Cleopatra: The chart-topping Black girl group of the 90s

Lauren Gordon

By Lauren Gordon

Lauren Gordon

28 Oct 2022

“We were the first black girl group from Manchester at a time where R&B was at its finest. We were smack bang in the middle of a pop Revolution, pumping Girl Power to the masses. It was insane! We were chart-topping alongside Rock legends,” says Cleo Higgins, one-third of the 1990s girl band Cleopatra from up north. 

Together with her teen sisters Yonah and Zainam, Cleo took over the UK with their infectious sound whilst remaining unphased by industry heads trying to whitewash their look. 

“Our lives were about to change for the better”

Taking to America, the group were signed by Madonna, known to the girls as Auntie Mad (“Madonna is on that mega level of stardom but we were close, she insisted we call her Auntie Mad”), and sold thousands of records across the states.

The band’s debut single, Cleopatra’s Theme entered the UK Charts at Number 3, and had three UK Top 10s during their time in the spotlight. Cleopatra remembers the moment she first saw the debut single chart high as a “moment of reckoning”. 

“Everything we had endured in life was for that moment of reckoning, our lives were about to change for the better,” she said. “Every song I’d practised, written, every dream I had envisioned for the future was actually possible and coming from the hood, it meant better quality of life, bigger opportunities. I felt like we were heading in the right direction and I could see it in our mother’s eyes too.”

“We were in with the IT-crowd!”

The girls took over America too and toured with the Spice Girls, performed for the Pope and appeared on Disney’s cruise. But, looking back, it was the 1999 MTV Music Awards after party, hosted by Donatella Versace at her Milan base which trumped highest for Cleopatra.

“There was the Versace emblem for the door knockers of course and I swear a whole tree in the middle of the downward staircase… So many rooms with different music genres, flooded with beautiful people and we were in with the IT-crowd!” 

The “unreal” experience spread into the morning when Lionel Richie asked the group for an autograph. “The next morning at breakfast, Lionel Richie approaches us holding out 1st album! He asks politely for an autograph for his daughter, Nicole.”

Partying with celebrities, signing autographs and hanging with the IT-crowd didn’t blind Cleo and her sisters of what was important about being in Cleopatra. They knew they represented sisterhood and love, and embraced it. “We knew the importance of our bond and hoped to deliver a strong representation of healthy love between women and girls in the way we behaved, worked together and loved each other.”

“We hoped to deliver a strong representation of healthy love”

As a Black girl group in the late 90s, the girls’ rise to fame wasn’t an easy one. In an interview for VICE, Cleo revealed the band had little to no advice from industry veterans, except an odd chat with Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher. “If I could go back, I’d be more forward. I was a teen in a grown man’s world. You never knew who to trust. Financially and professionally we were thrown back into the world without any real guidance.”

Cleo doesn’t want a repeat for Black women and girls in the industry, including her daughter Chikachu who writes and produces her own music. She advises them to “hold onto every piece of blackness that you are.”

“You are the gatekeeper of your success. In every way, black women are stripped and robbed. Remember you are effortless in nature. Your beauty and brains have been sought after for centuries, don’t let ’em fool ya.”

Despite travelling across the world to perform as part of a chart-topping girl group, Cleo still recognises her hometown Manchester and its ever-growing music scene as “where it’s at”.

“I always felt that it was inevitable. Manny is where it’s at and always has been,” she beamed.

Stating her ideas for the northern city, Cleo said: “I’d like Manchester to honour all of its talented artists and become a music community in the way London has successfully done. Then we would be an unstoppable masterful music hub.”