Meet Gina Figueroa, the Boricua Woman Who Inspired and Co-Wrote D’Angelo’s Grammy-Nominated “Really Love”

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

In 2014, visionary soul artist D’Angelo (aka Michael Archer) released his first album in 14 years. Music critics breathlessly lauded Black Messiah; the 12-track opus was pieced together over the course of the decade and made it on several publications‘ Best of 2015 lists. This year, the album is nominated in three categories at the 58th Grammy Awards, including two nominations for “Really Love,” a saccharine soul lullaby whose origin story we speculated about back in January of 2015.

Gina Figueroa won’t be at tonight’s ceremony to see the song compete. But unbeknownst to many, the Nuyorican artist is the reason “Really Love” exists – in more ways than one. She’s not only the woman behind the spoken word introduction that opens the honey-sweet ballad, she also both inspired and co-wrote the song. And in a strange turn of events, Remezcla’s search for her identity back in 2015 helped spur a months-long process to get her legally credited as a co-writer.

Just ahead of the Grammys, we sat down with Figueroa to discuss for the first time the explosive history of her relationship with D’Angelo, her collaboration on the song, and her attempt to be credited as an official songwriter.

Photo by John Quilty. Courtesy of Gina Figueroa
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On an unseasonably warm afternoon in early February, Figueroa – Fig for short – rolls up to the Remezcla office in an unassuming leather jacket and gray beanie. Having expected the huffy chaos and snappy glamour of a pop star – a white fur coat, maybe, or knee-high boots – I was surprised by her modest threads. But Gina’s wisdom transcends her humble wardrobe; she’s sharp, genuine, candid. She imbues our conversation with a spiritual magnetism, emanating an almost divine savoir faire of a woman beyond her years. She doesn’t fear speaking truth to power, laying it all out with real-recognize-real, Lower East Side Nuyorican humor. The daughter of two Puerto Rican nationalist activists, Fig’s story is one of salsa and funk, disco block parties on FDR Drive, Fania and Marvin Gaye blasting from street corner boomboxes. She grew up at these block parties, but they were shadowed by a dangerous reality. “We would be dancing and there would be stabbings and shootouts 20 feet away. That was how I grew up.”

“I fell so in love with him, and I was so transfixed and overwhelmed by him.”

The explosive creative power of 80s New York City street culture immersed Gina in the world of funk, salsa, and soul, inspiring her to embark on her own musical endeavors. “I was in these funk rock and soul bands, but I always had a need to get back to my roots so to speak. Even though that’s part of my roots too, I needed to express myself in Spanish.”

Those funk en español aspirations led Gina to attend D’Angelo’s landmark 1995 concert at the Supper Club in Times Square. It was his New York City debut, and Gina was determined to catch the show. “I broke my neck to try to get in there,” she explains, recalling the presence of a supernatural connection upon seeing him take the stage. “I just really felt this incredible affinity with him.”

Two years later, then 21-year-old D’Angelo dropped Brown Sugar, the album that established him as the heir apparent to the throne of soul. Dominique Trenier, D’Angelo’s former manager and the future co-director of the notorious video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” played Gina a four-track demo in the summer of 1997. Soon after, Trenier introduced Gina to D’Angelo. “I remember feeling this supernatural [pull]. I kid you not – like brujería, but not like black magic,” she remembers. The two went to dinner together soon after.

“It was this crazy connection. And it wasn’t sexual. I didn’t understand it; it was very heavy. If you know anything about santería, Orisha – it was this weird, spiritual, heavy [feeling]. I remember I was eating, and he started eating from my plate. That’s really intimate. I was like, ‘Damn!’”

Trenier fostered their eventual friendship, playing Gina’s songs for D’Angelo and vice versa. “Gina had this one record…that was incredible. It was called ‘Mi Corazón…’ I made her play it for D so he could understand who he was fucking talking to.”

Gina highlights the moment when Trenier shared “Mi Corazón” with D’Angelo as a turning point. It was then that their friendship bloomed into romance. “I swear to God, I’ve always called him my Shango. He’s just like a spirit. He’s just this incredible force. He was never a man of a lot of words. But he was like, ‘Look at this.’ He just loved that song very much…I was lightning struck.”

Over the course of the year, the couple shared their bubbling creative energies during the recording of Voodoo, D’Angelo’s iconic sophomore album. She spent her days at Electric Lady Studios, meeting many of D’Angelo’s collaborators, including sound engineer Russell Elevado and longtime friend Questlove (aka Ahmir Thompson). D and Gina were generous with one another, swapping melodies and poems, claiming their shared passion for music as the foundation of their love. “We would sit together and listen to music and break it down, to a science. Our favorite song [was] “Nusia’s Poem,” by Roy Hargrove…We would listen to all these Orisha songs and I would play him so much Latin music – Eddie Palmieri, obscure artists…he loved it.”

