Backstage at ‘The Late Show’ with Jon Batiste The musical director and former point guard on why it’s important to keep score

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jon Batiste reached over to the Crosley record player in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He lifted the needle so that Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle could provide a little background music while he talked in the dim glow of what once was Carol Burnett’s dressing room. Old-fashioned showbiz lights still frame the vanity’s mirror, although the vanity itself is covered with books, hats, records and a speaker. A couple of paintings lean against the mirror.

The musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was quiet and relaxed, possibly the most subdued he’d been all day.

Batiste, 31, rarely stays still, which is the only way a person can hold down his Late Show gig while also acting as artistic director at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, recording new music, promoting a Christmas album, reimagining “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, writing op-eds for The New York Times and constructing a tribute to dancer Carmen de Lavallade for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Batiste is arguably the country’s most visible preservationist and celebrator of jazz. He and Stay Human, The Late Show’s house band, reach roughly 3 million people each night through their televisions.

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Jon Batiste’s fingers glide across the keys of a Steinway & Sons piano in the Stay Human rehearsal space ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show has recently vaulted to the top of the late-night ratings on the wings of host Stephen Colbert. Monday through Friday he provides a wry yet sunny accounting of how the world is descending into a morass of fear, uncertainty and, lately, how it’s being pushed there by famous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Batiste sets off the monologues with a tinkle of piano keys, a laugh or a quip. He’s the amen corner for Colbert’s sharpest jabs.

On the gray, overcast day after a terrorist plowed into a bike path in New York, killing eight people, Batiste strode into his eighth-floor office. When he crossed the threshold to find a stranger waiting for him, he held out his hand and let out one of his trademark “Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahs.”

His buoyant, irrepressible happiness might seem inappropriate for the day after a tragedy, even for a man who comes from the land where people give you a parade when you die. (He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, about 20 minutes from New Orleans, before moving to New York as a teen to attend The Juilliard School.) Nevertheless, he was humming, scatting and upbeat. Batiste considers transmitting that energy to be part of his job.

“It’s an interesting line to thread, to find a joyous sound that also matches the tone of the material in the show,” Batiste said. “That’s the real challenge every day, is finding out, OK, how do we find that thing that’s gonna push the energy that we want forward but not come across as insensitive or not come across as kitsch or out of taste? And that’s what I enjoy. I love these artistic challenges.”

He’d been listening to The Commodores on the way to work, and he sat down on the small gray couch in his office, barely able to contain his humming until I joined him in the chorus of “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

Admittedly, it’s hard not to bop your head once you hear the lively strings and driving beat of “Lady.” The Commodores are part of a playlist that Batiste made for 2017. At the beginning of every year, he compiles a mix of songs, a sort of aural lookbook for the next 365 days. This year’s mishmash included contemporary Bob Dylan, 1920s and ’30s Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.

The yearly mix provides a thematic foundation for what Batiste wants to reference in the show. About a week after we spoke, Batiste and Stay Human played an arrangement of “Lady” during a Late Show commercial break. It’s evidence of the thoughtfulness that defines his tenure as Late Show bandleader.

“I like putting stuff into the machine and then seeing what comes out of the machine. The brain, that’s like our processing machine,” Batiste said. “So for me, I like to just make a list of all the stuff that I want to digest and assimilate and then I just live with it.”


Batiste has had years of experience putting music into his “processing machine.” He began playing with his father, Michael, in the family’s Batiste Brothers Band when he was about 6 or 7.

The Batistes are one of New Orleans’ most respected and legendary jazz clans, and they’ve often worked side by side with the Marsalis family. Both Batiste and his mentor, Wynton Marsalis, attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Wynton’s father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., headed the jazz department there and was succeeded by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a distant cousin of Jon’s.

“Him and Alvin and Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, they were like the four village elders who taught everybody in New Orleans music from the last 40 years,” Batiste said. His upbringing in a family of jazz musicians and his experiences playing point guard, both in school (where he was part of a state championship-winning squad) and for an AAU team, gave Batiste his energy, his musical acumen and his constant all-American drive for self-improvement.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

“It’s a discipline to achieve whatever your desired end result is,” Batiste explained. “In sports, there’s a score. There’s statistics, and there’s a winner and a loser and a championship, and there is one team that gets it. It’s just very clear-cut.

“I think, in order to get better at being a musician and a bandleader and a composer and all these different things, you have to create things that are that clear-cut, because the competition that you’re up against is yourself. So it’s harder, if you’re not willing to look into the mirror, to define what the end result is. It’s very easy to get to a certain level and to just coast, and to not push yourself to be better, because nobody is really keeping score.”

That constant pushing isn’t just what Batiste expects of himself. He expects it of his bandmates in Stay Human too.

It’s important to get “the team to where’s there’s a built-in camaraderie and built-in sense of purpose, that you’re OK passing your guy the ball to take the shot when it counts in the fourth quarter,” Batiste said, again likening the job to running a basketball team. “It’s not always going to be you that gets to take that shot. You may have to trust your sixth man, or your 2 guard. You’re running point, and I played a lot of point. You’re going to have to trust … I’m not going to be able to take this shot. This is not a smart shot for me to take.”


Batiste comes to work after lunch — this time, he raved about the meatball sandwich at a spot on 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue — usually taking a car from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. His office is filled with sunlight, although the view is basically of a construction crane, thanks to New York’s never-ending real estate development. He’s got two keyboards, a Mac, an amp, a drum set, an electric bass and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. An unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon still in the box, sits on his windowsill — he doesn’t drink.

He catches up on the news and tries to get an idea of what the show will address. Because Colbert riffs on the day’s news for his nightly monologue, things at The Late Show are often in flux right up until it’s time to tape the show. That means Batiste finds himself flipping through the musical library in his head on deadline and making last-minute changes at sound check.

“Picking music for TV is so specific,” Batiste said. “It has a mystery to it until you pick that right song, play that right beat, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, of course I should have been doing that.’ So it’s a mystery until then. You gotta crack the code.”

The code-cracking continues in the Stay Human rehearsal space, which is about the size of a McMansion bathroom.

Jon Batiste, left, reacts to the music while practicing new material with his band, Stay Human, a few hours ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show tapes four days a week. So Monday through Thursday, 10-plus people cram into the space with their instruments, including a tuba and a drum set, and jam.

Batiste’s assistant squeezes into a chair next to the upright Steinway and plays a song from her phone through the Marshall speaker that sits on the piano. Gradually, the band picks up the groove and joins in. There’s little to no sheet music.

Batiste and the band rehearse for roughly an hour, their choices guided by that night’s guests and notes from a morning production meeting that his assistant attends. Then he’s off to comedy rehearsal with Colbert, where the two go through Colbert’s proposed monologue. A small gathering of crew makes up the audience for the rehearsal, which was kept so off-limits that not only could I not watch, I couldn’t even be in the building while it was taking place.

All those little riffs and interjections that feel natural and spontaneous when you watch Colbert’s monologue? They’ve been rehearsed.

After comedy rehearsal, Colbert and his staff make script changes and Batiste refines his music selections. Then there’s a sound check on the stage with the whole band. This time, Batiste was working through a song with Jonathan Groff, who played King George in Hamilton and now stars on the Netflix series Mindhunter. The two fumbled around to find the right key for a jokey promotional duet for Mindhunter that Groff sang with Colbert.

While everyone ventured off to hair and makeup, Late Show staff members shepherded the night’s audience into their seats. They were treated to a bawdy warm-up act by comedian Paul Mecurio. Batiste and Stay Human played a 15-minute concert, and Colbert came out, introduced himself to the audience and took questions.

Finally, they make the television that shows up after the local news five nights a week.


Duke Ellington favored natty suits and a top hat. Cab Calloway rarely performed without his conductor’s baton, white waistcoat and tails.

While Colbert sticks to a uniform of sober suits and dress shoes, his bandleader favors blazers from Mr. Turk and fresh Jordans. Batiste is a consummate sneakerhead, and while he sat and talked on his sofa, he casually dribbled a basketball between his feet.

Now Batiste has access to an entire collection of covetous footwear, an actual binder full of sneakers, via The Late Show’s stylist. He’s an admirer of Russell Westbrook’s sartorial boundary-pushing, and though his loyalties are not wedded to one particular NBA team, he casually follows Oklahoma City.

Unlike Calloway, Batiste doesn’t come out in a zoot suit every night. But there’s a special element of showmanship involved in being a bandleader. It’s a skill, one that Batiste, who swears he used to be shy, had to learn. And his personal style, which he began to cultivate after moving to New York, is part of it. Presentation, he insists, is separate from being a skillful musician.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I think it really is important to think of them as different things,” Batiste said. “It requires a certain understanding of yourself and your comfort zone, and then stepping outside that and expanding your comfort zone. I actually didn’t see a connection with the two. Also, when I was growing up, it was more the older family members who took that role of presenting the band and everything like that. … That’s always a shock to people who I’ve known for a long time, to see how both those things have developed. It’s a surprise, almost, like a different person has emerged.”


Batiste interprets the world through the youthful ears of a wizened soul. His workspaces at The Late Show are a cornucopia of old and new. Crosley and Marshall are companies that specialize in making music equipment that draws on vintage aesthetics but benefits from modern technological innovation. It’s a theme that recurs throughout Batiste’s working life — he began playing for vocalist Cassandra Wilson, now 61, when he was just 22. He’s a jazz musician whose instrument of choice is the melodica, a contraption that looks like a small hand keyboard with a mouthpiece and sounds like a harmonica.

“A lot of people think that this instrument, you know, is like a child’s toy,” Batiste said, but he loves it. He recounted how he showed it to Stevie Wonder the first time they met, when Batiste was still a student at Juilliard.

“Man, you ever played one of these?” Batiste asked Wonder.

Wonder took the instrument, played it, then gave it back.

“Yeah, I used to play them, but I would get so much spit in them, I stopped,” Wonder told him.

“Oh, you got jokes!” was Batiste’s retort.

Unlike many of his earliest predecessors in jazz, Batiste boasts formal musical training besides everything he learned in his family’s band. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

“I feel like it connects me to the ancestors more, the kind of founding fathers of the music,” Batiste said of his musical education. “Mothers and fathers, because women were a big part of it as well. There’s a lot of female artists that I think are still actually becoming recognized that we don’t even know about. The training just gives me another tool. Nothing can hurt you in pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of your craft.

“You know, there were great musicians who were the most erudite, studied, and they knew everything there was to know even before there were all these schools. And there were also musicians who didn’t know all that stuff, but they knew it in their own way. So, in my mind, I don’t even think about it like I’m educated more so than a musician who didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s just I know the terminology. But the person who knows it is the one who experiences it. So, if somebody is playing it on their instrument, they know it. … Whether they call it a C scale or dominant seventh chord or they just know it by whatever they know in their mind, when they play, it’s there.”

In Batiste’s office there’s a poster of Mavis Staples, one of his many heroes.

“She’s not just a musician now, she’s bigger than music,” Batiste said. “[Her involvement] in the civil rights movement and being a force for goodwill and a force of peace and a force for faith and a force in all kinds of ways. It’s amazing.”

Staples represents what he wants to achieve, Batiste said, “just what kind of energy I want to have as a performer and a celebrity. Somebody that’s authentic and is very real and also accomplished and all that, at the same time.”

In marrying youth with tradition, drawing a line from zoot suits to Jordans, Batiste has become a vehicle for advocating and communicating about jazz. He’s reverential, but not stuffy, and always repping New Orleans. (When it comes to gumbo, Batiste prefers filé to okra as a thickener for the city’s signature stew — that’s how his mama makes it.)

For decades, there’s been a panic that jazz, born in Louisiana and spread via the Great Migration, radio and vinyl, is dying. As once-booming jazz corridors in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Kansas City have shrunk or transformed, those changes are accompanied by understandable worries that no one’s interested in carrying on the genre’s traditions, that a uniquely American art form is going underappreciated outside of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and rich people’s wedding receptions. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for directing a movie around that theme.

But there’s always a young, handsome, passionate and charismatic ambassador keeping the legacies of Bird and Miles and Satchmo alive. In the ’90s, it was Batiste’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis. Now Batiste has picked up the torch, along with the requisite fedora and porkpie hat — he’s got a stack of them in his dressing room and more in his office. As for the next generation? Well, Batiste turned 31 in November. He celebrated by traveling to see his 8-year-old nephew’s piano recital. The culture is in safe hands.

No matter if it’s a rehearsal or an actual performance, Batiste and his band member play full out, laughing and having fun with each note they play.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I don’t expect that jazz is always going to be on top like it was in the ’20s, for example,” said jazz pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. “The music is always evolving and constantly changing, and it’s very difficult for a lot of listeners to keep up with that.”

But he’s optimistic about Batiste’s work on The Late Show. “That experience is incredible because you’re challenged in a lot of new ways, doing that type of TV show,” Hancock said. “Because of the kind of talent he has and his experience in jazz, he’s able to more easily adapt and include new ways of dealing with the music for that kind of show than if he had not had it.”


