For Wynton Marsalis, forgetting the roots of jazz is forgetting the history of race in America The legend explains again why he dislikes hip-hop, and jazz’s identity problem

My former employer, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), invited me to moderate a panel discussion on jazz and race at its first Jazz Congress conference in New York this week.

Wynton Marsalis is the artistic and managing director for JALC. I’ve known him for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him for six years. From time to time, we’ve been able to steal a moment here or there to chat about things, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to have an extended dialogue, so I used this opportunity to sit down with him and have an in-depth discussion about the topic at hand: jazz and race.


JALC is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Marsalis is showing no signs of slowing down. He has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind on the record as well as on issues of race. He won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, which deals with slavery, and the content from his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is self-explanatory.

When asked about the impetus for the panel discussion on jazz and race, he replied, “Because race, race relations, racial tensions, racial harmony and questions of freedom are all tied up with the identity of jazz from its birth.”

Jazz music and Marsalis were both born in New Orleans. Dolores Marsalis gave birth to Marsalis at Flint Goodridge Hospital, and the mythic birthplace of jazz was Congo Square, an open space in the Tremé neighborhood.

When he talks about the origin of jazz, Marsalis is quick to point out the dangers of falling prey to a false binary choice.

“First off, the amalgam of elements in Afro-American music and in jazz come from different forms of European music, like the march form and the combination of a fiddle style or a European parlor piano style, which, when combined with the arpeggiated sound of a banjo and syncopation, becomes ragtime.

“The fact that the slaves could play the drums in New Orleans at Congo Square when they weren’t permitted to in other parts of the South allowed the drums to become the centerpiece of the style. Now the drums, while rooted in Africa, is Afro-American, which is American. To be Afro-American is also to be part Anglo-American. That is at the root of many of the problems related to race in America. It’s hard for us to come to grips with that notion. We have been conditioned into making a false binary choice, an either/or, when life isn’t that cut and dried. Oftentimes it’s both/and. But it’s hard for us to reconcile that both/and when we are so used to having to choose sides.”

Marsalis considers jazz to be America’s gift to the rest of the world and a perfect metaphor for democracy. Which is ironic because it is an art form forged in a foundry by founders who were not free.

“Now in terms of freedom, I think the way that the original jazz musician viewed freedom was extremely acute. It’s like the way a person who hasn’t eaten for days views food as opposed to someone who has a refrigerator full of food, like the way that people who were denied the right to vote, the way that they went out and voted when they finally got the right to vote as opposed to people who already had the right to vote and took it for granted.”

From the early 1900s until the 1950s, there was a very strong dance element to jazz music that began to fade. Marsalis believes that this is one of the contributing factors to the eventual decline in the popularity of jazz, which is now very much a niche music. In 2014, jazz only accounted for 1.4 percent of U.S. music consumption.

“We don’t have a national dance tradition that is intergenerational. Many South American countries have a national dance like samba or tango that is intergenerational that everyone can do that has some type of sexual content that is not pornographic. In a culture, there has to be a way that dance can express a fertility in the intermingling of the sexes that is not pornography. The only dance that we can think of like that in America is the Electric Slide at weddings. We had to find something, because you know you can’t be grabbing on grandma.”

“We need something that is going to engender a mutual respect as opposed to the trash that we give our young people today.”

One of the most devastating impacts on our culture in general, and niche music genres like jazz in particular, is the commodification of music, Marsalis says.

“At some point, people were trying to figure out how to sell music. In music, like anything else, when your primary goal is to sell, then you are going to focus on and highlight aspects that are most marketable, and many of those have nothing to do with music, like someone’s looks, their charisma or some type of tribal association. For instance, country music now is being equated with the military and with being white. That has nothing to do with the birth and origins of that music. Hip-hop is equated with some of the most pathological aspects of being black, and from the music has blossomed a culture of materialism and barbershop-level political discourse. It has also been used to reconnect with the minstrel tradition, with the ’hood replacing the plantation.

“The originators of that form were just creating something with what they had. Their creation was co-opted to tell an old tale. ‘Black people ain’t s—, especially men.’ Then, resources and support came pouring in from all corners of the country because that’s a comfortable story. Black and white people playing together and coming up with something creative, virtuosic, socially aware and elevatory is considered subversive. That’s why it’s so rare to see in the actual public space like on television.”

