Jay Z — an artist truly made in America — makes his case for an authentic rest of his life From Bun B to Styles P to T.I. — the grown men of rap are having a moment

In May, Jay-Z inked a new $200 million deal with Live Nation. Before this weekend, his last major tour was in 2014 with his wife Beyoncé for their ($100 million-grossing) On The Run excursion. Jay-Z’s return to Made In America, a music festival he founded with Budweiser in 2012, was to be the culmination of a chain of events that started with speculation, leading up to June 30 release of 4:44, about just how much Jay-Z did or didn’t have left in the creative tank.

Rap, historically, has been a young man’s game. Could Jay-Z, at 47, still shift the culture as he’s done countless times before? Could he successfully coexist in a world of Futures and Cardi Bs and Lil Yatchys and Migos — all of whom were either gracing the Made In America stage this year or in years past? Would Jay’s first major solo performance in three years be his next Michael Jordan moment?


Music fans in ponchos attend the 2017 Budweiser Made in America festival, day one on Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 2 in Philadelphia.

Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

Sunday morning. On Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street. Jay Z’s new “Meet The Parents” blasts from a black Toyota Avalon. People on the sidewalk rap along — the car’s speakers are an impromptu appetizer for what’s to come later. He can’t explain what he saw / Before his picture went blank / The old man didn’t think / He just followed his instincts,” Jay-Z rhymes at the stoplight. Six shots into his kin / Out of the gun / N—a be a father / You’re killing your sons.”

On that day — before the Labor Day holiday and Night 2 of the sixth annual Budweiser Made In America Festival — a group of friends walking down 20th Street playing cuts from 2009’s Blueprint 3 on their mobile phones. Thousands of iterations of Shawn Corey Carter stared back from T-shirts worn by the crowd that swarmed Ben Franklin Parkway.

Then, it happened. An explosion lit up an adjacent stage. Just Blaze on the turntables.

And then there was the young man working at UBIQ, a chic sneakers store on chic Walnut Street. Looking like a student from Penn, he said he planned on taking in Jay-Z’s headlining Sunday set. At least for one day at the end of summer, the City of Brotherly Love bled blue, Jigga’s favorite hue. “It’s a skate park like right across the street,” Penn Guy said as cuts from Jay-Z’s lauded 4:44 play from the store’s speakers. “I’ve never seen him live. I’m excited.”

Jay-Z’s return to rap — there’s been no new solo album since 2013’s middle of the pack Magna Carta Holy Grail — has been a summer-long process. First came the rumors of a new album watermarked by mysterious “4:44” signage that covered everything from city buses to websites all across the country. Then, at the last of June came the album itself, which was met with immediate and widespread love. A slew of “footnotes” — videos, conversations between people such as Chris Rock, Tiffany Haddish, Will Smith, Jerrod Carmichael, Chris Paul and more — followed, which detailed the album’s creation and inspirations.

From there, in mid-August, the most-talked-about music interview of the year showcased Jay-Z alongside Tidal and Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson and Epic Records and Rap Radar’s Brian “B.Dot” Miller. The podcast left no stone unturned. In a two-part, 120-minute conversation, they peeled back layers of Jay-Z’s thought processes about music, life, love, motivation, depression and, even LaVar Ball.

On the heels of that talk, and through a Saturday of unseasonal chilly downpours, Jay-Z and Beyoncé watched a new generation of stars command muddy crowds. Family from both sides of the Carter-Knowles union cheered Solange on through her Saturday set. Was may well have been a kind of moment Jay-Z envisioned throughout the recording of 4:44. At 47, he had to wonder about his creative mortality, and if he could shift the culture as he’d done so many times before.


Bun B performs onstage at The Fader Fort presented by Converse during SXSW on March 16, 2013, in Austin, Texas.

Roger Kisby/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers’ rookie point guard Lonzo Ball said it: “Y’all outdated, man. Don’t nobody listen to Nas anymore […] Real hip-hop is Migos, Future.”

On one hand, it’s difficult to fault a 19-year-old for backing the music of his youth. Younger generations of artists and fans alike have always bucked back at generations who view their contributions as destructive. Tupac Shakur openly dissed De La Soul on 1996’s seething battle record “Against All Odds:” All you old n– tryna advance/ It’s all over now take it like a man/ N– lookin’ like Larry Holmes, flabby and sick/ Tryna playa hate on my s–, eat a fat d–. And only weeks before he was murdered, The Notorious B.I.G. vowed to never rap past 30. On the other hand though? Right now is a particularly good time for a handful of statesmen who dominated hip-hop before Big Baller Brand was just a twinkle in Lavar Ball’s eye.

How generations before talked about Marvin Gaye, Prince, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, he’s hip-hop’s them.

Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike and El-P (and their soundman, Trackstar the DJ) have consistently been one of the decade’s most impactful groups. They tour the world — and, in particular, amassed a melting pot crowd of various races and ages moshing at the Sunday Made In America set. Nas’ 2012 Life Is Good is, in many ways, rap’s interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, and one of the great late-career albums from any MC. OutKast’s 2014 tour was weird, but Big Boi of OutKast has quietly been responsible for several stellar albums — 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors and 2017’s Boomiverse — in this decade alone.

Jay-Z wasn’t the only artist in the pre-Lonzo Ball era displaying moments of clarity over the last few years either. A handful of hip-hop’s mature and notable names have been creating art and expressing — via conversation and on social media — everything from encounters with their own mortality to the pain and occasional beauty of survivor’s remorse.

Rice University instructor Bernard “Bun B” Freeman (currently working with Beyoncé and Scooter Braun on a telethon to benefit the victims of Hurricane Harvey), one half of the legendary Port Arthur, Texas, rap group UGK, sat down with Queens, New York’s own N.O.R.E. for an installment of the MC’s popular Drink Champs podcast. Per tradition, both parties swap hip-hop war stories and imbibe for the better part of two hours. The most emotional segment centered around memories of Freeman’s partner in rhyme, Pimp C, who died in 2007.

“The illest s— Pimp [C] ever said was ‘I don’t need bodyguards. I just need mighty God.’ Ever since he said that, and I never told him, I move like that,” Freeman said. A single tear streamed down the right side of his face. “If you wasn’t moving with me within God, I’ll just move by myself. That’s the way life should be.” He continued, “If you are who you say you are, and you’re honoring that in a real way, you can move anywhere in this world. Pimp and I are proof of that.”

When it comes to honoring a fallen comrade, T.I. (who was not feeling Lonzo’s comments) understands all too well. In May 2006, T.I’s best friend Philant Johnson was murdered in Cincinnati following a drive-by shooting. Phil, is inspiration behind T.I.’s massive Justin Timberlake-assisted single “Dead & Gone.” Phil had been by T.I.’s side that same evening — holding his mobile while the rapper performed. Hours later, his lifelong friend lay bleeding to death in his arms. “I told him I had him, and it was going to be all right,” T.I. told MTV in 2006. “That was what I said. And he said, ‘All right.’”

The death could be viewed as the trigger that disrupted T.I.’s massive mid-2000s success. His 2007 weapons arrest and subsequent incarceration was seen by many as a response to Johnson’s murder. T.I. contemplated quitting rap. But T.I.’s moved forward. While not at just this minute the Billboard and box office star he split time as a decade ago, the film producer, actor, and two-time Grammy winner born Clifford Harris is still a recognizable figure in rap. Particularly on his very active Instagram account.

Instagram Photo

Last month, Tip (a father to six who is who has experienced his own share of public marital ups and downs with singer-songwriter Tameka “Tiny” Harris) posted the video of him presenting Phil’s daughter with a new car. She’s now a high school senior. In a heartfelt caption, Tip used the moment as a social media therapy session. “Making straight A’s and maintaining a 3.8 GPA, all the way through school, staying away from all the things we were eyeball deep in when we was her age, & doing any & everything that’s EVER been asked since you left,” he wrote. “How can we not make sure she rides cool & in comfort her senior year? We miss you more than we can express…but we fill in for you everyday until it’s all said and done.”

He promised to send her to college. And that she’d never suffer for anything. It was more than an Instagram caption. It was remaining true to a promise to a man who died in his arms 11 years ago. “Our loyalty lives forever!”

Lastly, it’s Styles P — one-third of ’90s Bad Boy trailblazers The LOX. He and his wife, Adjua Styles, visited Power 105’s The Breakfast Club in August. Among other things, the couple discussed the benefits of healthy eating, and Charlottesville, Virginia. They also talked about their daughter’s suicide.

It’s what performances like these are masked for—regular season games for a championship run.

In June 2015, Styles P’s stepdaughter, Tai Hing, took her own life. She was 20. Styles P addressed the tragedy a month later via Instagram, detailing the difficulty he and his family faced, and would face. Hing’s death, her mother believes, could have been the boiling point of depression, issues with her biological father, and perhaps her sexuality.

Fighting back tears, Styles P was emotional about never having been able to take the place of Hing’s biological father. The dynamic bothered him deeply, but was beginning to understand as he, himself, was a product of a similar situation. “If we knew she was depressed she would’ve been home with us,” he said. “ We all deal with depression on some sort of level … You expect your child to bury you, not to bury your child.”

Honesty has always been a prerequisite for hip-hop in its most soul-piercing form. Beyond the flash, the lights and the flossing, at its core, rap was necessary to explain the fears, dreams, joys and pains of a people so often still struggling. And dealing with police brutality, poverty, misogyny, and more. So Styles P’s pain, T.I.’s memories, Bun B’s instructions from Pimp C, and Jay-Z’s vulnerability aren’t new grounds for rap. But their grief, and willingness to shred the cloak of invincibility rap often mirages is living proof of the power behind the quote a wise man said nearly a decade ago. Ain’t no shame in holding onto grief. As long as you make room for other things, too.


Music fans attend the 2017 Budweiser Made in America festival – Day 2 at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 3, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

The weather Sunday proved to be Mr. Hyde to the Saturday’s Dr. Jekyll. The only visible fingerprint from Saturday was the mud that essentially became a graveyard for shoes. Jerseys were popular with the crowd. UNC Michael Jordan and Vince Carter. Cavaliers, Heat and St. Vincent-St. Mary LeBron. Sonics and Warriors Durant. Nuggets Jalen Rose, Sixers Ben Simmons. Lakers Kobe, and Hornets Glen Rice. UCLA Russell Westbrook, and Lonzo Ball. Arizona State James Harden, University of California Marshawn Lynch, Niners Colin Kaepernick, LSU Odell Beckham and Georgetown Allen Iverson. Obscure jerseys such as Aaliyah’s MTV Rock n’ Jock and Ray Finkle’s Dolphins jersey (from the 1994 Jim Carrey-led comedy classic Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) were sprinkled among the sea of thousands.

Afternoon sluggishly careened into evening. 21 Savage, Run The Jewels and The Chainsmokers all commanded large crowds. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from The Wire dapped up fans. Hometown young guns Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers walked through the crowd. Festivalgoers camped near the main stage for hours in hopes of landing an ideal viewing spot for Jay-Z’s performance. To pass time, cyphers were had. Weed smoke reclined in the air. Guts from dutches and cigarillos were dumped. All to pass the time.

