Why Migos’ ‘Stir Fry’ is the perfect song for NBA All-Star Weekend Hip-hop’s Big 3 are pop culture and they’re truly doing it for the culture—of the NBA

Music’s hottest supergroup consists of three MCs known as Quavo, Offset and Takeoff. In the past year, the Migos have a Grammy-nominated No. 1 hit, a Grammy-nominated No. 1 album and their own brand of potato chips. This past November, between group efforts and individual guest appearances on other artists’ songs, the Migos had nine concurrent entries on Billboard’s Hot 100 — also known as the pop singles chart. And Offset is one half of the year’s newest power couple: He’s engaged to the coolest new star of the year, Cardi B.

So, just ask the Migos: There is something alluring about a trio in which each person brings a little something different and they all work together to create poetry in motion. The Migos are a big three.

The power of a “Big 3” in basketball is undeniable, and throughout the course of NBA history we’ve been spoiled by quite a few memorable ones. There’s Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy as the leaders of the “Showtime” Lakers. Chicago’s Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. And then the iconic Boston formation of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. And we can’t forget the straight-outta-video-game Miami Heat trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

In the game of hip-hop, Quavo, an ultimate hook man, runs point. The lyrically gifted Offset is on the wing. And tone-setting ad-libber extraordinaire Takeoff is down in the post. And now, with their talent and influence, the Migos have reached the NBA’s biggest stage.

On Christmas Day, the NBA announced the Migos’ Pharrell-produced “Stir Fry” as the official song of 2018 All-Star Weekend (Feb. 16-18). This ended a long run of forgettable tunes (in 2017, it was Sir Roosevelt’s “Sunday Finest”) selected by the league and TNT, the longtime broadcaster of the midseason classic. The song will serve as the soundtrack for the festivities, hosted this year in Los Angeles. “Stir Fry” is the best song the weekend has yielded since 2012, when Jay-Z and Kanye West, aka The Throne, provided the All-Star Game with its lead-in music via their 2011 megahit “N—as in Paris.”

But “Stir Fry” is an even more worthy theme song for All-Star (and a nice complement to the game’s fresh new pickup-style team-selecting format). It’s almost as if the Migos wrote the song specifically for this moment. Don’t discriminate, ballplayers come in all sizes / Finger roll, post move, or the pick and roll / They mad the way we win, they think we used a cheat code, flows Takeoff in the third verse — a small peek into the hoops knowledge and respect for the game possessed by the entire trio.

Instagram Photo

Aside from the fact that they can actually hoop (especially Quavo), the Migos are a fixture at NBA games, primarily at Philips Arena, where their hometown Atlanta Hawks play. They were swagged out from courtside seats there on Dec. 23, when Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder put up a career-high 33 points after receiving some motivation from the group’s frontman, Quavo. “He told me last night … on the phone … ‘You’ve gotta get 30 points when I’m coming.’ I was motivated, I was focused, I still tried to get the win, but I did it for him,” Schroder said after the game, from which each member of the Migos left with a game-worn jersey off the back of a Hawks player. After an MLK Day matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry presented the sideline-sitting Quavo with the pair of signature Under Armour shoes that he wore in 33 minutes on the court, in response to a midgame request from the rapper to let him have them.

As long as the Migos keep delivering hits, and keep “doing it for the culture” that’s reflected within the makeup of the thriving NBA, they’ll always have a place in a world of basketball that’s obsessed with prolific trios. It’s not a stretch to say that the Migos are probably your favorite hoopers’ favorite rappers.

And on Jan. 26, the group is scheduled to drop Culture II, the highly anticipated follow-up to their 2017 platinum album, Culture, just in time for All-Star Weekend, which tips off three weeks later. We already know what the players will be bumping in their headphones before game time.

‘The Chi’ and ‘South Side’ go beyond the violent rep of Second City’s South Side Is television finally starting to represent the real Chicago?

In the premiere episode of the already critically acclaimed The Chi, a fresh-faced, precocious African-American teen is shot to death on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. After lifting a gold chain and sneakers from a dead body, an affable teen named Coogie, portrayed by Jahking Guillory later runs into the deceased boy’s stepfather, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) — he’s racked with grief and looking for payback. Coogie tries to reason with the man, but it’s too late.