All of this conspires to create those false binary choices that force us to choose sides. In discussing how polarized we’ve become as a country, we both harkened back to one of our favorite quotes about American and Afro-American identity from Harold Cruse in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership:

Said Marsalis: “… without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that American whites, as a whole, are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negroes. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.”

America is a very young country when we compare ourselves to other countries and cultures, and as such it would stand to reason that our cultural identity is in limbo and still in the process of formation.

Marsalis sees jazz as part of the solution for a shared cultural mythology between blacks and whites as Americans that could help move the needle on race relations. The problem is that both blacks and whites aren’t willing to allow jazz to be placed in its rightful place on the cultural landscape of American greatness.

Interestingly, that cultural mythology already exists in other parts of the world. Jazz has been and continues to be celebrated abroad as a uniquely American art form while at the same time being understood to be Afro-American.

Marsalis explained: “In the places abroad, mainly European countries, they have a tradition of listening, especially to long-form music. They have a concert tradition where music is removed from dance, which suited jazz once the communal dance element stopped being a part of the music like it was from the early 1900s to about 1950.

“They accepted it because it was Western art, they could accept an African-European combination, the Americanism, the optimism in the music. There was also a level of one-upmanship by the Europeans who were saying that America was supposed to be this bastion of freedom, but look how you dog these black musicians and we accept them over here. So in that way it was symbiotic, because the jazz musicians liked to say it and the people in those countries liked to say it.

“The population at that time [1940s-’60s] in those countries did not have the same type of pressure to denigrate people who were not like them, especially people with brown skin. There was less pressure to do that. Of course now there is much more pressure because their brown populations are larger. Also, it didn’t drive Europeans crazy that a black dude was with a white lady. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t go crazy over it, where in America you could get killed over it at that time. A false construct like race which has been used to lord power over the designated group must be protected with punishment and violence. Because if not, people will realize it’s all some bulls—.”

When asked what are the barriers to jazz becoming the catalyst for a shared cultural identity that could help advance the national conversation on race, Marsalis responded, “Jazz is not really in the contemporary conversation on race in any meaningful way because it is the one form of entertainment that was integrated first. So if you’re looking to sell something and you’re looking for the kind of titillating thing that’s on one side or the other, you need people cursing and acting a fool.

“Jazz is too rational. It has a history of maturity and of confronting different issues from different perspectives.”

Another reason is because jazz suffers from an identity problem of its own. Every musical genre is defined by a rhythm. There is no consensus among the jazz community as to what if any rhythm defines jazz.

Marsalis has been on a crusade for the past 30-plus years to promote swing as the foundational rhythm of jazz.

“Swing is the rhythmic identity of the music. Musical genres are defined by rhythm and the swing pattern is the foundational identity of jazz.

“Aside from the technical aspects of swing, there are elements to it that when done a certain way can bring about something that is fundamental to resolving differences.

“It’s about opposites coming together. The bass has to be at a certain volume, it has to be soft to make the drums play softer. The loudest instrument has to play with the softest instrument. Jazz is a music that depends on a balance and an intimacy because it is a music of conversation and dialogue.

“The mobility of the bass allows you to have conversations that are ongoing. Once the bass becomes immobile, meaning playing the same pattern over and over again, the music can still be great, but it regulates the way you are going to speak in that conversation.”

When asked why there is so much rancor over something seemingly so trivial, Marsalis said, “… because swing is equated with the American Negro, and nothing objective that comes from the American Negro is being studied with any level of seriousness by any significant numbers of whites or blacks in this country.”

Over the years, there have been some collateral damage in the black community over some of Marsalis’ musings about jazz and his promotion of swing.

I asked Marsalis questions that many black folks ask me when they find out that I worked with him.

Does Marsalis really think less of other forms of black music like rhythm and blues? Does he think there is some type of hierarchy?

Does Marsalis still hate hip-hop?

In response to the first question, Marsalis said:

“It is hierarchical. Let’s be clear, there are hierarchies in everything that exists. Like a family, like a classroom has a teacher, a basketball team has a point guard. Hierarchy doesn’t mean that one thing is necessarily better than another. It just means that there is a relationship of how things relate to one another.

