This Black Music Month, Billboard is highlighting some of the most incredible musical works that defined the last two decades. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Destiny’s Child’s iconic 2001 album Survivor, Michelle Williams opens up about the inner-workings of the Billboard 200-topping release and some of her most memorable moments with Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland, her groupmates-turned-family. The Rockford, Ill.-born singer walks us through her journey, beginning when she made the daring decision to leave her conventional undergraduate path in criminal justice at Illinois State University to pursue music professionally. Her first step was singing background vocals for Monica, which led to talks with Destiny’s Child after a mutual connection informed them of Williams and her musical talent amidst changes within the then-quartet.
Grammy-nominated Survivor was Destiny’s Child’s third studio album and marked Williams’ groundbreaking debut with the group — which came after she joined in 2000 in place of former members LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson, who had departed Destiny’s Child. Williams became a member alongside Farrah Franklin, who soon parted ways with Destiny’s Child as well.
These days, Williams has turned her attention to raising awareness about mental health and providing resources to those who may be quietly coping with various mental health struggles. Following the May release of her heartfelt memoir Checking In — in which she details her yearslong battle with depression and anxiety — the Grammy winner, who hosts a podcast also named Checking In, reveals that she will soon begin hosting retreats designed to create safe spaces for those in need of emotional support. “I want people to be encouraged, whether you know what you’re going through or not,” she says. “I wish I would have known in the seventh grade what to say or how to put language to what I was feeling, but it’s time to go into detail and walk people through my journey. It lets me know that I was never alone and it lets the reader know that they’re not alone either.”
From the first time she met Rowland and Beyoncé at cajun seafood restaurant Pappadeaux in Houston, to international tours in London and Australia, plus recording sessions in Hawaii, here’s the story behind Survivor, as told by Williams herself.
The name Survivor comes from Destiny’s Child surviving so much — surviving the uncertainty of not knowing: Would there be a Destiny’s Child after all the group had gone through prior to me joining and what happened after? There was a lot of scrutiny, with Beyoncé being blamed for the majority of everything that happened. Till this day, she’s stayed silent about it. It was a very traumatic time and it wasn’t easy being the new girl.
LeToya [Luckett] and LaTavia [Roberson] had their own set of fans and people were almost mad at me. I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m just trying to make things work.” When I look back, it’s crazy. That pressure hits a little different, but we had to keep it moving, so the debut of the Survivor album truly was a blessing. I was already a fan of the group and it was the song “Say My Name” that actually made me become a superfan of Destiny’s Child. We were moving so fast and having so much fun. I found two new sisters that I could get through moments with, and that’s what kept me going.
We were able to write the outro on the album and we included the “Gospel Medley,” because gospel was something the girls always loved. I was excited about [the “Gospel Medley”] because gospel music was my first love. To have the opportunity to release Heart to Yours [which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart] was a blessing and it was also strategic, because it’s like, “Why not do gospel at the height of your career with Destiny’s Child? Don’t wait until later.” How I got started in music was in church. You’re in the Sunshine Band when you’re about 4 or 5 years. Around the age of 7 is probably when I sang my first solo. But if I’m not mistaken, Beyoncé took a lot of the lead on the writing of Survivor.
I think “Survivor” might have been one of the first songs we recorded for the album. There are people to this day who listen to those songs and “Survivor” is played for various [occasions and causes], especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I love that it still helps people that go through things. They can raise their hand and be like, “Wow, I made it. I survived this.” But the first song I ever recorded, period, with the girls was “Independent Women (Part 1)” and that was for the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack, which ultimately also became a song on the Survivor album. It was so fun. I think we recorded it in Hawaii. I loved whenever we got to do international tours in London [or] Australia, and [I loved going] back at home where you could go to your own state and perform. For me, it was Illinois. For the girls, it was Texas. And honey, we loved to eat. Food was our thing that really bonded us. It really was. There were so many blessed moments, but one was when the artist Sting presented Destiny’s Child with an award at the Billboard Music Awards [in 2001]. I was like, “Wow, a legend like Sting is presenting us with an award.” That was pretty incredible.
People have always dreamed about Grammys, [we won two as a group]. Those were blessings, but the biggest reward of all is still having relationships, still taking family vacations together with one another. To me, that’s one of the biggest rewards of all.
I remember while filming the “Survivor” music video, especially the moment that we were simulating that we were out in the ocean. It was just a big pool and they were throwing all this water in our face. We got so sick after that video shoot. We damn near had pneumonia and doctors had to be called.
There’s another song called “Apple Pie A La Mode”; it was not a single but I listen to it once or twice a year because I’m like, “That could be played today on the radio,” as far as sonically. It was ahead of its time, with the musicality of it.
To this day, there are a few staff from Columbia [Records] that I actually miss. A few days ago, the girls and I were [reminiscing] about them. What people don’t understand is that management fights battles that we don’t know about. I know that [our manager and Beyoncé’s dad] Mathew Knowles had to go in there, into Columbia [Records], to fight for us on our behalf so that all we had to do was focus on going into the studio and creating amazing music.
We did our first solo albums [in 2002 and 2003] and then we came back and did the group album [Destiny Fulfilled in 2004] and I thought that was gonna be the order in which we did things. Of course, if it was up to me, I love singing with the girls and there’s nothing like making music together. But I realize too, the girls had been doing this since before I got with the group. They were 9 and 10 years old.
We are living testimonies of that song “Survivor.” We are surviving and striving still, in the entertainment industry and individually. Surviving things personally and with family, things that people know about and some things people don’t know about. As you get older, you look back at what you’ve overcome, you’ve lived through things and you were able to survive. We have lived that title, Survivor.
We were so young musically but still ahead of the time. We were innovative and even when I look back 20 years later, I see the growth that each of us has had.