image Awards last Saturday, the Grammy Award winner, né Gerald Maxwell Rivera, 47, opened up to PEOPLE about his experience as a first-generation American Brooklynite, his lasting music legacy and — of course — some of the meaningful life lessons he has learned through the years.
"I think if we don't celebrate us, who will?" he tells PEOPLE of the significance of the NAACP Image Awards, the show for Black people by Black people, which first aired on Aug. 13, 1967. "We need to show ourselves what we can be and the endless possibilities of what we can achieve. I think that's what the NAACP Image Awards stand for — being seen, being recognized by your community is like one of the greatest blessings that you can achieve for upward mobile movement."
On his NAACP Image Awards performance at this year's show, Maxwell says, "I'm from Brooklyn, New York and obviously New York has been through a lot during the pandemic, so the performance is a celebration of New York and how much it's given me and how much I hope to give back to the city that I'm from."
His vintage-themed performance was in celebration of the 25th anniversary of his debut studio album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, which was released on April 2, 1996, just one month ahead of Maxwell's 23rd birthday.
A fun fact he reveals to PEOPLE about the making of the album is that at the very last minute during his mastering session with late music engineer Tom Coyne, "I quickly sang something and had him insert this a cappella into the master and he said to me, 'If this works, I will never doubt you again, and of course it worked. That's one of the funniest things about the Urban Hang Suite."
"And the most incredible part of working on the album was how it made itself," the star tells PEOPLE. "It was really calling the shots and even though I had the vision — I created news boards and pretend articles about me and making music — I was very reticent about being front and center because [I had] a lot of stage fright and lots of insecurities."
"But in looking and reading some of the documentaries of the people I love the most, I realize that they all did [too] and on some level, their journeys through music was the universe trying to build them up, build their self-esteem," he adds. "That's really the greatest part is that it made itself, it felt like a feather in the wind that led me to [include influences by] Leon Ware, God rest his soul, Wah Wah Watson, Stuart Matthewman, Gene Lake on drums, Federico Peña on keys and many great musicians that [in some ways] found me and the album, then made it what it was."
He continues, "I always have to give thanks to Karl Vanden Bossche, who is the percussionist who brought me to Stuart Matthewman, then we ended up writing "Whenever, Wherever, Whatever," "Lonely Is the Only Company" and "Welcome."
These days, Maxwell is proud to have played a part in raising awareness about Americans' voting rights amid the 2020 presidential election, and his work with Ben Wei — founder of A Million Masks — to help provide "masks to people very, very early on [in the COVID-19 pandemic]."
Maxwell is also working on his next music release, "I write [songs] in my journal," he tells PEOPLE. "I'm always at the piano, I go downstairs to the studio I put together and we work on a bunch of things and wait for the right things to tell us, 'Hey, I am album worthy.'"
He explains with a laugh: "Because there's like 100 songs and then you just have a [number] of them that say, 'Hey, put me on that album if you need me.' They pretty much tell you, they're like kids, you know? They tell you what's up."
Thinking back on his debut studio album, which he perfected alongside his co-writers and co-producers, the vocalist says "it was really a family-type thing. We wanted to make a cool record. No one had ego about it; there was no real understanding of the archetype of what the business of music is."
And reflecting on its success — the album peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 on Sept. 6, 1996 and charted for 103 weeks — he tells PEOPLE, "I'm grateful that I had good-natured folks around me to create this music. To have it come out and be received, appreciated and still somewhat celebrated 25 years later is unlike anything I would've imagined happening to me."
After all, Maxwell was a first-generation American child of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent who began living independently as a teenager.
"I had to go against the grain [to pursue music as a career]," he tells PEOPLE. "I was on my own at 17 and I've been working a job since I was 13. I loved to earn money through hard work and then use it to hopefully get to the [kind of work] that doesn't feel like working, which is what I'm doing now."
But it took years for Maxwell to catch his big break.