As Trenier describes, Gina employed her good taste to boost D’Angelo’s creative potential during the recording of his second studio album. “Gina was always around [in the studio]…she always telling him, ‘That’s not good enough…’ She was a worldly cool chick, and he was like, ‘Yo, I’ve never met a Puerto Rican.’”

In 1998, D’Angelo penned what would become “Spanish Joint,” a song that never had lyrics, until their romance blossomed and abruptly withered. “He ended up calling it ‘Spanish Joint,’ and obviously, you know what that means, that’s like Spanish chick,” Figueroa explains. Much like the narrative of the song, their love affair was knock-down, drag-out – late-night sweat and tears, insecurity and commitment, ecstasy and despair. Trenier was caught between the romance. “She’s ‘Spanish Joint.’ They were tumultuous, right? If you read the lyrics – [sings] ‘whenever it rains I feel this way…I ain’t got nothing to do with you’ – he’s basically saying, I’m getting rid of you, I’m never gonna speak to you again, ever, but it’s gonna be a good thing.”

“Spanish Joint” captures that exhilaration, the heart-rending rapture of falling in and out of love. Their intimacy was tender and life giving, but short-lived. “It became very turbulent. A lot of jealousy, a lot of possessiveness…We started fighting, and then we burned that shit to the ground. We burned down the house on that one,” she remembers.

The relationship fizzled in 1999, and D’Angelo embarked on the Voodoo tour in March 2000. A few months prior, the music video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” aired for the first time, sparking feverish debates surrounding the sexualization and objectification of black men in popular music. In the infamous clip, the camera pans over D’s chiseled, glistening body in a continuous long take. For Trenier, who co-directed the visuals with Paul Hunter, “Untitled” was motivated by a desire to celebrate carnal pleasure and self-love. “For me, the reason ‘Untitled’ is called ‘Untitled’ is because it’s ‘How Does It Feel…’ Fuck what you think and what’s fancy, how does it make you feel?” he tells me. The angle worked. “It changed life, because no one had seen heterosexual black male sexuality like that.”

Voodoo heralded a new era of black musicianship. As Trenier argues, no album had seamlessly blended Dirty South blues with loose, spacious folk-funk the way Voodoo had. “Voodoo is Dark Side of the Moon for niggas. What’s Dark Side of the Moon? A long-ass smoke-some-weed album…white artists have freedom like that. Like, ‘let’s do a single, bro.’ There’s no single. It’s fuckin’, The Wall,” he says.

Critics and peers have attributed D’Angelo’s 14-year absence from music to the creative pressures he faced following “Untitled” and the Voodoo tour. In a 2014 GQ profile, Archer confessed to the emotional stress he experienced in the years following his emergence as an emblematic sex god. “When I got back home, yeah, it wasn’t that easy to just be,” he told GQ. “I think that’s the thing that got me in a lot of trouble: me trying to just be Michael, the regular old me from back in the day, and me fighting that whole sex-symbol thing.”

Over the course of a few short years, he withdrew from the stage and his peers, falling victim to substance abuse and brewing up a storm of legal troubles. But a lightness took root despite that struggle, and it served as an incubator for the rejuvenation of his creative talents.

Photo by John Quilty. Courtesy of Gina Figueroa
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Gina says they kept in touch despite the creative drought, and one day around 2005-2006, D’Angelo called her up from his home in Richmond, Virginia. “He said he had written a song about me and he was playing it to me over the phone.” Those simple piano keys were the skeleton of what would become “Really Love.” “I was kind of mad at him,” she admits. “I always felt like he could never be just my man, and I used to cry about that. This guy’s like Robert Johnson to me. He’s my blues man.” The song kindled stinging memories, but Figueroa says it was a beautiful return to form for D’Angelo.

In 2007, Questlove leaked an unfinished version of the song to Triple J Radio in Australia. At the time, Figueroa had not recorded her spoken word intro for the song, until Archer called her into the studio for a listening session in 2011. “I was freaking blown away. That was what was to become Black Messiah…It was so beautiful, and at that point he told me, ‘This is your song.’”

Figueroa was skeptical about the dedication. “I was like, ‘Yeah right, pendejo.’ This guy’s a smooth operator. He did not write this song about me, and I just don’t believe it.”

“I was like, ‘Yeah right, pendejo.’”

