The new Thurgood ‘Marshall’ movie is a thrilling What-Had-Happened-Was Superstar Chadwick Boseman and director Reggie Hudlin talk colorism and the black film renaissance

Chadwick Boseman remembers the exact moment when he understood why the work he was doing — not just the grabbing of marquees, not just working alongside Hollywood’s top talent, not just surprising critics with how easily he melts into a role of some of the world’s most famous men — was cemented.

He was on the set of Draft Day, a 2014 sports drama about the Cleveland Browns and its general manager (Kevin Costner) who wants to turn around his consistently losing team with a hot draft pick. “When you’re doing a car shot,” Boseman says, leaning in and slightly pushing back the sleeves of his sharp, black bomber, “you’re following the lead car.” He said they stopped in front of the projects. “I get out of the car, and somebody says, ‘Yo, that’s that dude from that baseball movie outside, right?!’ Everybody in the projects came outside, and they were like, ‘Hey, hey, hey! I got your movie on DVD in the house!’ The DVD hadn’t come out yet. They were like, ‘It didn’t come out yet? Oh, no, no. We didn’t mean it that way. But look — I saw it.’ ” He says that’s what it’s all about. “You want people to appreciate what you’ve been doing.”

This week, Boseman’s latest film, Marshall, opens. Once again, the actor takes on a role of a historical, powerful-in-his-field man. He’s portrayed baseball and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson and the influential James Brown. Now he’s legendary lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

It’s an interesting casting, to be sure. Part of Marshall’s story is rooted in his light skin. It was a privilege. Marshall himself was the highest of yellows, and his skin color — on the verge of passable — was unmissable. Boseman, on the other hand is decidedly black, with striking chocolate skin — and that factor almost prevented him from even going after the role.

It’s an interesting casting, to be sure. Part of Marshall’s story is rooted in his light skin. It was a privilege.

Reginald Hudlin, the film’s director, said it’s been a hot topic, even among his close circle. “I’ve had friends who admitted to me, ‘I went in going I don’t know if this casting works.’ And they also have admitted, within 20 seconds, that concern was gone, it had never occurred to them. Because Chadwick’s performance is the exact spirit of Thurgood Marshall. He said that people who have clerked under Marshall, who knew him intimately, are more than satisfied. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, how did you capture all those little nuances of his personality? You guys nailed it.’ To have that affirmed by people who have firsthand knowledge is a huge relief.”


But Marshall isn’t a biopic. It’s a dissection of one of the best legal minds in American history. And as he has done in his previous biographical work, you stop wondering about the actor at all, let alone the shade of his skin. “If this was a cradle-to-grave story about Marshall, obviously we would have to deal with his complexion,” said Boseman, who is also credited as a producer on the film. “Right now, we’re dealing with one case. He’s walking into this courtroom as a black man. He’s not a black man passing as a white man. He didn’t try to pass as a white man. He showed up as the black attorney, right? He showed up as a black man and got gagged for being black, right?”

“They didn’t say,” Boseman stops to laugh, “ ‘We’re going to gag you because you’re light-skinned-ded.’ ”

Marshall, at its best, is an examination of Marshall’s brilliance. It’s an up-close, deep dive into how Marshall changed the course of American history. “Everything is a risk,” Boseman said. “No matter what movie you do, it’s a risk. … It’s also a risk, if you look like the person, to play the role because then there’s the pressure of doing certain things a certain way.”

The court case used to examine Marshall’s legal savvy is relatively unknown — a black man in Connecticut (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of raping a white woman (Kate Hudson) — and Marshall is stripped of his voice. He’s told by a racist judge that he can’t speak in the courtroom. He couldn’t speak on behalf of his client at all. Instead, he had to employ Sam Friedman, an insurance lawyer who is a white Jewish man (Josh Gad), and teach him how to try this case. There’s a tone of Mighty Whitey here, to be sure, intermingled with a lesson on the importance of allies. Timely.

That said, it’s Boseman’s film. And not for nothing, he absolutely nails it. In four short years, the Howard University-educated Boseman has positioned himself as a force. He’s a box-office draw, and at the top of next year he leads the highly anticipated Black Panther, which surely will change the course of Hollywood, or at least continue to challenge the notion that films with predominantly black casts don’t travel internationally.

Not that Boseman isn’t up for the challenge. He’s the black man — sometimes he’s by himself — gracing Vanity Fair-like magazine gatefold layouts representing the next biggest thing in Hollywood. His representation is undeniable. And he understands his worth.


This film feels very much like 2017. It takes place in December 1940, a time when the NAACP was concentrating on its litigation in the South, suing over voting rights and equal pay for black teachers and segregation in higher education. But in the North, issues abounded as well — in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, there was a 1933 law that banned racial discrimination in public places, and it went unenforced in 1940. Marshall was 32 years old at the time and just beginning the work that would change the lives of black Americans for generations to come.

That notion of public discrimination is tested constantly — turn to any current news headline or cable TV news lower third for quick proof. And Marshall the movie sometimes feels like a thrilling, current-day, true-life drama. Often, when we talk about the historic work the NAACP did with Marshall as its chief legal brain trust, we think about the work done south of the Mason-Dixon line. But this case is set in a conservative white Connecticut town — away from the hard-and-fast Jim Crow laws that crippled black folks who lived in American Southern states.

“That was very much our intent. ‘Why did you choose this case? Why didn’t you do him as a Supreme Court justice? How come you didn’t do Brown v. Board of Education? Those are all worthy stories, stories that the public thinks they know — ‘Oh, I learned about Brown in fifth grade. I got that.’ You don’t got this,” Hudlin said. “You don’t know this case, you don’t know the outcome of this case, which gives me the chance to be true to genre. Because I think genre is what saves these movies from being medicine movies, which I despise. You want to make a movie that works if it wasn’t Thurgood Marshall. If Joe Blow was against the odds in this legal case, does the movie still work?”

It does. “This crime has all these broader implications, economic implications, for black folk. And for the institution of the NAACP. The truth is messy. Everyone comes into the case with their own particular set of -isms,” Hudlin said. “The challenge is, do you respect the process of the legal system to get to uncomfortable truths? And do you have enough personal integrity to acknowledge uncomfortable truths as they emerge, that don’t fit your preconceived notions? That’s how America works, you know?”


This film premieres right at the start of Hollywood’s award season preseason. In the fourth quarter of each year, we’ve come to expect the year’s best to be presented, or some of the year’s most generously budgeted films to hit the big screen.

But Marshall, perhaps, carries a bigger weight. It feels like a tipoff of a major moment for black creatives both behind and in front of the camera. This is the first time we’ve seen so many black directors working on films of this magnitude and at this level. Coming soon after this film are projects by directors Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle In Time) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), and Gina Prince-Bythewood is writing and directing Spider-Man spinoff Silver & Black. And the list goes on.

“He showed up as a black man and got gagged for being black. They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to gag you because you’re light-skinned-ded.’ ” — Chadwick Boseman

“I would say like three, maybe four years ago … in separate moments … we’ve talked about what’s been happening over the past few years. And I remember leaving several of those conversations, and we said, ‘Let’s not say it publicly, but we’re in the renaissance,’ ” Boseman says. “Let’s not say it publicly, because if we say it, then people will think we’re happy with it. That we’re satisfied with that. So let’s not ever actually say it. I think now we’re at a point where there’s no point in not saying it, because it’s obvious that this is a different moment.”