As darkness began to settle over Manhattan, it was time for a show.

Batiste sprinted onstage to greet the show’s live audience. Joined by Stay Human, they pumped up the crowd with James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and an arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” modeled after Tito Puente’s salsa-fied version.

One of Colbert’s guests was writer and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, who was there to promote his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. To introduce Isaacson, the band played an up-tempo rendition of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans ditty from 1902 later popularized by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“I grew up with his whole family,” Isaacson explained to Colbert. “The wonderful Batiste family of New Orleans.” Isaacson gestured toward Batiste. “He’s a great man.”

When the interview concluded, Isaacson walked over for a hug, thrilled that Batiste had chosen to pay musical homage to their shared roots.

Later, Colbert said goodbye and the band exited. While the audience made its way to the lobby, stopping for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Colbert, Batiste huddled with the host for a post-mortem of the night’s show.

The process of assembling and putting out a newspaper used to be known as the Daily Miracle. Making late-night television involves many of the same pressures related to accuracy, tone and intellect. On top of that, it’s got to be funny, and it’s done in front of a live audience.

No wonder The Late Show tapes smack in the middle of Broadway. With Colbert and Batiste at the helm, it’s clear that’s exactly where it belongs.

This is what happens when a black cop calls out racism in her own department

Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform

“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

Black and Blue: Meet San Francisco PD’s Lt. Yulanda Williams

On her day of reckoning, Sgt. Yulanda Williams did not wear the blue. Stomach churning, too nervous to eat much breakfast, she drove across the Bay Bridge into the city. Her mother had pleaded with her to reconsider, but she had given her word: She was going to tell the world about the racism in the San Francisco Police Department.

Williams entered the massive white stone library on Larkin Street, within sight of City Hall. A blue-ribbon panel organized by the district attorney was investigating a shocking string of racist text messages exchanged by 14 officers. Williams would be the only black police officer to testify in public. Others were too afraid.

Waiting to speak, Williams, 61, thought about the years of struggle between black and blue in San Francisco. About promotions denied, slurs hurled, disparate discipline. About complaints filed by the black Officers for Justice organization, and warnings to keep quiet from the police officers union, which wielded considerable influence inside the department. About the text messages from fellow officers that called her a n—– b—-.

Then Williams told her truth: The police force suffered from systemic and institutionalized racism. Not all cops are racist, she said, but the culture of the department allowed racism to fester, to corrupt, and sometimes to explode.

“I’m black, and I will never be blue enough,” she testified. “I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

The date was Jan. 14, 2016. Within weeks, the president of the police union all but branded her a traitor in a public letter, making Williams fear for her safety on the job. Internal affairs investigators accused her of several questionable violations, including wearing her uniform while shopping off-duty in a Walmart. Someone broke into her house and stole her laptop, but ignored her jewelry and six guns.

As the problems mounted, Williams took the lieutenant’s exam in late 2016 and scored ninth out of 145 candidates. That should have made her a lock for advancement — but officers cannot be promoted with unresolved disciplinary actions.

“Blue is a profession and a career. Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement,” Williams said over the summer as she waited for a decision on her promotion. “However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.

“Blue is a color,” she said. “Black is my self, my skin. And that cannot change.”

No more than a toehold

San Francisco’s black neighborhoods are in the southeast corner of the city, against the shipyards and docks that in the 1940s and ‘50s attracted refugees from the Jim Crow South. But unlike other urban endpoints of the Great Migration, African-Americans never secured more than a toehold inside San Francisco’s city limits. In the 1960s, even as the city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance grew, African-Americans were segregated into the Bayview, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.

Conditions there were so oppressive that famed essayist and novelist James Baldwin said during a 1963 trip to the city that “there is no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In 1966, Hunters Point residents rioted for three days after a white cop shot an unarmed teen running from a stolen car. The city’s black population peaked at 13 percent in 1970, then steadily declined to its current 6 percent.

Williams grew up with three siblings in a two-story home in Potrero Hill that her father, a city plumber and assistant church pastor, built himself. Her mother, now 95, still lives there. Williams attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked her way up to a position as regional credit manager for Holiday Inn. In the late ’80s, divorced with two young daughters, she bought her first home, near the corner of Third Street and Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview.

This was the height of the crack epidemic. The drug traffic on her corner was crazy, and the police seemed ineffective. Williams sent her daughters to stay with her mother and helped organize a “take back our streets” march along Third Street that drew hundreds of citizens, clergy and politicians.

Williams speaks with a young man who approached her on the streets of San Francisco.

After the march, she began working with the local police and met several members of Officers for Justice, which had successfully sued the city in 1973 to increase diversity on the force. They urged Williams to sign up.

“I didn’t want to lose my feminine qualities by doing something I considered was primarily a man’s job,” she recalled during an interview at the OFJ headquarters while wearing large hoop earrings, a tiny diamond nose stud, eight rings, nine bracelets, and long, glittery nails with pointed white tips.

The pay was about the same as her hotel position, but the benefits were better. “I told [OFJ] I was not willing to cut my hair, I was not willing to not wear makeup, I wasn’t willing to give up my manicures and my pedicures.” She hit the Bayview streets on foot patrol in June 1990, with her hair pinned up in a bun beneath her cap.

Williams loved being able to help her people. The drug trade persisted, of course, and some nights she had to leave her house wearing a robe and carrying her gun to talk to the boys on Third Street. But everyone knew she cared, and she earned the street nickname “Auntie.”

Black and Blue: San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood

The OFJ headquarters was four blocks down Third from Williams’ home. When she first joined the force, she thought OFJ had already won the battle for equality. In 1965, only 55 of 1,726 officers were black, three were Asian-American, and almost every police chief since the start of the century had been a white, Catholic man. The OFJ’s lawsuit changed that. The 2,200-member department is now 50 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Filipino and 17 percent other Asian.

Williams figured everything was kumbaya. Soon, though, she started to notice things.

On patrol, she saw cops targeting African-Americans. White officers seemed to get lighter discipline — especially if they had gone to high school at Archbishop Riordan, Sacred Heart or St. Ignatius, the source of generations of the city’s cops. She heard of a lieutenant who told a black officer wearing gold chains, “What are you doing wearing that n—– jewelry?” When tests were administered for promotions, black officers rarely advanced. After taking the lieutenant’s exam, she wondered whether she would be another casualty of the system.

Williams put in 11 years on the street, then moved on to work as an academy instructor, field training officer, precinct captain’s assistant and school resource officer. She sold her house in the Bayview and moved to a four-bedroom home in a suburban East Bay neighborhood. She made sergeant in 2012 after placing 46th out of 382 officers who took the exam. She was elected vice president and then president of Officers for Justice and also served on the board of the police union.

Police in uber-expensive San Francisco are among the highest-paid in the country, and Williams’ annual base pay reached $144,000. She indulged her passion for Mercedes automobiles, eventually collecting five used but pristine Benzes. She remarried, enjoyed her six grandchildren, continued to advocate for officers of color and prepared to retire on a pension that will provide 95 percent of her salary for the rest of her life.

Then Sgt. Ian Furminger got arrested for robbing drug dealers.

A horrifying exchange

“My [wife’s] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black!” Furminger texted another cop. “[He is] an Attorney but should I be worried?”

“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots … not against the law to put an animal down,” was the response.

“Well said!” Furminger texted back.

“You may have to kill the half-breeds too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyway,” his fellow officer responded.

Those were some of the milder bigoted messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco Police Department officers on their personal phones over nine months in 2011 and 2012. Equally horrifying was that so many references to N-words, savages and cross-burnings remained under wraps for years, only coming to light in 2015 because of an appeals court filing in Furminger’s conviction.

The case scandalized famously diverse and progressive San Francisco. How could the police department’s culture allow such virulent racism to persist?

To find out, District Attorney George Gascon, who had briefly been chief of the Police Department, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement. Denied city funding for an exhaustive investigation, Gascon secured the pro bono services of judges, law firms and law schools and started gathering evidence.

His every step was resisted by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

Blurred lines

When Williams testified about institutional racism, she fired a direct shot at a historic foe.

The officers’ union fought the 1973 lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring practices. As far as the union was concerned, any lack of minority representation was the result of a lack of ability among the minorities themselves. “Our attornies (sic) are confident they can refute all charges,” soon-to-be union president Bob Barry wrote in the June 1978 issue of the union newspaper.

Police unions across the country serve as a combination guard dog, priest and defense attorney for cops. Circling the wagons is the default. In San Francisco, the union fought case after case in which African-Americans were slain by police under questionable circumstances, from George Baskett in 1968 to Aaron Williams in 1997 to Mario Woods in 2016. Recently, the union beat back reforms such as more access to police disciplinary records, stricter use-of-force guidelines, and rules to prevent officers from watching body camera footage before writing arrest reports.

In 2016, union consultant and former president Gary Delagnes complained on Facebook about officers reporting another cop’s offensive racial remarks: “Officers are now being encouraged to be trained snitches. … This officer did nothing wrong other than making an ill-advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media. Disgusting!”

The San Francisco Police Department is run by the police chief, who is chosen by the mayor. But the union represents officers up to the rank of captain, giving it a huge amount of influence over promotions, work assignments and the culture of the department.

“The lines were blurred between the department itself and the union,” said Gascon, the district attorney and former chief. “They became so blurred, they were basically working in concert.”

The San Francisco police union does many good deeds, including giving money to officers in need, donating to organizations in minority communities, paying the expenses of tourists struck by tragedy in the city and sponsoring a trip to Africa for black youths.

But its primary function is to defend cops.

From the start of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s work, the association told its members not to talk without a union lawyer present — even though they were not under criminal investigation, according to the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian. Except for Williams, he said, no officers of color would testify on the record: “They felt like their career advancement and day-to-day interaction was threatened and jeopardized by public participation in this process.”

“I have never seen so much resistance to reform in a police department as I’ve seen in San Francisco,” said LaDoris H. Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge who has worked on police oversight cases nationwide and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Union president Martin Halloran did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story. Last year, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union isn’t opposed to reform: “Any time there is a little bit of pushback from the POA … the perception according to certain politicians is that we’re the elephant in the room, that we’re the obstructionists. We’re not. We just want to make sure this is done right.”

But his combative views are clear in acidic union newspaper editorials and frequent public letters — such as his response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

In August 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback cited police killings and cops “getting paid leave and getting away with murder” as a reason he would not stand for the national anthem. Halloran’s response sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accused Kaepernick of pushing “a false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”

“Perhaps he could lend his commentary to the over 8,000 murders that African Americans inflicted on one another in 2015,” Halloran wrote.

Williams doesn’t follow sports, but she noticed Kaepernick’s protest and the movement that now engulfs the NFL. She didn’t take Kaepernick’s protest personally: “I know he’s not talking about me.” She saw his stance as speaking up for the voiceless in the black community, and she was delighted when NFL players responded to President Donald Trump’s profane insult by increasing their protests.

The parallels to her own faceoff with the union were inescapable.

“I felt a kinship with Kaepernick because of the fact that, here’s a man who had the conviction to stand for something he believed in. Whether it was right or wrong, it was his belief, and it was his feelings and he expressed them, and he explained why. I did the same thing, and then look what happens to us,” Williams said.

“I felt like he was a whistleblower for what he was talking about, and I was a whistleblower. And the whistleblowers unfortunately seem to never win. They seem to be ostracized, and people try and fight against them and shut them down.”

Worried about her safety

The worst part of her ordeal, Williams said, came from the letter Halloran published in the union newspaper about her testimony, characterizing her statements as “uninformed, inflammatory and disparaging” and insisting there was no evidence of widespread racism in the department.

“Yolanda,” Halloran wrote, not only addressing the 61-year-old officer by her first name but misspelling it, “the references to you in the text messages were disgusting. However, I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair.”

She resigned from the union, and her decision was plastered on precinct fliers. She had to explain to her subordinates that she hadn’t called them racists. She feared that if she needed backup, other officers would not respond.

“When you work with someone in this type of environment, your life’s on the line every day,” she said. “You expect people to come for backup. … You trust them with your life. You depend on them for your life.”

As the Blue Ribbon Panel investigation proceeded, cellphone footage of the shooting of Mario Woods fueled national outrage. Three months later, another batch of racist texts was discovered, from a separate set of officers.

In February 2016, the Department of Justice announced a review of the department. On May 19, police killed an unarmed black woman in a stolen car in the Bayview. Hours after that shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr lost his job — despite strong support from the union.

In July 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel released its final report. It concluded that the Police Department lacked transparency and oversight, needed to rebuild community trust and should pay greater attention to the potential for racial bias. The report noted that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without consent but were less likely to be found with contraband than other ethnic and racial groups.

