‘The Black Cowboy’ will shine light on history hidden in plain sight Documentary in production lends insight into African-American cowboys and rodeo

Denard Butler is not the typical cowboy in Checotah, Oklahoma, known as the steer wrestling capital of America. He holds an advanced degree in behavioral health and worked for a time as a therapist. He speaks routinely about “the laws of the universe” and quotes Bible verses.

Oh, and he’s black.

Of all Butler’s attributes and uniqueness to his profession, his race is the most surprising — and polarizing.

At 33, he is a third-generation cowboy from Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, meaning he went into his chosen career aware of the challenges that come with it because he was not white. And he chose it anyway.

“It’s a passion,” said Butler, an accomplished steer wrestler who also owns a trucking company. “When you’re black and competing in places like San Juan Capistrano, California; Price, Utah; and Prescott, Arizona, you’re not going to see many people who look like you. So you will hear the N-word. A lot. I use it for power. I feed off it. I tell myself, ‘You’re going to read about me. You’re going to get sick of seeing me.’ I want it more than most, and so I use it as fuel. My belief system is different.”

Butler’s story, which includes four bar fights with white cowboys or patrons who put their hands on him, is part of a revealing documentary in production that promises to lend heretofore unknown insight into black cowboys and their history in America.

Charles Perry’s film, The Black Cowboy, takes a high-definition and comprehensive look at the legacy of African-Americans as cowboys, which dates to the beginning of the lifestyle, up to today’s influx of black cowboys in Oklahoma and other places across the country.

Perry, of Carson, California, said he “escaped” suburban Los Angeles to play college basketball at Northwest College in Wyoming in 1994. In 1997, he visited a friend’s home in Lewistown, Montana, and attended a rodeo.

“And there was this black kid participating,” Perry said. “And it was loud in my mind: ‘That kid must be adopted. A white family must have taken him and made him become a cowboy.’

“That thought stayed in my mind as I drove from Georgia to Portland, Oregon, [in 2014] with a friend. We ran across the Okmulgee Black Rodeo in Oklahoma. I was in a daze, seeing all these black cowboys. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

But it was at that moment that the budding filmmaker embraced the idea for his first major project. He had worked with others on small films where he served various roles. Perry also worked on films as an extra or bit, nonspeaking roles and said he would stick his head in directors’ discussions, and “they never told me to get out, so I learned a lot.”

In April 2015, the resourceful Perry took a job driving a U-Haul truck from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Portland. He drove “directly to Okmulgee, to tell the Okmulgee City Hall my plans of making the documentary.”

He met Delta Higgins, who worked at City Hall and who has been a guiding force for Perry — “my angel,” he called her.

“It is an incredibly important yet omitted story within America’s narrative,” the 41-year-old Perry said. “How often do we see now or in the past the cowboy of the Wild West represented as a black man or woman? Very rarely … and yet, they were there in important ways. Black cowboys and their story have been neglected.”

Filmmaker Charles Perry.

Ivan McClellan

Perry has spent the better part of three years traveling the country, mostly by car, to research, meet and film black cowboys in all points of the country. He said the film should be completed in time for entry into the renowned Sundance Film Festival next summer. He also plans to enter it at Cannes, Tribeca and other festivals.

He used online crowdfunding to raise $25,000, which allowed him to hire Emmy-nominated cinematographer Erik Angra and respected African-American photographer Ivan McClellan, who are working at discounted rates, Perry said, because they “see the vision of the film.”

Perry’s younger brother, Marcus, is on the staff, as well as two high school friends — J.R. Redmond, who won a Super Bowl ring as a member of the New England Patriots, and Tony Harvey, who once played for the Utah Jazz of the NBA — who serve as executive producers.

“It’s been a grind, something Nate Parker [director of Birth of a Nation] told me last year at Sundance what it would be,” Perry said. “But I’m determined.”

The total budget of the film is $220,000, and Perry said he used his savings and supplemented the support and donations he’s received by eating less and working side jobs more. “I will pass up on an extra hamburger but not skimp on using the best-quality cameras we need,” he said.

Mostly, Perry said, “I know how to hustle” to keep afloat. To support himself and the film, he edits online video content, including short films and music videos.

“I’m a one-man crew for $2,500 a job. I get three or four jobs a month [to] sustain myself,” he explained. “I’m doing what I have to do to make this film. It’s that important to me.

“So I’m taking my time, not rushing,” Perry added. “This thing is deeper than I thought when I started.”

Perry, for instance, has learned that the term “cowboy” originated when farmers would instruct black farmhands to “go get that cow, boy.”

He learned that Oklahoma, first home of Native Americans, was a haven for African-Americans who fled the South in the 1800s. Blacks owned land and built thriving communities.

Government officials asked Congress to designate Oklahoma as a “black state” or “Negro Colonization.” It never happened, but the influx of African-Americans produced countless farmers and, yes, cowboys.

“I grew up playing at Will Rogers Park and Will Rogers Beach in California, so to learn the most famous black cowboy, Bill Pickett, was Will Rogers’ right-hand man, well, that was something of a confirmation for me that this was a film I should make.”

Prominent in the film is the story of Pickett, who is credited with creating in 1903 the sport of “bulldogging,” now known as steer wrestling. It is a rodeo sport in which the cowboy rides on a horse alongside a steer, leaps onto the bull and wrestles it to the ground by its horns.

Pickett is a cowboy legend and was the first African-American to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma. He died in 1932 after being kicked and stomped in the head by a horse when he was 61.