This is a huge moment, but it comes with questions — plenty of them.

“My bigger-picture analysis is that there are 20-year cycles,” said Hudlin. “You have this explosion in the 1970s with the blaxploitation movement, which created a set of stars and a set of icons so powerful they still resonate today. You can say Shaft, you can say Superfly, you can say Foxy Brown, and those things still mean things to people 40 years later.” He said that then there was a five- or 10-year period, a kind of collapsing, where basically in the ’80s you have Eddie Murphy and Prince. They don’t have folks really able to make movies. “Then, in the ’90s, there was that explosion of Spike Lee, and myself, and John Singleton. Those films were different from the movies of the ’70s. More personal, you know?”

He said blacks were telling their own stories, and there were greater production values. “And then like a 10-year period, a shutdown, and really you have Tyler Perry. And now this new wave, right? And when you look at all three of these periods, the thing is, the movies get bigger, they get more varied in their subject matter, and the production value keeps increasing. When you look at the bounty of black images, of black filmmakers working in film and television — no. We’ve never had it this good. We’ve never had material this rich, and to me, the outstanding question is, when does it no longer become a cycle and becomes a fixture and part of the entertainment landscape?”

As they say on social media, that’s a question that needs an answer.

Aux Cord Chronicles XIII: 28 songs that could replace the national anthem What if we switched from ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ to something from Aretha Franklin, Dipset — or Kendrick and Beyoncé?

Congratulations, America. You’ve successfully stiff-armed Colin Kaepernick’s original protest, meant to shed light on police brutality and systemic injustices against people of color, from the national conversation. Now, despite the fact that Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk, suggested that Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid take a knee as a sign of respect, the national discussion is centered on the supposed disrespect of the flag, the men and women of our military and the national anthem.

So let’s be proactive. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was penned in 1814 by Francis Scott Key. On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act officially declaring it the national anthem. Well, 86 years is quite the lifetime, but everything deserves a revamp — or at least an alternate. Below are 28 possibilities. (Aside from the obvious choice, John Rosamond Johnson’s musical adaptation of his brother James’ poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” otherwise known as the black national anthem.)

Aretha Franklin — “Respect” (1967)

Franklin has a legion of iconic records to her name, but this is the zenith. Want to win a free round at the bar? Ask who sang the original. The answer is Otis Redding, who wrote the song and dropped the original in 1965. Franklin’s version put the song into another stratosphere, becoming an anthem for black America in the process.

Maze featuring Frankie Beverly — “Before I Let Go” (1981)

Imagine it’s Friday night. It’s been a long week at work. You and your co-workers are this close to quitting and traveling the country and living off of your savings. Then you realize you absolutely suck at saving money, so there’s that. But you’ve got tickets to the big game this weekend. And when the announcer tells everyone to stand for the national anthem, they play this. For about three minutes, nothing else in the world would matter. Vote Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly 2020.

Kool & The Gang — “Get Down On It” (1981)

If you play this around your parents, aunts and uncles, they will immediately break out into a two-step and reminisce on what they were doing when this killed at the clubs.

The Gap Band — “Outstanding” (1982)

Is there any self-respecting human being who doesn’t love this song? I mean, other than this guy. This technically already is the national anthem, if you’re familiar with black cookouts and family reunions.

Will Smith — “Fresh Prince Theme Song” (1990)

I couldn’t recite the current national anthem without looking at a cheat sheet. But I could absolutely recite this — arguably the most iconic theme song in the history of theme songs. I’m not the only one, either.

Public Enemy — “Fight The Power” (1990)

Pretty self-explanatory, if we’re being honest.

Queen Latifah — “U.N.I.T.Y.” (1993)

“Unity” is a great idea, but in this case it sidesteps the original point of Kaepernick’s protests. But since we’re on the topic of unity, 1993 was a good year for Queen. This song dropped (and eventually won a Grammy), as did the classic ’90s sitcom Living Single.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony feat. Eazy-E — “Foe Tha Love of Money” (1994)

Because C.R.E.A.M:. Cash Rules Everything About America.

DMX — “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” (1998)

Stop. Drop. Shut ’em down, open up shop. Francis Scott Key couldn’t hold a candle to Earl Simmons.

Lauryn Hill — “Ex-Factor” (1998)

Just don’t have L-Boogie sing this Miseducation standout for Sunday Night Football — she might not show up until Thursday night. #AligningMyEnergyWithTheTime

Juvenile — “Back That Azz Up” (1998)

1. See my signature at the bottom of this post. 2. MAKE AMERICA TWERK AGAIN.

C-Murder feat. Magic & Snoop Dogg — “Down 4 My N—” (2000)

One thing for sure. Two things for certain. This beat will always be hard enough to convince a person he or she can run through a brick wall. And while it may sound odd to nominate a guy with a first-degree felony in his name for national anthem consideration, I’d argue this country has had far more head-scratching moments.

Sunshine Anderson — “Heard It All Before” (2001)

Because, being black in America, you actually have heard it all before.

Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz — “Get Low” (2002)

You know how the “land of the free, and the home of the brave” part gets everyone riled up? Hear me out. Imagine if it were To the window!/ To the wall!/ Till the sweat … well, you know the rest. Plus, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle would agree. Just look at how sad this guy got:

Jay-Z — “PSA” (2003)

It’d be fire to be at a New York Knicks game and the announcer says, “Everybody please rise for the singing of our national anthem.” And the next thing you know, over the PA system, Allow me to reintroduce myself/ My name is Hov!/ H to the O-V/ I used to move snowflakes by the O-Z …

The Diplomats — “Dipset Anthem” (2003)

I’m on the west side of Chicago, lookin’ for a bust-down/ To make me put my two arms up, touchdown!/ You stay in touch now, but when I touch down/ I’m like Buckshort shorty, you better duck down/ Yeah I must clown/ I’m from Harlem, uptown/ Where we flash money, take your b—- and ask you what now?

Cam’ron is an American institution and should always be respected as such. Also, my request of the National Museum of African American History and Culture still stands.

UGK feat. Outkast — “International Players Anthem” (2007)

Most songs on this list you can play for a verse and a hook and be fine. But this one? You play all four verses. You rap all four verses with as much conviction as you’ve ever done anything in your life. In particular, like Jay-Z said at Made In America a few weeks ago, you rap Pimp C’s verse loud enough so he can hear it in heaven. This is a perfect song. And no, it’s not up for debate.

Foxx feat. Lil Boosie and Webbie — “Wipe Me Down” (2007)

It’s not even a question I’d pledge allegiance to a song where a man got to the club with gas tank on E, still gets in VIP and proclaims all drinks on him. I’m proud to be a (trill) American.

F.L.Y. — “Swag Surf” (2009)

It’s a song that requires you to put your arms around the shoulders of your fellow man or woman. How much more unity do you need?