“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”

In October 2016, the Justice Department released its report, recommending 272 changes designed to correct “deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices.” The report also identified “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” — exactly what Williams had testified about seven months earlier.

But vindication in the Justice Department’s 414-page document was cold comfort. A decision on Williams’ promotion was still pending.

After Suhr’s departure, the union urged Mayor Ed Lee to replace him with interim chief Toney Chaplin, a black career San Francisco officer. Instead, Lee chose an outsider: William Scott, the highest-ranking African-American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott pledged to fulfill the recommendations of the Justice Department report. In an email to union members, Halloran said the mayor had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.”

On Sept. 25, Williams learned that Scott would promote her to lieutenant.

Williams’ work in the community ranges from meeting residents to mentoring youths to trying to open a dialogue between the police force and residents.

A new lieutenant at last

On a brilliant Saturday in October, the soon-to-be Lt. Williams left her house for a community event in the Bayview, her old neighborhood. She chose her black 2006 Mercedes S430 sedan with YOOLOGY plates and the glass tinted dark. She calls the car Black Beauty.

Sipping a smoothie behind the wheel, nails cut short because of a new departmental directive requiring them to be no more than an eighth of an inch long — she refers to it as the “Yulanda Rule” — Williams reflected on her journey.

“It feels a little victorious. I don’t want to claim that there’s nothing else to be done,” she said. “I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

She parked outside the Bayview Opera House, where several dozen community organizations and a lively crowd had gathered for Neighborfest. Williams’ old house was across the street, within sight of the corner where drug drama pushed her into policing almost 30 years ago. She kept her gun in her purse.

People inquired about her mother and congratulated her on the promotion. She spoke briefly to the crowd, urging everyone to consider a career with the police department. The band played Sly and the Family Stone.

“Auntie!” cried Vincent Tally, known as Tally-Ho. He used to roam the corner drunk, loud and disorderly. Williams would send him home, but she never arrested him. Now he’s been sober for two years.

“She loves everybody. She treats everybody the same. She doesn’t discriminate,” Tally-Ho said. He kissed Williams’ hand. “One thing she will do, though. She see you out of pocket? You in trouble!”

Two weeks later, Williams and two other black sergeants were sworn in and received the gold collar bars of a lieutenant. Three black lieutenants were elevated to captain.

There are now 19 black officers in leadership positions — the most in the 168-year history of the San Francisco Police Department.

What the Ibtihaj Muhammad doll means for African-American Muslim women ‘A black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim’

Barbie has long been a name synonymous with the ideal standard of beauty for many girls growing up in the U.S. Introduced nearly 60 years ago, the doll has been problematic for exactly that same reason for almost as long: facing criticism of being hypersexual, promoting unrealistic body expectations and sorely lacking in diversity.

Perhaps that’s why the announcement Monday from U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad that manufacturer Mattel was releasing its first hijab-wearing, African-American, Muslim Barbie doll in her own image filled me with equal parts pride and wonder.

Bronze medalist Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal for the United States, unboxed the doll at the Glamour Women of the Year Summit in New York. Clad in a crisp white fencing uniform complete with saber, helmet and white headscarf, the doll is part of Barbie’s Shero collection, which recognizes women “who break boundaries to inspire the next generation of girls,” according to Mattel.

I remember well one of the last Barbie dolls I coveted. Dressed in a canary yellow tee, fuchsia jeans and aqua blue hiking boots, Camp Barbie represented the epitome of cool to my 10-year-old self in 1993. Sporty and chic, her yellow sunglasses complemented her purple backpack-turned-sleeping bag adorned with glow-in-the-dark stars.

Her name was Midge, and she was introduced by Mattel as Barbie’s best friend. Best of all, her strawberry blonde hair changed colors in the sun, or so the box promised.

But in my household, that of a preteen African-American Muslim girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the odds that I would be able to bring her home were slim. The hitch: My mother was adamant about raising her three daughters with a healthy sense of self that included images and toys with hair and skin that resembled ours.

I considered myself a Barbie aficionado, collecting all the black versions of the doll I could get my hands on: from Totally Hair Barbie, whose long, textured strands reached all the way to her heels, to Babysitting Skipper, whose bouncy black curls rivaled those of the three baby dolls she accompanied.

But black Barbie dolls were hard to find — practically nonexistent in neighborhoods outside of majority-black areas, or relegated to a dusty corner even in the stores that did sell them. Still, those dolls often were not the newest and coolest and, crucially for my 10-year-old self, not available with skin that looked like mine.

I may not have appreciated at the time my mother’s push to ensure my dolls looked like me. As an adult, I now get it. It represented one of the few avenues in which she had the power to curate the images her children were seeing and the faces that would help color our imagination.

Even if the commercials of my childhood never explicitly negated my worth, they paraded women with silky brunette, blonde or strawberry blonde hair in their shampoo, makeup and clothing ads. Even if the magazines geared toward my younger self claimed to be for all girls, they rarely featured any who looked like me.

Perhaps that’s why the symbolism of Muhammad’s announcement was not lost on my peers and I who noted, with awe, that the first Muslim, hijab-wearing Barbie is also black.

Her announcement comes at a time in which the erasure of African-American Muslims seems particularly pronounced. A time in which a major black women’s lifestyle magazine released a list of “100 Woke Women” and yet couldn’t seem to find one woke African-American Muslim woman to include among them.

This erasure reinforces the idea that Muslim equals Arab, South Asian, immigrant, anyone other than an athletic, Olympic medal-winning black woman from New Jersey — one with a modest clothing line, hundreds of thousands of social media followers and now a Barbie in her likeness.

The introduction of this doll lends support to the reality that a black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim. A notion driven home by statistics that estimate a significant percentage of the enslaved Africans brought to this country were Muslim.

In a week when one of the most widely shared articles about hijab on my social media feed involved a Tennessee teacher posting Snapchat video of her young student’s headscarf being pulled off, along with captions “pretty hair” and “lol all that hair cover up,” Barbie’s latest edition goes a long way toward reinforcing the notion that beauty can be defined in myriad ways, including with hijab.

Malika Bilal with her 8-year-old niece, Hana.

Courtesy of Malika Bilal

Most of all, Muhammad’s announcement matters because representation matters. It matters to the many girls and young women who’ve messaged me over the five years I’ve co-hosted a daily talk show, as my channel’s first — and only — woman in hijab to do so. Their messages are full of encouragement and a sense of wonderment at being shown that a career path like mine is possible.

And it matters to those around the world who witnessed two black Muslim women in hijab on their television screens as I interviewed Muhammad before an audience of millions of households, days after the New Jersey fencer learned she had qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. Among those watching, there could very well have been a young girl who will now aspire to enter sports, and fencing in particular, because Muhammad placed that dream on her radar. Because beyond the image of a gorgeous hijab-wearing doll, Muhammad’s Barbie is athletic and unapologetically so.

It’s not just young girls who are representation-starved. Grown women like myself, and the many who’ve retweeted, reposted and reblogged the Barbie announcement, are just as excited, not just for the next generation of girls but also for ourselves.

Recently on a visit home to Chicago, my 8-year-old niece insisted upon showing me her new Barbie dolls. In her possession were members of the Fashionista line, featuring Barbie and Ken dolls in various shades of brown and black, and a range of body types — some slim, others thick. A Barbie with an Afro, a Ken with cornrows. Although I’m firmly in my 30s and have long since put away my toys, I couldn’t help but be a little wistful that options like hers did not exist when I was her age.

So when the Ibtihaj Muhammad Shero Barbie goes on sale in 2018, I’ll be ordering one to add to my niece’s collection. But I’m not ashamed to admit that another one just might find a home in my house as well.

The top 16 sports-themed music videos We ranked them on two major factors: song popularity/relevance and the quality of the sports theme acted out

What are the best sports-themed music videos ever created? A simple question, but one that appeared to go unanswered when doing a casual stroll of the internet.

These aren’t videos in which the artist is just wearing a jersey, these are the videos in which a sport is being played.

On Wednesday, Space Jam celebrated its 21st birthday, and from that movie we were blessed with some memorable sports-themed music videos. But that got a few of us at The Undefeated thinking about what would rank as the best sports-themed music video and then what would the rest of the list look like.

Thanks to sports/culture writer Justin Tinsley, strategic analyst Brittany Grant, associate video producer Morgan Moody and audience development editor Marcus Matthews, here’s what we came up with after two days of discussion.

The list ultimately was decided and ranked on two major factors: song popularity/relevance and the quality of the sports theme acted out in the video. Other contributing factors were considered for where songs should be placed.


16. used to This/Future ft. Drake

Both Future and Drake are up there in terms of artists who’ve been putting out hits consistently over the past few years (They have a whole album together, and Future gave us our national anthem, “March Madness.”) That being said, “Used to This” took the last spot because it was essentially “Best I Ever Had.” The only difference was the women who were dressed like they were about to play soccer instead of basketball, and slipping on a jersey and having women stretch for three minutes does not make for a strong sports-themed video.

15. best I Ever Had/Drake

We don’t have to say too much for this song. Yes, “Best I Ever Had” was hot when it came out, but even the actresses in the video said, “All you taught us how to do was stretch.” That “Used to This” kind of took from “Best I Ever Had’s” example of having women in uniforms stretching but not actually playing is the only reason it didn’t come in dead last on this list.

14. space Jam/Quad City DJ’s

We wish somebody would tell us Space Jam had a better video than “Hit ‘Em High.” We would hee-hee and keke like we’ve never done so before in our lives. Just how does the song named after the movie not have a better video? And that was one of the reasons “Space Jam” received such a low ranking.

Crumping on a basketball court and doing a little shoulder shake doesn’t make for a sports-themed music video. If we’re keeping it a stack, the song is kind of riding on the movie’s coattails. The sports portion of the video comes exclusively from snippets of the movie.

Otherwise, we’d have a music video of referees and dancers twerking and break-dancing. Look, if Michael Jackson can play basketball against Michael Jordan, Space Jam could’ve come up with something.

13. jam/Michael Jackson

Jackson made a whole video playing basketball in his dress shoes. He played a short game of H-O-R-S-E against the best basketball player in the world, Michael Jordan, and then he tried to teach Jordan how to dance. Iconic. You had to know that eventually both of the most famous people with the MJ initials would work together, and look at God not disappointing.

Then we come to find out that Jackson is later in the video playing in the 5-on-5 game on that random court inside the warehouse. We have questions, like tons, about why such a pristine court is just chilling in a warehouse.

12. basketball/Kurtis Blow

Kurtis, Kurtis, Kurtis, why were your teammates randomly fighting in the middle of the game? More importantly, why did they decide that instead of your standard square up, they were going to pick kung fu as their fighting technique of choice? Like one of these dudes brought out nunchucks and another had a stick. This is a really violent brawl, and we couldn’t identify anything that happened to warrant all that.

You’ve got dunking in the sky, but the game is being played at night. Just what’s the truth? Kurtis, even you looked confused. The cheerleaders were also mad basic, and if you’re going to have a video start with them, they had at least better be coordinated.

But points were given for the players wearing Converse shoes, maintaining hair throughout all of that action and Blow rapping straight facts about the history of the game.

11. movin’ On/Mya ft. silkk the shocker

Since we’ve mentioned several videos on this list that used cheerleaders as background pieces in their video, consideration was given to Mya doing the inverse in “Movin’ On.” We can argue about whether cheerleading is a sport another day, because at the end of the day, a whole basketball game was being played in the background.

Mya was at peak popularity in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and not only did she not care that home boy scored the game winner, she cheered her life away, gave the most “I can’t be bothered” eye rolls to ol’ boy and then drove off with her new boo. Look up the definition of unfazed in the dictionary and that last 30 seconds of “Movin’ On” will be patiently waiting for you.

10. pop Bottles/Birdman ft. Lil Wayne

Y’all out here drinking champagne with a few seconds left in a close game? Y’all wild. And seeing as that was really the only sports scene acted out in the video, points had to be deducted.

If you just take a second to think about the sheer number of tracks that Wayne was featured on in 2007 and until he released Tha Carter III, the production is crazy. There wasn’t a feature Wayne didn’t like during that stretch.

Now, going back to “Pop Bottles,” most people know that when a sports team wins a championship, the players celebrate by popping bottles of champagne, spraying it on one another — it’s a whole mess. But in a way, since Wayne and his teammates were drinking champagne before he hit the game winner, that tells you just how much confidence they had that they were going to win. We’re talking “Wipe Me Down,” “gas tank on E, but all drinks on me” levels of confidence.

9. basketball/Lil Bow Wow ft. Jermaine Dupri, Fabolous and fundisha

Any video that includes Fabolous making four or five jersey switches deserves an automatic place in the top of any sports-themed music video ranking. And the basketball played in Lil Bow Wow’s cover of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” was far and away better quality, which is why it received the higher ranking.

That dude playing basketball in Timbs with socks up to his knees nearly knocked this thing down a peg, but fashion in these videos isn’t a deal breaker. The chain-link net also added some points to the overall score.