A gun goes off, and Coogie is left stretched on the pavement, bleeding to death. There are no heroes and no villains. It’s a devastating moment. And while it seems in line with all-too-familiar real-life headlines associated with the South Side, things are more complex and nuanced on The Chi.

Chicago has struggled to shake off a rep as America’s most dangerous city. According to a recent USA Today piece, 650 people were killed in the city in 2017, a 15 percent drop from 771 people in 2016. And for much of last year, the Windy City didn’t even rank among the highest murder rates in the country: St. Louis; Baltimore; New Orleans; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; and Cleveland. Chicago did, though, surpass New York and Los Angeles’ combined murder rates for the second straight year. And most of these murders happen on the predominantly black West and South sides.

And yet The Chi, created by actor/producer/activist Lena Waithe, avoids being tragedy porn. Waithe portrayed Denise in Netflix’s acclaimed and award-winning Master of None and made history in 2017 as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for the show. A proud native of the South Side, Waithe grew up on 79th Street near Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway before moving to suburban Evanston, Illinois, during her preteen years.

There was comedic gold in the lives of everyday, hardworking, blue-collar black folk.

“[Chicago] is not a jungle,” she said a few weeks ago on CBS This Morning. “It’s not a bunch of hooligans with no hearts and no souls. Every black boy isn’t born with a gun in his right hand and a pile of drugs in his left. They’re born with the same amount of hope and joy as every other little baby in the world.”

Hollywood has had a long, complex history with regard to its portrayal of Chicago — and way before today’s gang issues, it’s very often been about the city’s infamous gangster side. Starting with 1931’s Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson as a not-so-subtle stand-in for the Chi’s Al Capone), it’s taken years for the city to transcend its image of a lawless town under siege by gunfights and political corruption.

There’s the beloved 1975 tearjerker Cooley High, the 1997 romantic poetry drama Love Jones and the Ice Cube-headlined 2002 box office hit Barbershop. “Black Chicago” has had an even more turbulent representation, particularly on the small screen.

The landmark ’70s CBS series Good Times is perhaps the most celebrated (and polarizing) television show about the Chicago black experience. Hailed as a game-changer during its initial run starting on Feb. 8, 1974, the groundbreaking Mike Evans-created series, developed by legendary television producer Norman Lear, took America inside Chicago’s poor Cabrini-Green housing projects.

There were struggles, but Florida and James Evans instilled family values and a strong moral code into their three children. But the controversial death of James, Good Times’ lone father figure, had critics crying foul. And it didn’t help when the catchphrase-wielding J.J. Evans — Dynomite!!! — was pushed front and center as the show’s reigning star.


The Chi is executive produced by both Waithe and rapper/actor Common, a fellow Chicago native. The 10 episodes are directed by Rick Famuyiwa of the film Dope, as well as behind-the-camera talent that includes Tanya Hamilton (Night Catches Us), Dave Rodriguez (TNT’s Animal Kingdom and USA’s Queen of the South) and Roxann Dawson (Netflix’s House of Cards, PBS’ Mercy and ABC’s Scandal).

This is not to say that The Chi doesn’t delve into hard-knock realities. There’s a distinct feel in its scripts and in the acting that you won’t find on such procedural dramas as the Dick Wolf-produced Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med — so vanilla, so pedestrian that they may as well have been set in Any City USA.

Showtime’s long-running Shameless (shot largely in Los Angeles) follows a dysfunctional yet tight-knit white family in the North Lawndale section of the South Side. And CBS’ formulaic “Chicago” sitcom Superior Donuts revels in the diversity of its black, white, Latino and Middle Eastern cast members. But it doesn’t aim for the idiosyncrasies of The Chi, filmed on the South Side, giving it a rich, textured feel, and the narrative is ignited by the murder of a promising young basketball player.