Gucci Mane feat. Ester Dean — “I Think I Love Her” (2009)

I’m all about ending gender discrimination. I’m all about ending the pay gap women face every day. And I’m all about gender equality. Hence our inclusion of this Gucci Mane classic. And, yes, while it is his song, everyone knows why we’re here: Well, my name is Susie and Gucci think I love him/ That sucka think I’m loyal but I f— with all the hustlas/ I be wit all the ballas/ I be at all the spots/ I might be in yo’ kitchen n—- cooking with yo’ pots. What a woman … **swoons**

DJ Khaled — “All I Do Is Win” (2010)

America has always operated under the Ricky Bobby gospel: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris — “We Found Love” (2011)

My all-time favorite Rihanna song. It doesn’t have to be on your list, but it’s staying on mine.

Drake — “Started From The Bottom” (2013)

I just think it’s funny how it goes … that Kaepernick’s original protest was gentrified and had a Whole Foods move into its neighborhood.

Travis Scott — “Antidote” (2015)

Have you ever seen him perform this live? In fact, let’s give it a test run. For the Houston Rockets’ home opener, let’s do this song before tipoff.

Future — “March Madness” (2015)

Because Dress it up and make it real for me is now etched into America in much the same way as JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” quote. If we’re being honest, too, this has been the national anthem since the summer of 2015 anyway.

Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar — “Freedom” (2016)

Can’t have a list like this and not include Blue, Rumi and Sir’s mom. And while I’m sure the #BeyHive will tell me I omitted 240 other songs that fit the list, it’s hard to deny this Lemonade standout and its soulful, uncompromising hook. Having Kung Fu Kenny on it doesn’t hurt either.

Cardi B — “Bodak Yellow” (2017)

Since it’s currently No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it technically is the national anthem.

Kendrick Lamar — “DNA” (2017)

When you think about it, Kendrick resurrected the pride of James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and gave it a bounce.

In all seriousness, if none of these selections works and we stick with the current iteration we do have, might I suggest the only version that even matters. Francis Scott Key could never …

Singer Lalah Hathaway supports the players, but will not be watching the NFL this season Her new album, ‘Honestly,’ is about using one’s platform to take a stand

Over the past couple of decades, singer Lalah Hathaway has more than carved her own space in music. Daughter of the incomparable Donny Hathaway, the five-time Grammy Award winner has toured with Prince and with Mary J. Blige, released seven albums and now has a new one on the way. Honestly, with its first single “I Can’t Wait, is due this fall and is a return to something listeners of her early music will find familiar. “The record feels a little more rhythmic, but it’s also much like a record that I’d put out in the ’90s,” she said. “So for some it’s going to be more experimental, but for me, it’s … less of a vibe album and more of an electronic [one].”

The Chicago native stays busy performing, of course, catching up on HBO’s Insecure. But the Chicago Bears (and Walter Payton, and William “Refrigerator” Perry) fan says she is boycotting the NFL this fall — taking a stand is a prevailing theme of Honestly.

Who is your favorite athlete currently playing?

I’m super excited to see Venus [Williams] advancing. To watch Serena [Williams], and then to find out she was pregnant while she was winning, was just tremendous. Football season, though, is actually my favorite time of year. I did grow up in Chicago. I did grow up a Bears fan. I grew up a Walter Payton fan and a [William] ‘Refrigerator’ Perry fan. That time of year is so Chicago to me. Football has a special place in my heart, but I just haven’t been keeping up with it lately.

Why?

I’m sad about it. I’m kind of in boycott-the-NFL mode. I’m … disappointed with the show of support for [Colin Kaepernick]. I also understand that people still want to play, and have to play, and feed their families, and pay for their Bentleys, so I get all that s—. But for me, personally, it’s just … my mode of resistance this season.

What do you think about these new studies on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and how it’s related to football. Did that factor into your decision not to watch?

We all know it’s a sport where you can get hurt. We all know it’s rugged. As a woman I’m probably a little more sensitive to it. If I had a son, I’d be supersensitive to it.

Who is your childhood hero?

That’s my mom for sure.

Craziest lie you ever told?

I once told a girl, when I was 11 or 12 years old, that I was dating either Starsky or Hutch, and she believed me. I don’t know how I convinced her of this. I think it was Hutch.

“I have over 160 locs on my head, and I get tired at about 17 if I do it myself.”

What’s your favorite social media app?

I’m compulsively on my socials right now. I go from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to Twitter to Facebook to Instagram.

Who does your hair?

Natacha Fontin does my hair. She colors my hair and makes it superpurple. And then another lady twists me and her name is Chikodi Washington. I have over 160 locs on my head, and I get tired at about 17 if I do it myself.

What’s your favorite late-night food spot?

You know what’s crazy, I live in L.A. and L.A. is not a food town to me. If it’s really late and I’m hungry, I’m outta luck in L.A. Chicago is such a great food town, and Boston as well. There’s a Kitchen 24 that I like, and there’s 24-hour Popeye’s, but that’s about it.

Have you ever been starstruck?

On a couple of occasions. Prince left me pretty breathless every time I got to sing with him. I was starstruck working with Pharrell. He’s another one that I have so much respect for and have been wanting to work with for so long. I actually met Issa Rae at the Essence Festival and I was super starstruck.

So you’ve been keeping up with Insecure?

I’m on the road right now … but I’m home in a few days and I’m gonna catch up, probably all in one day. I love that show.

“I also understand that people still want to play and have to play and feed their families and pay for their Bentleys.”

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I have many. I don’t even know how guilty I am about that s— anymore. Any number of programs that appear on either Bravo TV or VH1.

When did you realize you were famous?

I still realize it every day. Fame is so relative, so people will walk by and say, ‘Hey, are you famous?’ And my response is, ‘Not if you don’t know me!’

What was your first major purchase?

When I was 21 I bought my first car. I bought a Nissan 240SX because I was in love with that car. I literally just gave it to a friend like three weeks ago. That car meant a lot to me — I don’t even know what I ended up paying for it.

What’s the most thoughtful gift you’ve ever received?

I have a really good boyfriend. We are a gadget/electronic type couple, so he constantly surprises me with s— that I would never get. Those things are really thoughtful to me because it’s stuff I wouldn’t know to buy, but he gets it for me. He’s very thoughtful that way.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Whitley’s World: A brief history of Bad and Boujee Black Girl Style Jasmine Guy’s Gilbert is the blueprint for ‘Insecure’s’ Molly, ‘Dear White People’s’ Coco, and ‘Living Single’s’ Regine

No other show explored the life of coeds from a historically black college as thoroughly as NBC’s A Different World. The show’s colorful characters gave us everything we didn’t know we needed, from a young black man who made solving for x extremely sexy to a free-spirited redhead who would certainly be on the frontlines of any and every Black Lives Matter protest today.

But if “bad and boujee” was trademarked last year by Migos, it originated on the fictional Hillman College campus and was created by the grande dame of the dorm known as Gilbert Hall: Whitley Marion Gilbert. The Louis Vuitton luggage-toting, siditty Southern belle, as portrayed by Jasmine Guy, had a legacy at the prestigious university that went back generations. At 5-foot-2, her frame was petite, but her style was colossal. The Whitley character not only reflected the most fashionable trends of the ’80s and ’90s, but she also influences contemporary style and serves as an inspiration for many young black women and black creatives today.