8. fight Night/Migos

Quite frankly, “Fight Night” couldn’t have had a music video that was anything other than a boxing match. Facts. You’re not going to have a song with that title and talk about Rocky, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and not have the music video showing a boxing match. You’re bugging otherwise.

But that wasn’t the scenario the Migos gave us. The fight looks like it was fought in Las Vegas, they had a weigh-in and news conference, and the main event was spliced together with a dramatic, classic opera score.

During the fight itself, we’re most impressed with how these women’s edge control maintained and how their eyebrows remained fleeky throughout the bout. Wow, their faces withstood water and sweat, so it must have been the tears of God in their setting spray bottles, because their makeup was undefeated in that fight.

7. hardball/Lil’ Bow Wow ft. LiL Wayne, Lil Zane & Sammie

So instead of playing a baseball game on an actual grass field, these cats played on a blacktop diamond in front of fans wearing basketball jerseys to a baseball game. They wore baggy jean shorts and baggy oversized baseball jerseys and sported eye black, which is commonly used in football and, to a lesser degree, baseball. But, hey! At least they had the bat flips down pat.

This song came out in 2001 when Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds were at their respective peaks. Sosa gets a cameo in the video, while Griffey is mentioned throughout the song. So sort of similar to our top pick in terms of a black athlete having a tremendous rise at that time and playing off it.

6. I Don’t F— With You/Big Sean

Big Sean real live threw the ball to the defender on the opening play of the video. That ball was absolutely nowhere near his intended receiver. We hate that the only football-themed video in this list had to start like that.

How was Big Sean the No. 1 recruit in the nation, and with four minutes left on the clock he’s throwing ducks? The plot did not do this video any favors, but after some debate, it was important to remember that, ultimately, he did lead the black team back from a 24-14 deficit with less than four minutes to play. He also hit that O button hard to spin past that would-be tackler for the game-winning touchdown.

Kanye West as your coach, E-40 as the announcer and Teyana Taylor as a cheerleader were all winners for their respective roles in the video. Overall, the cheerleaders didn’t do a whole bunch for the culture as much as the ones in our top five, so the video was docked points for that.

As for the cultural impact, Big Sean just made a song about a mood a lot of people were already on. The song was a whole mood driving, playing sports, for that one co-worker you’ve got. Big Sean really had a banger with this one that anyone could relate to.

5. Hit Em High/B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, LL Cool J And Busta Rhymes

“Hit Em High” was the best song from Space Jam. Don’t @ us. And it was without question the best music video of the songs from that movie. And if for whatever reason you can’t look at that track’s lineup without feeling the need to pick up a basketball and find the nearest blacktop, then we truly have nothing to talk about.

If we had to imagine a theme song and the video to accompany it for the Monstars theme song, this black-and-white video with black-and-white jerseys, a black-and-white court and fans wearing nothing but black-and-white clothes shot with a fisheye lens at points would be it.

We shouldn’t have to spell out Space Jam‘s credentials to y’all, BUT if we must, this movie blended the Looney Tunes (some of the greatest cartoon characters from childhood) with the greatest basketball player of all time (Michael Jordan) and turned out a timeless classic. You didn’t need to know exactly how Jordan was going to win that game, you just needed to know that the man WHO NEVER LOST A SINGLE NBA FINALS wasn’t about to lose in this movie either.

4. take It To Da House/Trick Daddy ft. Trina

A historically black college and university style band to kick-start the video? A full house doing the wave — we cannot tell y’all how much we wish this song came out after the “Swag Surf,” ’cause that is black people’s version of the wave.

Cheerleading captain Trina leading the “Sha walla, walla, sha bang, bang, sha walla, walla, slip-n-side thing, what, what, shut up” cheer? And an epic comeback that’s complete with a missed free throw that is dunked so hard it shatters the glass to win the game.

And the beat slapped? Oh, Trick Daddy DID THAT with “Take it to Da House.”

3. batter Up/Nelly, St. Lunatics

A whole run was scored because of a pit bull intimidating the pitcher and umpire. The national anthem starts: “The fish don’t fry in the kitchen, beans don’t burn on the grill.” The scorekeeper is using the grease from St. Louis-style ribs to keep the score. And the trophy has a gold rim on the top.

We genuinely don’t believe that the video could’ve been any more St. Louis if Nelly had wanted it to. A woman had a weave made of a baseball mitt and baseballs all sewn in, and that wasn’t even the least believable thing in the video.

The twerking on the mascot, oversized pants, outfits made completely of denim and the “U-G-L-Y” chant are perfectly early 2000s.

2. make Em Say Uhh/Master P Ft. Fiend, Silkk The Shocker, Mia X & Mystikal

When I look at this video, I genuinely wonder why in the world it appears Master P is playing against his own teammates. And because part of the ranking is based on the actual sports scene being played out, “Make Em Say Uhh” took a tumble in my original ranking.

However, my co-workers insisted the cultural relevance, the fact that Master P dominated the latter part of the ’90s and, as Morgan Moody put it, “Master P had a tank on a basketball court!” should absolve him of that. I mean, if I don’t question the gold tank in the opening scene and the gorilla, then dunking on your own teammates is forgivable.

Master P also got points for having Shaquille O’Neal in the video going crazy after he alley’d to himself and, as Rembert Browne put it in his 2013 Grantland article, “The best cheerleading section. They make the Compton Clovers look like the cast of Pitch Perfect.” Can’t forget wearing do-rags for street basketball either. That was crucial here.

1. mo Money Mo Problems/The Notorious B.I.G, Puff Daddy, Mase

Mase Gumble as the color commentator, Puffy Woods winning the Bad Boy World Champion PGA Tour, and that spectator was spot on when he said, “He’s unstoppable” before that iconic beat drops.

Forget 10 years later as Puff Daddy (P. Diddy) said in the video, 20 years later, “Mo Money Mo Problems” is still on top. And the fact of the matter is that thanks to “Mo Money Mo Problems,” Notorious B.I.G. achieved two posthumous No. 1 singles. The first was “Hypnotize,” which hit the top of the Billboard charts on May 3, 1997.

First off, Puff went with a golf theme, playing off Tiger Woods’ triumph at the 1997 Masters, so the video won points for going with a sport that black folks aren’t traditionally associated with. Second, Hype Williams is still a genius for the fluorescent-lined tunnel, the pressurized air chamber to which we’re immediately introduced and those dancers high-stepping as the fireworks go off. And if you don’t know the story behind the red leather suits, June Ambrose revealed the conversation that led to Mase and Diddy sporting those bad boys to The FADER in May 2016.

“Listen, without the risk-taking, there are no trends being born. So, I didn’t have a choice. It was my job to forecast what the trends were going to be, not follow them. Did I know that it was going to be such a big hit? Yeah. I knew that it was going to work.”

The message to NFL players: Dance for us, but don’t kneel Demonizing black protest while allowing black celebration has a deep historical context

This NFL season, the usual game-day messaging of beer and sneaker ads and uplifting videos about community or military service has been augmented by a special kind of cultural telegraph.

Sent from white NFL owners and fans to black NFL players, it goes like this:

You can Milly Rock, Juju on that Beat or fake play pingpong in the end zone. (STOP) But we can’t abide you kneeling on the sidelines. (STOP) Dance to your heart’s content, but you best not raise a fist in protest. (STOP)

It’s a historically layered message about what’s allowable, laudable or even tolerable for black men to do with their bodies. It’s an adjudication centered in the white gaze, projected onto black limbs, televised to millions of eyes. Politicians, business leaders and NFL leadership have reached peak freak-out about players tackling racism and police brutality during the national anthem. But even as a divided populace watches football on a hair trigger, the league has newly relaxed its rules about touchdown celebrations.

Every pressurized system needs a release. Cue Mr. Bojangles.

Or can talented players simply be allowed to celebrate athletic achievement and the joy of expression, like any free people, without the echoes of white supremacy? I’m asking for the culture.


White fear of the black male body is part of the subtext of the rage over the NFL protests (and actually any form of black protest). That fear, stemming from perceptions of black lawlessness and criminality, can also be understood as a projection of white rage.

The angst and anger over the protests during the national anthem, which began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently ticked up dramatically. President Donald Trump cursed NFL players who protested and called for them to be fired. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said, “We can’t have inmates running the prison” during a meeting of NFL owners and league executives. TV viewership was down 7.5 percent through the season’s first six weeks compared with the same period last year, and every week brings tension, threats of boycotts and boos directed at players and teams who do anything other than stand and salute.

But end zone dances and celebrations have ticked up dramatically too. Highlights of the most creative are ranked weekly on websites and social media. “We know that you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown. And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in an open letter to fans earlier this year.

That position is new.

Last year, Newsweek reported that players had been fined 18 times for excessive celebrations through 14 weeks, more than 2.5 times the fines issued for all of 2015 and part of a leaguewide crackdown. This included Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose professional-grade twerking in the Washington end zone, along with other pelvis-intensive dances, cost him nearly $60,000. Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King danced with an official’s penalty flag after the opposing team was called for roughing the kicker, costing him more than $12,000. And when then-New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz danced a salsa and teammate Odell Beckham Jr. pretended to take pictures, that choreography cost them more than $12,000 each.

In an explanatory video last year, Dean Blandino, then senior vice president of officiating for the NFL, said there were long-standing rules against excessive demonstrations (which earned it the “No Fun League” nickname) but penalties were up because “it’s been a point of emphasis.” Hugs and salutes were fine, he said, as were limited dancing and going to the ground in prayer (presumably unless it involved praying for police to stop shooting black people).

In the offseason, however, the league changed course to allow group choreography, props and rolling on the ground. This year has witnessed the Peter Piper dance and an homage to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on Monday Night Football. There’s been faux bench-pressing and fake home run hitting.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now,” Brown enthused in a preseason tweet. Along with other players, Brown (who last year finished in the top five on Dancing with the Stars) previewed possible dance moves on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon at the beginning of the season. He helped tout the new dance rules in a Pepsi commercial.

Both freedom of expression in black protest, which has been demonized, and freedom of expression in black dance — which, this year at least, is more OK — have complex and often contradictory messaging. But it all relates to questions of power and control of the black-body politic.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now.” — Antonio Brown

Former NFL Pro Bowler Keyshawn Johnson has experienced those attempts at control firsthand. In 1996, Johnson was a New York Jets rookie wide receiver when he scored his first NFL touchdown. He ripped off his helmet, spiked the football and started dancing. Teammates joined in celebration and tackled him to the ground. Former quarterback Joe Theismann, then an ESPN analyst, called him a jerk.

Though Johnson never went in for celebration dances after that — he threw balls in the stands until the fines got prohibitive, then just handed the ball to kids in the front row — it wasn’t because of Theismann’s criticism.

“I looked at it as this is a white dude that don’t like a black man doing something totally different than what the narrative is supposed to be, which is you’re supposed to play football and be quiet and be happy,” he said.

A segment of fans will always think celebrations are wrong, Johnson said. “They just think that showboating is basically like clowning.” It takes their mind to “if you celebrate, you’re disrespectful, because they want to control what you do. Part of controlling what you do is, ‘We prefer him to do this versus that.’ ”

When white players perform celebration rituals, they are understood differently, said Johnson. The quarterback position “is dominated by mainly white dudes with the pumping of the fist and the screaming out loud and guys shouting to the air when they throw a touchdown,” Johnson said. Fans and analysts say, “Oh, look at Tom Brady … he’s exuberant. He’s passionate about that throw to [Rob] Gronkowski. You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s celebrating.

The nature of the guys who often take the ball into the end zone contributes to the creativity of the dances, Johnson points out. Wide receivers have to be fast, and speed is its own form of beauty. Receivers are “isolated. They’re the furthest position on offense, detached from their teammates,” said Johnson. They touch the ball less often than running backs and quarterbacks, so when they do get their hands on it, they want to make it count. Plus, “we happen to be, you know, sports car guys. We ain’t no big old truck dude. We ain’t no lineman. You look in the car lot, they’re going to have Bentleys, Ferraris, they’re going to have all that.”

Johnson likes dances being choreographed and creative but with limits on sexual suggestiveness, or implied violence such as throat-slashing. He believes that dances are allowed while protests are contested because of money. “When it starts to affect the bottom line, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, man. We’ve got to put a stop to this.’ ” He believes in criminal justice reform. “But I also understand Jerry Jones [Dallas Cowboys owner, who threatened to bench players last month who he said “disrespect the flag”] because I, too, am a business owner, so I understand when you start messing with my money. … ”


Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, sees the players’ dance moves — the boasting, mimicry and pantomime, the circle formation, the use of props — as definitive hallmarks of the African-American dance aesthetic.

Dancing and singing were one of the few areas where the dominant white culture allowed the enslaved freedom of expression. Then, of course, blacks got stereotyped as always dancing and singing, said Reece. This contributes to the multiple gazes operating on the field when it comes to football dances.

