GLENSIDE, Pa. - Chrisette Michele held hands with her band members during a final prayer, posed for a pre-show Instagram photo and stepped out into what remains of a career battered by a five-minute-18-second association with Donald Trump.
The Keswick theater in this suburb of Philadelphia sits in a region that is the mecca of the neo-soul music that earned Michele a dozen years of fame, a record deal at 23 and a career-validating Grammy. The last time she sang at the Keswick, her manager and husband, Doug Ellison, reminisced, nearly all 1,500 seats were filled.
But a few days after Christmas, the die-hard fans clotted near the stage to hear Michele sing were surrounded by a phalanx of empty seats.
It has been two years since Michele made what many predicted would be a career-ending decision - singing at one of President Trump's inaugural balls. She accepted the gig against the advice of her fans, former collaborators and even her husband. She believed the performance would be an opportunity to "be a bridge" in a fractured nation.
Instead, it sent her life into a tail spin.
The 36-year-old lost an album distribution deal and radio stations stopped playing her songs. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and endured a miscarriage that she publicly attributed to stress from death threats and a hydrant of criticism. The singer who wrote "Strong Black Woman" wondered if she should just stop singing forever.
Now, Michele is back on stage with a new perspective. Amid the fallout, she told her critics that she is "no political genius," but she now recognizes that's irrelevant. In the age of social media and partisan politics, it's impossible to separate the artist from the person. Her music, she acknowledges, can't exist in a cultural vacuum.
"While I felt like people took so much away from me in those two years, I'm more grateful for finally having time to look at the last 12" years, since she released her first album, Michele said. "And I think that is the bright side. ... I want people to know that it's okay to expect more from me."
While trying to rebuild her career, Michele is mentoring other black women and focusing on her mental health. And she's using her social media platforms to call on followers to vote.
"On November 6th, we get the opportunity to change the narrative and REBALANCE the scale," she wrote before the midterm elections, below a 2016 photo of her at the White House with the Obamas. "Your voice matters, my voice matters."
She still feels the sting of former fans who saw themselves in her music, then accused her of selling her blackness to a presidential candidate who, while on the campaign trail, repeatedly cast black Americans as impoverished people living in hellholes and dependent on food stamps.
Part of her worries it may be too late. As legions of fans have refused to come back, she realizes that a footnote of her career - or perhaps its epitaph - will be her connection to a man she didn't vote for, whose rhetoric she disdains and whom she has never met in person.
A large swath of people who flocked to her brand of music wrote her off - and never returned, certainly not to the Keswick on a chilly December night.
"People didn't feel hopeful from that moment," Michele said of the performance that changed the trajectory of her career. "They didn't feel represented in that moment. They felt misrepresented. They felt further misunderstood, and they felt the person they were depending on to speak on their behalf just betrayed them."
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Chrisette Michele Payne's first solo performance came when she was 4 years old. Michele recalls wearing a pink silk coat from Macy's and walking down the aisle of her church near her home in Central Islip singing "Yes, Jejus," because she hadn't fully mastered the letter "S."
A child of soloists and choir directors, there was never any question that her life would be defined by God and music. She remembers trips to the library as a child, dissecting the music of Billie Holiday and speeding up the melodies of Charlie Parker.
Even before aspirations of R&B stardom, she had a feeling that her voice had power.
"I just remember knowing that I can change the feeling of the room when I sang," she told The Post. "From the time I was a kid, I knew that notes did things to people."
By age 23, when she signed with Def Jam, she was seen as the latest in a line of neo-soul singer-songwriters that included Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, said Tammy Kernodle, a musicology professor at the University of Miami, Ohio, who, until that inaugural event, was a Chrisette Michele fan.
Even people who didn't know Michele's name knew her voice, as her four-octave range complemented R&B and hip-hop tracks by Jay-Z, Nas and The Roots. She had a brief stint on the reality show "R&B Divas" on TV One. First Lady Michelle Obama then made a secret trip to hear Michele play in Virginia in 2014 - then she played at an official state dinner.
She became famous for a sound and a style that resonated with a certain expression of blackness. She crooned about joy and heartbreak in songs like "A Couple of Forevers" and "Epiphany," but also penned a political song called "Black Lives Matter."
"When we listen to artists, we are looking for their consciousness and their identity," Kernodle said. "People heard enough in her music to align it with their personal struggle - whether it was a racial or gender struggle. At the end of the day, we do want our celebrities to be advocates and activists for us in those places."