Months ago, many, especially on Twitter, wanted to act like Jay-Z wasn’t a headliner. No one even saw an album coming. Now here they were minutes from history. That’s what Jay-Z is in 2017. How generations before talked about Marvin Gaye, Prince, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson — Jay-Z is hip-hop’s them. He’s a throwback to the genre’s yesterday lyricism while embracing the newer generation he still attempts to impart game on and learn from.

The oversized Balloon Dog by famed sculptor Jeff Koons took the stage: It was time. “I’ve been waiting for this all summer,” one concertgoer said as he wrapped his arms around his girlfriend. “I know one thing, Jay better do the songs I wanna hear!” demanded another young woman.

So he did. Jay-Z’s set lasted nearly an hour and a half. He blended 4:44 cuts with classics from his catalog — the radio-friendly and the graphic street narratives. Jay-Z commanded of the crowd, but critiques did exist.

In his Rap Radar interview, Jay-Z mentioned that he was still toying around with the set list for his upcoming tour (slated to start in October). While it’s not a question to 4:44’s quality, Jay-Z weaving in old classics such as “Where I’m From,” “H to the Izzo,” “N—as In Paris,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Run This Town,” “Empire State of Mind” and “Heart of City” captivated the crowd, cuts from his most recent album seemed to dissipate from the energy those helped muster. 4:44, after all, does not have a big radio single.

4:44 is Jay-Z’s most personal album to date. His thirteenth solo effort revolves around the complexities of his marriage, his mother’s sexuality and societal issues that continue to create systematic disadvantages for people of color. Its intimacy can get lost in an outdoor crowd of tens of thousands. For an album of that nature, it’s tough to ask even Jay-Z to plan for such.

Breath control was expected to be off-center in his first major performance in three years — though coaxing the crowd to sing Beyoncé happy birthday was a great diversion. Are these flaws that will doom his upcoming tour? No. He still has three more festivals on deck before setting sail on his own on Oct. 27. It’s what performances like these are made for — regular-season games for a championship run.

“It’s Jay, so he did all the songs I wanted,” a concertgoer told me. “But I’m greedy. I wanted more.”

Jay-Z performs at Budweiser Made in America festival on Sept. 3 in Philadelphia.

Arik McArthur/FilmMagic

Jay-Z’s catalog: a litany of hits he can employ at any time to wrap a crowd around his fingers. People filmed Instagram and Snapchat videos of themselves rapping along. People yelled to him from the back of crowd as if it were a Sunday service. And cyphers between friends sprouted everywhere. Another element Jay-Z kills with is the element of surprise. He concluded the show with a tribute to Coldplay’s Chester Bennington, who committed suicide in July: an inspired performance of his Black Album single “Encore.”

As he left the stage, crowds swarmed to the exit. Some concertgoers voiced their displeasure. Jay-Z did his thing in the 90 minutes he gave Philly. But there was still something missing. “That’s it? He didn’t even do half of the songs I wanted,” said a girl as she walked toward the exit. “It was aight, I guess. It’s Jay, so he did all the songs I wanted,” another concertgoer told me. “But I’m greedy. I wanted more.” Made In America was over.

Then, it happened. An explosion lit up an adjacent stage. Just Blaze on the turntables. Some slipped in the mud trying to get there, ruining their clothes, but those concerns were faint. Hundreds were already on the street heading back to their apartments, AirBnB’s or Ubers when Jay-Z informed Philly that the party wasn’t over yet. This set was only for his “Day Ones.”

Jay pulled his “Pump It Up Freestyle” out his back pocket. This bled into “Best of Me,” “I Know,” “Hola Hovito,” “Money Ain’t A Thing” and more. Hometown kid Meek Mill’s guest appearance gave an already frenetic crowd an HGH-sized boost of adrenaline as the rapper ran through his catalog’s zenith and most intense track, 2012’s “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro).”

As Jay-Z closed the second set with [his favorite track], “Allure,” the mood was ceremoniously serene. Michael Jordan finished with 19 points on 7-of-28 shooting in his first game back in versus Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in 1995. The 21 misses are footnotes in history. It’s a moment everyone remembers for two simple words: “I’m back.” Grown as hell, Jay-Z is too.

Kevin Hart may be funny but he’s also focused on fitness The comedy star is fascinated with inspiring others to get and stay fit

When comedian and movie star Kevin Hart got his big break in 2001, he was unaware that his stardom would lead him to inspire others to get fit.

He now uses his celebrity status, comedy and commitment to fitness to help others. Hart shared his compassion for seeing others remain healthy with SC Featured’s Chris Connelly. The superstar opened up about sports, comedy, the inspiration behind his fitness journey and how it’s all come full circle in Kevin Hart: Keep Laughing, Keep Moving, which recently aired on SportsCenter.

The 38-year-old Philadelphia native said he started to see people he cared about deal with health issues. Hart lost his mother to cancer in 2007, and in 2014 he committed to an intensified fitness regimen.

ESPN Video Player

Hart is a four-time MVP of the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, but he couldn’t help but laugh at footage from 1996 when he was a high school point guard in Philadelphia.

“I thought I was going to the NBA,” Hart said.

His high school basketball teammates often referred to him as a “defense pest.”

After watching game footage from 1996, the high school point guard couldn’t help but laugh at himself. Film of turnover after turnover, leading to Hart’s removal from the game by his coach, placed him at the butt of his own jokes.

“This basketball highlight is horrible. Who let this out? I think I’ve got eight turnovers right now,” Hart said.

ESPN Video Player

Hart’s high school antics have turned him into not only a successful comic but also a star who places fitness first and is encouraging his millions of social media followers to do the same. He has 34 million Twitter followers and 23 million likes on Facebook.

Being in shape and helping others do the same turned into a full-on cause. Hart took videos during his workouts and posted them to social media. On June 6, 2015, while filming Central Intelligence in Boston, he decided to randomly send out a tweet asking people to join him for a run. He would do this in cities all over, and each time the crowds increased. In his hometown of Philadelphia, there were about 2,500 participants.

“I don’t do it for the personal feeling of ‘look at what I’m doing.’ I love the fact that people are reacting,” Hart said.

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Once a slim grade-school swimmer, Hart flaunting his chiseled physique graced the cover of the October 2016 issue of Men’s Fitness.

Kevin Hart. Photo by Jeff Lipsky for Men’s Fitness, October 2016 issue.

To further Hart’s fitness journey, the comedian is expected to star in a new venture, set to premiere on his Laugh Out Loud YouTube channel, titled Kevin Hart: What The Fit?

According to Deadline, the episodes will feature Hart and his celebrity friends and will include workouts with Marines, hot yoga and mountain climbing. The weekly show was announced in May during YouTube’s NewFronts presentation in New York. The channel has more than 761,000 subscribers to date. The series is produced by Pulse Creative and Hartbeat Productions in association with Lionsgate Television and Laugh Out Loud.

“This is a show for everyone — young, old, athletes and couch potatoes alike — and I’m proud that it will launch exclusively on our new LOL Network on YouTube,” said Hart. “Lionsgate and YouTube are great partners, and this collaboration allows me to add a whole new audience to my fan base and shape up viewers around the world.”

The summer of Mo’ne Davis’ magical Little League World Series A play-by-play of the historic 2014 ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover that almost didn’t happen

LeBron James told the world, “I’m coming home.New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter embarked upon a farewell tour in his 20th and final season. The U.S. men’s basketball team won gold at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, and Germany’s national soccer team emerged victorious at the World Cup in Brazil. And Serena Williams became the first woman to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles since the 1970s. The summer of 2014 revitalized the typically dreaded period of the sports calendar with memorable performances from the most dominant competitors around the globe. Yet somehow that brief era belonged to only one athlete: Little League phenom pitcher Mo’ne Davis, 13.

Sports Illustrated writer Albert Chen reported on Davis’ unprecedented 2014 Little League World Series run. “She was the biggest sports story,” he said, “in a summer full of sports stories.”

Mo’ne — who is now 16 and still chasing her dream of playing Division I college basketball, though she hasn’t given up pitching just yet — led Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons into Williamsport, Pennsylvania, becoming the first African-American girl to play in the Little League World Series. But the history-making didn’t stop there. She also became the first girl to pitch a shutout and earn a win, after a 4-0 victory over Nashville in her first start of the tournament. With long, swinging braids, piercing hazel eyes and undeniable ability on the mound, Davis threw a 70 mph fastball that she paired beautifully with an array of off-speed pitches. And on Aug. 25, 2014, she appeared on the front of Sports Illustrated — the first Little Leaguer in history on the cover of the magazine.

Leading up to the 2014 Little League World Series, longtime Sports Illustrated cover photographer Al Tielemans, a native of North Philadelphia, pitched a story to the magazine about the star female pitcher of his home state Dragons. The magazine sent two reporters to join him in Williamsport. Yet, as much potential as there was in the story, many things had to fall into place for Mo’ne to actually make the cover.


On Aug. 9, 2014, while on a two-day vacation in Philadelphia with his wife, Tielemans picked up an issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer. He stumbled across a story about a local Little League team playing the following night in Connecticut for a spot in the Little League World Series. By the end of the next day, Taney was headed to the Little League World Series to represent the Mid-Atlantic Region after a three-hit, six-strikeout, shutout performance in an 8-0 win over a team from Newark, Delaware — from a 13-year-old female pitcher named Mo’ne Davis. Slowly but surely, Mo’ne became the focus of sports chatter around the country, and Tielemans wanted to capitalize on the buzz. He quickly drafted an Excel spreadsheet for Sports Illustrated managing editor Chris Stone that mapped out the entire double-elimination tournament of the Taney Dragons and, more importantly, what it would take to get Mo’ne on the cover of the magazine.

Meanwhile, Chen had just wrapped a cover story on Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen (the story would appear in the magazine’s Sept. 8, 2014, issue), before boarding a plane departing from Pittsburgh. Soon, he’d receive a call from his editor about a Little League pitcher he’d never heard of.


Leading up to the 2014 Little League World Series, how much did you know about Mo’ne Davis?

Tielemans: I heard a team from Philly was playing for a regional championship. I saw that they won and that they were going to the Little League World Series. That Monday morning, they started having Mo’ne Davis on the morning talk shows, just kind of mentioning it as a blip, like, ‘Oh, a girl pitcher pitched the Philadelphia team’s way to the Little League World Series.’ But that was about it.

Chen: I got off the plane having just finished a story. I was kind of in a cave for that story, not really aware of what was going on. The magazine’s baseball editor at the time, Steve Cannella, I remember getting this phone call from him as I’m getting off the plane. He asks me, ‘Does the name Mo’ne sound familiar to you? … Have you been following her story?’ My answer is, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ I think it was that afternoon when she had the breakout game, struck out a lot of hitters and threw a shutout. I think Twitter went nuts and by the time I landed a lot of people had heard about her, and all those people were tweeting about her. I hadn’t checked my phone, or watched ESPN or anything. … It just goes to show you how quickly things snowball in this day and age. You wake up one morning and no one’s heard of Mo’ne Davis. Then you get a phone call and you’re one of the last people who’ve heard of her story. It wasn’t the huge sensation it would become, but within the sports world it was already exploding. I had no plans to go to the Little League World Series. We had no plans to send a writer.

Tielemans: I felt like the media was restrained about her and the team going into the Little League World Series. It wasn’t overboard. It was respectful about the fact that they were kids. Then, when she pitched on Friday, obviously it blew up.