“Those other forms of music came out of jazz. Any form of music with a bass and a drum can draw a line back to jazz. The difference is, like I said before, when the bass becomes immobile the conversation and dialogue become constrained.

“But where we find ourselves now, it really doesn’t even make sense to talk about hierarchies because we have slid so far from where we once were as a culture. It’s like food companies are trying to figure how much food can I take out of this food and still be able to sell it as food.”

In response to the hip-hop question, Marsalis smiled wryly and said, “The results of its 40-year reign are clear. You can draw your own conclusion.

“I’ve said to people over and over again that it is the minstrel show of our time, and nothing that I have seen in this time period has dissuaded me from that point of view — listening to it, having kids that like it, reading books about it, checking out the lyrics. Nothing has dissuaded me from that as a generalization.

“Are there people with a tremendous amount of creativity? Yes. Human beings are creative in whatever they do. If you read that manual that was published during slavery times about how they kept slaves in order, that was creative.”

(Something struck a chord, so he stood up and began to gesticulate as he continued.)

“Look at where we are. Look at how the language has changed. Look at male-female dance and relationships. Look at our young people. I’m not opposed to hip-hop. I just don’t think that it should be mainstream. When the default position is that a black person is a n—– and a woman is a b—–, then how can you side with that?”

He began to calm down, sat down next to me and said to me in a hushed, almost defeated tone.

“I don’t really argue about it anymore. I spent my 20s and 30s arguing about this, but then it dawned on me that people want this, and now 40 years later the results are clear.

“So the people have spoken.”

As we wrapped up, I referred Marsalis to the article that The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan being inspired by Marsalis’ book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

I asked him to explain how the fundamental aspects of jazz could be helpful to people in their everyday lives the same way that it was beneficial to Donovan.

“Jazz can help us all understand how to better manage our space in relation to other people’s space. The three fundamental aspects of jazz are:

“Improvisation: I am. Identifying who you are and bringing your unique self and personality to the table.

“Swing: It’s the opposite of that. Other people have personalities too. Other people need space too. With the same intensity of how you found yourself, find them. Find that common ground and nurture it. In jazz, it’s the opposites. The bass is way down at the bottom and the cymbals are way at the top, and they have to play on every beat together.

“The blues: Stuff doesn’t work out sometimes.”

At that I ended with my final question: “As you know, in the blues form, there’s a turnaround. It’s the place in the music for me when you can palpably feel the hope in the music. For many, Obama represented the ultimate turnaround for black people. It feels now like we’ve gone back to the top of the form.

“Where do you see the next turnaround coming?”

He smiled at me and said, “I don’t see it coming, but I believe in it. I believe in it because, because I believe that your belief creates it and if enough people believe, you all can create it together, and that’s the essence of democratic action. We’ve seen it time and time again in different ways.”

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.

The Compound is compounding culture A spot where art, hip-hop and the NBA collide

Hip-hop has always been a culture of many melding ingredients — The Lyricist, The DJ, The B-Boy and The Graffiti Artist — all pieces of a movement created in the ’70s. And as much as the culture has changed, so have its components. They have grown and blossomed and blurred the lines with many other genres.

Enter DJ Set Free, the Bronx, New York-born, Queens, New York- and Philly-raised DJ who was signed to the infamous Tommy Boy Records in 1997 as a member of a group named Deadly Snakes. He was also one of the label’s beat makers. One short year later, he was working for AND1 as its director of entertainment marketing. One day while watching a VHS tape of Rafer Alston playing at Rucker Park, he turned down the sound as he normally did and started mixing some records when he suddenly had an epiphany. Later that year, The And1 Mixtape Vol. 1. was released.

A copy of the And 1 mixtape series next to Jarrett Jack of the New York Knicks and DJ Set Free at The Compound.
Credit: David “Dee” Delgado

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

The groundbreaking streetball series mixing hip-hop with ostentatious displays of skill became the blueprint for future NBA players such as Jarrett Jack, Iman Shumpert, Kevin Durant and countless others. Jack remembers pooling his money with a friend to buy one of the Volumes and watching it every day after school and practicing and mimicking the moves he saw on the VHS tape. After working on six of the 10 volumes and inspiring a generation of future basketball players, the marketing executive moved on to his next creation, The Compound, a studio, incubator and creative space for his marketing firm, The Oval Co.

