Nona Gaye found success on film rather than following the career path of her late father, soul singer Marvin Gaye (1939–84). Just nine years old when her father was fatally shot by her grandfather in 1984, Nona Gaye made one record in the early 1990s before vanishing into years of substance abuse. Becoming a parent herself in 1997 forced her into a healthier lifestyle, and she began earning notice for her small but well-executed supporting roles in films such as Ali and The Gospel. She also replaced Aaliyah in the two Matrix sequels after the singer died in a plane crash. "Not only does she have a real presence," Ali director Michael Mann told Hilary Vries in W, "but she also has that rare quality of being able to let an audience know what she's thinking even as she's trying to repress it."
Born on September 4, 1974, Gaye was the product of her father's romance with a 17-year-old, Janis Hunter, whose father was jazz singer Slim Gaillard. At the time of her birth, her father was one of the most successful black recording artists in the world. He came out of the Motown Records hit factory in Detroit in the 1960s, though he often clashed with label founder Berry Gordy to have more artistic control over his music. He won a notable battle when he gained full ownership of the 1971 hit "What's Going On," the single and album of the same name that is considered one of the top soul records of all time. Complicating matters even further was the fact that Marvin Gaye was still married, and to Gordy's sister, Anna, at the time his daughter Nona was born.
Endured Difficult Childhood
Gaye and her younger brother grew up in New York City, Los Angeles, and Ostende, Belgium, where their father had settled for tax reasons. The marriage between her parents, which lasted from 1977 to 1981, was a troubled one, and both had substance abuse problems. "As young as I was," Gaye recalled in an Essence interview with singer Natalie Cole, daughter of another musical legend, "I would think, You guys are not all right. Neither one of you." Marvin Gaye's career, which had languished after What's Going On, was revitalized in 1983 when he won two Grammy Awards for the song "Sexual Healing," from the album Midnight Love. Appearing on the television music showcase Soul Train to promote it, Marvin mentioned eight-year-old Nona and predicted she would have career in show business. "I remember him saying," Gaye told Detroit Free Press journalist Kelley L. Carter, "'She sings quite well and she probably will end up doing what I do.'"
Gaye's life would forever be divided into before and after slots because of the events of April 1, 1984, the day her minister-grandfather, Marvin Sr., fired two shots at her father at the home they were sharing in Los Angeles, during an argument. Gaye was nine years old at the time, and first heard the news along with the rest of the world. "We turned on the TV, and there was my father being rolled out in a body bag," she said in an interview with Michelle Tauber for People. "That never goes away." Despite the recent success her father had achieved, little of that money went to Gaye, her brother, or her mother after outstanding tax claims were settled. Kids at school knew she was Marvin Gaye's daughter, but she grew up in a household that was struggling financially. Her mother's addictions worsened, and Gaye began using drugs herself at the age of 14.
Gaye eventually dropped out of high school around the time she made her film debut with a bit part in the 1989 Eddie Murphy film Harlem Nights. She landed a record deal and put out a 1992 album, Love for the Future, whose top single, "I'm Overjoyed," reached No. 17 on R&B singles charts. Gaye was unhappy with the final product, however, and not surprised that it failed to sell. "I didn't have any creative control," she told Esquire writer Carter Harris some years later, and noted that the label "wanted to go with crossover pop. I wanted to come with the funk. I knew people wouldn't accept bubblegum from Marvin's daughter, and they didn't."
Entered Treatment Program
Not long after that debacle, Gaye became involved with R&B superstar Prince. They recorded a few songs together and had a long-term relationship that ended when Gaye learned he was engaged to his backup singer and dancer, Mayte. Gaye later noted that there was a gulf between them that was explained by her substance abuse more than the 16-year age difference between them. "Three years I dated him and didn't know him and really never let him know me, either," she later told Harris in Esquire. "But that was a long time ago, and I wish him well."
Gaye admits she was still using drugs, and sometimes even with her mother, until the mid-1990s, when Janis entered a treatment facility and Gaye followed not long afterward after swallowing a handful of pills with cham-pagne at a time when she was feeling particularly bereft. After becoming sober, she reconnected with her high-school boyfriend, Justin Martinez, and had a son, Nolan, with him in 1997. Still needing to earn a living for herself, Gaye dabbled in modeling, but had a difficult time keeping slim enough. Her agent suggested she try film, and sent her on an audition for director Michael Mann, who was casting roles for a planned biopic about boxing great Muhammad Ali. Gaye recalled that her lower lip trembled so badly during her tryout that she was sure she had ruined her chances in Hollywood forever, and cried in her car afterward. But Mann and Will Smith, who played Ali, called her back for more readings, and she won the part of Ali's second wife, Khalilah.
Gaye's next role was in 2003's The Matrix Reloaded, the sequel to the hit sci-fi thriller The Matrix. She replaced the late singer-actor Aaliyah, who originated the role of Zee before she died in a 2001 plane crash. Gaye won critical plaudits in the high-visibility role in that movie and its successor, The Matrix Revolutions. Her other film roles include Crash and The Polar Express in 2004, and xXx: State of the Union a year later; these films gave her the chance to work with leading men ranging from Tom Hanks to Ice Cube.
Feels Father's Spirit
Later in 2005 Gaye appeared in The Gospel, which featured Boris Kodjoe as a major R&B star who returns to his strict church roots after years of distance between him and his father. Gaye, discussing the movie with Carter in the Detroit Free Press, described it as a story "close to my heart" and one that echoed her father's own life. "He sang in the Pentecostal church, became a big superstar and was always trying to please my grandfather," she noted.
At a Glance …
Born September 4, 1974, in Washington, DC; daughter of Marvin Gaye (a singer) and Janis Hunter; children: son Nolan.
Career: Actress, 1989–; made film debut in Harlem Nights, 1989; recorded LP Love for the Future, 1992, and tracks with Prince, mid-1990s.
Addresses: Home—Los Angeles, CA. Agent—Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212-1825.
Gaye lives with her son in Los Angeles, and likes the fact that she hears her father's songs on the radio almost daily. Though she lost him when she was still a child, she has often said in interviews that he still feels very much a part of her life. Celeste Fremon, a writer for Good Housekeeping, asked Gaye what advice her father might give her if he could. "I think my dad would tell me to be really, really careful to steer clear of the demons that are in my bloodline," she replied. "And I am. I don't drink, I don't smoke. I'm doing everything I can do to stay away from what I know could destroy me."
Love for the Future (includes "I'm Overjoyed"), Third Stone/Atlantic, 1992.
The Matrix Reloaded, 2003.
The Matrix Revolutions, 2003.
The Polar Express, 2004.
xXx: State of the Union, 2005.
The Gospel, 2005.
Detroit Free Press, October 5, 2005.
Esquire, March 2002, p. 136.
Essence, May 2003, p. 180.
Good Housekeeping, January 2002, p. 83.
People, November 17, 2003, p. 83.
W, December 2001, p. 96.