"You know, 20 years old in New York City working odd jobs and trying to buy music instruments, trying to convince folks that — Well, I didn't tell a lot of people that I did music because, you know, the haters be out here," he says with a laugh.
"But I've been blessed to be given the music," says the "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" hitmaker. "Even though it is a lot of work and there's a lot of days where you can't talk for 48 hours, especially when you're on tour, and certain foods you can't eat and stuff like that. I just knew it in my gut, it was like a comet inside of me that was like, 'Go, go, go.'"
The "Pretty Wings" star also chats with PEOPLE about how his bustling New York upbringing heavily influenced his style of music — and his life overall.
"I grew up around everything in a neighborhood where every kind of person lived around us. I was like in the United Nations a little bit, you know?" he says, laughing. "That's why doing records featuring Haitian-Americans, African American women and all people was very second nature for me, because it's what I saw around me."
Of Brooklyn life in the '70s and '80s, Maxwell describes, "Everyone was coming from some island [or country] and had some dream they wanted to fulfill, especially in the '90s," he laughs, before admiring much of today's generation of young people for vocalizing the importance of diversity and inclusion for all.
"Diversity wasn't even something you could coin as a phrase [back then] because we just were," he explains. "I'm really grateful I was able to be part of that movement. I'm also very proud of [the younger] generation for really driving that point home and making sure that people are including everyone and giving everyone an opportunity and a fair chance. Not just because of where they're from, but because they are hard-working, they do deserve a shot and they're gonna help build you as much as build themselves."
And his advice to all is, "Whatever art capacity is represented in them, because I think you being a journalist is as much of an art form as what I do, [I would say], 'Always hone in on the passion that you feel. Listen to it, don't be afraid of it and trust the universe that you will be rewarded for the work you are doing, because you're destined to do it.'"
Maxwell has one more piece of advice for prospective stars, and that is, "Be very careful about when you are doing something that makes too much sense to the powers that be, because I find that the greatest records that really take us over are the records that didn't quite hit on radio yet that were going to make sense later."
For instance, much like his debut studio album Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, the singer's sophomore album was far ahead of its time and didn't seem to make sense to critics when it was released in 1998.
"With my second album Embrya [there were a lot of skeptics]. It's funny, the reason I called it 'Embrya' is because I'm a science geek, and most people don't know that all forms of life begin as female," he reveals.
(As explained by the Human Genome Research Institute, women have two "X" chromosomes in their egg cells while men have an "X" and "Y" chromosome in their sperm cells, which means sexes are created with at least one female sex chromosome.)
"People were like, 'What's the deal with that title?' and I was like, 'Eh, It's a long story, you'll understand hopefully in 20 years,'" he explains with a laugh. "I would say, definitely stay true to the core of who you are. There will always be trends, there will always be new loopholes in the business, but look to the heroes, 'sheroes' and the ancestors that inspired you."
For Maxwell, honoring women has always been a part of his decission marking throughout his career, from intentionally recording his now-iconic rendition of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" (which he was determined to release in order "to be a man singing a song that a woman had written about a woman's experience") to the naming of his second album.
He tells PEOPLE that releasing that body of work at 25 with a message of female empowerment at its core, and with the hopes that maybe someday music listeners would understand it, was the biggest career risk he has ever taken.
"That sophomore album, I did it on purpose," he affirms. "I knew everyone wasn't gonna understand, [like] everyone [didn't] understand Urban Hang Suite. But, that's part of the story."
"I used to hear, 'This is not a good A&R format' or 'This is too musical' or 'There's too many breaks' or da, da, da. All this stuff I'd hear, then the album does well and then of course everyone wanted me to do another version of it."
"When I did Embyra, Embrya was a complete left," Maxwell recounts. "So, 20 years later, because of the internet, you can see all of the people who really did like it. Because before, you would see [your music review] through the critics' point of view. Now, you get it from the people's point of view and it's amazing."
He adds, "I think women are at the crux and center of our society and they deserve so much more respect and opportunity. Everyone comes from a woman, no life would be here without women. We play a part, but we're not doing those nine months, so any opportunity that I can celebrate women, what they mean and how they should be put on a pedestal, especially Black women and the struggles that Black women face, was always very important."