Frustrated law enforcement officers struggle for answers in a neighborhood weary and distrustful of cops. This is a city, in real life, that has been embroiled in a series of high-profile police brutality scandals. And everything about the series screams authentic all-caps CHICAGO, even down to the show’s sound, which included the homegrown genre of stepping music, as well as Chicago artists such as Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Chicago Children’s Choir, Sir Michael Rocks, and Noname. On The Chi, there is life, laughter and even hope.

For the Chicago-born Sylvia Jones, one of the scribes behind The Chi, working on the series has been a revelation. “This is Lena’s baby … her vision,” said the former local news producer at WGN and WLS. She quit her job in 2016 and flew out to Los Angeles to chase her dream of becoming a television writer. “Very often, shows about Chicago show people either tragically poor or affluent. But there’s not a whole lot in between on television, and that’s what most of us are in real life. … The Chi tries to show black people in all their complexities.”

Indeed, Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton) plays Brandon, a gifted, hungry chef with dreams of opening up his own restaurant with his ambitious girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone). There’s the aforementioned Coogie, Brandon’s half brother: a wild-haired, unabashedly quirky kid who rides past murals of Chicago’s adopted son President Barack Obama on a canary yellow bike while listening to Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got.” And Mwine as the drifter Ronnie, a troubled yet loving stepfather who also happens to be a police informant. Alex R. Hibbert (Moonlight) dives into the show-stealing role of Kevin, a charismatic tween who has a crush on a cute schoolmate. And Jacob Latimore is Emmett, an obsessive sneakerhead and girl-crazy playboy living with his mother. The all-too carefree young man is finally forced to face the sobering responsibilities of fatherhood.

It’s a stellar cast, rounded out by Chicago native and Oscar-winning rapper/actor Common and the criminally underrated Sonja Sohn (The Wire) as Brandon’s protective alcoholic mother. The Chi is a welcome nuanced television portrayal of Chicago’s black working class shown through a complex lens that sidesteps the usual one-dimensional stereotypes. And The Chi is not alone.


This fall, Comedy Central will debut the workplace comedy South Side. It’s set in and around a rent-to-own appliances and furniture business in Chicago’s notorious section of Englewood. It’s a risk-taking premise for sure: finding comedy in the heart of an infamous neighborhood that in past years has claimed Chicago’s highest murder rates. But according to Bashir Salahuddin, who came up with the idea for the series with his brother Sultan Salahuddin and former fellow Late Night With Jimmy Fallon writer Diallo Riddle, humanizing the community of Englewood is priority.

Many of the actors and workers on the set of South Side are actually from Chicago. And Salahuddin says he hopes to show another side of low-income communities like Englewood, which is experiencing a noticeable upswing. From January to October 2017 there were 130 fewer shootings, a 43 percent decrease. And, even as conversations about gentrification swirl, openings of both Starbucks and Whole Foods have injected a sense of economic optimism.

“A huge chunk of our show is actually shot in Englewood,” said Salahuddin, 41, from his Los Angeles home. Like The Chi’s Waithe, he was born and raised on the South Side. Salahuddin, who also stars as referee Keith Bang in the breakout Netflix wrestling comedy GLOW, recalls hearing hilarious stories from his boy who worked at a Rent-A-Center in Chicago. That’s when the idea hit. Salahuddin knew there was comedic gold in the lives of everyday, hardworking, blue-collar black folk.

“I remember being shocked the first time I saw Friday because all I knew about the West Coast was Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society,” he said. “So to see the same ’hood backdrop where those two movies took place in, but with a strong black family where the mother and father are together and working and they are staying on their son to better his life, those values portrayed in that environment … blew my mind. We want people to experience the same thing with South Side and say, ‘Oh, there are other kinds of things going on in Englewood, and some of it is really funny and thoughtful.’ ”

For Atlanta native Riddle, also 41, immersing himself in the idiosyncrasies of Chicago culture as well as the city’s notoriously segregated history was an eye-opening experience bigger than West Side vs. South Side, Harold’s Chicken Shack vs. Uncle Remus or Chicago Cubs vs. White Sox.

“When I meet a white person from Chicago, I’ll often say, ‘Man, this person can be from anywhere,’ ” Riddle said. “But a black person from Chicago feels a lot more specific. It’s a weird mix of Midwest and heavy South. Even when I would talk to Bashir’s family or listen to Chicago artists like Kanye [West], there are little things that were tapped into their way of speech and culture that you don’t see anywhere else. For us, this was unclaimed territory. We knew we needed to do a definitive show that jumped into that specific culture.”