An overall view of the inside of The Compound

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of “compound” is to put together (parts) so as to form a whole: Combine compound ingredients. In 2007, when Free was consulting and collaborating with companies such as EA Sports, Universal Records and Nike’s LeBron 5 and 6 sneakers, he starting calling his music studio The Compound. He also started to incorporate action figures, art and video games into his work — the methodology was to build a playground for creativity across multiple artistic genres. “Music studios are boring, nothing stimulating to look at, just plain walls, soundboards and big equipment. In photography studios, all you have are lights and white backgrounds. Why not have a place that intrigues and stimulates with art, visuals, and sounds?” he said.

Instagram Photo

The Compound was originally located in Southwest Philadelphia, but three years later, Free and his wife Liza decided that a relocation to New York was the best choice for their growing endeavor. They choose the South Bronx as The Compound’s new home. Free believed it was symbolic to bring his studio and his interpretation of the genre’s evolution and growth to the birthplace of hip-hop. Walking into The Compound is like a Hypebeast’s dream come true: a wall full of Kaws toys, along with the KAWS x Air Jordan 4 sneakers, basketball jerseys signed by Allen Iverson, Shumpert, John Starks and an Akai MPC 3000 production center signed by The Alchemist, 88-Keys, Prince Paul, DJ Green Lantern and others, are just a few of the gems you see at first glance.

An Akai MPC 3000 signed by some of the best DJs in the industry.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

One of the oldest sayings in hip-hop is that “rappers want to be ballers and ballers want to be rappers.” Ask Free his most memorable memory in The Compound and he’ll say, “Hands down, it was one night when Brooklyn rapper Sandman, Yasiin Bey [Mos Def] and Iman Shumpert and me were just hanging out. I was playing with some beats and a cypher broke out. First Sandman went in the booth and dropped a hot verse. Not to be outdone, Yasiin Bey went next and set fire to the mic. Next then went Shumpert, and no one expected much, and he proved everyone wrong. He went on to hold his own with two veteran lyricists and earn their respect on the mic.”

When asked about his next big thing, Free just grinned and said that 2018 is the 20th anniversary of the AND1 mixtapes and something game-changing is in the works.

Jim Jones in the recording booth at The Compound.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

DJ Set Free with Jarrett Jack of the New York Knicks at The Compound going through some of the footage from the And 1 series.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Skate board decks by Supreme, Kith, Wu-tang and other labels. Medicom Toy Kubric Beatles “Can’t Buy Me Love” 1000% set with the Pharrell Williams x Adidas Tennis sneakers.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Jim Jones looks does his customary pull ups at The Compound.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Instagram Photo

Iman Shumpert autographed jersey dedicated to The Compound.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

DJ Set Free with Jarrett Jack of the New York Knicks talking about the And 1 Mixtape series.
Credit: David “Dee” Delgado

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

A wall dedicated to the And1 mix-tape series that DJ Set Free created.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

 

Scottie Pippen likes Superman, ‘Sanford and Son’ — and says he could have been a receiver, no problem The basketball icon is guest-starring on Damon Wayans’ ‘Lethal Weapon’

Scottie Pippen is coming back — to a small screen near you. Only for a night, and not on a court. But, as he was when he was on his way to winning six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, Pippen is showing up as a lethal weapon.

Pippen is portraying himself on Fox’s Lethal Weapon series, which, like the film versions, is a buddy cop extravaganza. The show, in its second season, stars Damon Wayans, and, not to give too much away, Pippen comes between Wayans’ Roger and his wife, Trish, played by Keesha Sharp. But are his acting skills as sharp as his defensive skills were during his 17-year career as one of the most influential athletes of all time? He’d rather you be the referee on that one.

You’ve done this before, portraying yourself on a popular television show. Is it more pressure-filled stepping onto a soundstage or onto a basketball court?

It’s different. I’m not as comfortable in the acting field as I am on the basketball court. But this was a situation where I felt very comfortable because I knew I was working with people who are very established in the business.

What is your favorite throwback TV show?

Sanford and Son.

What is the last TV show that you binged?

I’m not really big on a lot of shows. I’m more of a sports guy … I watch more sports than anything. But I guess I watched a little bit of Empire. That counts.

Who’s your favorite athlete of all time?

