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Michelle Williams Talks Autism, Destiny’s Child, Talib Kweli

Jason LaVeris. Getty Images

Rappers like to boast about filling shoe boxes with cash while singers like Michelle Williams, one-third of the Destiny’s Child outfit, doesn’t hoard her riches, she bestows her wealth to worthy causes. She once gifted $100,000 to the Chicago church she grew up attending, proof enough that the 31-year-old is a philanthropist.

Last year, the gospel chanteuse-turned-pop singer decided to do another good deed and joined forces with TERI (Training, Education & Research Institute) to raise funds for children and adults living with autism. Williams recently helped launch the organization’s largest fundraiser, Power of 10, with hopes to raise $5 million by the year’s end to build aquatic and music centers for autistic individuals. Some celebrities may team with campaigns just to get their face plastered on posters, but this lauded entertainer isn’t down with the cause for self-recognition. Her participation comes from a personal place since her godson lives with the developmental disorder.

Ever the workhorse, Williams wears a different hat each day, it seems. Autism spokesperson, today, dramatic thespian, the next. She’s about to embark on a seven-week acting schedule starring in David E. Talbert’s play ‘What My Husband Doesn’t Know.’ Then there’s her musical side, where the recent release of her dance-tinged track, ‘Love Gun,’ sparked talks of whether or not her new album would feature the same sounds heard on her last LP, ‘Unexpected.’ With a loaded calendar that would make most folks insane, this lady takes hers in stride. Read on as the Adele admirer speaks on her recent studio sessions with Talib Kweli, reuniting with Beyonce and Kelly Rowland on stage and using her stardom to bring a little more happiness to those with autism.

‘Unexpected’ was your last album, released in 2008. What mindset are you going into with your fourth solo album being that ‘Love Gun’ is the first song we’re hearing?

Actually, that song was kinda like an accident, first of all that I even recorded it because I’ve been toying with the direction of the music. Everybody seemed to absolutely enjoy it, but at the end of the day, I have to have the final say on the direction. I did the whole dance thing in like ’08 and now that seems to be the new craze but I’m always thinking ahead of what’s next and what’s new, you know what I mean. But I’m glad everyone is loving it but I doubt that’s the sole direction of this next record, unfortunately.

Do you feel like you’re going to move more towards the R&B side then?

Well, you know what, I grew up, first of all, with live music, gospel. The church is where I grew up. I miss hearing that in songs. I miss hearing organs. The cool thing about doing dance music is I like how when I did it live, it kinda had like an alternative R&B kinda sound to it. I enjoyed that. I’ve always adored Adele and I’m so happy that she’s having this massive success of real music. You don’t know how happy and excited I am about that. I just didn’t want, like when I talk about real music, like the real use of the instruments, I didn’t want that to die down. Speaking of that, I hope like everybody that’s trying to cut music education out of schools, I hope they look at the charts and know music is ruling. It’s coming back so don’t cut out that portion.

So will your next album have live instrumentation?

Absolutely! Yes. That’s how I grew up. My brother’s a musician, my uncles are musicians. That’s how we grew up — we grew up with live music. I hated having to sing to a track. I wasn’t raised like that. We had musicians to play. That’s what I want..

Who’s the last person you went into the studio to record with?

I just did something with Talib Kweli like last week. I love all types of music. My iPod is filled with people from Talib Kwlei to gospel greats like the Clark Sisters or the Winans. Then you got Whitney Houston to Coldplay to Bruce Hornsby and Rufus Wainwright. It’s so vast. So when Talib Kweli expressed an interest, I was like, “Really? The hip-hop want to work with the church girl? OK lets go.”

That’s for his project?

That was for his project but the feeling is definitely mutual for him to do something for me for the future. Interesting collaboration, very interesting. I’m singing a verse and a hook and he does his hot 16. Hi-Tek produced it.

‘Love Gun’ is a buzz record, but that may not even end up on the final album. What else have you done?

I recorded so many different, extra songs. I’ve just been enjoying the freedom to do that, like nobody telling me like, “You gotta do this. You gotta work with this person. You gotta do that.” So I’ve been all over the place exploring new producers, new sounds, having an absolute blast doing it. So I know labels and managers go crazy when their artists do stuff like that but they got to get with the times and get it together.

Any time you are pictured together with Beyonce and Kelly Rowland, there’s immediate reunion talk. How do you feel about that?

It’s crazy. You know what, yes, Destiny’s Child is reuniting. Where? At the next event where we all decide to show up at [laughs]. But you know what, we love it and the fact that people are still asking and wondering. It could be the opposite reaction. It could be, “No! Stay home.” It could be that. It seems like a new natural disaster wants to occur when we are pictured together, which is love, which is great. I love it.

What would have to happen for a definite Destiny’s Child reunion to occur?

We would have to talk about it. We get so overwhelmed with seeing each other and we’re always talking about girl stuff and gossiping stuff, that that’s something that hasn’t crossed — I shouldn’t say it hasn’t crossed our mind — nobody has been the first to just say something.

In the past, you have extended your charitable hand with giving $100,000 to your Illinois church. Why is it so important for you to do charity work?

I don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t do what I do as far as charity work. I think that’s what we are supposed to do when God has given you whatever platform it is that you have. Like you work with AOL, anybody that works there hopefully something is done where people know what you stand for. And you’re able to use your gift to let people know that. Things that mean something to me as far as TERI, they help families and children deal with autism and other developmental disabilities. And my godson was recently diagnosed with autism, so it hit home for me. This is just not something I’m just doing to have my face plastered somewhere. It is because like, I know about this, I know the effect that it has when everybody found out. You thought your world was over, you was like, “What went wrong?” But TERI just lets you know there is hope. And they’re helping people live with it.

We launched the largest fundraiser to date called the Power of 10. It’s basically just us getting people to donate $10 so that we can reach our goal by New Year’s to have raised $5 million to complete our new campus for life quality center. The equestrian center is already built. It’s brand new with the horses. The residents of TERI, they go there for their therapy. I had the chance to actually use one of the horses, ride on the horse and meet the therapist. When I tell you, people are proud to know where their money is going because it’s something that’s actually built with your money. So what’s coming next is the aquatic center, the culinary arts, the theater and music center. You have to see it with your own eyes. It’s beautiful. It’s San Diego, Calif.-based. TERI, which stands for Training Education and Research Institute, they also have like 10 or 11 residential homes where people [with autism] actually live.

So you’re in this until well after the $5 million is raised?

Pretty much. TERI has been established for 30 years. So I’ve got a long way to go with my portion. I want people to know there are so many organizations for autism and other developmental disabilities [that] are focused on finding a cure but it’s like, OK, what are people going to do until there is a cure? You have to live with it. OK, so TERI helps and assists families live with it and deal with it and have an amazing full life, a full quality of life. An amazing high standard of life because just because somebody has a disability and it takes them time to learn, and they might learn slower than the next person, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get it. That doesn’t mean they can’t succeed in life. How many geniuses are walking around here, that as a child they had a disability, but they’re running companies, they’re artists now, they’re having a great life, families of their own.

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