There is something about Amber Riley that exudes an undeniable strength, even through the screen of a video call. She’s humble about her many achievements and doesn’t skip a beat to express gratitude to the people she’s worked with along the way, her peers in music, theater, TV, and film. “Every single thing that I’ve done in my career has been a milestone and an amazing memory,” she said to me over Zoom. “They are things that I never thought I would do or could accomplish. So, I really am grateful, and I feel extremely blessed and very, very, very lucky.”

Of course, it isn’t just luck that got Riley where she is today. Many fans know Riley from her role as Mercedes Jones on Glee, where her vocals regularly left viewers shook. During her run on the show, she became the winner of Dancing with the Stars‘s 17th season — one of the best contestants ever, in my opinion — and, when Glee aired its finale episode in 2015, she went on to star in various projects including The Wiz Live!, Nobody’s Fool, The Little Mermaid Live!. So, she’s been working to keep herself booked and busy!

When Riley and I sat down to talk, it’d been almost five years after her reign as Mercedes ended, and the world was near the end of a year that shifted the role of Black artists to become practically synonymous with Black activists. Riley had just dropped a self-titled EP, found the power in her voice, and showed her fans that the best is yet to come. Keep reading for insight into Riley’s journey, her musical process, and how she finds peace during hard times.

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