His legacy did not die with him, however. Pickett also is in the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and has been honored with the annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma. Pickett’s emergence spawned a wave of black cowboys that, the documentary will show, has continued over all these decades.

“It’s a good thing this story is finally going to be told,” said Clarence LeBlanc, 65, a former black cowboy who retired 13 years ago, but not before twice claiming the world steer wrestling championship (1983 and 1990). “Every ranch since the beginning had black cowboys on them. But when you saw the movies or heard the stories, we were excluded. This film will help let people know our impact.”

LeBlanc said he was quite “uncomfortable” much of his career because “prejudice was strong. When I started out, it was really bad. Most schools weren’t even integrated. Over time, the white cowboys began to get to know me because we were seeing each other every week at different rodeos. Many of them let go of the ignorance.

“But the towns we went to, those people had never been around black people before, and they didn’t want us there. And they let us know that.”

He said he never felt his life was in jeopardy, but “I knew when I was in a place that was more [volatile], and so I stayed close, I didn’t venture off at all. … But I don’t think there was anything anyone could do to run me off, I loved the sport so much.”

That love among African-Americans continues to rise, according to Perry, who estimates there are more than 100,000 black cowboys in the United States. Most are in Oklahoma, but others are in Georgia, California, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“There are small pockets of black cowboys in many parts of the country, and we visit those places and the people wonder why we want to take their pictures,” Perry said. “It’s like when blacks go to Japan and the Japanese want to take our photos because they don’t see many black people. That’s how it is with the black cowboy.”

This is news to many, including a man Perry recently encountered at a party in Boston. Perry said he wears a hat and T-shirt with “TheBlackCowboy.com” on it almost everywhere he goes. “This was a smart, educated white man,” Perry recalled. “He noticed my hat and I told him a little about the history of the black cowboy, and he said no way in the world was what I told him true. He said, ‘Oklahoma is white.’ He just didn’t want to believe it.”

Perry said he has received skepticism from some in the cowboy community because others before him had committed to documenting its history of blacks in the profession but failed. So many did not “take me seriously,” he recalled.

To gain trust, he paid out of pocket for a sizable portion of historic footage — and has been consistent in his efforts to complete the movie.

“I’m excited about seeing the film myself,” Butler said. “I haven’t studied the black cowboy. I am into Warren Buffett and Napoleon Hill. But do know the black cowboys have two things in common: talent and perseverance. That’s the only way to make it with all we have to go through because of our race.”

And don’t forget money, added Butler, who also raises and sells horses on his ranch. “Really, you have to be close to rich, or have someone in your family with money, to compete,” he said. “My family isn’t rich, but my parents made some real sacrifices to get me out here.

“You’re talking $21,000 in fuel to travel to events, $20,000 fees to enter. A horse trailer: another $40,000. Then there are all kinds of miscellaneous stuff. It’s the No. 1 reason there aren’t a lot of blacks on the [rodeo] circuits.”

For LeBlanc, who has lived in Oklahoma all his life and raised prize-winning horses, seeing the number of black youths in rodeos makes him proud. “I know, in at least a small way, we paved the way,” he said. “I have a little grandson, and I can’t wait for him to get old enough to get out there.”

In the end, Perry anticipates a work that enlightens and entertains. “Our goal is not only to bring their story to the mainstream but to establish resources for young aspiring cowboys and cowgirls to follow their dreams,” he said. “I have almost been like a detective, digging for the truth, and it’s been fun.

“Imagine being a cowboy in a rodeo — the sole black person in an entire arena. It’s as close to Jackie Robinson as you can get. This is a history that has been hidden in plain sight … while going on today.

“Well, we’re bringing it all to light with this film.”

‘The Real’s’ Jeannie Mai is raising awareness of human trafficking in new film The talk show host is executive producer of ‘Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking’

According to the Department of Homeland Security, every year millions of men, women and children are trafficked in countries around the world, generating billions of dollars in profit, making it second only to drug trafficking in transactional crime.

These shocking statistics came as a surprise to Jeannie Mai, co-host of daytime TV show The Real, when she began raising awareness around this epidemic, in which only 2 percent of victims make it out alive.

Mai partnered with filmmaker Sadhvi Siddhali Shree as the executive producer for a powerful and raw documentary entitled Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking. With raw images of life on the streets, heart-pounding rescues and gut-wrenching personal stories, the documentary offers hope and empowerment, with hopes to engage others in a movement to end modern-day slavery and abuse on a global scale.

“It’s all about being woke to what’s happening in the world,” Mai said. “The word ‘trafficking’ is weird in itself and was invented just a few years ago to describe the selling and trading of human beings because we didn’t understand exactly what it was. It started off as sex slavery then modern-day slavery, and now it’s trafficking.”

Mai hopes to create awareness that leads to action. She spoke with The Undefeated about the documentary, as well as about working on The Real, the secret behind her positivity and how she defines success.


What’s the nature of Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking?

This film is gritty and, honestly, painful to watch, but it’s real. It will help people understand how human trafficking takes place 360 degrees around us. You’ll feel a calling to contribute to the movement after watching it.

What motivated you to get involved with the film?

It’s been my dream to put together a piece of art that would describe what human trafficking looks like. I joined forces with [Sadhvi] Siddhali [Shree], a beautiful woman, monk, Army veteran and powerful filmmaker. I fell in love with her passion, and we both had the same fervor to educate the world and get people more socially conscious about the brevity of trafficking.

What was your first experience becoming more hands-on with learning about sex trafficking?