Starting pitcher Mo’ne Davis #3 of Pennsylvania pitches during the 2014 Little League World Series.

Drew Hallowell/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Can you set the scene of Taney’s Friday afternoon game against Nashville, and Mo’ne’s shutout?

Chen: I had a great reporter working with me in Williamsport. Her name is Emily Kaplan (now of ESPN). We kind of tag-teamed. I wrote the story, but she did a huge amount of reporting … I went to Philadelphia and did a lot of reporting on the city and Mo’ne’s school. I watched the game that Friday on TV. Of course, I show up there and everyone in Philadelphia is rooting for her.

“She was just like a rock star, or Brazilian soccer player — she only needed one name to be recognized.” — Albert Chen, Sports Illustrated

Tielemans: It was an overcast day. Kind of threatening rain, but it never did. It was your classic first day at Williamsport. There was a buzz because it was getting started. … It was a great day to shoot. … Williamsport is a great place to shoot. You’re just so close. Just the fact that I had proposed this story … I felt like I was sitting on something that could really explode, and that’s always exciting. Everybody was there talking about Mo’ne.

Chen: If they lose, if she doesn’t do well in her start, it’s still a wonderful story, but is it a story we should be running in the magazine the following week, when there are many other things going on in the sports world? If they had lost that game on Friday, then the conversation is obviously every different.

Tielemans: When she won, and was dominant, it became a great story.

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The first girl to appear at the Little League World Series for a U.S. team in 10 years, Mo’ne dominated. In Taney’s 4-0 win over Nashville in the opening round of the tournament on Friday afternoon, Mo’ne threw 70 pitches, with eight strikeouts and zero walks, while allowing just two hits. Before her performance, no girl had pitched her team to a win or thrown a shutout at the Little League World Series. The victory advanced Taney to a game against Pearland, Texas, on Sunday night. With Sports Illustrated going to press on Monday night, Taney needed to win for Mo’ne to make the cover of the magazines that would hit newsstands on Wednesday. A loss on Sunday would’ve brought Taney to face double-elimination on Monday and potentially be eliminated before the magazine’s release. Down 6-5 in the bottom of the sixth and final inning against Texas, Taney rallied with two runs to win the game, 7-6, which kept the team alive until Thursday and meant Mo’ne was destined to grace a national cover.

At what point did you realize you were writing, or shooting, for a possible cover?

Chen: After her performance Friday, when she threw the shutout and won the game against Nashville, when I woke up Saturday morning and knew she was the talk of the sports world, I knew that this was potentially a cover story.

Tielemans: That’s essentially what I originally proposed. It was like, ‘Hey, this is a story. Here’s the deal — if this and this happens, you can put her on the cover and you’ve got three days before they can even be eliminated.’ But if something else happened that was more important, it could’ve been bumped easily. You go in with the idea and the people at the magazine make the decisions. You give them your material and just deal with whatever happens. It just so happened that it played out.

“It was totally cool that a girl went in and mowed down a team of Little League players.” — Al Tielemans, Sports Illustrated photographer

Chen: I had to start writing the story on Sunday knowing that there was a chance it wouldn’t run. Sunday night is the night that they played the game where they were down 6-5 going into the final inning and they scored two runs in the sixth inning to win that game. If they had lost that game, there wouldn’t have been a story in that issue of the magazine, and she obviously would not have been on the cover.

I didn’t know, for sure, that I was writing a cover story until Sunday evening around 9:30, 9:45, when that winning run was scored. I turned in the story the very next morning, and I don’t know why I remember this, but I was actually a little bit early filing.

What are some of Sports Illustrated covers of note that you’ve written or shot for? And where does the Mo’ne Davis cover rank in the conversation?

Chen: I had the Andrew McCutchen cover. Probably one of my more prominent ones was I did the cover story on the baseball player Josh Hamilton. That got a lot of buzz. I have a bunch of college football covers as well.

Tielemans: Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper on the baseball preview issue. I had the picture of Anthony Rizzo when the Cubs won the World Series for the cover. I did the NBA preview in 2014 with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. I did Nick Foles’ snow game. I did when Bubba Watson won the Masters. Portraits of David Price with the Rays and Joey Votto. I did the cover when the Steelers beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Chen: The Mo’ne cover got more attention than any other cover I’ve written. I don’t think there’s any question about it. Spike Lee did a short documentary on Mo’ne. I went to Philadelphia to talk to him about it and was interviewed on camera. Spike Lee definitely has not called me up for any other cover stories I’ve done.

Tielemans: It’s wayyyyy up there. It’s kind of hard to match the Cubs win the World Series for the first time in 108 years. But a lot of the Mo’ne cover has to do with the fact that I pitched it, I mapped it out, I explained it, and all of the pieces fell into place. There’s so much luck involved in this business. I don’t get any attention out of getting the cover, but when the cover gets attention, it is cool. It’s pretty fun when your cover gets a lot of play, and it got a lot of play when Mo’ne was on TV. It was a cool feeling.

Chen: What makes me feel good about it is it was really the right 13-year-old. I imagine there are very few 13-year-olds on the planet that can really handle that kind of attention and pressure, everything that goes with being on the cover of a magazine. She was the right 13-year-old in terms of her being able to handle the attention, and the craze, and the history and the frenzy that came along with it. She was able to handle it. … All credit to her for that.

Tielemans: Going into it, I did not know that there had never been a Little Leaguer on the cover.

What do you think Mo’ne’s story meant to the sports world at the time in 2014? And what does it mean now?

Chen: A lot of things happened that summer, but August of 2014 will always be remembered as the summer of Mo’ne. She stole the show. She was front and center. She was just like a rock star or Brazilian soccer player. She only needed one name to be recognized.

Tielemans: What made it cool for me was she was just a kid … a normal 13-year-old kid. She was very friendly, very respectful, and as shy as the 13-year-old you’d expect her to be. She fit in with those guys completely normally.

Chen: I think it’s still a unique story for sure, because you peel away all the layers and it was a story about so many different things. About gender, about race, about so many larger things. But at the end of the day, it was a story about pitchers blowing away hitters in the Little League World Series, so I think her name still resonates with some people.

Tielemans: It was totally cool that a girl went in and mowed down a team of Little League players. She really went out and did it. Just a kid out there throwing baseballs. The normalcy of it all is what made it so absolutely cool.

LL Cool J talks hoops, giving back and being a Kennedy Center honoree ‘Wherever I go, hip-hop goes. When I stand there, I’m standing there for the culture.’

LL Cool J is often mentioned as one of hip-hop’s young pioneers who burst onto the scene years ago and remains a relevant staple in culture. His head-bumping beats, charismatic concrete rhymes, and swagger of a Kangol bucket hat and heavy gold chains introduced hip-hop in a way that can never be ignored, only used as a blueprint.

His first single in 1987, “I Need a Beat,” put the music label Def Jam on the map. Thirteen albums later, at 49 years old, rap’s first sex symbol will be the Kennedy Center’s youngest honoree since Stevie Wonder and the only hip-hop honoree in the center’s 40-year history. It’s no coincidence that the Grammy Award winner hosted the Grammy Awards five consecutive years from 2012-16. And then there’s acting. He’s starred in several hit films and shows, which landed him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year.

August 2017 marks the 13th year that the Queens, New York, native is holding his annual Jump & Ball community camp in his hometown. The summer camp is free, and hundreds of kids participate in competitive basketball as well as double Dutch, chess, kickball and handball.

At Daniel O’Connell Playground in Hollis, Queens, LL spoke with The Undefeated about his commitment to giving back to his hometown, how Michael Jordan’s dominance in the game corrupted his New York Knicks fandom, his report card on Magic Johnson’s leadership at the Los Angeles Lakers and, of course, hip-hop and fashion.

Using a line from his ’90s hit “Mama Said Knock You Out”: Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years. With more than 30 years in the game, LL Cool J is not slowing down one bit.


What started Jump & Ball, and what keeps it going as it celebrates its 13th year?

I know from growing up in this neighborhood [Southeast Queens] that there’s nothing to do. My grandmother always told me that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, so when you don’t have anything to do, you’re on the corner [selling drugs]. I wanted to give the kids in the community something to look forward to. There were a lot of hustlers out here when I was growing up. They weren’t doing everything right, but they would throw ball tournaments. And for us as kids, we were like, ‘Wow, we’re having fun.’ I wanted to do it the right way and pay it forward, back to the kids.

For 12 years, I was just throwing basketball tournaments and letting the kids play ball. But we have kids looking up to players like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, so I felt this year going forward that I needed to introduce them to a little more structure where they could learn skills and how to play competitively.

How would you describe Queens, New York? What does it mean to you?

For me, it’s home sweet home, but it’s something different to everyone. If you came out here and got your chain snatched, it might not mean the same thing to you that it means to me (laughs). But I love being here; it’s a family. I just want to keep doing the right thing for them and keep it going.

Are you still a recovering New York Knicks fan?

I’m a loyal New Yorker, but I’m going to keep it absolute 100 with you: Michael Jordan ruined everything for [all other players for me]. I was trying to be a Knicks fan, but MJ was killing the game. But, yes, I’m a Knicks fan first. I love my man [Charles] Oakley and Anthony Mason. Antoine Mason, Anthony’s son, is an unbelievable player too. I’m in Los Angeles, but I’ll never be a transplant. That’s never going to happen! The idea that I’ll be in L.A. and become a pure L.A. guy is ridiculous. I’m New York all the way.

How do you feel your friend Magic Johnson is doing as the new Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations?

That’s my great friend, I love him, and I’m just so happy for him. I believe in what Magic is doing with the Lakers. He has the right formula and understands the players and life after basketball. Look at me, it’s like I’m doing recruiting for the Lakers (laughs). Lonzo [Ball] is going to be incredible. His father is hilarious; shoutout to the entire Ball family.

You’ve been a huge supporter of the BIG3 tournament. What drove that fandom?

It was a genius idea by [Ice] Cube. I love to watch Al Harrington, DeShawn Stevenson and all these guys go out there and play. It’s going to keep getting better and better. Players can go from Jump & Ball, then a Division I or II college, maybe the NBA afterwards and then the BIG3 league. The BIG3 is a perfect complement to the NBA for the players that get out but still want to hoop. It’s crazy dope.

LL Cool J spins a basketball during week four of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Wells Fargo Center on July 16, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Rob Carr/BIG3/Getty Images

Is hip-hop evolving or do you feel it’s losing heart?

[You have to first ask yourself,] ‘Lost heart to who?’ If you’re a 35-year-old and you grew up listening to one thing and now you have a 15-year-old listening to another thing, then maybe it lost heart to you in that sense. But from an artist to fan connection, it hasn’t lost any heart. I feel the connection is as strong as ever. I’m always going to love the culture of hip-hop and be a believer of its original foundation. I’ll forever be LL Cool J The Original, but at the same time, I don’t have a problem with new music. There are a lot of great artists out here … but there’s always going to be someone putting out some garbage [music], whether it’s 1987 or 2077.

How does it feel to be the first hip-hop artist to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors?

I would have never imagined it in my wildest dreams. Wherever I go, hip-hop goes. When I stand there, I’m standing there for the culture. I’m not standing there necessarily with or against the powers that be. I’m standing there for the hip-hop culture.