As one of the first examples of young, black affluence on television, Whitley paved the way for a long list of pivotal TV personalities. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hilary Banks, Saved by the Bell’s Lisa Turtle, Living Single’s Regine Hunter, CluelessDionne Davenport, GirlfriendsToni Childs, Dear White People’s Colandrea “Coco” Conners and even Insecure’s Molly Carter all seem to draw inspiration from the Richmond, Virginia-born beauty queen who, now via streaming apps, continues to personify the style and essence of bad and boujee black girls everywhere.

“She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else — she’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

Her impact also went beyond the small screen. In 2015, when the show became available to stream on Netflix — its license agreement expired in 2017, and it is now available on Amazon Prime — Pinterest boards, Instagram handles and Halloween costumes (including one from yours truly) dedicated to mimicking Whitley’s style became a dime a dozen. But imitation certainly is the highest form of flattery, and nobody knows that better than Whitley Gilbert.


The Devil is in the Details

Thirty years ago this week, we got a first-class ticket to a historically black college in Virginia. A group of students evolved from inexperienced adolescents to dynamic adults. From 1987 to 1992 we came to know and love Dwayne Wayne’s nerdy swag, Whitley Gilbert’s siditty style, Freddie Brooks’ free-spirited eccentricity, Kimberly Reese’s steadfast levelheadedness and Ron Johnson’s zany antics. And although the show initially aimed to follow the coed life of Cosby kid Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), it shifted its focus in the second season to the whole crew’s college experience and to Whitley and Dwayne’s love story.

A Different World touched on relevant social themes such as workplace sexual harassment and racial injustice, and it celebrated black heritage. It also featured iconic dayplayers such as Patti LaBelle, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Jada Pinkett and even Tupac Shakur, ushering in a wave of classic black television shows. “It deepened,” said Jasmine Guy, “the tone of black sitcoms.” Guy is currently filming Mario Van Peebles’ new SyFy series Superstition, as well as season two of BET’s The Quad, which is set at a historically black college not named Hillman.

The cast of A Different World

NBCU Photo Bank

To authentically portray her, Guy says, she created a backstory for Whitley that helped bring her to life. She decided Whitley had attended a primarily white, private school — so for her, Hillman’s campus truly was a different world. “She thought she was black, and she is. But there are all different kinds of ways to be black,” Guy said. “And … the Hillman College experience gave her a new sense of who she was and the community she belonged to. I noticed in the writing how she grew. Over the arc of a season you could see that that character had a lot to learn.”

The show was mostly written by Susan Fales-Hill and Yvette Lee Bowser. Creating a character with as much style development as Whitley, and the whole A Different World crew, started with the script, says Ceci, who worked as costume designer on the show for five seasons (1989-92).

“You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

“The inspiration comes first from the writing,” she said. “[It] shaped who these characters are, absolutely and situationally. … Whitley is waking up in the morning, but what is she waking up to do? You should be able to turn your TV on mute … and kinda know what’s going on when you see the character. I’m supporting the dialogue and the intentions that the writer and director are trying to convey. I’m doing that visually, through the wardrobe.”

Ceci’s resume includes work on iconic shows such as Living Single and Sister, Sister (both of which are apparently being rebooted) and now she is drawing on that experience: She’s costume designer on Netflix’s Dear White People. Each of these shows features personalities communicated via style, a characteristic she says was used deeply on A Different World. “You’d never see Freddie Brooks wearing anything the Whitley character would wear,” she said. “Jaleesa wouldn’t wear anything Whitley would wear. Each of those characters are … being true to who they are.”

Whitley Gilbert is certainly in a world of her own. There aren’t many episodes in which the girl with the sass and twang isn’t draped in Chanel suits and/or silk scarves. Unlike so many college students who roll out of bed in sweats, Whitley spends her days in heels, fur coats and pearls. “She’s a society girl,” says Mel Grayson, a designer who worked on the show’s early seasons before Ceci took over as costume designer. “She was highfalutin.’ ”

Grayson, a Dallas native, drew his inspiration for Whitley from his own upbringing — and shows that featured affluent characters like the women of CBS’ Dallas (1978-91). “I kept it sexy and hip, taking elements of French couture … elements of Southern church ladies who sat in the front row,” he said. “I’d take a bit of that kind of styling and move it down a few levels. Cut off the shoulder pads, kill the big heels and the big ruffles but still make her regal, and still make her stand out as somebody that had class.”

Whitley’s wardrobe wasn’t cheap. Both Ceci and Grayson say they shopped at high-end stores such as the Dallas-based Neiman Marcus but also had to get creative to stretch what was a meager budget. They augmented new purchases with consignment shop pieces. Tailoring was important: It was hard to come by clothes that fit Guy’s petite frame. “There were clothes that you’d know [were] quality just by the way they fit the body,” Grayson said.

NBCU Photo Bank

“Everything had to be altered to fit her perfectly,” said Ceci. “Thought was given to each decision — is this fitting too close, or too tight? No, she’d wear silk, she wouldn’t wear cotton. She’d wear probably pink, not black. Black is too harsh. Every time you look at Whitley, she’s not out-of-place. Everything about her is supporting this one style aesthetic.”

Ceci would often swap basic original buttons for gold ones, or choose a classic pump over a slouched boot. The key was to capture an authentically upscale young black woman who consistently remained true to herself. Would Whitley wear an unbuttoned blazer? Would she ever have a pimple? If so, how many? That pimple question alone sparked a production meeting debate that lasted at least 30 minutes.

“Those are the details,” said Ceci, “that help subconsciously round out a character.”


Boujee — and black

The first season of A Different World received scathing reviews and is often ranked last on lists of fans’ favorite seasons. Season four — it begins with Whitley’s epic shade toward Dwayne’s new girlfriend, Kinu, and ends with Dwayne asking Whitley to marry him — is the best season, by far. And while season two was a goodbye to Bonet’s Denise Huxtable storyline and a largely white production staff, it was a hello for legendary director and producer Debbie Allen, who ensured the show was both authentic and unapologetic.

During Allen’s tenure, the show created endless opportunities for black Hollywood professionals and designers. The Howard alum even took the writing staff on “annual field trips” to the Clark Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse campuses for inspiration. What emerged was a show that was very black. “When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley,” Guy said. “Because she did know people like that. She brought little things like, ‘How can y’all have a cafeteria with no hot sauce on the table?’ ”

Despite Whitley’s often insufferable entitlement and occasional disregard for peers outside of her tax bracket — in one episode she defends Kimberly’s scholarship from a company that hasn’t divested from South Africa and separates herself from the anti-apartheid struggle with a flippant “I don’t know those people” — Whitley maintains a shatterproof pride in her blackness.

“When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley.”

“Yes, she’s a socialite, she’s got her nose in the air, she’s got great hair — and it’s straight,” said Grayson. “She’s got a light complexion; she could pass the paper bag test. But she’s a girl that wants to be a black girl. She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else. She’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

“There’s a distinction,” Guy said. “And I guess that’s why they call it ‘bad and boujee,’ because there are bougie black people that are not trying to be white. I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction because this kind of character does exist in the black community and has the same issues as her friends.”

For Ceci, communicating that black self-confidence through Whitley’s clothing meant altering the styles that luxury brands were creating, particularly as those styles weren’t often intended for black girls.