In music videos and interviews, she showcased her natural hair, telling interviewers about her "big chop" and describing how she would do comb twists before photo shoots. She found herself explaining the politics of natural hair to white male record executives. One day, a woman walked up to her on the street and said she based her hairstyle on one of the singer's music videos.
"I now become (fans') lifestyle, or I now become a lifestyle brand -- all kinds of words that mean I became a product," Michele said. "Record labels love that kind of thing. Marketers love that kind of thing. But for artists, it can be unnerving."
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The call came when Michele and her team were in Barbados, a few days before a performance.
After a polarizing election, the people planning a day of inauguration events were having trouble booking performers. Jennifer Holliday agreed, saying she was a "bi-partisan songbird," then changed her mind, because she didn't want to alienate her LGBTQ fans. Moby's public response began with "hahahahaha" and ended with a demand that Trump release his tax returns. Welsh singer Charlotte Church respectfully declined with a tweet that included the poop emoji and the word "tyrant."
Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down and Lee Greenwood agreed to sing, but Ellison, Michele's husband and manager, said it was no secret that organizers wanted a famous black face on stage during at least one of the inaugural balls.
Michele heard the warnings against taking the job but felt she needed to control her own career. She recruited Travis Greene, a gospel artist, to sing his song "Intentional," as they'd done on a BET gospel special a year earlier. She picked out a skirt with African motifs.
Ellison asked for a princely sum, $750,000. The number they settled on - $75,000 - was still a vast amount considering Michele would be onstage for just a few minutes, belting out a few notes of someone else's song, he told The Post. She'd sung for the Obamas and for troops in Iraq for free.
The death threats started before she signed. The news that she was considering the gig had leaked. #ChrisetteMichele was trending on Twitter, before she'd sung a note for Trump.
Even director Spike Lee weighed in, writing in an Instagram post that he was sorry to read that Michele was performing at Trump's inauguration.
"I Wuz Thinkin' 'bout Using Chrisette's Song- BLACK GIRL MAGIC In My Netflix Series SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT," he wrote. " NOT ANYMORE."
Questlove, The Roots drummer and producer who had once collaborated with Michele, offered to pay her to drop the gig.
In a statement defending her decision, Michele wrote, "I am here representing you because this is what matters."
Linette Payne watched her daughter perform at the inaugural ball from her home in New York. She thought her daughter's performance was solid, but hoped people would understand the themes: the African skirt. The Christian song. Her daughter's words about uniting the country.
"I had no kind of thought in my head that it would turn into the bomb that it did," Payne told The Post. "Neither of us did. Then she called and told me that CNN called."
Michele never met Trump or shook his hand. She took to radio, social media and TV to explain herself, but the defense only further incensed fans.
"The fact that she kept talking, kept explaining, kept trying to justify herself, means that it kept surfacing, news cycle after news cycle," Kernodle said.
Months after the inaugural event, she was struggling to crawl out of bed. She had suicidal thoughts, worrying fans with Instagram pictures of pills and hard liquor. When her pregnancy ended prematurely, she posted a graphic picture of a miscarriage, one she found in a Google image search. Fans blasted her for using another woman's heartbreak to score points on Instagram.
She says that moment was a mistake, and that polycystic ovarian syndrome had always meant having a child would be difficult for her. But she wanted to weaponize her pain to attack her detractors.
"I wanted to say look what you made happen," she said. " I wanted to be like, 'You hurt me so bad that I couldn't even carry a child.'"
Karmen Patton Faucett, one of the diehards in the front of the Keswick concert, stuck by Michele, but understood the animus directed at her.
Her fans wanted her to be a "generational voice" that spoke to their outrage. When she wasn't "they attacked the person, not just whatever action she did. They went after the sinner and the sin at the same time. They couldn't separate the two."
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After going underground for a year, Michele searched for peace and purpose elsewhere: She opened a Yoga studio. She took up African dance. She started offering voice instruction and launched a mentorship program aimed at helping women find personal and professional success.
"I wanted some clarity about what I'm supposed to be doing right here, because clearly it ain't supposed to be singing," she said.
One topic in the "Heartset Over Mindset" mentorship series she's hosting this year is a question she's spent two years answering:
How do I stay positive and encouraged to continue even when it's not easy?
Part of the answer is being at peace in the moments before she stepped out at the Keswick theater.
Half the fans, it seemed, had paid extra for a special meet-and-greet after the show, and they stood in a line that stretched from the front of the theater to the back. She shook every hand, accepted every hug.
That night, she'd belted out a decade's worth of songs, giving a mostly-empty theater one of her longest shows in memory.
"When you go to a theater that's half full, you don't say, 'Well, it's half full,'" she said. "You sing to the people that are there."