You recently did a photo shoot with [fashion designer] Marc Jacobs and Salt-N-Pepa for the fashion issue cover of InStyle Magazine. What inspires your style?

My style is inspired by where I’m at right now [Queens]. I just have the resources to maybe get every piece instead of just one now. I can wear what I have on right now for a magazine cover or if I was at Mr. Chow’s [restaurant]; it would look fancy. But here in Queens, it looks regular. I didn’t forget where I came from. I dress, talk and walk the same. I’m just growing and making my dreams come true.

Aux Cord Chronicles XII: Back to school survival soundtrack Face it, summer’s over: 22 songs to get your mind right for the new academic year

S

omeone please start a petition to get rid of the month of August. The month is useless. It’s just training camp, then injuries at training camp, then crappy NFL preseason football because of training camp and finally, worst of all, back to campus. We get that it’s a joyous time for parents, but please don’t make it too obvious? We can clearly see you pumping your fist in the bathroom and doing little happy dances everywhere. But for anybody who’s going to be sitting in a classroom anytime soon, this playlist is for you. Featuring songs from A Tribe Called Quest to 2 Chainz to Buju Banton to MF DOOM, this playlist will hopefully be enough to get you through to Christmas break.

N.W.A. “Express Yourself” (1986)

West Coast hip-hop was never the same after a hip-hop group from Los Angeles popped up on the scene in 1986. “Express Yourself’” is self-explanatory and still resonates today.

A Tribe Called Quest — “Push It Along” (1990)

First things first: RIP Phife. A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is home to some of the group’s most well-known songs, namely “Bonita Applebum,” “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and “Can I Kick It?” While you can’t go wrong with any of those songs, “Push It Along” stands out because of its succinct yet metaphoric chorus, which can be interpreted two ways. No one likes sitting in a classroom for what can seem like hours on end — but just keep pushing. Like Jarobi says on the outro, In my way there’s boulder, but you know what I had to do? I had to push it along. Life’s all about being proactive rather than reactive. Don’t be surprised by your grades at the end of the semester. Ask your professor how you’re doing and you’ll be surprised by how open he or she is.

Nas — “The World Is Yours” (1994)

You’re going back to school and trying to figure out what it is that you want to do or be in life. This was the mindset of 18-year-old hip-hop artist Nasir Jones in Queens, New York, while recording his debut album, Illmatic. Considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, there’s no secret about the message of this track — if you put your heart and mind to it, the world can truly be yours.

Montell Jordan — “This Is How We Do It” (1995)

As one of the all-time house party staples, Friday nights have not been the same since Montell Jordan dropped this track in 1995. Who else could have enhanced a sample of Slick Rick’s 1989 “Children’s Story” and turned it into a club banger? Keep this in your playlist for when you’re ready to jam to a golden era tune.

Buju Banton — “Champion” (1995)

The standout track from Buju Banton’s 1995 dancehall classic Til Shiloh serves as a reminder to always be confident in your abilities. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. So tread carefully, but don’t let the subtle intricacies of patois keep you from claiming Me all ah walk like a champion/ Talk like a champion. When college gets extremely difficult, just remember who you are.

C-Murder feat. Magic & Snoop Dogg — “Down For My N’s” (1999)

Nine times out of 10, your favorite black Greek-letter organizations on campus will have this track blaring from speakers as they do their favorite strolls on your campus’s yard, or at a house party. This track is truly a “ride or die” anthem of brotherhood/sisterhood … and what better way to be down for the culture? Save this track for when you’re ready to up the fellowship ante with your peoples.

Juvenile — Back That A– Up (1999)

Juvenile single-handedly made an era’s anthem with one simple battle cry: Cash Money Records takin’ over for the ’99 and the 2000. Never will this song get old. And once you hear the beat drop by producer Mannie Fresh at any function, you better grab a hold of something or get ready to get hype — Cash Money Records is taking over the spot for the next four minutes and 25 seconds.

Jay-Z — Dirt Off Your Shoulder (2003)

Need a motivational track to get your semester going? Why not bump to one of HOV’s greatest hits? It influenced President Barack Obama to dust off his shoulder during a Democratic primary speech. After all, you gotta dust your past off and start the academic year fresh.

Crime Mob feat. Lil Scrappy – Knuck If You Buck (2004)

There are usually two things that happen when Crime Mob pops off at either a house party or a club: The crowd goes crazy and bops to the ATL classic or a dance riot breaks out on the floor. Either way, this Dirty South gospel was made for getting crunk. And, for the record, no, “Juju On That Beat” could NEVER compare to the original.

MF DOOM — “Deep Fried Frenz” (2004)

When will MF DOOM get the credit he deserves? He makes an entire song about how we should carefully select friends while sampling two songs (“Friends and Strangers” by Ronnie Laws and “Friends” by Whodini) about friendship! That level of depth is borderline nonexistent in today’s hip-hop. Don’t let his use of skits prevent you from missing out on DOOM’s exceptional lyricism. Still, what DOOM is saying cannot be overstated: Choose your friends wisely. As DOOM eloquently put it, Jealousy the number one killer among black folk. Not everybody deserves to be your friend, and when somebody shows you who they are, believe them.

DJ Khaled — “We Takin’ Over” (2007)

It’s mind-boggling to think that DJ Khaled is known by many as that guy from Snapchat with philosophical advice. Well, congratulations, you played yourself. Six years before the release of the photo-sharing app, Khaled curated arguably the greatest song of his career in “We Takin’ Over.” As a senior, this song will forever hold a special place in my heart (and not because Wayne’s verse was the first I ever committed to memory). This epitomizes the difficult journey so many seniors have taken — from the eagerness of freshman year to the doldrums of sophomore year to the nostalgic anxiety of senior year. The world better watch out for us ’cause we takin’ over (one city at a time).

Little Brother — “Dreams” (2007)

In case you didn’t know the great trio of Phonte, Big Pooh and DJ/producer 9th Wonder out of Durham, North Carolina, once known as “Little Brother,” the group was one of the most highly acclaimed underground hip-hop groups of their time. The title of the song about says it all: Have dreams, while keeping in mind that dreams alone don’t keep the lights on.

F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz) — “Swag Surfin’” (2009)

No matter what school you attend, but especially at a historically black college, this track is almost mandatory to know line by line. Whether you hear it in the club, in the gymnasium or your school’s stadium, you better grab your nearest friends and be ready to surf with swag.

Big K.R.I.T. — “4EvaNaDay (Theme)” (2012)

Want a subwoofing, bass booming, Dirty South track to start the first day of school? Well, this track, made by Mississippi rapper and producer Justin Scott, aka Big K.R.I.T., is for you. As said by K.R.I.T., If it don’t touch my soul then I can’t listen to it. … Listen and enjoy.

Lupe Fiasco — “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” (2012)

Let’s face it: Being black in America is an everyday struggle, especially with the political climate of the United States today. In 2012, Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, better known as Lupe Fiasco, created this track to paint the problems in the American social, economic and political systems. Five years later, the words still resonate. If you need a track to raise your consciousness as the semester begins, Lupe’s got you covered.

Meek Mill “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” (2012)

We’re more than two years removed from the Meek Mill-Drake beef, yet Drizzy fans still refuse to acknowledge the greatness of this song. Even Toronto’s favorite son had to recognize it at one point. Regardless, it’s one of the best rap intros of all time. This song tells the tale of Meek’s dreamlike ascension in the rap game before launching into a full-blown assault on all his haters, with the Philadelphia native dropping knowledge throughout. From I had to grind like that to shine like this to I’m the type to count a million cash, then grind like I’m broke, the entire song is an ode to anybody who has endured the struggle. If you take that mindset into school, the sky’s the limit. Play this at any college party and everybody should be screaming this track verbatim. Key word: should.

Travis Scott — “Apple Pie” (2015)

On the final track of Rodeo, “Apple Pie” is Scott’s way of telling his mother that it’s time for him to go out into the world and make his own way. For many of us, college is that time. Don’t be afraid to follow in Scott’s footsteps and jump off mom and/or dad’s porch. Separation anxiety will hit you like a ton of bricks, but it eventually subsides. Anybody who went away to school empathizes with the line I hate to break your heart, I bet I’ll make the mark/ That y’all see a legacy go up.

Kamaiyah — “How Does It Feel” (2015)

Oakland, California’s own Kamaiyah initially burst on the scene after receiving Pitchfork’s “Best New Track” honors for “How Does it Feel” in late 2015. Her inspiration? She was trying to make “it cool to be broke again.” Being broke and college broke are two entirely different things. College broke is really humbling because you see how terrible things can be if you don’t find your side hustle. Sell mixtapes, work at the bookstore, become a party promoter — do something that’ll put a little extra change in your pocket. Making a way where there’s no way is what college is all about. And when you finally find your hustle, don’t be afraid do your little two-step while proudly singing I’ve been broke all my life/ Now wonder/ How does it feel to be rich?

2 Chainz — “Get Out The Bed” (2016)

If you are one of the unfortunate few who scheduled an 8 a.m. class, may God be with you. Luckily, the Drench God made a hook with you in mind: Get out the bed and grind and hustle/ Did it before and I’ll do it again. Make this your anthem and you’ll be able to take anything this cruel campus life throws at you — except maybe a pop quiz. At the very least, please try to keep your eyes open.

Big Sean feat. Migos — “Sacrifices” (2017)

I definitely could’ve gone with the Drake version. Or even Elton John’s. But the Kid Studio-provided visuals place Big Sean’s version in a league of its own. Picture this: It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday. That party starts at 10 p.m. That girl or guy you like wants to come over at 9 p.m. — and you have a test at 8 a.m. Friday. Big Sean said it best: To get ahead, man, you have to make sacrifices. Not every single event requires your presence. Stay in, tell that girl or guy to come over and study to get that A in the morning.

Future feat. The Weeknd — “Coming Out Strong” (2017)

This one’s for the freshmen. The title says it all. Don’t get lost in the sauce. Start your college career on the right foot. Freshman year is by far the easiest, as long as you don’t succumb to distractions. Side note: Pluto don’t dance, but I make moves is one of the best bars off of HNDRXX, even if Future just flipped around The Weeknd’s opening line.

Logic feat. Alessia Cara & Khalid — “1-800-273-8255” (2017)

School can be extremely stressful. Trying to balance academics, extracurricular activities and a social life can often seem overwhelming. If you need help, please do not hesitate to ask. It is not a coincidence that the song title is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Find your school’s Counseling & Disability Services Center. There are always resources available. Remember these lyrics — It can be so hard/ But you gotta live right now/ You got everything to give right now.

Also, do not be afraid to take a mental health day. If your mental health isn’t intact, life won’t make sense.

Nazr Mohammed isn’t retired, just prepared for his next phase in life He’s started a foundation to focus on bringing awareness and money to multiple causes

Chicago native and NBA veteran Nazr Mohammed has not officially retired after an 18-year stint in the league. And he doesn’t have much to say about when that announcement will come.

