It’s a Sunday afternoon inside the Alleycat Cafe in downtown Pontiac. Melanie Rutherford, along with a friend, rushes into the coffee shop to escape the rain that is pouring heavily outside. They sit down at a table adjacent to the sandwich and dessert display and jump right into business.
Rutherford’s friend is a DJ, and she has hired him to play the music for her 16-year-old daughter’s fundraising event to study abroad in China. She tells him to play, “inspiring R&B and hip-hop music” that will cater to a broad audience. Also providing the entertainment is Rutherford herself with her band, Phat Greezy.
Melanie Rutherford. Photo by Micah Walker.
Music has been a part of Rutherford’s life ever since she was a child. Born and raised in Pontiac, she started singing when she five years old at church, with “Born in Bethlehem” being the first song she performed. According to the website Last FM, during her time as a student at the now-closed Pontiac Central High School, Rutherford won second place in a talent competition and was awarded a music scholarship to Dillard University in New Orleans.
The performer’s first foray into the music industry came in 2002 when her brother gave her $5,000 to sing at a music conference in Florida. While there, she met the rapper, Redman, and was given a chance to sing for him. Impressed by her performance, Redman signed Rutherford to his record label, Gilla House Records. Two years later, she released her debut album, “You’ve Got Mel,” followed by “Relationships In My Own Words” in 2007. In addition to her work as a solo artist, Rutherford has collaborated with Redman, along with Detroit artists, Slum Village and Royce da 5’9. Her latest release came out in 2014, titled, “Melanie Rutherford: 160th Street.”
The singer is currently working on her next album, with plans to release it next year. According to Rutherford, the untitled album will about “love and being addicted to it.” Rutherford said she drew inspiration from the strained relationship she has with her father, and how that has caused her to have unhealthy romantic relationships. Writing about her experiences has helped the singer realize that she cannot expect a significant other to help her, but rather, she must seek help herself.
“It a girl’s journey to womanhood,” Rutherford said. “It exposes all the flaws of a person and the vulnerability of love, and learning I gotta just be me. It’s written for women who are stuck, who are waiting for their Prince Charming to show up. Or if you have a dysfunctional relationship with a boyfriend and still worrying about him, it’s gonna help you get away from that; to learn how to love yourself fully, flaws and all. I’m learning that at 38 years old, finally.”
In addition to singing, Rutherford has showcased her talent for songwriting, penning lyrics for R&B artists such as Detroit native Kem, Ledisi, Chrisette Michele, and Ronald Isley. However, the singer wasn’t always willing to write for other artists.
“My lawyer was like, ‘Mel, you’re a dope songwriter!’ Everybody told me that and I fought it. But then I began to embrace it, and I started writing. I needed to change my energy from being an artist to a singer-songwriter.”
As a songwriter, Rutherford received a gold record for co-writing the hit single, “If It’s Love,” for Kem’s third album, “Intimacy.” She said working with the singer was “the greatest experience ever,” and that Kem is “very methodical.”
For her next project, Rutherford is interested in civic engagement. She is currently running for a place on the Pontiac library school board. The singer-songwriter has always had a love for reading, and wants the library to be a safe haven for those in the community, including the homeless.
“As a presence on the board, I believe I can make a real change financially and socially,” she said. “My dream is that every household has a mini library around it. Freedom comes in knowledge, and I want everybody to be free.”
Q: What do you love most about Pontiac?
I love the people. I love being on the east side at Bravo’s [Bravo Cafe Coney Island] seeing folks get together helping someone. I love being on the north side when you see the kids playing hopscotch; being on the west side where all the lawns are manicured. Love being on the south side ‘cause the south side got soul. I love Pontiac as a whole. I love the good, the bad, the ugly about it.
Q: Why did you decide to move back to Pontiac?
I needed to be healed. I was in a bad place, I lost my way. Dating the wrong guy, hanging around the wrong people. There was a time in my life where I hated this city, and I needed to get over that. I needed to get me together and make sure I was authentic, and this place made me authentic. Gave me breath when I didn’t have any, gave me life when I lost my way.
Q: What is Pontiac’s biggest challenge, and how can it be addressed?
For people to synergize with each other, for people to stop looking at others’ socioeconomic backgrounds and just look at them as people. I believe in treating people the same way I want to be treated. I haven’t always believed that, but it takes humility to serve people. I used to work with Americorp, so I worked with the homeless for a while. I understand the mindset of a homeless person because I used to be homeless. I’ve been on my own since I was 17. I just think people gotta learn how to deal with people. Love is the only way you can solve this.
Q: What are your hopes for the city?
That we rise like the phoenix. That we become the greatest city ever, like a beacon on a hill. That there will be more homeowners than renters. That the children will have the freedom to be educated and not systematically deprived of the greatness within them.
Q: What should people in metro Detroit know about Pontiac?
That we love everybody, even when we don’t like you. We welcome everyone here. We might be a small city, but we are a city. You can’t come in here and do what you want, you’re gonna respect the game and respect who we are. You have people come here and they’re like, ‘I have all these ideas,’ but they don’t include the community, then you get the backlash of it. Even though this is Main Street, this is still our street. You might own the building, but we own this community. Come here willing to work with all people.