That’s a tough question right there. As a kid, I enjoyed watching Dr. J — Julius Erving. He was probably one of my favorite athletes of all time. … He inspired me to want to play in the NBA.

“As a kid, I enjoyed watching Dr. J — Julius Erving. He was one of my favorite athletes of all time. … He inspired me to want to play in the NBA.”

Do you have a favorite athlete that’s currently playing right now?

I don’t really have a favorite player, other than my kids. I enjoy the game of basketball. I like watching all of the players play.

Is there another sport you think you would have excelled in?

Probably football. Receiver. I’m a big dude. My height is a strength. I think I would have been pretty good, based on my height and my speed.

What would you tell your 15-year-old self, knowing everything that you know now?

Work hard.

Were you working hard at 15?

When I was 15, I really didn’t get the game. I was a kid that enjoyed playing when time permitted. I wasn’t like kids are today. They’re more into developing at an early age.

What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received from someone?

To believe in myself. And to not give up. That’s advice I got from my high school coach.

What is something that you learned playing basketball that you still carry with you to this day?

Just working out. Just being healthy and realizing that it’s not just about you playing sports and doing it for your crowd. It’s good to have a healthy life.

If you had a theme song, what would it be and why?

“I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly. I just like the song. It also came out early in my career … those times. It was a song for Space Jam and about Michael Jordan. … It was definitely a great song from the movie.

What kind of basketball fan are you?

I just watched a game and enjoy it now! I’m not a crazy fan. I just watch it for entertainment. I’m not gonna beat up my team … I’m still a Chicago Bulls fan. I’ve been employed by them, so I think they’ll always be my favorite.

Who’s your favorite superhero?

Superman. Everybody’s favorite hero!

Do you remember the first concert you ever went to?

I vaguely remember … I don’t even remember who was even performing. My classmates threw a little outdoor concert. But I don’t remember even who performed.

What about the last concert you went to?

I think it was Kanye.

What are you looking forward to in 2018?

Just being healthy, and happiness. I’m not going to try to do anything bigger than that. Just staying healthy and getting through life.

What will you always be a champion of?

People look at my career and they will know what I’m a champion of! That’s already been marked.

Paramount comes to the rescue with Taraji P. Henson movie explaining ‘What Men Want’ With men in charge of, uh, almost everything, it’s really, really hard to know what they’re thinking

You know, I want to be part of the solution and not the problem, and so I’m publicly announcing my commitment to doing a better job of amplifying men’s voices. Because, according to Paramount, we must be living in a matriarchy in which men’s inner thoughts, desires, and insights are a huge mystery. And that’s just not fair.

According to a report this week in entertainment industry publication Deadline, Paramount is remaking the 2000 Mel Gibson film What Women Want with Taraji P. Henson playing Gibson’s role. In The Before Time, when girls did not run the world, Gibson starred in this movie as Nick Marshall, an arrogant, womanizing man’s man of an ad executive who only sees women as potential sexual conquests, ego fluffers or maids. He never bothers to consider women as people with their own thoughts and lives that have nothing to do with him until a bit of magic gives him the ability to hear all those thoughts. Suddenly, Nick realizes, the world does not revolve around him, at which point he becomes a marketing genius because he just starts stealing women’s ideas.

Now Paramount is remaking this movie, and with Taraji P. Henson, who is a woman. Here’s how Deadline describes What Men Want: “The new version follows a female sports agent (Henson) who has been constantly boxed out by her male colleagues. When she gains the power to hear men’s thoughts, she is able to shift the paradigm to her advantage as she races to sign the NBA’s next superstar.”

Man, that whole witch hunt thing went QUICK!

If only we had some magic way to know what men are thinking. Apparently none of them are left to run media companies or Silicon Valley or transportation authorities or real estate empires or universities or four-star restaurant kitchens or law firms or city councils or movie studios or architecture firms or investment banks or any of that stuff.

As an ally, I gotta tell you: Men — you in danger, boys.

It’s so obvious that women are to blame. And so now that the ladies are leaving all their men at home because the workplace is jumping, jumping, I want to extend a hand and say, “I get it.”

Why can no one see that men are the real victims here? That’s why we’ve had 45 straight presidencies — by men. They have to keep running the country because it’s the only way anyone will pay attention to them.