I went to Thailand with an organization called NightLight and lived in a brothel for about three weeks. That’s where I really saw the darkness of these women’s lives. They’re trapped and voiceless, and their families are being used as pawns.

[It inspired another documentary I’m working on,] Along the Line, where we shot in Vietnam, Sa Pa, Thailand, to speak with three traffic survivors who shared what it was like to be enslaved, used, abused and manipulated, and how their lives are now as heroines. It’ll come out by early 2019.

What triggered the need to learn more about sex trafficking?

I didn’t know what it was until about eight years ago, when it happened to a family friend in Vietnam. Her uncle had sold her to a brothel as a sex slave to pay off the family debt. I was angry, disgusted and confused. I did research, made phone calls, spoke with government officials and then learned that this situation happens to millions of people every day. She is OK now.

Switching gears, what can we expect for the live airing of season four of The Real?

It’s going to be a fun season with more giveaways, money and amazing, heartfelt stories that’s going to teach you how to love yourself better. Loni [Love], Tamera [Mowry-Housley], Adrienne [Houghton] and I are able to remind women every day that they are valuable and worthy. All of us ladies on the show are a work in progress. We constantly share our hiccups, and we’re transparent about it.

What have you learned from your co-hosts?

First off, I’ve learned to love brown liquor because of Loni. Tam-Tam [Tamera] has taught me the power of poise. She is so poised in every situation of life. Adrienne teaches me about hopeless romantic love, and I’m just like, ‘Let’s get some Netflix and Cheetos.’

What’s the secret behind your positivity?

It’s from turning L’s [losses] into W’s [wins]. Like anyone else, I’ve gone through my own losses, whether that’s relationships, setbacks or insecurities. But when I look back, I really appreciate those experiences because being on the ground taught me how not to only get up, but to stand up and strut.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

There’s always going to be someone who won’t believe in your worth. Don’t let that person be you.

As a TV style expert, what got you into fashion?

I love fashion; it’s my armor. Fashion allows me to tell you my story before I get myself together to tell you. That’s what’s so powerful about it. Style is having that swag from the way you walk, talk, laugh, move your hands, type of vernacular you use. All of that comes together and you are a dope fashion piece, even if you only have a shirt and jeans on.

What’s your advice to women who don’t feel pretty?

Own your pretty, boo! It can be as simple as that you have a great smile or amazing ankles. Whatever it is, find it and highlight what that beautiful part is and dress the rest up. It starts there, and then from the ground up, boom, you bloom.

‘Gook’ director Justin Chon talks filmmaking, race and the Rodney King riots The film is set in a Korean-owned store on the day the verdict comes down in the police brutality case

So far, nothing has managed to unseat Get Out as my favorite film of the year. But Gook, the new movie written and directed by Twilight actor Justin Chon, is definitely a close second.

Shot in black and white, Gook takes place in and around a Paramount, California, shoe store run by two Korean brothers, Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So). Eli and Daniel have, in a sense, adopted an 11-year-old black girl named Kamilla (played with stunning control and depth by Simone Baker). Kamilla’s mother is dead, and she lives with her older sister and brother and works in the store with Eli and Daniel. The movie follows the characters on the day the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case is announced.

Chon, 36, grew up in Irvine, California, and often worked in his father’s shoe store in Paramount. His father, Sang, a Korean immigrant, was a child actor in South Korea, and in Gook he plays Mr. Kim, the owner of a liquor store. Chon was heavily influenced by La Haine, a 1995 film that examines the aftermath of riots in the projects of Paris when an unarmed Arab man is shot and killed by French police.

Gook’s distributor recently decided to extend its theater run, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you still have a chance.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How did La Haine influence your thinking about Gook?

I really loved the ’90s era of filmmaking where if you could get access to a camera, it had that sort of Clerks way of making films where it was all much cheaper.

[La Haine] was about three friends who were from different ethnic backgrounds, and that just represented when I was hanging out at my dad’s store and would make neighborhood friends. I met this French guy, we were talking about film and he was like, ‘Have you ever watched La Haine?’ When you think of Paris or France, you just think of the tourist aspects and how they enjoy life and how their food is so amazing. And he’s like, ‘You know, you should watch it because it’ll change your kind of a perspective of like what else exists there.’ When I finally saw it, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is exactly like what happened here.’ Same s—, different place. I’m thinking these are American problems. But then I look at them and I identified so much with them being youthful and diverse and into things like break dancing.

When I started thinking about [Gook], I just started thinking about all the social dynamics, and that film just kept popping up in my head. There’s so many similarities. It just never left my psyche. My film constantly gets compared to Do the Right Thing, and I understand that. I was a huge fan of Spike Lee growing up, and that’s just in my blood now because I’ve seen his movies so many times, but it wasn’t exactly the main influence.

Was that a Silent Bob joke I spotted in your film? There’s a minor character who simply goes by “Silent.”

Here’s the thing: I knew, no matter what, I was going to get that comparison just because of how bootstrap the film was and how minimalistic it was and the type of humor that I’m into. I mean, Kevin Smith isn’t exactly my god or anything. I don’t look at his work and say, ‘You know, that’s like the end-all, be-all’ — not even close. Let’s be honest. I really love what he’s done, but, like, I just knew I was going to get that comparison because of the single location, these guys hanging out over the course of a day.

So I was just like, if they’re going to make that comparison, I’ll just give them a little nugget, a little Easter egg. It’s like, yeah, I know what you’re going to think. Even Mr. Kim, the first time you see him, I paint him as the exact thing you’ve seen in every movie like Menace II Society. This is what you are expecting from an L.A. riots film in ’92, right? I felt like my job as a filmmaker was to slowly peel the layers away and humanize them.