“A lot of times when you go to high-end stores, that classic look is a color palette that is better for blond hair and blue eyes,” said Ceci. “We can wear those colors, [and] we can be more bold. I tried to let Whitley … not try to emulate what an affluent white person would look like but what an affluent African-American young woman in college would look like. But that really didn’t exist [on television]. It was up to me to imagine what that looked like. The trick with her was trying to make her look affluent but still approachable.”

Throughout the show, Whitley comes to life draped in jeweled tones rather than monochromatic. She’ll wear cream pants with an emerald blouse, or pair a black pencil skirt with a golden peplum blazer. A delicately placed broach here. A chain-linked belt there. Classic, polished styles mixed with elements of youth. “The trick with her was color,” said Ceci. “If I couldn’t find something colorful, I would often dye things. If she wore all taupes and beiges it would be like, ‘OK, who are you?’ ”

Maintaining that authenticity was particularly important when it came to portraying Whitley’s wedding day. This was long before wildly popular black wedding sites and Instagram handles like Munaluchi Bride existed. Seeing a black woman in a bridal gown was rare. “Bride’s magazine would never, ever have anybody of color in their magazine,” said Bethann Hardison, a pioneering African-American runway model and advocate for runway diversity whose son, Kadeem, portrayed Dwayne Wayne. “If they thought to do it, it was maybe a bridesmaid — but that came a lot later. We never saw anyone in a bridal gown that was of color.”

NBCU Photo Bank

A Different World’s pivotal 1992 wedding episode gave viewers something they couldn’t get anywhere else. It not only featured iconic guests — including Joe Morton, Diahann Carroll and Orlando Jones, among others — but it also served up the proverbial peak of Dwayne and Whitley’s relationship. Whitley had been dating future senator Byron Douglas III (portrayed by Morton) and was at the altar when Dwayne interrupted, asking her to reconsider.

According to Guy, the whole scene was done in one take, and Dwayne’s epic “Baby, please!” followed by Carroll’s “Die, just die!” weren’t actually written into the script. The episode — in which Guy wore a delicately embroidered fit-and-flare gown with puffed, capped sleeves reminiscent of Princess Diana’s and a dramatic train with bow detail — put black and bridal in the same sentence long before anyone else would. And if anyone knows how to dress for a momentous occasion, it’s Whitley Gilbert. So the pressure was on.

“We were trying to go with something that was sophisticated but still Southern,” said Ceci. “Something that had some sweetness … not over the top but still a little sexy. It had to have a little bit of everything … this one dress, striking the balance of demure but still sophisticated — and not too mature or revealing.” Unlike other episodes where she had the chance to communicate who Whitley was in multiple outfits, Ceci had to sum up all the character’s elements in one ensemble. “Wedding dresses are a challenge,” she said. “I’ve got one shot.”

The pressure was also on for Guy, who knew seeing a black bride on television was particularly significant for young black women. “Little girls dream of those things, and they don’t necessarily know it’s possible for them,” she said. “All the little girls are looking at Whitley being bougie, getting knocked down, getting up and then realizing, ‘Look at what she had to learn before she got married.’ That’s what I’m hoping young people will see: Look what it took to get to this point, and look how it’s worth it.”

The gown, which was made in-house rather than purchased, not only matched Whitley’s boujee bridal needs but also echoed Bethann Hardison’s words to magazine editors: “Black people get married too.”


Whitley’s World

The impact of A Different World goes far beyond the small screen. Its storylines tackled topics such as HIV/AIDS, interracial dating and apartheid — and enrollment at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) drastically increased while the show was on in prime time. “The show was so contemporary at that moment,” said Bethann Hardison. “A Different World was the first show that ever tackled all the issues, from date rape to race relations. It’s a show that stands the test of time.”

Networks also started making room for more black TV shows. “We were a part of a wave,” said Guy. “I didn’t realize that we were the end of the wave. I thought the business had changed. And then it went back to very few black people. It wasn’t until cable, and the birth of all these other outlets, that the networks couldn’t afford to be so cocky about what they put on and don’t put on.”

As for Whitley, her style and boldness showed up in other shows. In the 1990s, the presence of affluent young black women became less rare with the creation of characters such as Lark Voorhies’ Lisa Turtle, Karyn Parsons’ Hilary Banks, or even Stacy Dash’s Dionne Davenport. There was also another strain of young female TV personalities who weren’t born with money but via hard work became accustomed to the finer things in life, such as Kim Fields’ Regine Hunter, Jill Marie Jones’ Toni Childs and Antoinette Robertson’s Coco Conners. That sensibility is also evident in Insecure’s Molly on HBO, as portrayed by Yvonne Orji, whose power suits and fashion sense are a contemporary remix on Whitley’s wardrobe. There’s also, of course, Olivia Pope of Scandal, who stakes a claim to bad and boujee herself.

“I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction.”

The HBO show’s costume designer, Ayanna James, recently talked to Fashionista about the inspirations for Molly’s character. “As far as examples we’ve had on television, we have Kerry Washington on Scandal … who is a very popular character for her fashion, but that’s somebody that is a bit more confident than Molly. The inspiration behind Molly was, ‘What would a lawyer look like if she was really, really into fashion? If she was the person who might take a weekend off to go to New York Fashion Week?’ She lives in L.A., she makes money, she works in an office … run by the old boys’ club, so how do we balance that to make it fashionable and make it relevant?”

“I saw a lot of Whitley-esque influence in a lot of characters,” said Grayson. “In Living Single and Girlfriends. They were a bit more risqué, but they had that same sensibility.”

Ceci said she wasn’t as aware of the influence in real time. But looking back, she sees correlations. However, she said the clothes she chose for characters such as Regine and Coco signify more aspirational efforts than did Hillman’s own pride and joy. “The Regine character, she is like a Whitley character. She wasn’t born with money. She has … humble beginnings and is a little more sassy and expressive,” said Ceci. “Coco didn’t have the affluence that the Whitley character has. So while there might be some parallels in terms of trying to be pulled together … those two characters are never gonna be able to hit the mark in terms of the polish and the etiquette of the Whitley character.”

Guy said she was more aware of women who paved the way for her as Carroll did in Dynasty (1981-89). While she agrees that both Hilary Banks and Regine Hunter fall into the same category as Whitley, she said they each had unique characteristics. “We were all a part of that theme, we were just different in our bougieness,” she said.

Both Grayson and Ceci acknowledge that although Whitley can be antagonistic, even when you hate her, you still want to dress like her. “Now when kids look at Whitley,” said Ceci, “they feel like she’s like a baby baller. They’re like, ‘I wanna look like her when I grow up.’ ”

“It just made young girls realize that you don’t have to be that … dowdy girl and just wear … jeans and your old flannel shirt,” said Grayson. “You can pull yourself together and go to school … and look a little more elegant, and not care what other people have to say about that — because you wanna be dressed.”

And Ceci is proud and humble at the same time. “You can’t unsee A Different World,” she said. “You’ve seen it. It’s kind of engraved in your psyche. And perhaps subliminally that’s a reference point, or even consciously. … I don’t know if I defined what African-American female affluence was at that time, but … I’m just coming to embrace the impact the show had, and my part in it … I feel proud and privileged and honored to have … been a part of that.”