“Often, shows about Chicago show people either tragically poor or affluent. But there’s not a whole lot of in-between on television. And that’s what most of us are in real life.”

The emergence of The Chi and South Side come at a time of exceptional growth for the Chicago entertainment industry. According to the Illinois Film Office, which awards a 30 percent tax credit to film, television and advertising productions, in 2016 alone projects generated an estimated $499 million in Illinois spending, a 51 percent increase over the previous year. From 2011 to 2015, $1.3 billion was injected into the cities’ economy, bringing in local jobs and a much-needed kick to hard-hit neighborhoods.

One of the eight major television series filmed full time in Chicago is Empire. “Chicago has such a great pool when it comes to local actors,” said Joshua Allen, a supervising producer on the Fox ratings-fixture and himself a Chicagoan. “People have slept on Chicago forever as a theater town, because when people think theater, they usually think of New York. But it has a huge, vibrant theater scene, so we have a lot of actors we can pull from.”

Both South Side and The Chi offer fresh, challenging takes on the home of the blues. Perhaps that’s why The Chi in particular resonates so profoundly, and South Side, even before its premiere, seems full of possibility. Lena Waithe, and the trio of Diallo Riddle and Bashir and Sultan Salahuddin, are creating work that tells their truth: the good, the bad and the absurd. There’s a newfound black power and freedom that jumps off the screen — as on such other uncompromising shows as Donald Glover’s surreal Atlanta (FX), which returns in March, and Issa Rae’s fearless Insecure.

“There are millions of TV shows, so we have to stand out,” Salahuddin said. “Why do all this stuff and then not show people something authentic?” Indeed.

Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

Kendrick Lamar makes history at CFP National Championship The decorated rapper’s involvement was a long time coming with ESPN

ATLANTA — “Humble yourself.”

Those were the words that Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy shouted at Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield a week before the Bulldogs fell in a 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night. The Bulldogs learned that lesson the hard way, regarding the College Football Playoff National Championship.

“Sit down. Be humble.”

Those were the words Kendrick Lamar rapped in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000 who braved the cold weather at Centennial Park, at halftime of said football game. No one sat down, but they learned their lesson in the best way possible.

It wasn’t just that it also happened to be televised to millions across the nation, solidifying Lamar’s place as the most marketable pop artist in America in 2018. It wasn’t just that one of his hit songs that won six MTV Video Music Awards last year had the entire crowd moving in unison in near-freezing temperatures.

It wasn’t just that it preceded his set finale, “All the Stars,” a collaboration with his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate SZA off the soundtrack for Marvel’s Black Panther, a project produced and curated by Lamar and his TDE squad that is set for release on Feb. 16. (The latest Black Panther trailer aired right after his performance.) It wasn’t just that it happened on the day that the president of the United States made an on-field appearance and clearly did not know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” before leaving the game at halftime.

It was that during the most important game of the year, in a sport largely controlled by white men, while young black men risk life and limb for no pay, a rapper from Compton, California, who often tells tales of revolution and resistance, was tapped to entertain the nation, and it all made sense. While Georgia and Alabama, two states with no shortage of history in the antebellum South and steeped in football tradition, battled it out on the field, a West Coaster dressed in a parka was easily the star of the show.

“It went very, very well,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “As we had hoped, we had the best of both worlds: the traditional halftime show by those two great marching bands plus a world-class performance by Kendrick Lamar. The visuals were tremendous, and it was obvious that the folks in the park were having a terrific time.”

Perhaps most bizarrely, few people ever really blinked. If you wanted to, you could have drawn a straight line from Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “controversial” Super Bowl performance in 2004 to Monday night. It was an event that drastically changed not just the way that halftime shows were programmed but also how the broadcast industry made its rules. Jackson took all the heat in that scenario. Now, Timberlake’s got a new album out in which he’s apparently embracing his “roots,” a far cry from his days as the funky white boy and, shocker, he’ll be performing the next Super Bowl halftime show in February.