Embrya debuted on June 30, 1998 and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, where it charted for 18 weeks, "I always wanna point back to the person who's gonna read this and say, 'Do your thing, do your art, make your art you as much as you can. Take your risks, because with no risk there's no reward, then you will most definitely be able to have a career that will last longer,' because I think the people that will come to you will always remember that you took a risk to be yourself."
Embrya also peaked at No. 3 on the album sales chart.
Maxwell tells PEOPLE he was most inspired by music icons including Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Prince and Ella Fitzgerald among many more, but, "Harry Belafonte [played] a pivotal role for me. He played a major part in what I wanted to exemplify or aspire to be because he was an amazing singer, actor and an activist too. He sacrificed much of his career to lend his voice to a greater calling, which was social activism and social justice for people."
And though Maxwell is now a role model to those who are entering the industry behind him, the star has coped with discrimination, bouts of low self-esteem and even stage fright through the years.
"I can definitely say that being a person from a West Indian background, I was not perceived as Black enough," explains the NAACP Image Award winner. "It's not so much happening now because now, SOCA (Soul of Calypso, African and East Indian rhythms) is such a big deal, Afrobeats are poppin' [and] the Latin music thing is great. These are all things that were not really there [when I was a breakout star], so I definitely chalked a great deal of insecurity [up to being] told by many people that, 'You're not from the South, so it's not like you really know what [being Black] is about.'"
"I did struggle with having to feel that I wasn't enough and it's because I came from a diverse background that I was [considered] not legitimate in some ways," he remembers. "I'm grateful that years later, so many of your peers [have adapted a more inclusive way of thinking]. I had to put my head down, take it, keep moving and cross my fingers and hope that eventually, through evolution and education, that people would understand that any form of Black is Black."
"I still suffer from [the stage fright and insecurity at times]," he tells PEOPLE. "I think if you look at my hiatuses, the way that I take so much time [away from music], it's really an all-or-nothing experience for me. I'm still always being dragged out of the dressing room to get on the stage. I just wasn't that kid that went on auditions. I didn't have that."
To cope with his occasional feelings of inferiority, the star explains that from childhood, he found comfort in the characters Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple) and Kunta Kinte (played by LeVar Burton in the all-time classic Roots), because both characters were least likely to succeed. The soul singer who loves nature, horror movies and reading a good book, jokes that he had to sneak around to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker before he could watch Steven Spielberg's film adaptation "because I couldn't see the movie at the age I was, but the book was a hell of a lot racier."
Now, Maxwell says he feels comfortable on stage within a few minutes of his hourlong shows, but when it comes to televised performances on massive stages like the Grammys and NAACP Image Awards, "I still suffer from it very much."
But his feelings come from a good place.
"I think my stage fright comes from caring, I want people to have a good time. I want them to feel free and excited and to feel like, 'This is for you. This is your show. I'm of service to you.'"
For Maxwell, one of the joys of his career is when "people bring their kids and the kids they had during the time [of my album release cycles]. I get photos of people on their first dates which are marked from 1997, '98. I mean I have so many [special memories], I can't even express to you what a beautiful experience it's been for me as a person, just as a human to know that this music and this avenue could do this for people. And that's why I'm so resistant of making it about me because in the end, it's the songs that lead the way and I'm just a convoy that the music is working through."
Through Maxwell's nearly 30 years of impressing his fans, he tells PEOPLE that his most meaningful performance to date was the recording of his live album MTV Unplugged that he performed in his hometown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on May 7, 1997, "which is an amazing venue for me being a Brooklynite myself."
"Then we ended up doing 'This Woman's Work' and that was the first time I ever sang the song — that was the first time I ever performed it for anyone. It was recorded [that night], which was such an interesting thing because there were no cellphones, so if you look at the audience during that performance, they're kinda paying attention," he says with a laugh.
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