And so to the oh-so-perceptive people running Paramount, I say, you go! Way to be generous! Because if there’s anything the world desperately needs right now, it’s a movie that tells us what men want.

Colin Kaepernick has earned the right to rock that ‘GQ’ cover uniform and Afro He may be wearing it on the cover of a fashion magazine, but it is not just for fashion

On Monday, GQ magazine released its Men of the Year issue naming former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as its Citizen of the Year. Continuing his strategic silence, Kaepernick’s words are not featured in the piece. Instead, he guided GQ to interview 10 of his “closest confidants” — including director Ava DuVernay, hip-hop artist J. Cole, Women’s March co-organizer Linda Sarsour, and civil rights activist and entertainment icon Harry Belafonte — to provide intimate insights into Kaepernick the human being.

I was honored to be one of the 10 people interviewed for this piece.

While reading the article, I found myself fixated on the images that accompanied the piece. Photographed in Harlem, New York, by Martin Schoeller, the images were intended to “evoke the spirit of Muhammad Ali’s anti-Vietnam War protests in the neighborhood during the late ’60s.”

But for me, there was so much more encoded in the photographs, particularly the cover. There was so much beautiful black history and politicization hidden in plain sight.

Kaepernick’s Afro shined like a crown of black consciousness on the cover of GQ, serving as a crucial component for framing his unspoken love for black aesthetic affirmation. But if one picks through the historical roots of his natural hair halo, they will find a legacy of powerful black women affiliated with the Black Panther Party.

Arguably, the most iconic Afro of all rested atop of the head of the women engaged in black revolutionary praxis — most notably, Angela Davis. Unfortunately, many reduce her natural hair choice to simply a style to be easily emulated and not a powerful symbol that reflected a departure from the politics of respectability that served as a visual hallmark of the civil rights era, nor as a choice that combated Eurocentric standards of beauty that waged war on the self-esteem of black children, women and men in America.

As Davis noted, “I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.” This reduction that Davis sees as humiliating anchors the important implications involved in the multilayered nature of the Black Power-era mantra, “black is beautiful.” It was not just about looks, it was about liberation.

However, as Kim McNair, a postdoctoral scholar at USC who teaches in the departments of American studies and ethnicity, and history, poignantly points out:

Kaepernick’s choice in style links him not only to the idea of “black is beautiful” but also connects him to figures such as Frederick Douglass and Bob Marley, two biracial figures in the long black freedom struggle. These men also wore their hair long, and Marley’s choice in particular was part of his Rastafarianism that also became a political movement. Hair politics among mixed-race black people carries a weighted history of questions around legitimacy and racial authenticity. This is why Kaepernick’s choice in hairstyle is purposeful — not superficial, as many would like for us to believe.

I can recall an impromptu conversation that Colin had with the youths invited to one of his Know Your Rights Camps in Chicago. During a heated debate about young men and the need to look presentable, Kaepernick peacefully yet passionately interjected, speaking to the young black folks in the crowd about the importance of loving themselves — specifically their hair. He spoke directly to those who were stigmatized for making the choice to wear their hair in locs, or in some iteration of an Afro, highlighting how this cultural criticism about natural black hair was just one of the many ways that anti-blackness attacks your sense of self, leaving a trail of self-hate for something that was given to you from birth: your hair.

The children returned the love via a roaring round of applause.

Colin’s homage to the aesthetics of the Black Panther Party on the cover of GQ continued via his adorning a black turtleneck and a black jacket with a peaked lapel, symbolically connecting his image to the likes of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and many others wearing the Black Panther Party uniform, presenting themselves as a unified group moving in solidarity in the fight against systemic oppression.

Seale complained that with the increase in Panther visibility, many wanted to wear the impressive Panther uniform of the black beret, black pants, blue shirt and black turtleneck, but only to posture and pose “with a mean face on, their chests stuck out and their arms folded.” They wanted to be seen as helpers of the people without putting in the work and making sacrifices for the people.

Colin, by way of the work that he has committed himself to for social justice, and the sacrifices that he has made, has earned the right to wear that uniform and rock that Afro. Even though it is on the cover of a fashion magazine — it is not just for fashion.