You could think about where this country has come since then. President Barack Obama. Police brutality and the murders of unarmed black people becoming what felt like nightly appearances on the national news. A non-insignificant resurfacing of a movement to compensate college athletes for their work. A Beyoncé Super Bowl halftime show that many people took offense to, as an ode to the Black Panther Party. A massive “recorrect” by America in electing a reality show star to the White House. None of us had any reason to believe that King Kenny, or anyone like him, would grace a stage like this, in this setting, in the near future. Except for the people who made it happen.

Speaking with two ESPN senior officials who organized the event, this wasn’t some random pick out of the sky. Three years ago, they wanted to increase ratings at halftime for the CFP because they noticed that it’s the highest-rated period at the Super Bowl but was the lowest for CFP. And they wanted more casual fans to expand the brand and just be as relevant as possible, not simply cash in huge on the regionality of the game’s followers.

That’s where their relationship with Interscope Records comes into play. Imagine Dragons did a special remix. Lauren Alaina, a country artist, was in the mix. Videos with X Ambassadors. This season, they hit it big with 30 Seconds to Mars. You know the song well. Alabama did win this fight tonight.

As for Lamar, his love for the Los Angeles Lakers really helped out early on. TDE is an imprint of Interscope, of course. You might recall Lamar’s ode “Kobe Bryant: Fade to Black.” He’s a huge Kobe fan, something we’ve seen proved over time. Last year, “Humble” dropped, the NBA playoffs started, he did voice work for promos and it all worked out.

Mind you, when it was time to make choices for the halftime show, Interscope’s line is vicious. Maroon 5 is on their roster. This was no easy choice. But once they knew Lamar was involved with Black Panther, it was a wrap. It had to happen.

“We know music is probably the second-biggest passion that college football fans have,” said ESPN vice president of sports marketing Emeka Ofodile. “Let’s build a music strategy, let’s go deep with a label and let’s try to create moments.”

The goal was to create a cultural moment, be it controversial or not. To get past the regional histories of college football, they needed to go big. Lamar was a no-brainer, controversy be damned. They can’t control what people think about the president. Or what he chooses to do. It didn’t change their mission. They wanted it to be different. They didn’t want to just recreate a Super Bowl experience. They wanted real fans of both football and Lamar to be there. And that they were. The cheers for the game (being shown on the big screens at the park) leading up to halftime were as healthy as anything I’d heard all day.

Their overall goal? To make it the hottest stage in the game. They’re off to a great start.

As for the larger picture, it’s still kind of hard to believe it happened. They might let us have a hit show or two on cable. A few of us will break through. But they’ll still call us names. Yet rarely do we get to infiltrate the oldest practices in the book. To see it go down on a such a grand stage is a real testament to who Lamar has grown to become. It’s easy to call Lamar transcendent. But, like so many others who grew out of their original solitary genres as artists to become megastars, he’s in fact black as hell.

On the night in which he could have made a scene and directed the ire of so many fans of his in the direction of the commander-in-chief, or made an obvious political statement with everyone watching, he didn’t. Because he didn’t have to. His existence in that space alone was enough of a statement, and just being himself was plenty. He didn’t have to allow himself to be defined by the moment — he defined it himself. Which is what he does and is exactly why even when the leader of the free world is right next door, Lamar comes out on top.

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.

In Memphis, the changing legacies of Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr. The city loved the singer but struggled for years to honor the man who was killed at the Lorraine Motel

I didn’t know the two white men. And if they knew of me, it was only because I was the newest black reporter at the morning newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, the city where Elvis Presley grew up and Martin Luther King Jr. died.

“Well,” one of the men said as I entered the men’s room, “if they are going to have a national holiday for him [Martin Luther King Jr.], they should have one for Elvis too.” The men looked stricken when I entered the room, as if hearing their conversation would cause me to judge them, the newspaper, the South …

I looked away.