As a fan of fashionable jewels and a curator of fine art, Whitley knows that reprints are acceptable. But there’s nothing like the original. Although her character set a part of #blackgirlmagic in motion, no one has matched her level of polished sophistication, and perhaps no one ever will. Ms. Gilbert would have it no other way.

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.

‘Power’s’ Dre — real name Rotimi — is also a music man The singer-actor loves Instagram — and baring his soul

Singer Rotimi’s new eight-song EP Jeep Music, Vol. 1 (G-Unit/EMPIRE, released Aug. 4), has been making waves — but you probably know the 28-year-old Nigerian-American New Jersey native as drug-dealing antihero Dre Coleman on Starz’s hit show Power. Despite his high-profile role, Rotimi says he just sort of fell into acting. “I’d just graduated from Northwestern University, and I was touring and performing at different colleges. My manager said, ‘Yo, we need more money. Maybe you should try getting another commercial, or print modeling or something, and see how it goes.’ ”

It clearly went well, but his heart is still deeply in music. He’s performed on stage with T.I. and with 50 Cent (executive producer of Power and co-founder of G-Unit Records), who both appear on the track “Nobody,” and Rotimi is currently touring nationwide with singer/songwriter August Alsina on his Don’t Matter Tour, which wraps this weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia.

We caught up with Rotimi to discuss his new music (of course), Instagram and the greatness of Michael Jordan.

Who was your childhood hero?

My dad. I wanted to make my dad happy all the time. Whenever I’d do something really dope, he would kind of reward me, [with] like, basketball games or music. I was just trying to get my pops to be proud.

What’s your favorite social media spot?

I like Instagram. It allows me to be funny, silly, write cool captions — but also kind of be nosy and see what other people are doing.

What’s the last show you binged?

American Crime. I’m on season two right now. It’s so good.

Your favorite athlete of all time?

Michael Jordan. He taught me early on what greatness was. How amazing it was. How it captured audiences. Love him or hate him, he’s great. It was a cool thing to see as a kid.

She was known to have this white Jeep in Jersey, so I used it as a metaphor for that relationship.

Do you have a pre-performance ritual?

I always go over everything with my dancers, talk to my DJ, and we pray. I play the show in my head and pray that it goes well and that everything that I want to convey is shown.

What about a guilty pleasure?

I watched a couple episodes of Real Housewives of Atlanta. At first I was like, I ain’t watching this, but then I was like, ‘OK, this is interesting, when’s the next one come out?’ I was like, ‘Daaang, he went to jail?’ It’s a good show. I was tryna hate, but I can’t.

Favorite throwback TV show?

Definitely The Fresh Prince [of Bel-Air].

What’s the first concert you ever went to?

Damian Marley. I grew up listening to a lot of Bob Marley. My dad was a huge Bob Marley fan. It played a lot in my house. Damian Marley came to Jersey and performed at this festival in the park, and I remember going with Dad. I was around 11.

Who’s the most famous person following you on Instagram?

I’d say Russell Westbrook, Snoop Dogg, 50 [Cent], and La La [Anthony] are the most famous people following me.

What’s the craziest lie you ever told?

That I played basketball overseas. That I was a ballplayer from Greece.

Did they believe it?

They believed that s—.

I play the show in my head and pray that it goes well and that everything that I want to convey is shown.

What’s the last stamp on your passport?

London, we had a show. I performed at The O2 Arena with 50 [Cent]. We did that; it was really cool.

What’s one place you’re dying to visit?

I wanna go to Dubai. I want to see that for myself, how man built something like that.

Tell me more about your new music.

Being that I’m a new ‘celebrity,’ I [was in] a really, really tough relationship. People call Jeep Music a project, but really it’s just me expressing myself musically. It’s a time capsule of when I met her — and how it ended. It explains exactly the stories we went through. She was known to have this white Jeep in Jersey, so I used it as a metaphor. It’s really not a project … it’s really me. People need to hear the story of what happened and how it affected me and how it affected her. It’s a story.

Are we going to hear any of your music on Power?

Not this season. I was so busy creating the project that I didn’t want to rush any of it.

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

That you’re going to grow up and be a baaad m—–f—–. I would tell him to definitely keep playing the piano. It’ll change your life if you keep doing it. And always be true to yourself — continue to be true to yourself.

What will you always be the champion of?

I will always be the champion of my destiny.

Oscar winner Halle Berry talks Prince, Bruno Mars — and having no regrets, ‘not a one’ The star of ‘Kidnap’ took on her new role to prove a point

Two years ago, Halle Berry — perhaps the best known black female actor of our time — sat on a dais at Comic-Con and talked about how challenging it was for her to secure roles as a 40-something black woman in Hollywood. Halle Berry said that. She of great beauty. And of great achievement: the speech Berry gave on the occasion of her historic 2002 Oscar win for the emotionally complex Monster’s Ball has more than 4 million views. And she of great superhero badassery. Halle Berry struggles to get Hollywood to see her.

“It’s a different landscape for men when they age,” she says now. “Men somehow get better, and women just get older. It’s part of the stereotype, right? I think my mission … now is to try to dispel those images and those stereotypes … And also to personify that as women get older, we get better, too. With our age comes confidence, comes assurance about our craft. We want to tell stories that we really want to tell.”

This week, Berry is turning a Hollywood trope on its head. She’s starring in the new feature film Kidnap, as a mother fighting — literally, and physically — to get her child back. Berry resonates with movie magic and can save the day while she’s at it.

This role is one that real-life mom Berry is primed to tell. “Being a mother now of two children … I’ve always known … if you put a mother’s child in danger, she’ll become a lioness, ferocious and fierce. I’ve always known the heart of a woman, the heart of a mother,” she said. “So, when the script came my way, I just felt … what I’ve been through — on many different personal journeys — I just knew that this was something I needed to express. And I thought it was time for women — men always save the day. It takes me back to Taken with Liam Neeson, a movie I absolutely love. I thought, Why can’t a woman do that?”

Berry chats about the real-life woman who saved her, why she’ll always champion black lives and women and why you’ll never — ever – get her to do karaoke.

Who is your childhood hero?

My fifth-grade teacher Yvonne Sims. She was my hero then, she’s my hero now. She’s the godmother to my children. She is like a mother figure, but also like the best friend you could ever have. I was so lucky that she found me in the fifth grade. I was at a crossroads. There was a lot of drama and turmoil in my family. She came along and just like an angel, just plucked me up, and really her influence changed the trajectory of my life.

Where does your courage come from?

Her. My courage came from her. Because she had the belief in me when I was very young, that I could achieve. That I was worthy. I was a bit bullied, and she esteemed me — always — and taught me to fight through the hard times. And one of the biggest lessons she taught me was to always shine again, and to just kind of deal with the valleys — because the peaks always return.

“It takes me back to Taken with Liam Neeson, a movie I absolutely love. I thought, Why can’t a woman do that?”

What will you always be the champion of?

Children. Women’s rights. Black Lives Matter — and causes like that. [Places] where I feel like I can use my voice, and actually make a difference.

What’s your favorite social media spot?

I’m Instagram. That’s my medium right now. That’s my favorite place to kind of express myself right now. But I have an app that I’m [launching] called Hallewood that will become a place that I’m going to really love to be. It’s a fan-based site, but it will be a place where I can really connect with fans, and talk to them, have contact. Actually meet them. We can have real, deep conversations about the things you just asked me about, like what do I stand for. It’s going to be a really interesting place.