D’Angelo explained his plans to add an overture – what would become Brent Fischer’s stirring string arrangement. After talking and hanging out in the studio for awhile, Gina improvised her spoken word intro. “I sat face-to-face with him and recited my spoken word to him. I told him about our love story. That was like my poem and my story to him.”

In a bare-bones Boricua whisper, she recounts the turbulence of their romance at last.

Si, me amas? Yo te quiero mucho. Todo el tiempo que pasamos. Lo que te quería decir es que… tu estas jodiendome la vida. Yo no quería pelear contigo. Yo solamente te quería amar. Pero tu eres muy celoso. Querías ser mi dueño. Pero yo soy libre. Quieres ser mi rey? Yo tu reina? No sé si confío en ti. Pero yo te quiero mucho.

Figueroa reveals that there’s something else to the introduction, found in an inaudible, hushed murmur between the song’s beginning syllables. “I’m telling him, ‘What are you doing with that cigarette, my love?’ Mi vida. One of my biggest battles with him was to quit smoking. It was the thorn in my side.”

Then, one midnight hour in mid-December, Black Messiah arrived at last. It was only then that Gina found out her intro was part of the finished version of “Really Love.” Upon listening to it for the first time, she remembers, “It was utterly bittersweet. It was painful as hell. Very painful. But very emotional, very beautiful, and I loved it.” Critics agreed; “Really Love” was hailed as a standout album cut, offering up the unbridled vulnerability and gut-wrenching intimacy D’Angelo embraced in his previous works, all over a lilting, virtuosic jazz-funk groove.

But what these reviews left out was any textual analysis of Gina’s spoken introduction. Enter Remezcla. In January of 2015, our Managing Editor Andrea Gompf published a piece engaging with Gina’s contribution to the song, and chronicling her attempt to track Figueroa – who is credited in the album’s liner notes simply as “Spoken Vocal: Gina” – down. “I wrote the article partly out of frustration that all the other reviews of ‘Really Love’ I’d seen completely glanced over this important introduction,” Gompf says. “I thought it was lazy journalism that no one engaged with the intro just because it was in another language – and if you take the time to listen to what [Gina] says, it gives the song a totally different reading. This is why music outlets need diverse editorial staffs – if you don’t have someone on your team who can speak Spanish in 2016, you’re losing.”

Gompf’s article eventually made its way to Gina, and helped prompt her to seek out a proper songwriting credit. As D’Angelo set out on the Second Coming Tour, the two agreed to collaborate on getting Gina credited as a co-writer, which entitles Figueroa to claim status as a nominee for Best Record of the Year and Best R&B Song at the 2016 Grammys. According to National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) policy, in order to submit a correction and claim status as a nominee, “an executive (CEO, president, EVP, SVP A&R, or GM—only) at the nominated recording’s label [must] submit the correction, specifically detailing what was inaccurately submitted or omitted, along with an explanation as to why the error took place and what steps are being taken by the company to correct the mistake.”

The process was laborious, but in collaboration with several members of D’Angelo’s management and legal team, Figueroa and her lawyer submitted her claim. The strict deadline means that Gina’s name will not be read at the telecast tonight, and per NARAS’ restrictive policy, “all official changes to be made will be done after the awards telecast.”

“I’m very thankful to D’Angelo. He creates this incredible musical environment that was able to uplift me.”

Trade publications and official metadata files must recognize her as a co-writer after the correction is made. Though her name will not be read at the ceremony, Figueroa is grateful for the opportunity she had to make her mark on the album, and for D’Angelo’s artistry. “It’s very bizarre and surreal. Very surreal, and I’m very thankful to D’Angelo. He creates this incredible musical environment that was able to uplift me.”

Over a year after its release, and on the eve of its reckoning at the Grammys, Black Messiah remains a timeless and swirling exercise in political and romantic introspection. Perhaps “Really Love” should be read as the pièce-de-résistance of this triumphant romp in jittery folk-blues and jangly R&B. At a moment when the politics of black self-love (see: the black feminine gospel of Beyoncé’s “Formation,” or the manic cockiness of Kanye West) seem poised to muddle 2016’s pop cultural conversation with half-baked hot takes, “Really Love” rears its head again, almost begging us to remember the deceptive simplicity of love. As Gina intimates when our conversation comes to a close, the story behind “Really Love” is quite pure, despite the song’s searing intro. “There’s that thing of the heart – when hearts love each other, there’s no ocean that could separate them.”

Clarification, 2/19/2016, 10:55 a.m.: This story originally implied that Gina Figueroa made an agreement to record the spoken word introduction for D’Angelo. The post has been updated to reflect that the spoken word intro was improvised and that Figueroa was made aware of its inclusion in the song when Black Messiah was released on December 15, 2014.