You present a full picture of the tensions that exist for Koreans in Southern California, not just with black people but with Latinos. Those attitudes vary a lot depending on generation.

Especially in modern cinema, there’s a fear of offending anyone. I’m totally with that — let’s respect people. I just didn’t want to shy away from everything. If I’m going to talk about this event, this uprising, I felt like it would be detrimental for me to candy-coat anything. At the time, blacks and Koreans were not getting along. But nobody was getting along. It’s always seen as a black and white issue, but then because I’m Korean, it becomes a Korean and black issue. What do I remember? It wasn’t like it was just a black and Korean issue either. It was everybody in this community just trying to make things work.

Within the Korean people I showed — we don’t get along, either! Intergenerationally, we have huge problems because they come from the old country and we all were born here. We have a different set of morality and ethics than they do. We’re Americans. I felt like I can be very nuanced about it, but in the early ’90s there was nothing nuanced. Everything was much more in your face in terms of, like, music, like, N.W.A. — there was nothing muted about that. So I just felt, if I’m going to talk about the riots, this film really needs to be raw rather than me trying to idealize anything.

Simone Baker as Kamilla in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

It’s astonishing that you have a black girl at the center of a film whose name is an Asian slur. What made you want to tell this story through her eyes?

One of the main reasons was that if I’m going to make a film outside the system, I want to represent some of the most underrepresented demographics, which to me are Asian-American men and African-American females.

At first Kamilla was Kamal — it was a boy. And I just was, like, you know what, this is a good opportunity for me to balance it out. There’s a lot of testosterone in the film. I explore themes of masculinity and how it’s toxic to every community. The archaic idea of masculinity and what our parents taught — well, at least for fathers and sons — what they taught us about how to be men:

Defend yourself. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you. All those things, a false sense of protection and ego and all that stuff. But because of that I was like, man, you know, I just need some balance. And I knew that character was going to be the bridge between these two communities. There was a point in the rewrite I figured if I make her a little girl — you just treat little girls differently if you’re a man. You’re not going to be so rough with them. I realized quickly that [Daniel and Eli] would be more of themselves. They would let their guards down. They would treat her with more respect and more gently than they would with a boy. She’s so resilient and so positive, I just thought it was refreshing to see a girl like that.

It makes the end that much more gutting.

With Keith [Kamilla’s brother, played by Curtiss Cook Jr.], how he interacts with her — I don’t think he could ever hit her. I knew when she asked, ‘Tell me something good about Mom,’ if it was a boy, being an older brother, he could be like, ‘Just toughen up. It’s all good.’ But with a girl, you’re kind of forced to deal with it at some level.

Justin Chon (left) as Eli and Simone Baker as Kamilla in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

You use her to draw out everyone’s emotions, like when Daniel and Eli are dancing in the store with her. The two of them are so protective of her, and it’s sweet.

Especially when Mr. Kim comes and slaps her. It’s just like, you can’t let that happen! Who’s going to think that’s OK? That’s an important moment because the audience — you’re going to decide right there. What is this going to be like? What kind of relationship is this? How do these communities come together and what is this all about? As soon as you see these brothers stick up for her, it’s like, yes, they’re doing what should be done. It doesn’t matter whether they want her to be at the store or not. The point is that should not happen and these two brothers need to be there for her and stick up for her rights as a human being.

Everyone in this film is complicated, and you don’t see the filmmaker’s ego.

The reason I’m an actor, the reason I’m interested in directing and writing, is all because of collaboration. I really believe in a group coming together. You can’t make a film by yourself. It’s impossible. I mean, you can, but it will take a long time and it probably won’t be interesting.

We’re talking about human beings. It’s such a complicated thing, and there’s so many things that make it so beautiful and unique. Ego, in singularity, in terms of storytelling — it doesn’t serve our collective human experience.

So, you know, when it comes to fully fleshed characters, I wrote them, but I can’t play — I’m not doing Nutty Professor. I’m hiring these people because they exemplify what I was envisioning, but at the end of the day, they are still the ones that are performing. When it comes to the characters, they feel real because I included them in the process. The one person I didn’t get that much rehearsal time with was Curtiss Cook Jr., who plays Keith. At first, I didn’t tell him anything about the role. But I sent him the script after I hung out with him and he was like, ‘OK, I love this, but I have concerns.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s talk about it.’

Curtiss is like, ‘How do you feel about how you’re portraying African-American men?’

The first thing I said was Eli and Keith are the same character. They both are orphaned. They both are trying to take care of younger siblings, both trying to make ends meet and struggling to make that happen. It’s just that they can’t see eye to eye and realize that they share some of the same pain.

Curtis was like, ‘OK, that’s fine. But you have to understand that everything I do as an African-American male, I’m representing. I just want to make sure that this is done correctly.’ So we had hours and hours and hours of conversations.

I wanted him to know I was going to make his character three-dimensional. He wasn’t going to be an angry black man.

Curtiss Cook Jr. as Keith in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

I’m familiar with Cook from Naz & Maalik.

That’s why I hired him — I saw the movie. He’s so good in that. He’s just so honest, so present. He’s dynamic. When you watch and you’re like, ‘OK, here’s a human just being a human.’ This guy, even if he’s aggressive in this film, he can bring the humanity and sensitivity that I needed.

What do you remember about Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed in 1991 by a Korean shop owner who suspected her of stealing? What were the discussions of that like with your parents, within your community?