Last show you binge-watched?

Probably HBO’s The Night Of, was my last binged show.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

That’s one thing I cannot do! That’s one thing you cannot get me to do. I’m serious. You cannot get me to karaoke. I am not. I’m really not. I will not. There are lots of other things. Just not that!

“And one of the biggest lessons she taught me was to always shine again, and to just kind of deal with the valleys because the peaks always return.”

First concert you went to?

My first concert was Prince. That man, his music changed my childhood and my teenage years. He got me through some s—! I was a huge, admiring fan of his, and I became a friend of his during his lifetime.

Last concert you went to?

Bruno Mars. We saw him in Vegas on New Year’s.

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

I would say, ‘Girl, do it just as you did. Because when you act, you’re pretty damn good.’ All I know is that. I have no regrets. No regrets, not a one.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The air up there: Five black men jump out of a plane in Baltimore A skydiving tale of conquering fear and forging a brotherhood at 13,000 feet

I gather my senses, and a weird sense of calm overtakes me. My eyes water up. Everything whips past at speeds that feel closer to breaking the sound barrier than anything I’ve ever experienced. Wind crashes against my face at 130 mph. It’s impossible to hear. Feeling completely defenseless makes me alive in a way I have never experienced. Makes me alive in a way I never knew existed.


The opening triplet of Young Jeezy’s 2005 zenith Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101: “Thug Motivation 101,” “Standing Ovation” and “Gangsta Music.” When it fails to elicit a reaction, there’s cause for concern. But when Meek Mill’s 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares” doesn’t do the trick, we all quietly panic.

Hold on, wait a minute / Y’all thought I was finished?/ When I bought that Aston Martin / Y’all thought it was rented …

“Turn that down for a second,” George says from the back seat.

There are five of us. Me, Trevon (Tre), Chris (whom we all call Mayo) and Derek (who met us at the spot). We were all there for George, who is getting married in Atlanta in November and wants to cross an item off his “living list.” He hates the term “bucket list.”

“That sounds too much like death,” he told me an hour before, outside Tre’s parents’ house in Bowie, Maryland. He was scarfing down a bowl from Chipotle. “Let’s do everything we wanna do while we’re here. It makes for a better life story.”

But now, as Tre’s 2011 Nissan Maxima — “The Swain Train,” as we dubbed it — turns into the gravel driveway of Skydive Baltimore in Mitchellville, Maryland, it hits us. The driveway leads to an open field with parked cars, a mini-warehouse and planes. “I done did the DOAs / I done did the KODs,” Meek raps, with the volume nearly on mute. “Every time I’m in that b—- / I get to throwin’ 30 G’s …

We are on the cusp of embarking on the most extreme sport on the planet. The five of us are about to jump out of a plane.

July 16, 2017. For months, it seemed nothing more than a fictional date. It would never get here. And even if it did, the weather wouldn’t cooperate. A pipe dream would be left as just that.

But what was a group chat idea in April spawned into May reality as we all watched blowout after blowout during the NBA playoffs. When Derek got the ball rolling by copping his Groupon ticket first, the stage was set. Talking about it was cool, but being about it was a totally different monster. Weeks went by. Eventually a quintet took shape.

“Damn, we’re pretty high up. This it?”

Derek, Tre, George and I all went to Hampton together. Mayo is Tre’s oldest friend, from high school. We asked other friends, men and women, if they were down. Some initially committed but backed out for scheduling reasons. One friend asked, “Why the f— would I wanna jump out of a perfectly good plane?” Silently, it’s what we’d all asked ourselves.

In the weeks leading up to July 16, a brotherhood — we call it #FlightTeam — formed. What else would you call five people crazy enough to jump out of a plane? We’re all either in our early 30s or, in Tre’s case, months away from the landmark birthdate. We’re blessed with jobs in which we’re excelling. Some of us are in committed relationships. Life just feels good. And we wanted to try something new — something we’d remember for the rest of our lives. It was about seeking a thrill, but it was more about breaking the status quo. It’s hard to find statistics about black people who skydive. We knew of friends and acquaintances who’ve done it, but for the most part, what statistics wouldn’t tell us, the reactions we got when we told folks surely did.

“ ‘Brother, black people don’t do that,’ ” is what the author Touré playfully recalled a group of black men telling him before his 2007 jump. “I was breaking the rules of blackness as they saw it.”

ESPN Video Player

“Skydiving?” Brian, a bartender at my local bar quizzed me. “Man, y’all n—–s wilding, for real. If you come back, at least I know you didn’t die.” He then proceeded to show me a video another customer at the bar pulled up on her phone of a woman slipping out of her harness.

“Well, you only live once, I guess,” Ryan, a childhood friend, said to me via text. He’s currently serving overseas in the military, and even he thought the idea was asinine.

“Y’all like the only black people I know personally … crazy enough to do this,” Mayo said with a laugh when he agreed to go. “Or the dumbest. But I’m with y’all, so what’s that make me?”

The peculiar truth about skydiving is there are two types of first-timers: those who research everything they can on the internet and those who go in blind. For myself — a reporter, writer and naturally inquisitive person — it was the former. There are the horror stories. There’s video of President George H.W. Bush jumping for his 90th birthday. The most impactful to me, however, is Will Smith describing his first skydive, in 2013 in Dubai. It spoke to a lesson far larger than that of jumping from a plane.

The tutorial? Literally the instructor telling you what and what not to do.

Fear, in a lot of ways, is death in breathing form. A byproduct of living in the world, fear is the reason so many wake up years later saying, “I wish I would have,” instead of “I’m glad I did.” Combating fear is why The Fresh Prince went skydiving. Anticipation is usually worse than the event itself. “You realize at the point of maximum danger,” Smith said, “is the point of minimum fear.”

Skydiving is actually quite safe. Just last year, the United States Parachute Association recorded 21 skydiving deaths out of approximately 3.2 million jumps — one death per 153,557 jumps. The number shrinks with tandem skydiving (with the instructor strapped on your back), with one student death per 500,000 jumps over the past decade. Since 2000, 413 skydiving deaths have been reported out of 48.6 million jumps. The fatality rate was 0.00085 percent. A person is far more likely to die from being struck by lightning or stung by a bee.

If we were going to die doing this, we had the worst luck known to man. Or it was just our time to go. We were cool with those odds. More importantly, though, none of us wanted to back out on our word.


Telling your mom you’re about to jump out of a plane is almost as much of a rush as jumping out of the plane itself. “Ma,” I said the night of July 15. “I wasn’t gonna tell you, but LaToya said I probably should.”

“Justin, what? Is she OK? Is she getting married? I can’t lose out on a potential daughter-in-law. Are you in trouble? Boy, I told you don’t go messing up this good job!”

“Huh? What? No! I’m skydiving tomorrow. I’ll be fine. Trust me.”

“Going by yourself?”

“It’s like four of my boys going with me. Tre’s going.”

“I mean, are you jumping out by yourself?”

“Hell, nah! I might pass out. I need someone to pull the cord.”

“OK, fine. Call me when you get on the ground. We ain’t telling your grandma until you get back on the ground, though.”

