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Arts & Culture

‘I’m Transmitting Kindness’

Before Visiting UMD Today, Pop Legend Dionne Warwick Talks About Twitter Fame, New Documentary and Latest Music

By Jessica Weiss ’05

Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick, who will sit down with College of Arts and Humanities Dean Stephanie Shonekan this afternoon for the Dean's Lecture Series, is the subject of the documentary "Don't Make Me Over," now streaming on HBO Max.

Photo courtesy of Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick has spent six decades as a pop icon, selling more than 100 million records and racking up countless awards for chart-toppers like “Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” But Warwick, 82, says she’s never been busier than she is now.

Recent months have been filled with far-flung tour stops, a gospel collaboration with Dolly Parton that drops Friday and a new CNN Films documentary streaming on HBO Max about her life and career, called “Don’t Make Me Over.” Amid it all, she also tweets (or “twotes,” as she calls it) with a signature candor and humor that have prompted her nickname as the Queen of Twitter.

After finding an outlet in social media while stuck at home during the pandemic, Warwick first went viral in late 2020 after she tweeted at Chance the Rapper: “If you are very obviously a rapper why did you put it in your stage name?” (“I’m … freaking out that u know who I am,” he responded, adding: “I will be whatever you wanna call me Ms Warwick.”) Soon after, an “SNL” skit featuring Ego Nwodim as Warwick poked fun at the incident. Warwick now has more than 630,000 followers.

It’s an exciting resurgence—and one fit for a legend. After growing up in East Orange, New Jersey, singing gospel with her family, a backstage encounter in 1957 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater led to background gigs for names such as Dinah Washington and The Drifters. In 1961, Warwick caught the ear of songwriter Burt Bacharach and in 1962, she had her first solo Top 40 hit with “Don’t Make Me Over.” Bacharach, who died earlier this month, and lyricist partner Hal David were the writers behind many of Warwick’s early-career hits. Less than a decade after the first, Warwick had released more than 18 consecutive Top 100 singles.

The five-time Grammy Award winner has been inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the R&B Music Hall of Fame and the Apollo Theater Walk of Fame. She has also supported many causes and charities, including AIDS research, world hunger, disaster relief and music education, and served as global ambassador for health and ambassador for the United Nations’ Food Agriculture Organization.

Under the banner of Arts for All, Warwick will speak today with College of Arts and Humanities Dean Stephanie Shonekan at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as part of the 2022–23 Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. The event is in partnership with the School of Music. But before that, she talked to us about the new documentary, her use of Twitter and the importance of spreading kindness.

“Don’t Make Me Over” has been streaming for the past few weeks. How does it feel to have your life story being shared with audiences far and wide?
Oh, it’s wonderful. I’m thrilled that, finally, people will get to know me from me—as opposed to what they thought was me. I was involved in every aspect of the documentary. Because you couldn’t get the story unless you had me telling it, right?

People have also been getting to know you on social media for the last few years.
Yes. I tweet whenever I feel a need to. I’m hopefully giving people access to the right way to do social media as opposed to being crazy and bashing people and being stupid—using their brains and their minds to be positive and inspirational and hopeful.

Why is this so important to you?
I am considered, as is every recording artist, a messenger. It’s very important to me that the message I send through music and the words I send through music is positive, so instead of ugliness, I’m transmitting kindness. It seems to be getting across very well, which I’m thrilled about. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.

Have you made new friends or collaborators through the platform?
Chance the Rapper responded to my tweet, and that instigated phone calls between the two of us that led to recording together (“Nothing’s Impossible” was released in November 2021), and we’ve developed a friendship, which is wonderful. He was quite ready to work with me to relay a positive message.

On a somewhat similar note, I learned in the new documentary that you invited Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Suge Knight and other rap icons to your home in the ’90s. What made you decide to call that meeting?
I wanted to get across to the youngsters—which they were at the time—that they were also messengers. And the messages they were sending were not quite palatable, not just to me but to the people they were singing to. And I wanted them to know it was time to think about what they really wanted to say to people, and what they wanted to convey. I think at the time they were thinking, ‘I don’t really know what she’s talking about,’ but they grew up, they understood what I was saying, and it worked. They changed their messages.

From your fundraising for AIDS research to more recent advocacy efforts, you’ve always made giving back a part of your mission. Do you believe artists have a unique responsibility to engage in social justice work?
Everyone’s an individual, so I cannot speak for any other artist besides myself. For me, it’s part of my personal mission, it’s something I do automatically. Anything I believe in, that I feel I can be of service to, is how I react.

You continue to push boundaries and try new things. How do you stay curious?
I never feel that I have stopped growing. Everything is a part of this growth. It’s an adventure always to see what’s around the corner and what’s next for me.

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