I was 11 when that happened. The thing about Korean culture is we just don’t talk about current issues. We don’t talk about trauma or problems. That was one of the difficulties making this film. Mr. Kim is my dad. And he didn’t want to do the film. He didn’t understand. He’s like, ‘Why do you want to go back to that?’ We’re so used to not talking about even family issues. We don’t have family meetings or, like, discussions. It’s just like, let’s move on. The Korean War is bad, but we don’t talk about it, so let’s move on. It happened. It doesn’t help us to revisit that. It’s a difference in cultures. So as an 11-year-old, no one was talking about that. But what I do know, though, is a lot of Koreans were angry at that verdict. Why? Because it made everyone’s life 10 times more difficult. I don’t think anyone thought you should end someone’s life. That’s crazy. I don’t think it was a conversation of whether people thought it was right or wrong. I think everyone unanimously was like, ‘OK, that shouldn’t have happened.’

It’s a very delicate thing to talk about. That’s the thing about authenticity. In my film, people ask me, ‘What kind of research did you do to accurately represent the African-American experience?’ It’s the same thing with Latasha Harlins and how we talk about this. I can only tell the story from my perspective and my experiences because I will never understand what it feels like to actually be African-American in this country.

That whole incident was unfortunate and it was not right. The fact that [the shop owner, Soon Ja Du] didn’t do any jail time, that’s — that’s f—ing crazy. So in terms of the rage, that’s just understood. That’s a given. People feel like justice was not served, and rightfully so.

Entertainment mogul Damon Dash’s new Dash Diabetes Network is all about healthy living From music mogul to streaming service, Dash keeps reinventing himself — this time, he’s doing it to save lives

Entertainment and media veteran Damon Dash is now in the business of advocating for others to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle and a better quality of life.

The star was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 15 years old. Shortly afterward, he lost his mother to asthma. That’s his motivation for his new venture: the Dash Diabetes Network.

Diabetes appears in two forms, each of which affects the body’s ability to maintain insulin levels. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is unable to create insulin at all, while Type 2 happens when the body struggles to control glucose levels.

According to the American Diabetes Association (the focus of a sharp Netflix documentary What the Health, named for the group’s failure to provide proper dietary information by diabetes risk factors rather than the general population). African-Americans are disproportionately affected by diabetes. With 13.2 percent of all African-Americans age 20 or older diagnosed with diabetes, black people are 1.7 times more likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. The website also notes that African-Americans are significantly more likely to suffer complications common to diabetes, such as blindness, kidney disease and amputations.

That being said, millions of diabetic Americans live healthy and uninhibited lives maintaining their diabetes, and the 40-year-old credits What the Health for prompting him to make some serious dietary changes.

If the multilayered Dash had a traditional resume, it would list a wide variety of accomplishments. Music and entertainment executive — check. Talent discovery agent — check. Record company co-founder — check. Fashion and lifestyle expert — check. Art gallery owner and director — check. Reality TV star — check. Movie director and producer — check. Beverage brand manager — check.

“I might not be a doctor, but I’m in a doctor’s state of mind,” Dash says in the intro of episode one, which aired Aug. 7 on his streaming service at www.damedashstudios.com and on the Dash Diabetes app.

With the Dash Diabetes Network, he uses his influences, his career and his struggle with diabetes as an opportunity to fuse health care and entertainment. The ten 20-minute episodes feature other filmmakers, holistic doctors, musicians and artists to showcase new advances in medicine, recipes, and fitness and wellness tips. Shorter segments are available on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest.

The more Dash evolves, the more he makes history. He was co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995 with Jay-Z and Kare “Biggs” Burke during an era when East Coast rap — some say — may have saved hip-hop. During his time with the then-flourishing label, new artists emerged and hits were made. He discovered Kanye West and had his hand in cultivating the careers of Cam’ron, Beanie Sigel, DJ Clue, Memphis Bleek and others.

Dash later went into the fashion industry developing the ’90s urban clothing line Rocawear. He was part of the team that outright purchased Armadale Vodka. He later formed the Dame Dash Collection, an upscale clothing line. He also created the clothing line State Property for Beanie Sigel. He produced the critically acclaimed independent film The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon and David Alan Grier, and worked with Lee Daniels on Shadowboxer, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren. In 2009, Dash added theater producer to his resume. He produced the Hip-Hop Monologues for rapper and VH1’s Love & Hip Hop’s standout Jim Jones. Dash also opened an art gallery and a digital media company (Creative Control) and has had three stints in reality television (Ultimate Hustler, Family Therapy with Dr. Jenn and Growing Up Hip Hop).

Dash says he doesn’t consider any day for him to be normal.

“On average, I’ve worked really hard in architecting my life where I can take care of my children, and make my dreams come true at the same time, without compromise,” he explained. “When I wake up, I go test my blood just so I can recalibrate my Dexcom, which is my glucose monitor, and then I usually take the insulin that I need. Then I go work out. I gotta do a lot of 30- to 45-minute workouts.”

Every morning, Dash takes one shot of a drug that provides a long-lasting dose of insulin called Toujeo, which helps with blood sugar control. He also takes Afrezza, a fast-acting insulin that helps control postmeal blood sugar spikes.

“That’s the one I inhale. And they also sponsor the Dash Diabetes Network.”

Then he hits his pool and hot tub.

“I’m not putting on a shirt before 5 [p.m.]; probably it’s gonna be swim trunks, or until I’ve gotta pick my kids up. And it usually entails me looking at content, talking to the staff.”