As one delves deeper into GQ’s photographs of Kaepernick, it impossible to miss the image of Colin wearing a dashiki top while in a crowd of beautiful black and brown faces. This, of course, is a re-creation of the iconic image of Muhammad Ali in 1974, among the people of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is also a remix of photos taken of Colin while on a trip to Ghana. As Colin let the world know on July 4 via an Instagram post, and an accompanying video:

“In a quest to find my personal independence, I had to find out where my ancestors came from. I set out tracing my African ancestral roots, and it led me to Ghana. Upon finding out this information, I wanted to visit the sites responsible for myself (and many other Black folks in the African Diaspora) for being forced into the hells of the middle passage. I wanted to see a fraction of what they saw before reaching the point of no return. I spent time with the/my Ghanaian people, from visiting the local hospital in Keta and the village of Atito, to eating banku in the homes of local friends, and paying my respects to Kwame Nkrumah’s Memorial Park. I felt their love, and truly I hope that they felt mine in return.”

I was there with him in Africa. I was there when he and his partner Nessa personally picked out that dashiki while paying respects to African ancestors who were stripped of their lives in the Goree Island slave castles. This dashiki was not a piece picked out by a stylist — it was a part of his personal collection.

This was again, a moment of Colin telling his story pictorially in the GQ article without opening his mouth. The pictures are frozen moments of living memories, archiving a man of the people and his reluctant ascendance into the pantheon of iconoclasts, engaged in the struggle to attack oppressive beliefs and norms held by racist individuals and the traditional institutions that they control.

The employment/reconstruction of the iconic likeness of freedom fighters of the Black Power movement serves as a pathway that not only reminds us of the past, but the contemporary relevance of the image of Kaepernick on the GQ cover also shows how, in troublingly tangible ways, many things have not changed in America. Colin’s clothing in the GQ article honored the ancestors and challenged contemporary anti-blackness in the present. It was an icon of today paying respect to icons of the past while investing in the youth, the icons of the future.

Colin said a lot without saying anything at all.

D.C.’s annual Fight Night was filled with notable boxers, MMA and UFC fighters, and more Former heavyweight MMA champ Ivanov beat Alencar at event that raised $4.3 million for early childhood education

Boxer James “Buster” Douglas sat in the lobby of Washington, D.C.’s, Capital Hilton on Nov. 2, taking a brief moment to chill just hours before one of the District’s exclusive fundraisers would kick off. His 6-foot-4 frame, topped by a brown fedora, caught stares from hotel guests and employees.

Three hours later, 1,800 guests flooded into the venue for Fight Night, a Fight for Children fundraiser that generates funds for early childhood education initiatives in the D.C. area.

The charity annually commands the presence of heavyweights in business, government, philanthropy, sports and entertainment. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Lennox Lewis have been part of the fundraiser and its atmosphere of cigars, Scotch and music.

“It’s a great event, and I’m honored to be part of it each year,” Douglas said.

Fight Night has generated more than $65 million overall. This year’s donations totaled $4.3 million.

The event usually features boxing. But this year it teamed up with the Professional Fighters League, and mixed martial arts fighters took to the ring for the first time. Former heavyweight champion Blagoy Ivanov of Bulgaria defeated Brazilian Caio Alencar in the night’s main event, while rising star Lance Palmer defeated longtime MMA veteran Steven Siler in the co-main.

The Professional Fighters League will formally debut in 2018 and feature a multimillion-dollar prize pool for fighters. The league purchased the fighting operations and event infrastructure of the World Series of Fighting in January and has more than 100 MMA fighters under contract.

The event featured appearances by boxers Douglas, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Gerry Cooney and Earnie Shavers; Chuck Liddell and Urijah Faber of UFC fame; former world kickboxing champion Ray Sefo; former heavyweight MMA champion Bas Rutten; UFC and Brazilian jiujitsu fighter Renzo Gracie; Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison; as well as Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser; ESPN’s Michael Wilbon; CNBC’s Dhani Jones; Ballers actors Omar Miller, Donovan Carter and Kris Lofton; and former Washington Redskins players Pierre Garçon, Ken Harvey, Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders and Santana Moss, along with current players Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson.

Fight for Children and Fight Night were created by Joseph E. Robert Jr. in 1990 to help children from low-income communities in the nation’s capital. Fight for Children’s purpose is to provide all children, regardless of their circumstance in life, with an equal shot at a great education.