I didn’t want to seem to judge or scorn them with my eyes. Besides, even as a struggling young reporter, I’d learned to look for meaning in people’s speech that went beyond the words they spoke. And in the man’s tone, I’d heard a reverence for the supposed “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and not disdain for the slain civil rights leader who’d been assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

For many outside of Memphis, Elvis was the ultimate appropriator of black culture: a continuation of the white King of Jazz (Paul Whiteman) and the white King of Swing (Benny Goodman), a forerunner of the supposed white kings of rap (Eminem and Vanilla Ice), pretenders whose claims to their respective thrones melted into pools of absurdity.

But during his rise to stardom in the 1950s, Elvis had been a majestic talent: an electrifying singer and performer. In his 1960s movies, which were usually formulaic showcases for his talents, Elvis exemplified a boy’s idea of a cool man. He drove fast cars, he chased pretty women and he knocked bad guys out with deft blows. And he was beautiful, just as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles were. Like them, Elvis’ voice and life straddled Saturday night and Sunday morning, the secular and divine.

More important to many in Memphis, Elvis, a native of Mississippi, was a Southern man who’d come home again and stayed there. His generosity among the locals was legendary. People proudly wore the jewelry he’d given them. They drove the Cadillacs he’d given them too.

On Sundays, Memphis radio stations played Elvis’ gospel music, for which he won his only three Grammys. He’d died in 1977. He was just 42, and in the early 1980s in Memphis, many were still trying to come to grips with his death.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, Memphis had come to grips with Martin’s death in one place in a disdainful way: at the Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader had stayed before his assassination. Martin’s room was marked by a few pastel ribbons and little else. I continue to be haunted by the mournful breeze I saw stirring the fraying ribbons.

I’d gone to the sagging motel to interview Margaret Walker, who regaled me with stories about the racism and the sexism she’d had to overcome to produce poems such as For My People.

Walker was staying in a room just a few doors down from where Martin had stayed in the hours before an assassin’s bullet claimed his life on April 4, 1968. When I walked by Martin’s last room, I saw a black woman sitting on the bed in another motel room a few feet away. A white man was putting on his suit or taking it off. This was in the middle of the day.

A lot has changed since then. Since 1991, the former Lorraine Motel is a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. In the early 1980s, Memphis largely neglected Beale Street and its blues heritage. Today, Memphis and a revitalized Beale Street celebrate the blues.

Furthermore, Memphis has had black mayors. Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, have too, circumstances that would not have been possible without the crusade that Martin led.

Indeed, the powerhouse football programs at Alabama and Georgia, which will be on display in the national championship game Monday night in Atlanta, wouldn’t be possible without the modern civil rights movement either. So many of the teams’ key players are black. Neither football program was integrated before 1971.

Today, people all around the world will mark what would have been Elvis’ 83rd birthday. They will sing his greatest hits. They will watch his movies. And those who knew him will tell stories about what made the man special.

Next Monday, Martin will be remembered too. He led a movement for equality, justice and peace that didn’t start with him and won’t end with us. In the darkest hour, Martin said, light a candle. When what he called the mountain of despair loomed highest, he said, pluck a stone of hope from that mountain.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a measure making the third Monday in the year a federal holiday. The holiday began to be observed three years later. And this year, the national King observance falls on what would have been Martin’s 89th birthday.

In some ways, the ritualized ways we remember Martin, including the replays of his most famous speeches and sermons, his greatest hits, have become a kind of forgetting, not of Martin but of our shared responsibility to help make America a better country and the world a better place.

So it won’t be what any one of us does next Monday, but it will be what we can come together to do next Tuesday and beyond that will honor Martin. During his life, he was an American and world leader. He challenged his country to live up to its highest ideals.

And his words, deeds and example challenge each of us, now and always, to find ways to further that noble cause.

‘Atlanta,’ the weirdest, blackest show on TV, finally gets a return date Television Critics diary: The second installment, called ‘Robbin’ Season,’ was inspired by Tiny Toons

PASADENA, California — The weirdest, blackest show on television is finally coming back for its second season March 1 with 11 new episodes.

And in true, wonderful Atlanta form, nothing is quite what it appears to be on the surface. At least, that’s what it sounds like. None of us here at the Television Critics Association press tour can be quite sure because we haven’t actually seen season two yet. We’ve just heard creator Donald Glover and the cast, along with director Hiro Murai, talk about it.