In one political moment, it’s showboating, overly stylized, expressing individualism at the expense of sportsmanship. (And, as a popular Key and Peele skit suggests, no touchdown dance is complete without at least three pelvic thrusts.)

In another political moment, dance is safe and entertaining — something white folks have historically enjoyed watching happy blacks do. In turn, that sight line evokes minstrel show dancing and “cooning” for white audiences.

The dances “can be spectacle, depending on the arena that it’s in, but the roots of it are quite meaningful and quite rooted in a cultural tradition,” said Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Battle, who says he doesn’t do the latest dances, “the Dougie, or whatever,” sees football players expressing grace, athleticism and even their inner child as they move their bodies to punctuate their joy. But black dance has always been a contested cultural signifier. NFL dances are about rejecting old strictures and reclaiming personal expression. It’s the idea “that you dance in spite of how you’re being perceived because you know the inherent joy in that.” Or, Just because it’s a stereotype, I’m not going to stop eating fried chicken at the company picnic.

The dances are meant to push buttons, Battle said. It’s meant for “the naysayers or the ones that would be threatened. It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened because I’m that damned good!”

Black social dancing has always been an extension of dances that came to the Americas with the enslaved, said Kyle Abraham, artistic director of the Abraham.In.Motion dance company and a MacArthur Fellow. “The ways the pelvis is used in the dancing, the way it’s much more grounded, can evoke fear to some but can deliver power to others.”

As for black dance being loaded with shade, Abraham references the cake walk. It was an elaborate, high-stepping prance that began before the Civil War and mocked the high society pretensions of whites and slaveholders, subversively, on the low, to their faces, as they clapped along.

“It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened, because I’m that damned good!”

“There is always a possibility that there is a game being played within a game and that we are actually in control,” said Abraham. “Look at me, I’m entertaining you. Are you entertained? Am I what you want me to be, while at the same time I’m making you notice.”

The handcuffs are off and players are going to want to step up their moves, especially in an age where they can go viral. “Maybe part of this illusion in this modern-day cake walk is that you actually think you have ownership over who I am and how I will be presented … but in actuality, I have full ownership of who I am and how I choose to speak and move and dance. And when I will make those extra 10 yards!” Abraham said.

Damion Thomas, curator of sports for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, remembers watching the Houston Oilers’ Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, an NFL dancing pioneer who became legendary for his flapping-leg touchdown celebration in the late 1970s and 1980s. Thomas calls Hall of Fame cornerback Deion “Primetime” Sanders, who in the 1990s helped usher in the modern celebrity football player era, his all-time favorite player and dancer and points out that his signature, flashy stiff-arm and high steps mimic movements from Detroit ballroom dancing.

He notes that white players, such as the Jets’ Mark Gastineau and his sack dance, historically have been part of the creative NFL culture. Today, white players have been involved in some fan favorites, including a game of duck, duck goose. Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, is a serial end zone dancer and originator of Week 9’s potato sack race, one of the season’s best group celebrations.

Although both dancing and protest have gotten attention this year, Thomas contends they occupy separate spaces. Players let you know when they are protesting, he said, and they reserve political acts for certain moments in a prescribed space while keeping the end zone as a “part of the field they are not engaging with social issues.” The exception: “When Odell Beckham Jr. scored a touchdown, went on all fours and raised his leg like he was a dog — and then later said that was in relationship to Donald Trump.”

Reece, the music and performing arts curator, sees multiple narratives “being enacted as we struggle with trying to get beyond the lens of the way that people look at us, and interpret us and define us.”

These will continue to play out as fans struggle, as football players struggle, as the nation struggles with this political moment and the long, complicated history of the black body politic.

Keep your eye on ‘Mudbound’ director Dee Rees: She’s going to be a household name during awards season Tennessee-bred and FAMU-educated, she’s upending traditional Hollywood roles

Keep your eye on Dee Rees. Chances are you’re going to be seeing a lot of her this awards season.

Rees is the Tennessee-raised, historically black college-cultivated writer-director whose latest film, Mudbound, is already stirring up Oscar buzz, and rightfully so. Not since The Color Purple has there been a film so lush, so exhaustive and so thoughtful about rural life on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.

Mudbound, which Netflix will release Friday, is about two American families struggling to survive on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The Jacksons are a black family who sharecrop on land owned by the McAllans, who are white. Their coexistence is marked by physical closeness and psychological distance, by interdependence and prejudice. Mudbound illustrates what happens when all of that gets stirred together in one of the hottest, dirtiest, most miserable places to be without air conditioning.

What makes Mudbound notable is that Rees is not interested in examining prejudice simply to say, “Look how awful this is” and then wallow in that awfulness. She’s interested in the consequences, both immediate and generational, of that prejudice and the complicated, unexpected ways those consequences surface in daily life. In one part of the film, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is suffering from pregnancy complications. The only person close enough to help her in time is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige). While Laura wants to get herself and her baby out of harm’s way, her father-in-law, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), is stuck on the fact that the helping hand in question comes from a black person. Meanwhile, Florence is paralyzed by the fear of being blamed if something goes wrong, and how that would affect not just her but her entire family. Everyone is struggling to free themselves from a peat bog of hate and injustice except Pappy McAllan, who seems perfectly fine with letting himself drown before ever acknowledging black people as equals.

Mudbound

Steve Dietl / Netflix

Rees favors restraint over melodrama. The result is that the emotional power of her films tends to sneak up on you because her hand in guiding the film feels practically imperceptible. She’s the Adam Smith of directing. Rees is not interested in showing off how she’s manipulating you. Instead, she presents the story and lets you sit in it.

When it comes to vision, to the ability to look at a location and a script and know what story you want to result, “I would say only really 20 to 25 percent of directors really have it to the degree that [Dee] does,” said Paris Barclay, a former president of the Directors Guild of America and one of Rees’ champions and mentors. “When she’s looking at a scene — and also, you know, she’s a writer as well — she’s constructing a scene, she’s always thinking about, ‘What is the most dynamic way I can bring this to life? With the fewest possible shots.’ She’s not about the adornment of work, she’s about creating this sort of dynamic moment.

Mary J. Blige and Dee Rees during filming of “Mudbound”

Steve Dietl / Netflix

“A lot of people are just making shots and hoping that in the editing room they’ll be able to figure out how to put them together in some attractive way. But Dee’s making a movie. She’s really thinking about the moment, where the camera needs to be to tell the story and how she can do it with a minimum of fuss. Some of that minimum of fuss creates dynamic and original shots because it’s all about the story. So you end up forgetting about Dee Rees the director and just get sucked into Bessie Smith [the subject of her 2015 biopic for HBO]. You just get sucked into the characters.”

In a way, that makes Rees rather brave because she dares to depart from the standard model of male directorial genius in Hollywood. Unlike David O. Russell, or Woody Allen, or Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, or, yes, Spike Lee, Rees isn’t using her movies to scream at you about what a good, interesting, different sort of director she is.

Her restraint is what ends up making Mudbound a more effective film than, say, Detroit. Both are about the ways racism infects people’s lives, but only the former looks at it from 360 degrees, as an ever-present part of the American condition rather than something that periodically boils over into inexplicable violence and evil.

The patience required to pull off that sort of storytelling doesn’t happen by accident.

“I’m just very into blocking [determining where to place actors and where they’ll move] and where you place people in relationship to each other,” Rees said during an interview in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. “For example, if two people love each other, placing them far apart is more effective than placing them close together, because then they’re reaching for each other, the looks are longer. Or placing people who dislike each other in extreme discomfort, so putting [them] in this truck together. Things like that where the blocking helps inspire the actors, I’m thinking about that stuff and editing.”

Unlike David O. Russell, or Woody Allen, or Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, or, yes, Spike Lee, Rees isn’t using her movies to scream at you about what a good, interesting, different sort of director she is.

Rees’ work arrives at a time when the fallout from public accusations of sexual predation against producer Harvey Weinstein continues daily, and we’re starting to peel back the various layers of how women are flattened by an industry that preys on insecurity. The women who work in it are finally airing, en masse, long-held frustrations with the limited space allowed for them there. Mudbound is an example of the fantastic art that’s lost by prioritizing an environment in which women like Rees are the exceptions. She’s basically the opposite of everything women are told to be in Hollywood.

She’s not white.

She’s not straight.

She’s not an actress.

She’s not the sort of woman who asks for permission.

She’s not interested in emulating a filmmaking model that turns directors into celebrities.

During a recent interview in New York, Rees, 40, was rocking a pair of suede powder-blue cowboy boots, jeans, a white button-down with a black zigzag pattern across the front and a blazer. Her hair was braided along the sides of her head, with the remainder puffed out into a frohawk. This is a woman who knows who she is and likes herself. And it shows not just in her personal style but also in her filmmaking.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

“She is, first of all, one of the most sure black women I’ve ever met in my life, so she knew exactly what she wanted,” said Jason Mitchell, who plays Ronsel Jackson in Mudbound and is best known for playing Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. “She also created this family amongst us. Like, we did acting workshops together, we did all kind of different things together, and she made it safe enough for us to be able to kick it into a high gear and still be able to hug it out immediately after.”

Rob Morgan, who plays Ronsel’s father, Hap, worked with Rees on her 2011 debut feature, Pariah. “From the first time working with Dee, I saw that she was very secure in what she wanted,” Morgan said. “That was a crazy environment because we were shooting in this one brownstone. We used the same brownstone, three different floors to make different sets. Even in that kind of environment, Dee was so secure and strong and able to communicate exactly what she wanted. To see her do this, Mudbound, with obviously a bigger budget … she’s still just the same Dee, if not sharper.”

Rees’ directorial style is remarkable for a few reasons. We know, thanks to loads of research, that women in leadership positions are often faced with an unfair choice of having to be seen as either likable or competent. The pressure to conform to gender-based stereotypes of women as caretakers and consensus-builders tends to breed passivity and insecurity at first, and then rage and resentment later. Or it demands an irritating false modesty because women aren’t supposed to be aware of their own talents. That would make them bitches. Or witches — take your pick. If navigating workplace gender politics in the rest of America is a minefield, in Hollywood, it’s like trying to ride a unicycle through volcanoes. Because Hollywood, and directing in particular, is so dominated by men, there’s immense pressure for women to emulate the behavior, style and approach to the work that men do. After all, that’s what is recognized as successful and as valid.

If you’re a female director, you’re already handicapped, and the best way to make up for that handicap is to adopt as many male affectations as possible. You see it when actresses try their hand at directing and their red carpet style switches from girly or sexy to something more androgynous. (Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win a directing Oscar, for The Hurt Locker, a film that parrots an obsession with violence of a bunch of men before her.) Rees rejects the idea that you have to be like all the men to be seen as a good director. Her blackness and her queerness made her too far afield anyway.


By the time she began directing, which is her second career, Rees had a personal foundation secured in years of attending Tennessee State homecomings with her parents while growing up in the Antioch neighborhood of Nashville. Before she asserted her identity as Dee, she was Diandrea, the name her parents gave her. She went to Florida A&M University and earned an MBA.

“I think FAM was good because … it wasn’t this abstraction. Like, ‘Oh, we really are different,’ ” Rees said. “We didn’t have to agree with somebody just ’cause they were the other black kid. You have wildly different groups and ideas. I first started really understanding how interesting we are and how diverse we are. Like kids from California are different from the kids from Detroit, and it’s like the kids from D.C. are different from everybody else. … I’m not Diandrea The Black Girl, I’m just Diandrea.”

Rees decided to study film after four years of working as a marketing executive for brands such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive and came out to her family at the same time. She explored that experience in Pariah, which stars Adepero Oduye.

Rees initially came out to her parents and grandmother, who still live in Tennessee, over the phone after she’d moved to begin film school at New York University in 2004. Her mother was horrified; her grandmother wasn’t happy either. Both of them trekked to New York to figure out what was up. Her father came the following week. Her father, she said, was afraid that Rees had been sexually abused as a child. She wasn’t.

“I’m in love with a woman,” she told them.

There was some initial tension and pushback, but gradually it eased.

At first, “my grandmother was like, ‘We don’t do that,’ ” Rees said. “But in a weird way, that was all my grandmother ever said on it. And then in the Thanksgivings since, it was my mom who was saying a prayer about being thankful for who we are, and my grandmother said, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ And my mom was like, ‘Well, there’s one thing,’ and my grandmother was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ ”

Rees studied with Lee, who became one of her biggest advocates. She came to filmmaking knowing that since she already exists outside of the narrow constraints for women in Hollywood, there’s no need to shape herself into something she’s not. Rees is hyperaware of the fact that Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy. She sees herself as a force for change.

“I didn’t want to be that woman who’s not hiring women,” said Rees, whose cinematographer, composer, lead makeup artist, sound engineer and editor on Mudbound are women. “That was important for me to kinda turn that around.”