Ric Flair and black fandom in wrestling The ‘Nature Boy’ is one man in a long, complex history for professional wrestling

About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.

And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.

“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”

Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.

“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”

Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?

Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.

“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”

In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.

But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?

There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”

Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.

Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.

But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.

For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.

“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”

Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.

This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.

“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”

For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.

“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”

While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.

In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.

But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.

And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.

Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.

Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?

There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.

Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.

“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”

Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”

For YouTuber turned actor/producer Andrew Bachelor, telling stories through film is a passion and a goal Known as King Bach, he is now producing and starring in a film alongside Terry Crews, Mike Epps, and Method Man

He started out as a YouTuber but catapulted into the fame lane on Vine. His name is Andrew Bachelor and, yes, he has the Guinness World Record to prove it.

Now, Bachelor, filmmaker and actor, is making a splash in the film industry.

He’s starring in Lionsgate’s comedy feature film Where’s The Money opposite Kat Graham, Terry Crews, Mike Epps and Method Man. He plays a quick-witted young man from the streets of South Central Los Angeles who must rush a lily-white USC fraternity to recover a stash of stolen money. The 29-year-old not only stars in the film, he is also an executive producer on the project.

“I love not only to be in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well,” said Bachelor, known on social media as King Bach. “That’s why I really get involved with every project that I’m a part of.”

Bachelor has evolved into an in-demand actor, producer and content creator, working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As his visibility grew, he caught the attention of casting directors who booked him acting gigs on shows such as House of Lies and The Mindy Project, as well as films such as Meet the Blacks and a spoof of the horror series The Purge.

Later this year, Bachelor will also be featured in the Netflix horror film The Babysitter, opposite Bella Thorne, and the comedy film When We First Met. Forbes named him as one of 2017’s top influencers in entertainment.

Creating content has always been one of Bachelor’s biggest passions. The sketches on his YouTube channel, Pad TV, quickly gained more than 3 million subscribers. The sketches were expensive to produce, so Bachelor searched for alternative ways to share content, which led to his discovery of Vine. In a few short years, he rose to be one of the most followed people on Vine, with 15 million subscribers and more than 5 billion views. His other social media channels also flourished, with millions of people following his content.

“The key for me has been to not lose focus of my ultimate goal,” Bachelor said. “A lot of people come to Los Angeles and leave because they stop believing in themselves and change their dream. You can’t lose focus, even if that means writing down your goal and reading it every day as a reminder.”

Bachelor spoke with The Undefeated on how he went from internet star to Hollywood star and the lessons he’s learned — and is still learning — along the way.


What’s the difference between you and your alter ego King Bach?

King Bach is funny, energetic, charming, handsome and every woman’s dream. I’m just calm and boring … but still handsome, let’s not get sidetracked from that.

What’s the first thing you did when Forbes named you as one of the top influencers in entertainment for 2017?

I told my mom, ‘I made it. I can move out of the house now.’

What is your ultimate goal?

It’s to create an empire. I get my blueprint from Tyler Perry, who’s created plays, TV shows and movies. I had asked myself, ‘Why can’t I do the same?’ And my answer was, ‘I can do the same. And I will!’

When did you realize you were famous?

When my mom told me that people [outside family and friends] knew who I was.

What did you learn from some of the actors on Where’s the Money?

It was great working with those legends. Mike Epps taught me the art of improv. Terry Crews showed me how to be humble and respect everyone on and off camera. And I learned how to really get into character and become involved with my role from Method Man.

Have you ever been starstruck?

Yes, when I met Mario Lopez at an airport.

How do you come up with the creatives behind your videos and films?

A lot of the situations happen to me in real life, and I just figure out a way to turn it into an exciting story.

How did you nurture your desire to perform?

I joined an acting club and comedy troupe. We’d do 30 skits in 60 minutes. It drew me more to acting and wanting to perfect the craft.

You’re a Phi Beta Sigma member. What drew you to the fraternity?

Going to FSU [Florida State University], where everything and everyone is new, I needed a group [that kept me grounded]. Phi Beta Sigma always showed me love [and furthermore] brotherhood, scholarship and service. That’s what we stand for.

What will you always be a champion of?

Learning. [I’ve learned] not to be afraid to fail. The only way to learn is by failing, and once you accept that, you’re golden.

What’s your favorite social media outlet?

Twitter and Instagram.