“I realized a long time ago, seeing other friends and teammates go through it. Only the great ones actually retire. The rest of us get retired,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need to officially retire, but I am retired. What I mean by that is, you know, there’s always a situation you would play for, but after a year has passed, I’m not really thinking in that mindset as far as playing again. I’m looking more into the business of basketball. There are things I want to do as far as looking for the right situation that can teach me the business of basketball and put me in a position where I have an opportunity to learn as much as I can. My dream is to one day run my own organization, whether it’s GM or as the president of an organization. I think I can manage and help build a championship team.”

But Mohammed is a multidimensional thinker whose skills have stretched far beyond the court. So for the next chapter of his career, he’s continuing to give back to others and teaching life skills to young girls and boys through his foundation. His off-the-court endeavors include the Nazr Mohammed Foundation, a fundraising organization that focuses on bringing awareness and money to a cause of his choice while hosting its own programs.

“You know how so many start a foundation and they have one particular cause? Just with me, it’s so many different things that I believe in and so many different causes that I’d like to support,” Mohammed said of his multilayered unit. “I decided that, you know what, one cause just isn’t enough, so I keep my foundation pretty broad.”

The University of Kentucky standout was selected in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz right after his junior year. Utah traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers, with whom Mohammed spent the first two seasons of his NBA career. The 6-foot-10 center was an integral big man for the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats, Oklahoma City Thunder and his hometown Chicago Bulls. He played for the Thunder last season.

Mohammed attended high school at Kenwood Academy in Chicago and grew up in a big household led by his father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana.

“There’s 10 of us. Three brothers, six sisters. I’m like fourth from oldest,” he said.

In February, he shared information about his life, his childhood and growing up in a Muslim household in a blog post about religion and politics. He wrote about his experiences with online racism, and his story picked up national attention.

“It’s funny, when I do my blog, something happens that’s just constantly being talked about on TV, and I knew I had an opinion,” he said. “I do plan on doing the blog again. I don’t know when, I don’t know what it’ll be about. When there’s something to talk about, I just have some things I need to say about it, and I just start writing and put it out there.

“The funny part is I never thought I was a writer. I actually didn’t like writing a whole lot, but after I get started, I think I’m getting better. I enjoy it, and once I get started I can’t stop.”

Meanwhile, Mohammed is busy running The Village Project for boys and girls ages 14 to 18.

“What we do is we get up to 100 kids. We try to get about 50 girls and 50 boys. We go through different things and different situations that kids may be going through from bullying to etiquette, financial planning, etc. We create the curriculum according to the what we feel are tools they will need to excel. Then come in and talk to them about financial planning so they can get an understanding about how to handle money, how to save, what bills to expect. When you’re young, no one ever really talks to you about money and financial planning. I think that’s something, especially in the black community, we kind of have to learn on our own.”

Mohammed spoke with The Undefeated about his foundation, family and his overall journey.


What was the idea behind starting your foundation?

I was trying to do something for my high school. I wanted to do something where I help them out academically and athletically, so I decided it was time to start up my foundation. I can kind of use my platform, my name, to try and help to raise money or have fundraisers for them.

My first fundraiser we raised a total of $40,000 for my high school. It helped them upgrade a couple of academic areas. We were able to upgrade some things in their main gym. My second year, I decided to change it up. It was a couple of organizations that I felt that were doing some outstanding things in Chicago and I wanted to highlight them. One of them was Sue Duncan Children’s Center, a place I attended in elementary after the school day to play ball. Back when I attended it didn’t a have a name, so we called it Sue’s. It was at a church; Sue made us read then do a book report before we could play. The other option was to read to some of the younger kids. Sue’s son, Arne Duncan, later became the superintendent of Chicago schools. President [Barack] Obama later named him secretary of education. We donated money to Sue Duncan Children’s Center. Also a place called CircEsteem. It’s an organization that is an afterschool program that kind of keeps kids engaged. They are teaching them like circus tricks. And another one was called Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. In the third year, I switched it up again. This time I did a big fundraiser for Kovler Diabetes Center with the University of Chicago. And the reason I chose diabetes was because of a couple of people in my family suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. And I wanted to just kind of give back and bring awareness, because we all know how prevalent it is in the black community.

We would help them with the things they were doing as far as research, and they had programs where they were helping people pay for their medicine. In our fourth year, we decided to do something for autism. We did a big fundraiser to raise money for a couple of groups that were helping out in black communities, and communities everywhere. In the fifth year, we also donated to a couple of local organizations.

So that’s kind of what we do. We’re all over the place. If I see something where I feel like it’s a credible organization, or they’re doing great work and I can lend my name, or I could do something and raise money for them, I kind of just do it.

What’s been the hardest part of fundraising for you?

The hardest part is, it’s kind of sad. … You have so many people who say they want to help and they want to be part of what you’re doing, but they really want to help in certain ways. They only want to do certain things. So finding people who are willing to donate their time, or money, or their expertise, it’s been hard. There have been times where people have had their own agendas.

Which cause is the most like heart-tugging for you?

Honestly, all of them have been pretty equal. With autism, I had a friend who had two of his young children on the autistic spectrum. I had another friend whose son in high school was autistic. So that was something that was close to me. As far as diabetes in my immediate family, I have so many that are Type 1 and Type 2. Cancer, at the time I decided to do my fundraiser for cancer, I also had one friend pass from a form of cancer. I had another friend, his mom just found out she had cervical cancer, and I had two friends dealing with breast cancer, so that was something that was really close to me. With each fundraiser we did, there was definitely something that meant something dearly to me at the time and still does. I do have to admit, it is very rewarding doing The Village Project just because this is where we can help teenage kids, we can help young kids, and give them some directions.

As a ‘Windy City’ native, how do you feel about some of the community issues that have been plaguing the Chicago area?

Since I don’t live there full time, I can’t say it directly affects me. But being in Chicago, you just feel it. Growing up in Chicago and playing basketball, when I played, you almost had like an athlete pass, where if you’re doing good, you’re the good player, you are pretty much allowed to go play here and play there, and going to different neighborhoods and no one pretty much messed with you. The saddest part about the violence that’s going on in Chicago, you no longer see that pass. In the last couple of years, there’s been a couple of prominent high school athletes from Chicago who had been killed. When you talk about my city, I want you to talk about it for being a great city, it is. With all the violence that’s going on, the murder rate being so high in certain areas.

I think it’s time that I try and figure out what I can do. I’m as bashful about what exactly you can do with most people. There’s a lot of people working on it. I’m actually trying to find the right organization that I want to partner with, see where I can help.

How do you feel about rappers like Chance the Rapper and Common and others who are speaking out and taking a stand for what’s going on in the community there?

What Chance has been doing, it’s just been amazing. Just to be such a young guy. How intelligent and how passionate he is about the city, putting his money where his mouth is. It’s just been amazing. Some people forget Derrick [Rose] gave a million dollars to an after-school program in Chicago. It’s not talked about much; once it’s done, people forget quickly. Derrick put his money where his mouth was too. There’s people stepping up, people trying to support the city in whichever way they can, whether financially.

Are your children aware of and involved in your philanthropic efforts?

Yeah, definitely. I try to have them involved in little ways whenever we can. I definitely have them around when we do the big group stuff so they can just see what’s going on, letting them help fill gift bags, little things like that, just so they got a feel for what’s going on and kind of be part of it. I have a 14-year-old daughter who will be starting high school this year, 11-year-old son who will be in the sixth grade, and an 8-year-old daughter will be in third grade.

What’s been the most interesting part in being the giver?

I hate to say it, but one of the biggest reasons why I do it is when you give, that’s an opportunity to be selfish. What I mean by that is, when you give … I do it because it makes me feel good. At the end of the day, knowing that you’re in a position that you can help others and you can give and the smiles that you put on people’s faces and the happiness that you bring to others. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel good about myself, so if I can make myself feel a little bit better by giving to others, when I have the opportunity, I try to do it.

How has being a Ghanaian player in the NBA been for you?

It’s funny because I’m just doing my thing, and they’re so proud because I was the first Ghanaian in the NBA. So they’re so proud of it, but at the same time it’s one of those things, because I’m American-born, some people feel like, ‘We don’t know.’ Both my parents are from Ghana. I can’t pick where I was born. I feel like it just had a great impression on me. It’s a quality, and it’s something that is ingrained from different things for me. You know, growing up being the African kid in the neighborhood. You’re treated differently. People look at you differently. Your parents speak a different language but hear the accent.

My father, he really wanted us to understand the difference between being poor in America and Third World poor, how he grew up. We just got different culture and different view on things. Being included, once I became a good basketball player, having that background, my Ghanaian part and just being an African-American in America. I just got a chance to develop so many different views and be a part of so many different groups. That’s something I touched on in my blog about religion and politics.

How has your culture shaped you into the man you are now?

It’s in my DNA. My pops was a hardworking, smart, whatever it takes to be successful, whatever it takes to feed his family. It rubbed off on all of us, all the kids. It’s just part of our culture. You do whatever you have to do, especially being the man of the house. You feed your family, you keep a roof over their heads, you work hard, you try to achieve as much as you can, you learn as much as you can. It definitely shaped me into the man I am today. My father, he did it all first off. It’s kind of hard to explain what he did. During my lifetime, he owned gas stations, he’s done all types of things, but during my lifetime, he drove a cab first. He drove a cab in Chicago, then he wound up went into medallion. Medallion is the right to have a cab in Chicago. A friend of his wanted medallion, but he couldn’t afford to put it on the street, so my father bought his medallion. So now he had two cabs. He slowly put together where he at one point owned 11 cabs. He was a jack-of-all-trades, he did it all. We had a restaurant for a year or two. My pops, he would just work hard, get it out there, try to accomplish it.

If it fails, get backup. Try to figure out another way to accomplish another goal. He always told us, if you can, don’t work for anybody, work for yourself. I’ve always had that in my mind, but of course I haven’t been able to achieve considering it’s kind of hard to be on a team and work for yourself. I’m trying to figure that one out now.

Did you experience any racism growing up?

I feel like at some level, you can always question the way someone treated you, is it some form of racism or prejudice, but you don’t truly know. I found social media, that’s a wild experience. Most of my racism is through … I don’t really count that though. I haven’t experienced much racism that I can confirm in person. No one has called me out my name in person. It’s been more like you’ve had this feeling. And that this person could have been a racist or could have been prejudiced, prejudiced against tall people, black people, whatever it may be, Africans or in which box you want to check for me.

Kennedy Center is bringing hip-hop center stage and Simone Eccleston is making it happen A full season at the nation’s premier performing arts venue signals the art form is adulting

Four decades after its birth in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop has moved into the era of adulting. Among the many markers of maturity, one of the most significant happens today when the nation’s premier home for the performing arts announces its first full season of hip-hop programming.

The performance season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., was curated by A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip along with the center’s first director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston.

And while this moment says something important about the evolution of a still-young art form, it also marks a necessary evolution in the tradition-bound world of high art. After years of lower-profile partnerships with hip-hop festivals and free performances in its lobby, the Kennedy Center is moving hip-hop out of the programming D-League to join theater, opera, jazz, dance and classical music as featured art forms.

The season will open Oct. 6 with a performance featuring Q-Tip and Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, and closes in spring 2018 with a multimedia performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

Besides the big-name acts to open and close the season, the schedule is light on live performances, relying heavily on curated dance parties. The center is also re-upping its longstanding partnerships with hip-hop advocacy organizations Hi-ARTS and the D.C.-based Words Beats & Life. The programming, which isn’t limited to music, includes a staging of Chinaka Hodge’s Chasing Mehserle, a performance piece about Oakland, California, and gentrification.