From what Glover would tell us at Friday’s panel discussion, it sounds as if Atlanta may end up being something like a limited series, but reusing the same characters each year. This season is called Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, referring to the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when folks, regardless of whether they’ve got much money or not, will buy the nicest gifts they can afford. And then, if they live in the trap, they’ll get jacked. Hence the name.

“We didn’t want to come at the second season in terms of how do we beat last season, rather how do we make this another season of a show I want to watch,” Glover said.

Robbin’ Season is centered on themes of economic and social mobility and what happens when you’re suddenly able to leave the trap.

Brian Tyree Henry and Zazie Beetz

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

“You can’t be famous and be a drug dealer,” explained Brian Tyree Henry, who plays rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles.

It’s a common theme in the lives of America’s most visible rich black celebrities (rappers and ballers), which is why it comes up in shows such as Survivor’s Remorse, which was also set in Atlanta, or tons of songs. (See: Jones, Mike, for what has to be the most concise summation of this change: Back then hoes didn’t want me/Now I’m hot they all on me.)

Donald Glover and his brother, Stephen, who is a writer on the show, said the second installation of Atlanta was inspired by Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation. Several writers tried to ask for hints about the plot, and the Glovers giggled as they steered the conversation back to Tiny Toons. The room at TCA is mostly (but not exclusively) white, and I think they got a kick out of screwing with white people knowing there would be no negative consequences for it. (I mean, really, how often do any of us get to do that?) Basically, they said, all the separate bits of the 1992 Warner Bros. video are great and can be consumed on their own but work even better as a whole.

The Glovers did talk honestly about what it’s like to suddenly discover that you’re successful and famous. So did Zazie Beetz, the actress who plays Van and is also starring as Domino in the Deadpool sequel. She can’t go to AfroPunk without getting mobbed, she said. Henry realized the same when he tried to go to Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta on a whim.

“Nope! Can’t do that s— anymore,” Henry said.

Hiro Murai, Stephen Glover, Paul Simms, Brian Tyree Henry and Zazie Beetz

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Donald Glover said the specificity of those discoveries opened his eyes to just how much black identity is tied to lack of resources. Paper Boi’s journey this season is influenced by the one in his and Beetz’s and Henry’s lives because they’re honestly trying to figure it out themselves. After all, Glover had a hit album in Awaken, My Love! and had to postpone work on Atlanta’s second season to play Lando Calrissian in the new Star Wars franchise. The Atlanta crew is using the show to work through their own stuff.

It’s not all serious, though. The other side of being famous is that people give you cool stuff for free, and Henry walked out in a notable pair of sneakers. His right shoe read “BREATHE” and the left read “WALK.” Mostly, Henry said, he was wearing them because they were free, but also because he has a habit of looking down when he walks instead of straight ahead. They’re a reminder to himself to be comfortable with who he is.

Kamara for the culture He grew up with the Migos, wears nose rings and a grill in games and is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year — but who really is Alvin Kamara?

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.


NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.

Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”

A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.

Instagram Photo

Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.

“I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”

Instagram Photo

True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.

No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.

Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.

“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”


The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.

“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”

Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”

But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”

Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff.

It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.

It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”


“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”

At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”

Alvin Kamara runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL combine.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”

Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?

“He didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. One thing led to another and he ended up saying at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”


Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.

“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy.He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”

Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara jumps over Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.

“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.

Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”

Alvin Kamara (right) and Mark Ingram talk during a game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”

He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.


It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.

It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”

Alvin Kamara celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”

“All he had to do is play ball. Be young. Bring the swag. And do his thing.”

Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.

So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.

“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.

“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”

A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”

New year and new kidney a miracle for Atlanta tot Mother said hospital gambled with son’s life by postponing transplant surgery after dad’s arrest

For one Atlanta-area toddler and his family, “Happy New Year” is an understatement.

Two-year-old A.J. Burgess spent a quiet, but spirited, Christmas Day with his mother, Carmellia Burgess, and sisters Zi’Yonna, 7, Za’Karreah, 5, and Kimora, 1, at their home in Snellville, Georgia. In the midst of opening presents and enjoying a holiday dinner, they reflected on his Thanksgiving miracle turned Christmas gift of life.