The world has recently lost entertainers, including rapper Phife Dog and nationally syndicated radio host Doug Banks, to diabetes. According to ranker.com, the history of stars with diabetes dates back to affluent entertainers such as jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald, Gimme A Break! star Nell Carter, Good Times mom and actress Esther Rolle, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and singers Curtis Mayfield, Mahalia Jackson and B.B. King.

Meanwhile, Dash and other stars are doing the work to maintain healthy lifestyles. Actors Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams and Anthony Anderson, Randy Jackson (American Idol), Sherri Shepherd, Patti LaBelle, actress and singer Della Reese and comedian Jay Anthony Brown have all opened up to the public about their diabetes diagnoses.

Dash spoke with The Undefeated about his journey, his health and how he desires to continue to inspire others.


How have you stayed so relevant in the entertainment business, and how do you continue to keep reinventing Damon Dash?

I think probably because I’m not so concerned about it. You know what I mean? And I just continue to make history, ’cause I’m only doing what makes me feel good. I just try to continuously do cool things. And I like to do innovative things. And I like to do things that are honest and authentic. And I think I tell the truth a lot.

So, if you talk to different people about who they know, and what they know about Dame Dash, you might get one age demographic that will talk about Roc-A-Fella, one age demographic that will talk about Rachel Roy [Dash’s ex-wife and mother of his two daughters, Ava and Tallulah] and the fashion, one demographic that might talk about the movie with Kevin Harder, Lee Daniels, one demographic that’s gonna talk about the information I distribute every time I’m in a public platform, like The Breakfast Club, and how I’ve been very upfront about who to look out for and what to look out for within our culture. And now, people will probably talk about my directing, and also the Dash Diabetes Network.

It’s just, as I evolve, the projects that I do evolve with me. And my mentality changes a lot. I tend not to try to stay … I get bored after I’ve accomplished something, or I get to a certain place … I want to do something different.

How do you balance it all?

I think laughter, and love. Because at the end of the day, that’s all that counts. Laughter, and love, and health. And I think that’s where the balance comes in, because everything I do, I enjoy. It’s like life. It’s not even like work. It’s just all me having fun. I don’t recall ever really getting up and feeling like I’ve ever had to go to work. I always look forward to my day.

How has life been since you first opened up to the public about living with diabetes?

I never really looked at it as an open up. Everyone knows I wear everything on my sleeve, like a tattoo. But I’ve always tried to be public about it. But I was never really famous enough for anyone to care. You know, my platform, me directly, it never held that much weight for me to be talking about what was wrong with me. But I think now, in this chapter of my career, of my life, I do hold enough weight where people will listen. And because of the fact that I’ve learned how to control it, where that was a struggle for me before, a bit. I thought that it was time to talk about it for long. But it was always on my bucket list. I would always include it, but people wouldn’t talk about it for some reason, almost like they don’t talk about the fact that I’m a single dad since my son was 8. And he’s 25 now.

By this being such a medically influenced project and you’re encouraging a healthy lifestyle, what do you want viewers to get out of it?

I want them to get healthy. I want people to understand that, No. 1, as relates to diabetes, don’t be ashamed of it. You should embrace that, and that being imperfect is perfection. Because no one’s perfect, and everyone’s dealt some kind of card, and everyone has to play them. And that if a guy like me can make his story diabetic, so can anybody else. And just to be fearless. That’s all, really. And to deal with whatever issue you have. Don’t push them to the side. You gotta deal with them.

And diabetes is a silent killer. It’s something that doesn’t kill you overnight. It takes a minute. So you always have to be constantly thinking about your future when it comes to taking care of diabetes. And I think people should always think about their future, as opposed to just worrying about their present and their past.

Has it been hard for you to incorporate a new diet? And what’s been some of the obstacles?

Well, I never really made a new diet. I’m indulgent. I was just happy to be living, so I was like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna eat whatever I want to eat. I’ll just take more insulin.’ But again, the innovation came, where I started to control it, was because the Afrezza is inhalable, and it works quicker. But, being that I’m educating about diabetes, I was looking for education about health, and I came to my diet recently, just ’cause I learned how bad mass-made and corporate food is, with the GMO [genetically modified organisms], and the tolerance for things that I find unsanitary in the food.

When you say recently, what was that time frame?

About three weeks ago, I watched What the Health and doing more research because Rocky [longtime girlfriend Raquel Horn] thinks diabetes is a lifestyle, so she was showcasing how she was cooking things that weren’t so carb-heavy. My agent actually told me about [the film] ’cause he saw it, and he knew that it was showcasing and it contributed to diabetes. And I watched it, and Rocky watched it, and everyone else that I know that’s watched it since then has become a vegetarian.

What were your indications when you were first diagnosed?

Well, I’ve been diabetic since I was 15, and I was urinating a lot and I was losing weight and I had no appetite, so I was thinking something way worse was wrong with me.

Were you quick to go to the doctor, or did you take a while?

No, no, no. I wasn’t trying to go at all, because I thought they were gonna give me a death sentence. So I was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna just sit this out and see what happens.’ But I got so sick, I was feeling so bad after a month, that my mom made me go. And I was actually pretty happy to find out that I had diabetes. I thought I had something much worse.

Was it difficult in filming the episodes for Dash Diabetes Network, and are you portraying what you want in the episodes?

It was exactly what I wanted. I was in control. I think the last couple of years, I’ve learned how to make content in the way that’s just as good as any other professional. And again, the subject matter is exactly what I wanted to talk about. Because it’s independent, we probably had to do a little more, a lot more in a lot less time, than most. But that’s the way I like to do things. I’m always taking pride in the fact that I am independent. But it really wasn’t difficult at all. The hardest part has been the editing.