Rees’ knack for pinpointing and communicating what she wants is especially valuable in independent filmmaking, where directors are working on shorter timelines and with smaller budgets. The luxury of waffling simply isn’t available. The entire shoot for Mudbound, which clocks in at 134 minutes, took just 28 days. Most of it was shot in Louisiana, while the World War II battle scenes were shot in Budapest, Hungary. Black directors especially are forced to be intentional because they’re already working on a tightrope. They can’t afford to shoot fewer than the planned number of scenes in a given workday or not have a contingency plan for on-set crises because those are the cudgels used against them to say, “This person is unreliable. This person shouldn’t be hired for [insert subsequent project here].”

Rees has a selflessness that’s similar to that of a coach. Actors, Barclay said, respect that.

“She’s got enough [life] experience that her intuition is very strong,” Barclay said. “People say, ‘I’ll go with you.’ People will take that ride with Dee.”

“I didn’t want to be that woman who’s not hiring women. That was important for me to kinda turn that around.”

Pariah impressed Barclay the way he was impressed by Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep in 1978. Her film played in only 24 theaters at the height of its release but netted praise from industry figures and critics. Rees won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Award for Best Breakthrough Director at the 2011 Gotham Awards. Her cinematographer Bradford Young took home the top cinematography prize at Sundance.

“From the first scene to the end, I didn’t leave my chair,” Barclay said of Pariah. “I think if it had actually come out this year, it would probably be nominated for best picture, because the environment has changed in such a short time. The film, even on a small scale, as moving as that, would get some sort of recognition. That wasn’t available to her just five years ago.”

Now, Rees stands on the precipice of a bigger, brighter future. With Mudbound, she uses that position to show just how capable she is with a group of experienced, award-winning actors and talented female crew members.

She’s so invested in creating a path for others that she’s already thinking about using her home as a creative retreat. Rees named her property in the Hudson River Valley of New York F.A.C., which stands for “Free Artists of Color.”

“When my partner and I die, we wanna … make it like a residency where artists come and work and get a little space,” she said. When she talks about F.A.C., she sounds like a woman with her eye on recreating the magic of Lorraine Hansberry’s upstate New York creative compound, which the playwright winkingly named “Chitterling Heights.”

“It’s good to have land and freedom and to be able to create and also have the space to be,” Rees said. She likes “being in a rural area because it also forces a closeness, because you need your neighbor when your driveway is iced out or to help each other with mail.”

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.

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.”

Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs — with the famous side part — is back from injury, and shares his barber The Maryland native talks Erykah Badu, stylish cleats and why it’s always gotta be orange juice with the pulp

Like the frigid wind that travels through Minnesota’s winters, Stefon Diggs dashes off the line of scrimmage, often right into the end zone. Through the first four weeks of the NFL season, Diggs, 23, had the most receiving yards (391) in the league and was second in touchdowns (four). Before his Week 5 groin strain, Diggs’ stats were piling up, and the Gaithersburg, Maryland-bred wide receiver was aggressively putting together the type of season that has analysts mentioning his name among the NFL’s elite. And now he’s back. And, along with Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, the debonair Diggs is an NFL style ambassador: They’re the faces of the league’s lifestyle paraphernalia brand. “It’s just to inspire people to rep their team when they’re wearing casual clothes, and feel comfortable in their skin,” said Diggs. “Some guys may just wear their stuff when they’re going to the stadium, but when you’re casually going out, we want you to have that same confidence when putting on your Vikings shirt or Vikings jacket.” The wide receiver took a few minutes to talk Hill Harper, his favorite cereal, his cleats — and his crushes.

What do you do before a big game?

If it’s a home game … probably watch film one more time, pick my outfit out, what I want to wear to the stadium. I’ll eat a bowl of cereal. I love cereal. I always eat a bowl of cereal before I go.

What’s your favorite?

I like Cap’n Crunch, but specifically I like Cap’n Crunch’s Oops! All Berries. Then I’ll listen to Erykah Badu on my way to the stadium.

Any specific album, or song?

“On & On.” That’s like my childhood crush — well, my grown-up crush, because I still love Badu.

When did you realize you were famous?

I still don’t feel that way. I feel pretty regular. I talk to any and everybody, I don’t care who it is. I’m pretty easygoing.

People will accept you for who you are, and if they don’t, don’t pay them attention at all.

What’s the last book you read?

I’m currently reading it again. It’s a Hill Harper book, Letters to a Young Brother. I like that book a lot. I just bought The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. I don’t know when I’m gonna start it.

Where does your courage come from?

My mom, mostly. She had a house full of boys and she raised us the best way she could, considering that my dad had passed. She wasn’t scared of nothing. She’ll step up to any one of us at any given time. My mom isn’t nothing but 5-5, maybe less than that, and you got boys walking around the house 6 feet plus. She’ll punch you at any given time [Laughs].

Where do you get your hair cut?

Details Barber Lounge in St. Paul; his name is Anthony. I’ve been going to him since I got to Minnesota, and you know how people are with their barbers. It took me a little while, but once I found one that I liked, I stuck with him. We pretty cool now.

Favorite throwback television show?

I used to watch The Jamie Foxx Show.

Last show you binge-watched?

Ozark.

How do you find out about new music?

One of my closest friends, Brian, from back home. He puts me on to all the new artists. It’s hard for me to keep up. I have a list of things I have to worry about other than music.

Do you still listen to go-go?

Not as much as I did in my younger days. It’s kind of weird because my first time going to an 18-and-over go-go, I was 14.

Have you ever been starstruck?

Nah, not really. I don’t really look at it that way. I feel like everybody is people. If I met Halle Berry, I probably wouldn’t even be that nervous. LisaRaye was my first crush. I can’t say the first movie that I saw her in … that’s when she first started being my crush. I’ma say the movie anyways, [The] Players Club. I wasn’t supposed to be watching that movie. My momma gon’ kill me.

The last concert you went to?

It was the Jay-Z and Beyoncé On the Run Tour. That was when I was in college. I haven’t been to a concert since.

What’s the last stamp on your passport?

London. Business, but we had a lot of time to do what we wanted. I went sightseeing. I saw a lot of things. I like London, a lot, everything about it. I would live there.

What is in your refrigerator at this moment?

Jell-O, yogurt, chicken breast, orange juice with the pulp. I always gotta have my orange juice with the pulp. I don’t drink regular milk [laughs]; I drink Lactaid.

Do you have any habits that you wish you could shake?

Sometimes, I just gotta organize things around me so I can think. I wish I wouldn’t care, but it’s hard not to when it’s in front of your face.

What would you tell your 15-year-old self?

Stay focused. I would really tell myself to stay focused. That was my first time going to private school. I did not like it — I’ll tell you that right now. I did not like it at all, but at the end of the day it made me the man I am today. It got me here.

A lot of people are talking about your cleats this season. What made you decide to team up with Mache.

We did a little bit of stuff last year, but this year I decided I wanted to do more. I was shooting him ideas before the season really started. When that first game came around, we had some things in play. It kind of took off on its own. All credit to him. We built a friendship. Before, I was just trying to find a cleat guy.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My dad told me to always be my own man. Don’t be a follower, don’t be a flunky, be your own man, be you. People will accept you for who you are, and if they don’t, don’t pay them attention at all.

Halftime is game time: An oral history of ‘Drumline’ Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Dallas Austin and more on the film’s legacy and its fictional — but real — HBCU marching band



Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Drumline is inspired by the life of Grammy-winning super-producer Dallas Austin, who created massive hits with Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna and more. Austin’s life in music began during his days on his high school band’s drumline, and the 2002 film is the coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old hotshot New York drummer who’s recruited to join the marching band of the fictional historically black Atlanta A&T University.

Nick Cannon stars as Devon Miles, who arrives on campus and quickly outshines senior drum section leader Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts) and forces band director Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones) to reconsider his approach to musicianship. In the process, Devon wins the heart of upperclassman dancer Laila, portrayed by then up-and-comer Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy). But when Devon’s ego gets the better of him, he’s kicked out of the band and forced to fight his way back onto the drumline, while learning the value of teamwork.

The film was the sophomore effort of Charles Stone III’s film career. He made a name for himself with the iconic (and CLIO Hall of Fame) “Whassup” Budweiser ad campaign, and his directorial debut was 2002’s dark and authoritative ’hood saga Paid In Full. Drumline, which was shot mainly at Clark Atlanta University, raked in a total of $57 million at the box office.

The idea of marching bands consisting of “uncool” kids was laid to rest with the premiere of Fox 2000’s Drumline. The beloved film successfully makes the case that marching bands, especially those found at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, are melting pots of artistic athleticism. Drumline showed the world that band members not only train like the pros but also compete like champions.

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during the Drumline era.

First Quarter: Drummer Boys

Before he produced Boyz II Men’s nine-times platinum 1991 Cooleyhighharmony at the age of 19, or won his first Grammy for producing TLC’s then futuristic 1999 FanMail, or worked with Madonna, The Brand New Heavies, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Fishbone, Monica, Michael Jackson and even Deion Sanders, Dallas Austin played snare drum in his high school marching band. The Atlanta (by way of Columbus, Georgia) producer joined the drumline at Columbus High School when his older brother, Claude, a section leader, graduated. With talent far beyond his freshman classification, Austin experienced pushback from the new section leader, who attempted to haze him and expose him to the band director for not being able to read music. Austin’s high school experience is the story of Drumline, a film he pitched at 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. “Fox said, ‘What’s so interesting about marching bands?’” recalled Austin, who gave studio executives a peek at footage from a high school battle of the bands at the Georgia Dome. His project was greenlit, and a script, by Shawn Schepps, was drafted.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie went into turnaround hell for eight to 10 years.

Jody GersonProducer

One day, Dallas and I are having a conversation. I asked, ‘What happened with Drumline?’ He said, ‘It just didn’t go anywhere. … I haven’t heard anything.’

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie was just sitting … but I felt like the story needed to be told. … I called Quincy Jones one day, and I was like, ‘Man, what do I do?’ He wasn’t trying to be funny or nothing, but he said, ‘You ain’t gonna make it in that industry unless you got somebody who’s Jewish on your side.’

Jody GersonProducer

I said, ‘What if I brought it to my friend Wendy Finerman [Forrest Gump, I Like It Like That, The Devil Wears Prada], who has a deal at Fox, and we produce it together?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

They came to me and said, ‘What do we do?’

Jody GersonProducer

Wendy, Dallas and I went to Elizabeth Gabler, who was the head of Fox 2000. Dallas pitched her.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I actually wanted to talk Fox out of the movie — I wanted to get it back.

Jody GersonProducer

He told us these stories about how ‘halftime was game time’ in the South, and it was not about the football game as much as it was about the marching band. And about how many of his peers in the music business started their careers on drumlines.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

She goes, ‘Well, damn, we’ve got to make this movie.’

Jody GersonProducer

Elizabeth only wanted to add one thing: ‘Can we make it in college as opposed to high school?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

So we basically started from scratch.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I still have not read the first draft of Drumline … but what was originally pitched felt like a suburban band movie, where a black kid comes to a white, uptight school and brings the funk to the school. … The only thing I knew was that the main character couldn’t read. He was illiterate. I thought, ‘No way could I rewrite this.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t like the racial implications, or what I perceived to be the potential racial implications, of doing that kind of story.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The first script was too comedic.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I spoke with the band director at Florida A&M [Dr. Julian E. White]. He started mentioning so much about the practices and the culture and just the fabric of what it means to become a band member at an HBCU. He kept saying, ‘You have to see it.’ I went to … hot, muggy Southern Florida. The whole town was just vibrating from the football field at night. They’d practice late nights when the sun went down, and early mornings, because of the heat. And there were always alumni around the field … and they’ve got snakes around their neck; their school mascot is a rattlesnake. I underestimated the richness of the world inside of the band. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be something … ’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I’d passed on the first script, and then six months later or so, it came back with a historically black college, and that was more interesting. The new script allowed me the opportunity to explore percussion … and a style of marching band — the show style — that was much more alluring, more magnetic. Then, learning more about what these kids go through, it was just like a sport, you know? I went to one of the summer training camps, and it’s the exact same thing — a real grind. That’s what inspired me to do it as a full-blown, big sports movie.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

From the first conversation I had with Charles, he’s like, ‘These are musicians, but this is a sports movie.’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I got a call from Donna Isaacson, who was head of casting for 20th Century Fox. Then Charles and I had lunch at the Beverly Wilshire and talked about the character of Dr. Lee, and the scope, and how he was looking to shoot it. He talked about how he’d dramatize the element of halftime at historically black colleges.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I was excited about the fact that Hollywood was actually telling the story of a part of the experience of attending a historically black college.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It felt like such a young, hip and super unique college story about young people trying to make a name for themselves. … I just felt happy and grateful to be doing a film about a piece of American culture … and a side of American college life that hasn’t really been tapped on enough.