“It [was] his first Christmas with a kidney,” said Burgess of her son, who maintained his wide smile and sunny disposition even amid the worst of his health challenges. “We’ve wanted that so long, there really isn’t anything else to ask for.”

“Baby A.J.” was born prematurely without working kidneys, kicking off a prolonged medical crisis that would include countless hospital stays and, eventually, nightly dialysis treatments to survive. His father, Anthony Dickerson, was found to be a perfect match and volunteered to donate his left kidney. But Emory University Hospital canceled the transplant surgery, which had been scheduled for Oct. 3, after Dickerson was arrested for allegedly violating his parole by possessing a firearm while fleeing police.

Family attorney Mawuli Davis said Emory Hospital officials had written jail officials asking that Dickerson be released on bond. But he said they stopped proceeding on the day of the surgery, “stating that they delayed the transplant to January 2018, because they would require proof from [Dickerson’s] parole officer that he had complied with parole for three months.”

Hospital officials later said in a statement that they needed to be sure Dickerson would adhere to the strict aftercare requirements for living donors. But Burgess said A.J. might not have made it that long.

“I don’t understand what his dad getting arrested had to do with giving my son the kidney he needed to live,” she said. “There was a kidney right there, and [the hospital was] giving us the runaround. I felt like they were just gambling with my son’s life.”

Members of the community, religious and civic leaders and some Emory University theology students responded to the hospital’s decision by picketing and hosting prayer vigils.

“Emory’s denial of Baby A.J.’s kidney transplant was not only cruel and inhumane, but it was unethical and [contrary] to the very reason the hospital exists: You do no harm and render aid to the sick. This baby’s life hung in the balance while this institution marched in place,” said Derrick Boazman, an Atlanta talk radio host and community activist who led protests and joined in meetings with hospital administrators on Baby A.J.’s behalf.

As the outcry for Baby A.J.’s surgery to move forward mounted, Davis, fellow family attorney Harold Spence and community activists met with hospital administrators, hoping to inspire a change of heart.

Their prayers were answered the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — but not how they expected. Burgess said Emory Healthcare called around 8:30 p.m. to say that a deceased organ donor was a match for little A.J. The family rushed to the hospital to complete blood work and to get him prepped for surgery.

“I was in shock about this unbelievable blessing,” recalled Burgess. “I was so excited I could not think straight. I was putting dirty clothes in my bag. I didn’t put any outfits together. My mom ended up packing his bag for me. It was just crazy.”

The successful nearly three-hour surgery took place on Thanksgiving Eve, and the next day the family celebrated the holiday, and his new kidney, together at the hospital.

Davis said A.J.’s victory was also a win for the community.

“To know that Baby A.J. has been given the gift of life gives us hope as a community as 2017 comes to an end,” said Davis. “So many people stood up for him and his family, so many prayers were answered. It renews your faith in humanity.”

Burgess said A.J. has been doing great overall and the kidney has been functioning well. He has been battling some bladder pain that they hope won’t have to be addressed with surgery. She said that hasn’t stopped A.J. from smiling and being the fun-loving kid he’s always been. He’s also been enjoying “potty training” for the first time.

“All of Atlanta can be grateful that A.J. was the successful recipient of a kidney transplant,” Emory University Hospital spokeswoman Holly Korschun said in a statement. “Over the past few weeks, many in our community have rallied to A.J.’s cause. His parents were passionate and courageous advocates, and they showed all of us the true meaning of unconditional love.”

Burgess said she’s all out of wishes for a while, especially since filmmaker Tyler Perry heard that the vehicle she’d used to transport her children had been totaled in a crash and he replaced it with a new Honda Pilot SUV. She’d picked it up from the dealership just hours before the kidney donor call came in.

A.J. and his family have a lot to look forward to in 2018, including a meet-and-greet to “thank the community” planned for next month, which will also double as a third birthday celebration for A.J.

Burgess said she’s still processing her son’s whirlwind experience. “Somebody died so my son could live,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe how I feel — just blessed.”