When you say the editing, how so?

It’s the kind of thing where if the editor’s not on set, sometimes they don’t know exactly what your vision is, and your point of view. And it’s subject matter that’s important, but some people don’t have the talent or the attention span to sit through it, so you want to make sure that you’re adding things that keep your mind stimulated so people don’t get bored. Or if someone’s not a diabetic, and just cares about one and wants the information, that they stay engaged.

So editing on any level is always the toughest part. And I’ve learned that in being a filmmaker. I just directed and funded two or three movies, one coming out in November called Honor Up. And again, it took me three years to edit it. I had to learn it. Shooting is easy, but postediting is the hardest part.

What’s the best piece you’ve ever given?

My girl, Raquel, usually says things to me that make me think. I think one of her biggest and strongest things is she made me aware of, regardless to what, never become unconsciously inconsiderate, where you’re not caring about other people but you just don’t know it because you’re so full of what you’re doing. So I think I’ve been able to be conscious, based on that.

And then my OG Daniel [Daniel Dnieko, an actor from Kanye West and Damon Dash films] told me if someone never snitches, don’t mess with them at all. And don’t mess with people that mess with snitches. And I’ve always practiced that as well, because if you agree to a contract and you don’t abide by it, whether it’s business or in the street, then I don’t consider that honorable on any level. So always respect what you agree to, whether it’s considered right or wrong to other people. Whatever someone else and you all have signed to, you have to abide to that, to the letter.

Who do you surround yourself with and who helps inspire you day to day?

Raquel basically spearheads mostly because I don’t like to talk to so many people, because people don’t understand me. And sometimes my message, because it’s so direct, becomes offensive. And my methods to get to the chip — I get to the chip, but I usually ruin the relationship to get there. And in dealing with men, because of so much testosterone and ego s—, they can’t take constructive criticism or guidance.

So I tend to surround myself with women, because, No. 1, I don’t want my girl around a bunch of men, and I work with my girl. I don’t want my kids around a bunch of men, my daughters. And women somewhat tend to know how to take care of other people before themselves … I guess it’s a mothering instinct … where men always want a mommy qand feel entitled to get taken care of. And I have no time for a man with a vagina. So I’d only deal with a real woman if I’m gonna deal with that.

I would say the team that I have now, Rocky cultivated it, put it together. It’s about four or five really smart, forward-thinking and very millennial-thinking.

What are you watching?

Right now I’m watching Game of Thrones. I kind of like Insecure, too. I’m really big on Insecure.

I’m also watching Growing Up Hip Hop, ’cause I’m on it.

Animated short ‘Hair Love’ to show the bond between fathers and daughters Filmmaker Matthew Cherry wants to help ‘normalize’ black fathers

Matthew Cherry’s evolution has taken him from the football field to a stint as a production assistant to music videos. Now, his résumé includes a heartwarming short film in production called Hair Love.

Cherry said the idea for the film came from watching viral videos of fathers interacting with their daughters. In particular, he focused on ones that showed fathers combing their daughters’ hair, which can be both a chore and a bonding experience.

His five-minute animated film is about the relationship between an African-American father, Stephen, his daughter, Zuri, and her hair. Although Stephen has long locks, he is used to his wife doing his daughter’s hair. When she is unavailable right before a big event, Stephen has to figure it out and concludes that Zuri’s hair has a mind of its own.

Cherry said the “story was born out of seeing a lack of representation in mainstream animated projects, and also wanting to promote hair love amongst young men and women of color. It is our hope that this project will inspire.” He took to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund the film. His initial goal was $75,000. To date he has raised almost $252,000, making Hair Love the best-funded short film in the history of Kickstarter.

Cherry, 35, is a former college wide receiver. In his four-year career at the University of Akron, he finished with nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. After college, he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens. In 2007, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment, landing work as a production assistant.

“I was just Matt the PA, and I was here to work,” Cherry said. “I was here to learn and work the game from the ground up, and that’s how I kind of got my foot in the door.”

He has worked on more than 40 commercials and was a director for more than 20 music videos for singers and entertainers such as Michelle Williams, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred The Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Take 6.

Cherry’s film The Last Fall received awards at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for Best Screenplay and Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) for the HBO Best Feature Film Award. After a limited theatrical release, it made its television premiere on BET in December 2012 and is currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu. He recently released a short film, Forward, which premiered on Ebony.com. He also writes and directs the award-winning web series Almost 30 and Almost Home.

Cherry has one sister (visual artist Caitlin Cherry) and grew up on the northwest side of Chicago.

“Sports was a big part of both of our lives growing up,” he said. “I played baseball ever since I was 5. Football ever since I was 6. Played three sports in high school. Had a full scholarship for football in college. … My existence was very much kind of tied into sports growing up.”

Cherry spoke with The Undefeated about his transition out of football, positive representation of black fathers in the media and normalizing black families.


What was your inspiration for Hair Love?

The biggest, and I think the most important, is just we’re seeing a big lack of representation in that computer-generated, animated world.

We really haven’t seen a lot black characters in that space. Bebe’s Kids was the first animated feature film directed by a black director. That came out in 1992; 25th anniversary was a couple of days ago. Peter Ramsey was the first African-American director to direct a CGI [computer-generated imagery] animated film. That was like two or three years ago, Rise of the Guardians. I think in between that time, there’s really only been those two black directors that have done like a full-length feature film in the animated space.