The Kennedy Center will host a 35th anniversary screening of Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, a documentary about the early days of hip-hop, followed by a panel discussion including Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Caz and Busy Bee.

The commitment of full-time staff and space to hip-hop sets the Kennedy Center apart from other marquee arts institutions such as Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center while expanding the definition of American culture. Like jazz and the blues — and even the iPod one might play them on — hip-hop is a uniquely American invention, a beacon of coolness that shines brightly around the globe.

“As the nation’s cultural center, that’s a heavy-duty title that we hold,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “It’s important that we have all of the nation represented here. And candidly, we still have a long ways to go. … Hip-hop is a 40-plus-year-old art form. It ain’t going away. It isn’t a fad. This is an art form that continues to develop and grow and have impact, and it is broadly seen throughout several generations as the voice of their generation, and how could we not have it fully here at the center? The sophistication of the work that’s being done has to be brought here.”

The hiring of Eccleston, 37, and the announcement of the new season are only the latest in a series of events that suggest hip-hop is thriving even as it starts to get gray around the temples. That maturation isn’t just an accounting of raw years of existence, but also the emotional growth in the genre’s most high-profile acts. Certainly, earlier hip-hop featured adult, introspective voices such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Little Brother, Consequence and Talib Kweli. But witness the confessional nature of Jay-Z’s 4:44 or Dr. Dre confronting his past sins as a woman beater in the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones.

Simone Eccelston

André Chung for The Undefeated

Hip-hop is now old enough to inspire nostalgia and reflection. In the past few years, there have been the retrospective gazes of The Get Down and The Breaks, and Jigga’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — heralded by consummate Jay-Z fan President Barack Obama. And don’t forget about Snoop Dogg pooh-poohing misogyny, releasing an album one critic called “the audio version of linen pants and fish fries,” and co-hosting an Emmy-nominated reality show with an ex-con 30 years his senior, Martha Stewart. Even Atlanta trap god Gucci Mane seems like a new man after exiting federal prison last year. Rather than touting his time as a signifier of masculinity, Gucci was candid about just how unpleasant the experience was.

It was only roughly 20 years ago that Eccleston was hopping on the D train from the Kingsbridge stop of her childhood home in the Bronx to go to her first rap concert at Madison Square Garden. Now, her task of making hip-hop a fixture at the Kennedy Center seems obvious, if not overdue.

Wait. Wasn’t this already a thing?

When the Kennedy Center announced in 2016 that it had netted Q-Tip as its artistic director of hip-hop culture, the move was part of a trajectory that had been in the works for years. Moran had been lobbying Rutter for more hip-hop programming. So had former White House social secretary Deesha Dyer, who had covered the scene in Philadelphia as a freelance journalist.

“[Dyer] and Jason really pushed me over the edge to say, ‘OK, we should do this more than just one-offs and really make it something,’ ” said Rutter, whose background is in classical music. “We have programs for young artists rising, and then we were doing these big names … but how do we really have that bigger impact? We were going to need somebody to curate it all. And that’s where having an artist and then an administrator [came in], because you can’t really have an artist who’s not supported by an administrator.”

Q-Tip offers name recognition and communicates something about the center’s intentions tastewise. Eccleston, on the other hand, is an experienced arts administrator well versed in the nitty-gritty duties needed to realize an artist’s vision. Before traveling south to Washington, she spent more than 11 years at Harlem Stage, finishing as its program director.

Previously known as Aaron Davis Hall, Harlem Stage is known for promoting artists of color. Eccleston was a natural fit for its hip-hop ambitions: a product of the borough whose Latino and black musical influences melded to birth the genre in the first place, she completed graduate studies in arts administration at Drexel University and studied curatorial practice in performance at Wesleyan University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Eccleston’s first job was at Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos, a nonprofit in North Philadelphia.

Rutter and Harlem Stage executive director Patricia Cruz say Eccleston possesses a valuable skill set: She’s got a good ear for finding new talent, she’s passionate about nurturing relationships with artists, and she’s got a knack for developing community outreach and education programs.

While at Harlem Stage, Eccleston took responsibility for an initiative to connect New York City students with playwrights, choreographers, musicians and dancers from around the world. Also, Cruz said, “She developed programs that were scholarly, that really communicated to an audience what this artist’s intent was, what their philosophical approach to what they were doing was, so that audiences could understand this was not just performative.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“We’re not just putting people on the stage and saying, ‘Here. Enjoy them.’ It’s not entertainment, in that regard. It’s about the ideas the artist is representing. … For us, if art is to have a meaning for people in their lives, I think it is critical to have a context and talk about the history.”

Q-Tip may be the initial draw, but if you want to see your favorite act on stage at the Kennedy Center (cough OutKast cough), Eccleston’s the person you want to lobby.

Let’s talk about sex music!

Perhaps surprisingly given her age, Eccleston is not an evangelist for ’90s hip-hop. Sure, she grew up loving De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kwamé, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill. She watched WNYC-TV’s Video Music Box and remembers dancing in the street when someone would start playing their radio in Kingsbridge.

But she’s not stuck in the decade.

“We’re always like, ‘It’s the golden age, it’s the golden age,’ ” Eccleston said. “I think that that doesn’t allow for the music and the artists to evolve. I think it’s about creating space for the next generation of artists. Who knew Kendrick [Lamar] was coming? When you think about the fact that [’90s artists] created space for alternate views of black masculinity, just the joy in music, just the intellect. It’s like being brilliant and comfortable with that. Not having to necessarily play to specific ideals of what masculinity looked like, what it meant to be black at a specific point in time.

“I think that they created space for us to be complex, diverse and really tell our stories. They were able to create these pathways within that generation of artists. I think that it’s interesting to see people that kind of take on the mantle and continue to move it forward.”

When it comes to revealing her musical tastes, Eccleston is a skilled politician. Asked to choose between Biggie or Tupac, the native New Yorker initially named Biggie. But there was an addendum: “You know what? Tupac was also very brilliant,” she said. “Just from an activist standpoint, in terms of being a woke MC.”

Eccleston has the potential to be an inspired choice as an administrator for a genre that has a complicated relationship with black women. While she straddled the East Coast/West Coast divide, for instance, she was fully comfortable sharing her thoughts about Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical endorsement of stretch marks on “Humble.”

“I was like, ‘Go ahead, Kendrick!’ ” Eccleston said, grinning.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“I think that there are certain images, certain artists, that are celebrated who may have had some augmentation. That is seen as beauty, or as beautiful. Then young women that may look up to the artist, or the ideals that are being portrayed in music videos, they then think that they have to alter who they are in order to be considered beautiful or attractive. We need to interrogate that, which is why it was great that Kendrick celebrated stretch marks.”

While hip-hop isn’t the only genre that features misogynistic themes and lyrics, it is the one that often gets publicly dinged for it. Eccleston, like many of her feminist friends who are also hip-hop fans, has experienced times where she felt that a particular artist or song just wasn’t for her.

“I think it’s important for us to maintain healthy critique,” Eccleston said. “I think that it’s also important for us, as we’re looking at the songs that we may want to challenge, or the artists that we may want to encourage to dig a little deeper, to look at all of the other work that’s being done that either celebrates us or provides a multidimensional portrayal of who we are.

“It’s delicate because you have to provide space for an artist to be an artist, you can’t censor them. … It’s just real complex because we all have our hopes for something that we’ve seen ourselves reflected in, something that provides us with a sense of space. I think we’ve all got to continue to complicate it and disrupt it.”

Eccleston now has the power to further that disruption. With the Kennedy Center’s resources, she can expose audiences to lesser-known female emcees such as Brooklyn, New York, rapper Jean Grae and Snow Hill, North Carolina, artist Rapsody. She wants to bring more female graffiti artists and beat girls into the fold.

“There’s a whole generation of hip-hop … culture producers that are impacting literature and theater and scholarship, and it’s getting pressed into that. I think that one of our roles as an institution is to create space for the celebration of all of those things so people understand the depth, the breadth, the complexity of the culture,” Eccleston said. “I think it’s important for people to know hip-hop culture isn’t just one thing.”

What now?

One of the most significant challenges Eccleston faces will be making the Kennedy Center feel accessible to everyone.

While it’s a national institution, it’s situated in a city that for decades was majority black and is still majority minority. Eccleston is adamant about wanting the community to feel a sense of ownership and investment in the center, rather than seeing it as a stodgy, predominantly white institution finally granting validation to a still relatively young art form.

While existing partnerships, such as those with Hi-ARTS and Words Beats & Life, the D.C. nonprofit dedicated to advancing hip-hop culture, provide a foundation, the Kennedy Center faces hurdles that predate Eccleston in attracting eventgoers who are economically as well as racially diverse. The most obvious hurdle may be geography. The Kennedy Center is situated in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom/West End, a neighborhood that’s home to George Washington University, where tuition and fees run nearly $70,000 per year. Its immediate neighbor is the Watergate complex.

Of course, black people frequent the Kennedy Center. They show up for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly appearance. They line up to see Brandy play Roxie Hart in Chicago, to hear George Benson, to witness the brilliant athleticism of Misty Copeland. And it has no problem selling out concerts like the ones Nas and Lamar did with the National Symphony Orchestra.

But the center is still figuring out how to extend the same sort of welcome to audiences with fewer resources, and that’s where the inclusion of free dance parties, open to the public, appear to come into play.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

These concerns aren’t exclusive to the Kennedy Center. They bubble up every time hip-hop veers into spaces such as Broadway that are traditionally coded as white. Class and accessibility were a big part of conversations surrounding Hamilton, so much so that its practice of making tickets available to those who couldn’t necessarily afford its astronomical market rate prices has become central to the show as it’s expanded into multiple cities. That includes the upcoming production of Hamilton coming to the Kennedy Center. (Hamilton, while heavily influenced by hip-hop, is still under the Kennedy Center’s theater programming slate.)

“Part of the goal in terms of instituting hip-hop as an integral part of our institution’s work is about creating space for the community to engage in the work that we’re doing,” Eccleston said. “To see themselves and their culture reflected. Right? That’s how I got into the arts, understanding the significance of it. As many opportunities as we can create for people to know that this space is theirs and open to them. A place that they can call home. I think that that is important.”

While there’s a moral argument for expanding hip-hop into a dedicated programming season at the Kennedy Center, there’s a financial one as well, especially when you consider the graying fan base for opera and classical music. The Kennedy Center relies on funding from corporate sponsors, philanthropists and paid memberships that unlock access to ticket presales and opportunities to hobnob with talent. If additional hip-hop programming results in more memberships from rap fans with money to drop, that’s all the better for hip-hop and the Kennedy Center. So far, it appears Q-Tip and Eccleston will have to figure out how to find a balance between buzz and revenue. While names such as Fab 5 Freddy and Kurtis Blow may draw older, more financially established attendees, a healthy dose of current voices is necessary too. Yes, hip-hop is famous for its backward-facing references and samples, but it’s always charging forward to new musical territory, thriving on the spirit of reinvention.

Still, if this experiment goes well, who knows? We might one day see the same programming in the ritzy fine arts institutions of New York — you know, the birthplace of hip-hop.