Jody GersonProducer

But the studio kept focusing on a white character. That we had to have a white character to market the movie.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I got a call from Fox. They said, ‘Dallas, we don’t know how to say this, but put white people in the movie.’ I said, ‘OK, how many white people do you want?’ They said, ‘We want somebody in the band. … We have to have a character, because now it’s turning into a black movie.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The studio wanted a white character in the midst of this ensemble of color in order to support or give us the amount of money we wanted. We needed $20 million to make it. They were offering us $15 million.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

First, it was a $13 million movie, which is a lot for an urban film, so to speak, at that time. I was trying to tell them, it’s not an urban film, it’s a story … it’s a team story. We started going over $13 million, because nobody knew what it was like to film 300-piece marching bands.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I said, ‘Let me see how a white kid’s story would be inside of a black marching band without making it ridiculous.’ I go to Morris Brown College one day, and I see this kid. He’s one of the cymbal players, a white kid with red hair. I said, ‘Where’d you come from?’ He said, ‘In Atlanta, down the street. I’ve always wanted to be in the band because I grew up in the neighborhood.’ We followed that story into GQ’s character.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

I got this appointment for Drumline … and Charles was like, ‘Hey, can you play the drum?’ … I wasn’t trained growing up, playing the drums, but I’m a musician. So I saw the question as, ‘Do you have rhythm?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I got rhythm.’ It’s funny that I ended up getting the role where the guy has rhythm issues.

“In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.”Charles Stone III

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I got a hold of the script and really dug the idea. Then, I met with Charles …

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Leonard wasn’t my first pick for Sean. The studio wanted Leonard because he has this beautiful, booming voice, and he’s really good-looking. I thought he was fine in his audition, but I liked Khalil Kain [Juice, Girlfriends, Love Jones] who was good. He was a real antagonist, which is what I liked. … I had to fight the head of Fox 2000. I finally gave up.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I met with Charles over at Fox. … I got there early and was hanging out. At the time, I’d just done He Got Game with Spike Lee, and I drove a Range Rover in the movie. At that time, it was the nicest car I’d ever driven. I was like, Man, when I get my money, I’d love to have one of these. So I’m sitting at Fox, looking out the window. I see this Range pull up. The window comes down, and it’s Nick Cannon.

Second Quarter: Funky Drummers

The late 1990s and early 2000s? This was before Nick Cannon was really Nick Cannon, although flashes of stardom were apparent. A stand-up comedian from San Diego, he burst onto the Hollywood scene on Nickelodeon’s youth sketch comedy series All That and teen sitcom Kenan & Kel. At age 17, through his work on All That, Cannon became the youngest writer in television history. That talent and charisma led Nickelodeon to give him his own spinoff, The Nick Cannon Show, which launched in 2002 with Cannon starring, producing and directing. While casting for Drumline’s lead role of Devon Miles, a me-against-the-world snare drummer from Harlem who secretly couldn’t read music, screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism remembers sitting in producer Wendy Finerman’s office going through audition tapes. One especially stood out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I started to hear about all of the different people who were auditioning. I really thought, I don’t know if I’m going to get it.

Jody GersonProducer

I remember a really young Lil Wayne coming in for an audition.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

T.I. auditioned, too. He represented another part of my character, in a different way. But I felt like Nick, at the time, was closer to ‘me’ because I wasn’t overly cocky. I just knew what I was doing.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I definitely saw something in Devon. It was me … I was probably the same knucklehead who thought he knew it all. That’s … why I embodied the character so well.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Nick … had something that made me vote for him. He was cute, and he was a very talented, strong actor. He was able to show the bad boy but add a vulnerability to it that made it charming. None of the other actors even hinted at vulnerability.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to Nick and Lee Thompson Young [The Famous Jett Jackson, Rizzoli & Isles].

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They auditioned me like three or four times. In the screen test, they team you up with different people. They teamed me with Zoe Saldana. I didn’t know who she was, but there was something there.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I didn’t know that much about him … but everybody said great things about him. Once I met him, he certainly did not disappoint me.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

A friend of mine, Kim Porter, I’ve been knowing her since kindergarten. By the time we got to high school … we were kind of flirty and datey. We were in band together — she played bells. … Zoe’s character, Laila, was kind of written after Kim. … I was kind of looking for a girl who reminded me of Kim and was close to what she looked like.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Laila … I felt like she was a relatable character. … I really liked how they’d written her to be — genuinely, like, a nice person.

Wendy FinermanProducer

Zoe … you could imagine somebody falling in love with her at first sight. She had a smartness to her that was really important for her character. She carried herself like a Spelman girl.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I remember me even having a crush on Zoe. … I think she had a boyfriend at the time, though …

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

He was really funny. There was a serenity to Nick’s demeanor that was very pleasant.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to between Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington. Zoe had a realism to her. I mean, she’s fine as all hell, both her and Kerry. But Kerry had a refined technique that … for me, at the time, was a little too refined.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

That screen test, it just felt right. I had actually had a conversation with Charles the night before. I had been doing Nickelodeon work, and he was like, ‘I want you to be you. I don’t want you to bring in any of the TV persona.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Nick had raw talent … a boyishness that didn’t feel manufactured, or like he was performing. He was also so passionate to get the job.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I got the call and … I’m gonna be honest, I was just happy to have booked a job. I didn’t know how big, culturally, it was going to be.

Third Quarter: Give the drummer some

Drumline’s fictional Atlanta A&T needed a legit HBCU marching band, and Dallas Austin trusted only one person to deliver. Don Roberts, then band director at Atlanta’s Southwest DeKalb High School, received a phone call from Austin, who asked to attend one of his band’s rehearsals. Under Roberts’ tutelage, the Marching Panthers, through performances at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl, had become one of the most recognizable bands in Atlanta and the entire nation. Austin was a huge fan. “He came to band rehearsal with his entourage,” said Roberts, a former Florida A&M drum major and the executive consultant on the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings. “They watched for a little while, and then he said, ‘I wanna talk to you about this project … this movie that’s gonna be coming out two years from now.’” A year later, Roberts got a call from Drumline line producer Timothy Bourne and was brought on as the film’s executive band consultant, tasked with building Atlanta A&T’s band from the ground up. He formed a small team that included two percussion instructors, Keith Sailor and Demetrius Hubert, bass drum coach Corey Lowe and dance coach Glenda Morton. Most of the Atlanta A&T band you see in Drumline is made up of high school students from Southwest DeKalb. As for the drumline? A mix of real HBCU drummers and actors put through training hell.

Wendy FinermanProducer

We assembled the drumline long before we started shooting, because we wanted to make it as authentic as possible.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I knew the work Don was doing. If he could do it with kids, then of course he could put a fictional band together that would be just as good.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

I feel like I owe them all apologies. I didn’t know actors were supposed to be pampered. I don’t want to use the word ‘hazing,’ but, man, they went through it. We treated them as we would first-year band members.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I played in my eighth-grade band. It was a little marching band. The stuff that we were doing in comparison to what we were doing in Drumline? Man, it was small potatoes. Was I prepared? Hell no.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I come from New York, and my sister stepped in high school as a cheerleader, but I didn’t really know that much about the whole Southern HBCU band and dance culture. I was in for a ride.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

We got to Atlanta in late winter of 2001, and we were in music class at Southwest DeKalb High School. Immersing ourselves in it became an all-consuming thing.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Imagine Nick Cannon in a high school band, [next to] my drum players holding the sticks. We did that.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Nick and myself arrived two weeks prior to everyone else’s first day. We were each assigned a drum coach. I had my homie Corey Lowe on the big bass drum teaching me. Nick had this dude named Snoop, who was teaching him the snare.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

The actors get there, and we see they don’t know about drumming at all. So the real drummers, we’re laughing and making jokes, but at the same time we feel some type of way. We’re like, Oh, OK. Hollywood wants to make a movie about drumlines and HBCU culture in the South, but you have actors supposed to be doing this drumming? Like, who is Nick Cannon?

“I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.”Zoe Saldana

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I didn’t want a drum double. I remember telling Charles, ‘I want to figure out how to do it myself.’ But some of the stuff was so intricate … if I had to have a double, I wanted the best. Snoop was the best.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

All Nick carried around with him throughout that time were drumsticks. It was like, ‘Damn, this dude is really in this.’ He’s beating on tables with drumsticks … he’s flipping the sticks in the air. He’s in his trailer working one of the pads, getting the sticking down.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

In the beginning he would drop them everywhere, and by the time we started shooting he knew how to move these drumsticks so swiftly through his fingers. It was great to see how committed he was to this part.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

Nick was dedicated to getting better. One time he got frustrated … and kind of threw the sticks down. I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to play anymore?’ He said, ‘Man, I’m not going to need this after this movie anyway.’ I told him, ‘Yeah, but right now you need this, so you might as well pick up the sticks, because this is your job right now.’

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

At one point … my hand had ripped open. My drum was covered in blood. I had a big gouge taken out of my finger from the repetition of using this mallet … I played through that shit.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It was literally like boot camp. We’d show up to set, eyes red. Some people would get sick … we were doing B-12 shots. I developed hard scars on the side of my abdomen — it was scar tissue from the weight and pressure of the drum.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Everybody worked really, really hard on their characters. It wasn’t like our characters had easy things to do. They were musicians, we were dancers, and we had to practice. There were a lot of rehearsals, a lot of choreography, and a lot of routines and instruments to learn to sort of maneuver.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

… I’m over here struggling with this tuba, trying to hold it and at least pretend like I know what I’m doing.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

You couldn’t be pretending to do any of this.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I was drumming, as well. … For me, it was wanting to understand exactly what the drumlines were going through and wanting to understand what my role as leader of that band was. That was taught to me by Don Roberts.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We put the baton in his hand and had to show him how to conduct. You want to look like a real band director or people were going to chew you up. … The choreographer with the dancers, Glenda Morton, she did the same thing with Zoe. She drilled her.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

Zoe worked super hard learning all the dances. She never let up.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I thought it was a little odd for her at first because there’s such a sassy, black Southern girl thing that goes along with it. But once she settled into her character, it became second nature. Anything is awkward like that at first … shaking your hips like that.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Here I am with a classical ballet background, and I just had no mobility in my hips. … I definitely trained a lot … by the end, I felt like I could drop it like it’s hot.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We worked the crap out of those guys and they took it. They were not Hollywood. They were not too big for this. They came in and they sweated. … I remember [assistant percussion director] Keith Sailor, he started calling the guys ‘The Senate.’ … We brought it back to Charles … and the next thing I knew, it was in the script.

Fourth Quarter: Different Drummers

The first time the Atlanta A&T marching band took the field on camera was week two of shooting, for “The Halftime Show.” Freshman phenom Devon Miles was named a P-1 snare on A&T’s drumline, and in the tunnel of the football stadium, he anxiously awaited his debut performance. Cinematographer Hurlbut envisioned the scene taking shape in a huge tunnel, like the one the USC football team emerges from at the 93,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What he had to work with was the tiny tunnel of Clark Atlanta’s Panther Stadium. Capacity: 5,000 seats.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

I was like, ‘All right. So how can we make this work? … What if we just pile the whole band in that tunnel? Not just the drumline, but everyone.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

They’re in this tunnel and you can hear the thumping and the noise outside, the cheering and stuff, but it’s muffled. Then Sean and Devon have an argument, then … the football team comes pouring in, and that adds another sonic layer of commotion.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

I had the tagline of the movie during that scene … ‘Down here, it’s about the marching bands … Halftime is game time.’ It really is that serious … it’s life.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

You see Dr. Lee come in, and he goes, ‘One band, one sound!’ … You see that long tunnel of fluorescent lights … all of a sudden, this stick comes up in the frame and goes completely parallel across the image. Then, it just goes tap, tap, tap, tap. Then, it’s like, BOOM, they explode.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

Coming out of the tunnel all hype, it was cold, we were yelling, there were so many people out there. It was late at night. We were like, Let’s get it.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.

Wendy FinermanProducer

The first moment the band was together, you kind of go, ‘Oh, my God, I get this.’ The sound. Your body. Your heart. Everything is pounding internally. … It’s really a physical experience.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I had no idea how stylized this movie was going to be. … Charles and Shane did a great job.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Everything about it felt like I was in a dream, but it felt like I had walked this dream before in real life.

“When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.”Leonard Roberts

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The sound hits you like a wave. I’ll never forget that feeling. I was like, God damn, this is so inspiring. This is unbelievable. Halftime is game time. I tried to make it as big and grand as possible. This was Devon’s first game. He gets out there, he sees the crowd, he kind of starts to freak out, he fails.