So we only really have had in recent years maybe four or five examples of full-length feature films that really tell our story. But a lot of times you don’t really see the whole, full family dynamic, particularly in these computer-generated feature films. The biggest thing for me is just like really seeing that lack of a presentation. … I don’t have kids myself right now, but got a serious girlfriend, and one day we’re going to get married and be having kids, and I really wanted to make sure that when I did have kids that they had a character that they could relate to.

When you look at mainstream media, and you see all the images, black hair isn’t made out to be the norm. It’s not meant to be the standard of beauty. We have a very Eurocentric standard of beauty in America, and if you watch TV, if you pick up a magazine, if you look at different things, you’re not going to see yourself represented. … You don’t see your curly, kinky hair on these different models, on these different actors and actresses, on these different music videos, etc. It can really do damage to your self-confidence and how you perceive yourself.

That’s why my biggest thing with this project, first and foremost, was just to really hopefully have some characters that were human, that showed black families in a complex but also simple manner, and just have characters that people can relate to but then try to help increase that diversity in the animation world, because representation is everything. I think my biggest thing is if a little girl can see Zuri or see Stephen, and see themselves represented, if it makes them feel better about themselves, to me, mission accomplished.

Who did you consult with about dads, daughters and hair?

I’ve actually had this idea for a couple years. I always thought it would be cute to do a story about a dad trying to do his daughter’s hair. I’ve seen a lot of kind of online videos, and my main dad friends who have kids, they’re always posting pictures and videos online of their failed attempts of trying to do their son’s and daughter’s hair, and just always thought that that would be a really cool angle to hit, particularly because the whole black father angle. I think, again, in mainstream media, we’re really nonexistent.

We look at a lot of these movies and TV shows, they always depict black dads as deadbeats, nonexistent, abusive. These fathers, they’re getting girls pregnant, running off, that whole thing, and while obviously in every race, every group, you have that negativity, but it’s always made out in the black community like that’s just all black men are. We just are deadbeat dads. We’re not in our kids’ lives.

So for me it was just really important to normalize black fathers, normalize black families. And really I think in starring a young black father and his daughter, I think that would just do wonders to kind of help normalize those images, because it’s important.

What’s been the most difficult part of moving from football to filmmaking?

The most difficult part of my journey is feeling like you have to constantly create your own opportunities. Like, to this day, nobody’s ever hired me for anything. All my opportunities have been self-generated in some fashion. Outside the music video world, from feature films to short films, it’s all been stuff that I either created with some friends or I created on my own, and sometimes it gets frustrating because you feel like, ‘I made this. This premiered at a major festival. Help me.’

Help me get to the next level. I did the work. I followed the blueprint. I did everything that they say you’re supposed to do in order to have somebody help you get to the next level. …

You make all these sacrifices like putting your mom’s life insurance money into the making of your first movie. It comes out, hey, you get a little bit of press, but nobody hires you. Damn. OK. You go away for a couple years. You do random things to kind of stay alive. Then my second feature film, 9 Rides. We shoot it on iPhones and that’s the thing that gets you noticed and gets you an agent and then you realize that all the work you and your team put in mattered after all.

They’ve seen us doing the short films for no budget. They’ve seen us doing the music videos. They’ve seen us doing these feature films and all this other stuff, so. I think the biggest, most difficult part of the journey has just been having to continuously create your own opportunities to kind of continue to put yourself in the game, and I think that there’s a lesson in that, in that you can’t predict what’s going to be the thing that hits, or is going to be the thing that helps put you on. You’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding, and eventually something’s going to hit, or eventually someone’s going to help.

Do you miss football?

Not at all. Not in the least. No, I don’t, especially with all this news about what’s been going on with players’ heads and CTE. I’m actually glad that I didn’t play too long. People have been playing since they were 5 years old, too. You know what I mean? Between Pop Warner, high school, college, you might have your five or 10 years in the league, but if you’re 25 you might have played for 20 years.

How did you prepare for your career after sports?

I studied radio, TV, broadcast and media production in college. I interned at a lot of radio stations, and I was the music director at my college radio station at the University of Akron. I interned up at the Cleveland radio stations, KISS and then on WENZ. And so I would always be kind of dabbling in production, but more of an audio-radio side, and it was something I was really interested in. I loved cutting promos, loved working with all these other kind of post-production programs, and I kind of knew even in college that whenever I got done playing ball I’d either be working in radio or some level of entertainment on the production side of things.

I signed as an undrafted free agent. My rookie year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I knew after training camp, I was like, “Yeah. I’ve got to get my plan B together,” because it was just so political. When you come in as an undrafted free agent it’s like being a walk-on, so all these things have to happen that are outside of your control in order for you to make it. Guys will generally have to get hurt or traded and all these other things. It’s not really about how you perform, necessarily. It’s about, ‘OK, can you justify putting this guy in over the guy we’re paying millions of dollars?’

And I knew literally in training camp like, ‘Yeah. This is kind of unfair. I’m doing my thing, but I’m still not getting rewarded for it on the field.’ I actually got cut during training camp, and then they re-signed me to the practice squad. That’s how they do it, and I learned when I first got cut by just feeling there was nothing more I could have done. I felt like I balled out. I did everything that I should have done to be able to make the regular team, and it didn’t happen for me.

What’s up next after Hair Love?

This has all been a roller-coaster ride. The biggest thing for me is just really trying to just continue to do projects that are personal to me. Things that I really love. We hope to be able to use the characters from Hair Love and turn it into a feature film

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.