Russell Westbrook leads NBPA Players Voice Awards Oklahoma City guard captures three awards, including best dressed

Russell Westbrook got a dap of appreciation from his NBA peers on Friday.

The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and reigning NBA MVP earned three trophies in the annual National Basketball Players Association Players Voice Awards on Friday: “Most Valuable Player,” “Hardest to Guard” and, no surprise here, “Best Dressed.”

It has been a banner year for Brodie, the fearless fashion maverick who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s “Fashionable 50” in June. Westbrook has become as famous for his daring off-the-court style choices as his jaw-dropping on-court athleticism. Unlike many of the NBA’s taller players, the former UCLA Bruin has used his relatively small frame (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) to wear off-the-rack clothing that is at times adventurous, trendsetting or just plain weird.

Over the years, Westbrook’s high-concept style has even coined a phrase: “Westbrookian.” Ever see an NBA star wearing skinny jeans with an oversized ripped-to-shreds T-shirt before a game? Or colorful sunglasses to a news conference, or bleached denim or capri-length pants with slide sandals? That’s all No. 0. And while other athletes have dared to wear harem pants or a full-length fur coat, only Westbrook can really make it look effortless.

Billed as “the only awards voted on BY the players, FOR the players,” the annual Players Voice Awards are voted on at the end of the regular season.

The winners were announced Friday morning on the NBPA’s Twitter feed in a series of short videos. Hosted by former Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh, the lively clips were tweeted out every five minutes for nearly an hour, with the award categories getting breezy explanatory assists from an All-Star roster of the league’s biggest players.

“The Player You Secretly Wish Was on Your Team” was awarded to LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers captain who also nabbed “Global Impact Player.”

Other awards went to:

  • “Best Rookie” – Malcolm Brogdon, the former Virginia shooting guard who had a standout year with the Milwaukee Bucks.
  • “Best Defender” – Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs forward and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
  • “Most Influential Veteran” – Vince Carter, the 40-year-old shooting guard currently signed with the Sacramento Kings, giving credence to his long-standing “half-man, half amazing” legend within pop culture.
  • “Comeback Player of the Year” and “Best Social Media Follow” – Joel Embiid, the Rihanna-loving, Lavar Ball-hating All-Star and Philadelphia 76ers center.
  • “Clutch Performer” – Isaiah Thomas, who led the Boston Celtics in the postseason despite personal tragedy.
  • “Best Home Court Advantage” – Golden State Warriors and the spirited fans who attend Dubs home games in Oracle Arena.
  • “Best off the Bench” – Lou Williams, the shooting guard who was traded last year from the Houston Rockets to the L.A. Clippers as part of the Chris Paul deal.
  • “Coach You Most Like to Play For” – San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has won this award three years in a row.

The decision to announce award winners via Twitter came from “not wanting to interrupt the NBA’s Awards,” which was televised in June, said Jordan Schlachter, president of National Basketball Players Inc. “We also didn’t want to get caught up in the busy news of free agency, so we pushed it to August.”

Schlachter noted that this year’s winners will receive trophies early in the 2017-18 NBA season during halftime ceremonies at home games around the league.

With the new movie ‘Crown Heights,’ Nnamdi Asomugha relies on everything he learned from football The former superstar cornerback won Sundance with the story of a man who went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit

Nnamdi Asomugha is taking a quick break.

There’s a photographer, and the photographer’s assistant is setting up a new orangish background. Asomugha, in a gray Converse crewneck and slim-fit black pants, overhears a conversation that’s disdainful of grimy movie theaters and movie theater chains.

He jumps in, makes a funny face and shakes his head adamantly in disagreement. Asomugha loves movie theaters. Always has. When he wasn’t on a football field — the former Cal Bear and first-round draft pick spent his first eight National Football League seasons with the Oakland Raiders — he would sneak into theaters and sit there all day, soaking it up, consuming content and daring to dream of something beyond academics and athletics.

At the Manhattan photo shoot, the Pro Bowler gives a sly smile. This is a full-circle moment.

For 11 seasons, Asomugha was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. After his years with the Raiders and stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, he walked away from the NFL in 2013 at age 32 via a one-day contract with the Oakland Raiders so that he could officially retire in the city in which he came of age. A true shutdown corner, Asomugha retired with 15 interceptions, 80 passes defensed and two sacks.

Oakland Raiders’ Nnamdi Asomugha (21) breaks up pass intended for Dallas Cowboys’ Keyshawn Johnson (19).

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

But if you don’t know his name for those reasons, don’t worry, soon you will — and it’ll have absolutely nothing to do with football.

Asomugha is an actor. And a producer. And not because he’s indulging an ego-driven post-athletic career fantasy realized through his ability to cut a big enough check and buy his way onto a set. No. As an actor, Asomugha expertly brings to the screen the story of a man we all should know about — and as a producer, he’s brilliant at finding and financing stories that need to be told.

His Crown Heights, which opens in select New York theaters this week and has a wide release next week, is the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood Crown Heights who was wrongly accused and convicted of murder. Warner served 21 years for the crime, while his best friend, played by Asomugha, tirelessly worked to prove his innocence.

He also happens to be married to Kerry Washington (Scandal, Cars 3, Confirmation), and like his wife of four years — they have two children, Isabelle and Caleb — Asomugha rarely speaks publicly about their marriage or partnership, preferring instead to focus on the work. And it’s understandable, especially in his case, considering that his ambition to become an actor dates back years — before he married his wife in 2013 even, and years before she became famous. The furthest thing from Asomugha’s mind is attaching himself, and this full deep dive into a new career, to his famous and famously talented wife, who happens to be one of very few black women in Hollywood who can consistently commandeer mainstream magazine covers.

Asomugha’s focus is on this second act — and on getting people to see beyond his storied football career. Especially now that he’s doing the thing that ignites him as much as covering wide receivers used to.

“Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close’ …”

“I went to the Los Angeles Kings game,” he said, “and the national anthem started playing. Anytime the anthem comes on … I was fresh off of leaving football, and was just really taken by the moment. There was this [feeling] of, ‘I’m not going to be able to hear that and be ready to go on the field anymore.’ We watched the Kings win the championship, and then I went and called one of my former teammates, Charles Woodson, and said something like, ‘I need that feeling again, of getting ready to go out on the field. With the crowd and all of that.’ I was missing that.”

His friend had advice. “He said, ‘You have to find something that gives you a feeling close to that, because you’re never going to get that again. You’re never going to be able to go out on the field and get 70,000 people screaming when they announce your name. But look for whatever gets you closest to that point.’ ”

Asomugha said that maybe three or four months later, he was in New York doing a reading of a play at the Circle in the Square Theatre. “When you’re backstage,” he said, “and you’re coming out with the actors, you go through a tunnel before you get out there. And then you stop right before you go onto the stage. It was just a reading. But I had that moment. I was back in the tunnel. Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close. …”


Asomugha was born in 1981 in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Igbo parents. He loathes the term “Hollywood” as an adjective. He mock-scowls — hard — when he hears it being said. Asomugha was reared in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry nestled practically in his backyard. But “going Hollywood” is akin to someone saying you’re fake. Or out for self. Or perhaps more mystified by the bling than the hard work. “That’s not,” he said, “me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

Who he is: a guy who came up in a Nigerian family that celebrated academic excellence and embraced the high arts. The creative space has always had a strong hold on him. It came to him naturally, more so, even, than his athletic prowess. “I come from a performing family,” he said. “My parents are Nigerian, and their parents and their parents — and it’s all about performance in their culture, you know. The music. The dancing … you’re told to stand out at family gatherings and perform in some sort of way. You’re just kind of born into it,” he said. “Me and my siblings … were forced to get up in the church and do some sort of play for the rest of the church. We’re like 7, 8 years old. It’s just what you had to do. It was always sort of in my blood.”

But the performing arts had to be a quiet passion. Especially once he got older. Football was king. So was basketball. And he played both at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California.

“We took piano lessons. And I remember going to football practice — me and my brother. We were late to practice one time, and … I remember the coach standing us up in front of the whole team and just saying, ‘Nnamdi’s late, guys, and I wanted to tell you, he had a piano lesson.’ Everyone’s laughing, and I’m just sitting there like …” He shakes his head at the memory. “That stuff wasn’t cool at all.”

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football.”

He shifted. Went full throttle into football, leaving the creative arts, and his equally passionate desire to excel in them, behind. It wasn’t until years later in college — he attended and played for the University of California, Berkeley — that he was reminded it was possible to live in and do well in both worlds.

“It was my junior year at Cal. A [teammate] of mine came up to us after practice like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m doing a performance down at Wheeler [Hall].’ I don’t even know what the play was. Like Porgy and Bess or something. Immediately I started making fun of him. You make fun of someone when they start talking about this, especially in the football world. I got all the guys to make fun. Like, ‘This guy, he’s doing a play!’ We went there to clown him,” Asomugha said. “[But] I’ll never forget he was brilliant onstage. I will never forget it … because it was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is cool. This is OK, even though we play football.’ He opened my mind up.”

Cal Berkeley rid Asomugha of his own boundaries. It was transformative. He loved football, and knew he’d make a career out of it, but he also knew that when football was over, he’d transition into something more creative. And it was football, ironically — even with that early atmosphere of being anti anything that didn’t scream hypermasculinity — that gave Asomugha the confidence to pursue the creative arts. He’s appeared in the Friday Night Lights television series, as well as on The Game and Leverage; he collected his first credit in 2008.

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football. Just being able to do things that you didn’t think you can do, that you can’t turn around. You have to do it and doing it in front of thousands, and then millions, that are watching. You’re onstage. It’s not that I don’t have the fear, it’s just that I know how to handle the fear, you know? I can have the fear and still think.”


For the new Crown Heights, Asomugha didn’t make it easy on himself.

He helps tell the real story of Colin Warner. In 1980, Warner was wrongly convicted of murder. In the film, which is based on a This American Life episode, Asomugha portrays Warner’s best friend Carl King, the man who devoted his life to proving his friend’s innocence, and to getting him out of prison. Lakeith Stanfield portrays Warner, and the film is an important moment for both actors. Stanfield pulls off an emotionally complex role, and Asomugha displays impressive dramatic chops.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in the new film “Crown Heights.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“One of the interesting things about Nnamdi is how calm and assertive he is,” said executive producer Jonathan Baker, who founded I Am 21 with Asomugha. “He’s an extraordinarily even-keeled individual. His experience with sports created a sense of get-up-and-do-it-again. The discipline. People respond to him as a natural leader, and it’s evident in everything that we do.”

Asomugha even nails a very distinct Trinidadian accent. “He took it seriously,” Carl King himself said of Asomugha’s portrayal. “He’d call me and ask me questions. ‘Am I bothering you?’ It seemed like he just wanted to do the best job he could have done. And he told me he wanted to do the story justice. It’s a deep story. It’s not one of the stories that you can make up. This is a story about an injustice that was done to this kid in 1980. He had to endure 21 years of the very worst. And portraying me? I’m very pleased.”

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was a critical darling and a fan favorite, nabbing the Audience Award. And Asomugha was ready for the moment, good and bad, both as a producer and a co-star of the film.