In this moment, A&T’s senior drum section leader Sean Taylor, played by Leonard Roberts, steps up for a solo. After overcoming his nerves, Devon Miles, played by Nick Cannon, follows suit, stealing the spotlight from Sean. Most of Cannon’s drumming in this scene is done by Jason “Snoop” Price.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

It was stick-around-the-head, stick-around-the-head.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

You see the stuff that’s me. And those super close shots usually are Snoop.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We filmed that part a couple of times because I couldn’t feel my frickin’ fingers … my fingers were frozen. It was so cold in Atlanta. … I made the solo up and everything, but I had to go up into the studio and do it again so it could come out really crisp and clean.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

We had to make sure everything was crisp — whatever it took to make it real.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They were able to mix all the drumming in afterwards in the edit, so they didn’t miss a beat. Every time that stick hit the snare, it popped. It sang. They made me seem like I was crazy with it. As the filming went on, you saw a bunch of wide shots. If you watch the last drum battle, it’s nothing but wide shots. By that time … I’d picked up all of the cadences.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

By the time we got to the final scene? No doubles.

Fifth Quarter: Drum Machine

Drumline’s halftime scene was beautiful, but the entire film relied upon the cast and crew nailing the fictional BET Big Southern Classic. For this battle of the bands, Drumline received the keys to the Georgia Dome. Within a tight, two-day window, everybody and their mama showed up: ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott called the event from the booth. Blu Cantrell sang the national anthem. 106 & Park hosts A.J. and Free MC’d the spectacle. And rapper Petey Pablo, who drove a Bentley onto the field, performed with Morris Brown’s actual band. It seemed all of Atlanta came out to watch real-life marching bands, which also included Bethune-Cookman, Clark Atlanta and Grambling State, square off against the Hollywood-crafted Atlanta A&T. Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Southern’s Human Jukebox, however, were noticeably absent. “Both of them gave the same answers,” Don Roberts remembers, and paraphrases: Thank you for the invitation to participate; however, we don’t lose. Not in real life and not in fiction.

As the story goes, the competition ended in a tie between Morris Brown and Atlanta A&T, whose Jackson 5-inspired, old school-meets-new-school routine was nothing short of amazing. To decide which band would emerge as victor, each team’s drumlines went toe-to-toe. But as the film’s crew prepared for the final scene, which screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism modeled after the drumline battles that often unfolded near team buses after games, Stone and Hurlbut faced a problem.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The producers came to me: ‘We can’t afford to fill the Georgia Dome for more than two days … We can’t use CGI, we can’t do tiling, we can’t do any of this stuff.’ I remember going home and waking up in the middle of the night. … I go, ‘What if we turn the lights off?

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Shane came up with a great idea of shooting it like it’s a boxing match. … All the lights would drop out except for the overheads on the field.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Nick was hell-bent … ‘I’m doing all my scenes. I’m not going to have a stand-in, no double, nothing.’ The same thing with Leonard. Nick stayed up pretty much all night long in the hotel, working.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We really did stay up all night, just drilling, drilling, drilling. We kept going over the cadences. You drop the sticks? OK, pick them up again. I told Nick, ‘If you want this to just be you in the end scene, we’re going to have to grind it out.’ And he was a champ — he grinded it out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted it to be real. You see all these movies where they cut to the double. If I’m supposed to be the best, I wanted to do everything I could do to be the best.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Sometimes scenes in movies are shot out of sequence … but this purposefully and necessarily was shot at the very end of shooting because they needed us, the five actors in the drumline, to be as on-point as humanly possible, so that we actually did beat Morris Brown’s drumline.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were so immersed in our characters, and the Atlanta A&T band, that in our minds, when we did that scene, we really believed we were better than Morris Brown.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

You could feel the tension. Everyone on the crew was like, ‘Holy shit. Our boys are going to war right now, and we’re getting to watch it.’ There was this feeling in the air of do-or-die time.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

The real-life drummers … they didn’t feel that great about actors portraying drummers on a drumline that they’d sacrificed and worked very hard to get on [in real life]. They weren’t that impressed. So it was like boxers before a fight, all that trash-talking.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I was kind of stoking that fire a little bit, supporting both sides to bring it, you know? I actually wore a T-shirt I had made … a Morris Brown T-shirt and an Atlanta A&T T-shirt, cut in half and then sewed together. It was an ugly-ass looking shirt … but I wore it in solidarity or just support for both teams.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

One of the best parts of being in the marching band was when … the drumlines would go on afterwards. … Those battles were very intense.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

To this day, one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done is that fucking one that lays on the 50-yard line, and it’s a sea of black, but the 50-yard line is lit, and those two bands come in from the side and just line up right next to each other.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was like a Rocky moment.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

But I’ll tell you straightforward, the first time we did the scene, Morris Brown kicked Atlanta A&T’s ass.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

Morris Brown fired up a drum cadence that was so sexy … it was like, If you guys win in this movie, it’s gonna be because of some Hollywood shit.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

They were a seasoned drumline that had been playing for years. We were a drumline that was built in a couple of weeks. If you look at it, we made this movie at the end of the marching season. They’d already been playing these cadences the whole season. They were so tight that it was like, what can we do to top this? We had actors in our drumline. We had actors on the snare line. We had actors on the tenor line. We had actors on the bass line. But that couldn’t hold us back.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

We had to learn new cadences at the 11th hour just because Morris Brown came in smoking.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

After Charles jumped down my throat, I jumped down my staff’s, and we all literally went around the corner at the Georgia Dome, found us a quiet spot … and the guys went to work. Nick went to work. … They took it up a whole notch and elevated the routine. When they came back, it was war. I mean, these guys were not speaking, and Charles was like, ‘Let it stay that way.’ It was like two boxers that were about to fight. These guys were not speaking.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle. … You wanted to kill them, especially after they’d smoked us in the rehearsal.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

There was an actual fight before we started filming. There was someone from Morris Brown that was on our side, playing with our group. And they checked him. Morris Brown really checked dude … like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Get him over here.’ He left from our side and went over to Morris Brown.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

People were hot, and you want that.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The percussion instructor brought me over to see what Morris Brown had cooking up. … They showed me them putting their own drums aside and [simulated] playing on the other [team’s] snares, and I thought, that’s fucking awesome.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

Charles goes, ‘Morris Brown is going to go over there and bang on A&T’s drums … we need a close-up camera here, so the reaction is absolutely real.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t tell Atlanta A&T that that’s what was gonna happen.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

Beating on someone else’s drum is a big no-no. It’s a big dis … basically like they were trying to injure the other team’s quarterback.

“It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle.”Shay Roundtree

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

When it happened, I think I just remember everybody freaking out, and it was the exact reaction that Morris Brown wanted.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

I knew that was going to happen, so when they walked up, I was preparing myself, but the rest of the drummers didn’t know.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were shocked. We took that as a real insult. It was like, Oh, shit. The reactions that you saw from Nick and everybody were real.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

They looked like, What the fuck? What happened just now? Did they really just hit my drum? I really gotta stay in formation while they’re doing this?

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We had to show that ability to withstand and hold it all in. It meant a lot when it happened, and we were hot about it. We went back and said, ‘Well, we gon’ beat on their drums.’ But it was like, ‘Nah, that’s kind of redundant.’

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We added — I don’t want to say a gymnast approach, but added different elements … more jumps, more flips, not stick flips but more people doing flips, people getting on other people’s shoulders. Cymbal players getting on other people’s shoulders, doing pushups and playing at the same time, getting on your back and having somebody play the bass drum. We added a different entertaining, performance element.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

Charles would have to say, ‘Cut,’ maybe four or five different times because we were just fully focused.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Our drumline wins … but nobody cared that that’s what was written on the script.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We laid it all out there. When you see that last and final cadence, that’s probably the one I worked on the hardest, and you get to actually see. We’re in there drumming, and sticking, throwing the sticks and catching the sticks, doing everything. By that time, we were a well-oiled machine.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

What you saw was real. Those boys were in there. They were in there playing. They were doing their thing.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Atlanta A&T gave Morris Brown way more go than anybody thought they would.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I’m super proud of that scene. That scene is special.

The Postgame: The Legacy of Drumline

In 2014, the Atlanta A&T marching band returned in Drumline: A New Beat. Originally conceived as a miniseries, it became a made-for-TV movie, told through the lens of a young female drummer who arrives on campus hoping to revitalize the fictional HBCU’s once-revered drumline. In the movie, Nick Cannon and Leonard Roberts both reprise their original roles as the now long-graduated Devon Miles and Sean Taylor. Cannon, Wendy Finerman and Jody Gerson are all credited as producers, and Don Roberts once again serves as executive band consultant. “It was executed well,” said Cannon, “but I think the higher-ups didn’t give it an opportunity to thrive as a television show.” Fifteen years since the film’s debut, the legacy of Drumline is undeniable.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

The legacy of Drumline grows, and continues to grow. No one saw it coming. They thought it was just this little film about this cool subculture.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It ended up being one of the best-reviewed films that year … very successful, and I cried when that happened, because I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Who would’ve thought that Fox’s little project in Atlanta was going to be the epic cult classic, and beyond cult classic now, that it is today? It’s been run on TV for so long that actually, 15 years later, I get recognized more now than I did in the years right after it came out, because it’s so embedded in people’s consciousnesses.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

We were told we were all a part of a little movie that ended up being a very big thing in America. A lot of young people took to it and supported it.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I’m amazed that now it’s getting to the point where … you can actually see another generation discover Drumline.

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.”GQ

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘How do you feel to have influenced a whole generation of young people?’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I’m really proud of what Drumline spawned into the culture.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I’ll be honest. I thought that really only our community, meaning the black community, was going to be able to appreciate it. … Historically black colleges, the experience of bands, that’s something that’s deeply rooted within our culture and something that, prior to Drumline, was never really talked about and never really exposed.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

People come up to me to this day, not one of them who are African-American, and they tell me how we introduced a subculture to them that they never knew existed … but that it inspired them.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We were taking something from black culture and showing it to the world, so it had to be right. It had to be correct. This was the first time that the world was going to see anything about an HBCU marching band or drumline.

Wendy FinermanProducer

No one knew about drumlines. Now they’re common knowledge.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Florida A&M thought the movie was about them. North Carolina A&T thought the movie was about them. Southern thought it was about them. Jackson State thought it was about them. Everybody sees themselves in the movie. … When I talk to these college band directors, and they see their band program in Drumline, I just feel honored that we honored them.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was part music movie, part sports movie, part superhero origin story. All of those things wrapped up in one.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

It’s the fifth quarter. We were just as important, if not more important than the football team. It was a music movie, a sports movie, all in one. That’s why it was really special.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

It’s a sports film — the discipline, and the practice. It goes hand in hand with football. It just wasn’t as cool to be in the marching band until Drumline.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Where they are now:

Dallas Austin: Runs Atlanta’s Urban Angels Studios (formerly known as D.A.R.P. Studios), while also recording out of the United Kingdom’s TAPE London studio. He is also one half of the band, Follow the Nomad, with Naz Tokio.

Nick Cannon: Second-year student at Howard University, executive producer and host of MTV’s Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ’N Out, founder/CEO of Ncredible Entertainment.

Candace Carey: Stars as “Canbe” in the indie film Ratchetville, scheduled to release on Netflix in winter of 2017.

Tina Gordon Chism: Made directorial debut with 2013’s Peeples, screenplay writer/executive producer for Hulu’s 2017 single-camera comedy pilot Crushed and screenplay writer for the forthcoming Nappily Ever After.

Wendy Finerman: Executive producer of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and Lifetime’s new Loved by the 10th Date; founder/president of Wendy Finerman productions.

GQ: Founder and creative director of Q Brothers, a collective that translates classic pieces of literature into hip-hop musicals, which he co-writes, directs, and stars in. He and his brothers’ plays have toured the world and run off-Broadway.

Jody Gerson: Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing.

Shane Hurlbut: Recent cinematography work includes 2015’s Gabriele Muccino-directed Fathers and Daughters and 2017’s The Babysitter and The Adventurers.

Orlando Jones: Recent work includes starring in films Book of Love and Madiba, the STARZ series American Gods and executive producing Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands: War Within the Cartel for Amazon and Twitch.

Earl Poitier: Recent appearances include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Shots Fired and Baywatch.

Jason Price: Founder of entertainment company P.O.P. (Power of Percussion) UNPLUGGED, and artistic director of P.O.P.’D (Power of Percussion & Drums) entertainment ensemble.

Don Roberts: Director and CEO of international stage show DRUMLine Live; executive band consultant of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and BET series The Quad.

Leonard Roberts: Recent appearances include American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Magicians.

Shay Roundtree: Recently starred in 2016’s Save Me from Love.

Zoe Saldana: Stars as “Gamora” in 2018 Marvel film Avengers: Infinity War; filming Avatar 2, set to release in 2020.

Charles Stone III: Director of the forthcoming Uncle Drew, starring Kyrie Irving, LilRel Howry, Shaquille O’Neal, Lisa Leslie, and Reggie Miller. In theaters June 29, 2018.

Jason Weaver: Has appeared in 2006’s ATL, 2010’s Lottery Ticket, the animated series The LeBrons (2011–2014), and a 2016 episode of Black-ish.