“This is cool. This is OK, even though we play football. It’s OK to live in both worlds.”

“I’ve played for the Raiders and the Eagles,” Asomugha said before laughing, “Those fans will prepare you for any event that you have to go through in life! I’m able to explore and just take risks, and just really go after something that I’m passionate about. I can take whatever’s going to be thrown at me.”

That preparedness was crucial.

“I didn’t bat an eye. Football taught me was how important the preparation is before the actual moment. And then when you get into the moment, being able to throw away the preparation and just hope that it’s in you somewhere, that it stayed in you. And that’s what I think with this,” he said. “The project came [along, and it] didn’t feel daunting. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe this!’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve trained for this. I’m excited. I can’t wait to go into a character [and] put something on film! And then it got such a great reception at Sundance, so I was happy.”


There’s more coming from Asomugha. He’s hell-bent on bringing more stories like Crown Heights, which will be co-distributed by Amazon Studios and IFC, to life. Asomugha’s company, I Am 21, is prepping to shoot the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic. It’ll be an important film: Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is starring, and it tells the story of the former slave-turned-abolitionist who worked tirelessly as an Underground Railroad conductor, nurse and spy.

The plan is to start shooting sometime this fall, and Asomugha said the film falls right in line with the mission of I Am 21.

“There’s an element of true story, an element of stories that connect to social issues that effect some sort of change in the world,” he said. “There’s also fun stories that aren’t true, but just have amazing characters at the center. Whether it’s a woman or it’s a person of color, whether it’s a person [who is] just ‘other’ … telling the underdog stories, and how they’ve risen out of that.”

And as for the future of his own acting career? He’s been ready. “I’m the type of person that always has a goal of greatness,” he said. “My mindset is, I can take all the chances in the world. I don’t put stress on myself. What I do is enjoy preparation. It’s just who I am.

André Chung for The Undefeated

“There was a long stretch where practice was much harder than games for me. I felt a level of dominance and being in the zone, for years. Game after game, after game — practice was always harder. So, if there’s any level of stress in this, it’s not being onstage, it’s not the moment that the camera turns on. It’s the preparation that comes before that.”

From Charlottesville to Kaepernick, white anger is all too familiar to my grandmother A little black girl who dared drink from the wrong water fountain has seen this all before

The cries of white men with the burning torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, were familiar to her. Their anger was, too.

The continuous news coverage over the weekend prompted her own highlight reel of memories that included racial taunts, attacks and fears she’s lived with since she was born in the thick of the Great Depression. She couldn’t erase them if she wanted. “You never forget that feeling of being preyed upon,” said my grandmother, Clemmie. “It’s something I’ve been experiencing my entire life. I’m far from alone.”

Clemmie, 86, isn’t surprised by the white nationalist march that made the hometown of the University of Virginia (UVA) a murder scene this past weekend. Her pain is ever-present. Charlottesville; Ferguson, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; Selma, Alabama; Greensboro, North Carolina; Detroit; Watts in Los Angeles — the scenes of prejudice, revolt and massacre stick with her. Racism has followed her since she was a little girl growing up in the Deep South, at the apex of Jim Crow segregation.

My great-grandmother, Juanita McCrowey.

There was 1956 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, when a white convenience store owner wouldn’t allow the woman who would become my grandmother to heat up a bottle for her infant daughter — my mom. Clemmie, born in 1931, experienced run-ins with the Klan so frequently it’s impossible to remember life without them. Their presence was a fear tactic. Anyone who stepped them was met with violence. At best, bruises and cuts. At worst, death. At her segregated grade school, young Clemmie and her friends received “new” textbooks with “n—–” written on nearly every page: They were hand-me-downs from all-white schools. During family trips from Rock Hill, South Carolina, to Philadelphia, bathroom breaks meant pulling over and crouching in the woods, because they couldn’t use restroom facilities at gas stations along the route.

Clemmie once drank from a whites-only water fountain.

“I wanted to see if their water tasted different than the colored ones,” she said recently. “It didn’t.” But she harbors a particular memory more than others.

“You know how traumatizing that is? To be cleaning their house and find those sheets? But you needed that $2 a week job.”

My grandmother watched the hatred on the faces of the white nationalist and neo-Nazi Charlottesville protesters. She watched the graphic video of the car plowing into the crowd of counterprotesters (Heather Heyer, 32, was killed). Clemmie had, of course, seen that kind of venom up close before.

She, her older brother, Sonny, and her mother, Juanita, were walking into town in Rock Hill to go grocery shopping. The trip took an abrupt change when the three of them began being taunted by a group of white kids from a nearby house.

My grandmother, circa 1934.

“They just kept saying, ‘Look at the n—–s!’ ” she recalls. Clemmie’s mom, my great-grandmother, who died in 1972, told them to ignore the calls. But Clemmie had had enough. On previous grocery trips, she’d dodged rocks from these same kids. In a fit of rage, she broke away and sprinted after the girl in the group, chasing her into the house. Clemmie beat her up. “I definitely hit her,” my grandmother said of the moment, over 70 years later. “It was worth the beating my mama gave me that night, too.”

But the delivery of a first-round knockout came with an emotional toll. “I put my mother in a bad position,” she said. South Carolina was home to intense Ku Klux Klan terrorism.

“Thankfully, the girl’s parents weren’t home. They could have pressed charges against my mother. The Klan could’ve come to our house and burned it down with us in there. The system could’ve broken my family apart and made me an orphan. My mother, I guess, was just trying to protect me from what later happened to Emmett Till,” she said solemnly. “That’s the thing about racism. The side that’s pushed to the edge is always the one who suffers the most.”


This past weekend, while Charlottesville commandeered the country’s attention, Clemmie, who lives in Virginia, was busy being a part-time dog sitter. Jordan is her dog, as hyper a Yorkie as there is in America — with a penchant for running counterclockwise when excited. Riley is my Aunt Cynt’s dog, named after Cynt’s all-time favorite basketball coach, Pat Riley.

Walking up and down the steps to feed Jordan and Riley and put them outside is a reprieve from the endless onslaught of Charlottesville media coverage. Clemmie made an effort to sidestep the news at times because, as she says, it’s so hard to find good. She’s had Young & The Restless since 1982, and you’d never guess how much of a Pinterest expert she is on her iPad.

Some of the most enlightening conversations I’ve ever had with my grandmother happened when I used to drive her back to South Carolina shortly after receiving my driver’s license. This was years ago, when she was going to see her younger brother, Gilbert, at the nursing home where he lived before his death in 2014. On the road, my grandmother and I never listened to music. Instead, we talked about how she found love, lost it and came to find peace again afterward. We talked about how the death of her son (my uncle) when he was just 42 forever changed her outlook on life.

I mentioned these chats to her on Sunday, when Charlottesville is the talk of the town. She brings up Colin Kaepernick. As the widow of a Division II college football coach, mother of three football-crazed kids and grandmother of an annually depressed and maniacal Dallas Cowboys fan (guilty as charged), she’s familiar with the game and the polarizing characters it creates. “It’s sad what they’re doing to [Kaepernick],” she said. “He’s lost his job forever because he stood up for what he believed in. Him not standing for the anthem didn’t make him unpatriotic.” For context: The Baltimore Ravens signed quarterback Thad Lewis on Monday. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2013.

She sees connections between the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller and the carnage near UVA.

Clemmie doesn’t watch football as much as she used to. She gets updates from me on Monday mornings. But Clemmie knows the storyline. And she sees the connections between the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller and the carnage near UVA. My grandmother is concerned for Marshawn Lynch, who sat for the national anthem this past weekend (although he’s been doing that for years). And she’s worried about players who will follow their leads, including the Seattle Seahawks’ outspoken defensive end Michael Bennett, who recently confirmed he’ll be seated for the national anthem the entire season. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman said Monday on Twitter that more players will certainly follow suit — stemming from “league-wide outrage” over Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s comments.

This isn’t Clemmie’s first rodeo. She remembers Muhammad Ali refusing induction into the Army in 1967, and how he lost the prime years of his career going toe-to-toe with the United States government. “I felt what he was saying,” she said. “All he was asking, ‘Why fight for a place that’s just gonna beat me up when I come back?’ ”

My grandmother is amazed but not shocked that this narrative is still playing out 50 years later. “If you love someone, or something, you tell them their flaws because you want to see them be the best person they can be. That’s all [Kaepernick] was doing for America. At least that’s how I saw it. And this country basically told him, ‘Shut up and stay in your place.’ They tried to do the same thing to Ali. Them speaking on America’s flaws doesn’t make them unpatriotic. America not living up to its promise — that’s unpatriotic. ”


Given all she’s seen, experienced and endured, Clemmie has never succumbed to hatred. Her heart goes out to the family of Heather Heyer, the legal assistant killed in Charlottesville whose last Facebook message read, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” And her heart still bleeds for James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the three civil rights activists whose deaths made national news in 1964 when their bodies were found — murdered by the Klan — under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. My grandmother appreciates anyone with a heart because, as she says, she’s seen so many without one.

But she’s incensed about the president’s recent statement about “many sides” (which he awkwardly walked back). There’s just no debate, says my grandmother. For her, those tiki-torch-carrying protesters were a gut punch from the past. “The KKK would march on you in a minute,” she said. “You didn’t know who was under those sheets. It could be the mayor, or governor of South Carolina. Or it could be the people your parents work for. You know how traumatizing that is? To be cleaning their house and find those sheets? But you needed that $2 a week job. Everyone called you a n—–. We didn’t have any protection. We had to ignore it because if we fought back …” Her voice trails off.

It’s hard for Clemmie to hear “both sides” when hers has lost so much. The 1960s are difficult for her to speak about, even a half-century later. The thought of President John F. Kennedy’s murder still moves her to tears. His brother Robert’s, as well. Medgar Evers’ assassination was “proof we weren’t even safe in our own homes.” She recalls the fear that followed the death of Malcolm X, a man whose voice reflected the rage she and so many others were tormented with daily. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination ripped the soul of black America from its chest. And the countless other men and women who fought and ultimately lost their lives during the civil rights era who will never find their legacies in textbooks — this haunts my grandmother, a woman born just 66 years after Emancipation.

“You gotta understand. Every time we had someone, they took them from us. By the end of the ’60s, you were just mad. It seemed like we would be stuck behind the eight ball forever,” she said.

That fear and frustration, in part, didn’t allow her to enjoy the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. She campaigned locally for him in 2008 and 2012. She cried both times he won. “I’ve never been prouder of a president than I was of him. He’s a black man. Michelle’s a black woman. But I was scared from the day he was walking down that street [during his 2009 inauguration]. I just knew somebody was gonna get him, because that’s all I knew. When he and Michelle left on the helicopter this year, I just said, ‘Thank you, God.’ ”

These thoughts and more race through her brain when she thinks of Charlottesville. It’s impossible for her to isolate Charlottesville because the pain, and the forces that cause it, span generations. Her parents and grandparents were terrorized. She was terrorized. Her children were terrorized. And now, she’s scared because what happened near UVA’s campus, what’s happening to Colin Kaepernick, and what could happen to me, are merely new shades of paint on the same car she’s dodged for 86 years.

Charlottesville, in context, is another painful affirmation of a reality she’ll never truly escape. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” she said. “For some people, it’s nothing scarier than that.”