In the car, we swap stories about telling our loved ones. In George’s words, he had to get his “affairs in order.” We’re an hour away from doing something we never really believed would happen, and we’re laughing. It’s these small moments that define a brotherhood. The order of jumping is finalized. I demand to go first (if you’re considering doing this, jump first, because watching your friends get vacuumed out of an airplane is a haze of monumental proportions). We crack jokes on each other. We predict what we’ll say as we jump.

“I’m definitely yelling ‘Free Ghost!’ ” I say, alluding to this season of the Starz series Power.

“Maybe I’ll yell out, ‘It took four All-stars to beat LeBron in the Finals,’ ” Tre says moments later.

The mileage on the GPS slowly trickles away. The weather is sarcastically perfect — as if Mother Nature is telling us, “Y’all ain’t blaming me. You’re jumping out that damn plane.” The wardrobe: Fatigue shorts, Nike Air Max and a black tee with, in hindsight, a fitting lyric from Future and Drake’s 2016 loosie “Used To This”: Beat the odds/ Do numbers/ And remain humble.

The moment was at our fingertips. The five of us knew we’d leave this field as different people. First, the paperwork. “Basically, you’re signing your life away,” Derek said. “You either sign it and jump, or don’t sign it and don’t jump. Either way, they’ve already gotten your money.”

Speaking of dead presidents, we all paid $125 for the “media” package that came with 200-plus pictures and video of the experience. Then came the wait. This was the worst. Groups in front of us went up in planes, jumped and parachuted to the ground. They resembled giant, colorful snowflakes. We all stood and watched, occasionally placing videos on Snapchat, as well as Instagram stories. The jumpers were all supportive and energetic, the consensus being, “You’ll thank yourself for doing it while you’re in the air.” As we expected, we were the only group of black people jumping together, although two people came after us — but one stayed on the ground and worked on his laptop as his daughter got set to skydive. Then came the moment three months in the making.

Trevon, George, Chris, Justin and Derek, come to the front.

Immediately, we all realize there isn’t a “class” we’ll take beforehand. The tutorial? It’s the instructor telling you what and what not to do. Within 10 minutes, we are strapped in harnesses and later to our instructors on the seatless plane — which holds 10 people at the most. My queasiness, which had been faint 30 minutes before, increases in severity the higher the plane climbs. There’s no backing out. We are at the point of no return.

Talking about it was cool, but being about it was a totally different monster.

“Damn, we’re pretty high up. This it?” I ask, looking out the window.

“Nah, bro,” says Mike the instructor nonchalantly. He’s on his 11th and final jump of the day. “We’re about halfway there.”

The Maryland terrain now resembles a Google map. I look around the plane, attempting to gauge the collective mindstate. Mayo is quiet. Derek doesn’t seem too much bothered. George is at peace in the back of the plane. But Tre? Tre, he has What the entire f— did I get myself into? written all over his face.

The door opens. It’s a passage to the rest of our lives. That’s another aspect you’re not truly prepared for: seeing a door open on a plane and clouds breezing by underneath. Mike inches us closer to the edge. He asks me if I prefer a straight plunge or to backflip out. Not that it matters, as I was kind of seated in the doorway and my legs were already dangling out.

It’s at this point where a person simultaneously feels heaven, hell, life and death. It’s a high, the greatest sex, the greatest weed … the greatest anything, really, could never replicate (OK, well, never is pushing it). But, true to form, “Free Ghost!” were my last coherent words.

As quickly as the free fall begins, though, it’s over. The parachute deploys. Whipping wind gives way to an eerie silence as I float toward the launchpad. You see how big the world is. And how small you are. You realize how peaceful the moment is. How the freedom of that exact moment surpasses the trepidation of the months, weeks, days and hours before. Skydiving made no sense at all until it made all the sense. I was temporarily suspended in air and left to my own thoughts. The air up there isn’t the enemy. It’s the ground where the problems lie.

The entire experience is over in five minutes. I was back on the ground quicker than it took to get in the air. Tre, Derek, Mayo and George are soon behind. The ride-back recap session was legendary. Viewing our videos, we saw the same experience from each other’s point of view. Over a week later, the five of us still laugh about the moment that brought us together and put us face to face with our own mortality. It’s a feat we’ll take with us to homecomings, weddings, baby showers and certainly George’s wedding later this year.

“A week later and it’s still a trip,” Tre says with a laugh. “[I just keep thinking], did we really do that?”

A thought populated my mind that night after the jump, as I boarded a flight to Boston. It was a piece from Jay-Z’s 2009 “Forever Young.” It spoke to not only what we five had just done, but succinctly about conquering fear.

Fear not when, fear not why / Fear not much while we’re alive/ Life is for living, not living uptight / Till you’re somewhere up in the sky …

Jay-Z inadvertently reminded me of something George had said. His words applied to life, personally and professionally. It applied to taking the great risks to produce the great rewards we all seek in life. “When I realized I could die,” said the groom-to-be, “that’s when I started living.”

Sydelle Noel is making a splash in Netflix’s ‘GLOW’ The track star turned actress gets candid about Monopoly, her father and meeting Angela Bassett

Sydelle Noel is on the fast track to becoming one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood. Shortly after landing a small role in the highly anticipated Marvel movie Black Panther, Noel sprang into a challenging role as Cherry Bang, one of the featured wrestlers in Netflix’s latest original series, GLOW. It focuses on a group of women in 1980s Los Angeles who become the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. “Cherry is sexy, she’s very physical, she knows what she’s capable of and actually says what’s on her mind,” said Noel. “She’s not afraid of anyone, not intimidated by anyone. And she’s badass. Who doesn’t want to play a badass?” Noel’s former focus was on becoming a star athlete at the University of Georgia, where she ran track on a scholarship. Unfortunately, a stress fracture changed all that. But it’s Noel’s athletic background that helps her on GLOW. “Anything that’s a challenge,” said Noel, “I like to … conquer it.” Below (among other things) she talks about her favorite real-life wrestlers — and about which actress almost brought her to tears.

Who is your favorite wrestler?

I grew up watching Hulk Hogan. As I got older, I think me and everybody else loved The Rock. The Rock was my all-time favorite. He took wrestling and made it his own. And now he’s one of the No. 1 actors in the world.

Are there any rituals you get into on set?

Every athlete has a type of music they listen to to get them to that place — I’m very similar with acting now. I still have my get-crunk music, I have my cry-to-me playlist. I have so many different playlists I listen to to get me where I need to be, and in the zone I need to be. When I’m in my trailer preparing my lines, sometimes I listen to jazz. Sometimes I listen to Uncle Luke before the scenes I’m doing.

“Every athlete has a type of music they listen to to get them to that place — I’m very similar with acting now.”

What were your top three songs?

Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good,’ Lil Jon [& The East Side Boyz], ‘Get Crunk,’ and Tracy Chapman’s ‘Give Me One Reason.’ I love throwbacks.

Which pro athlete would you never want to trade places with?

If I had to say never, and it’s not because of their athletic abilities, it would be Serena Williams. It’s because no one ever wants to see her fail, so she has the world on her shoulders. She’s playing for her and everybody. That’s a lot of pressure … when she loses, it’s like she lost for the world, not just for her. But, shoot, that body, her bank account, her skills — I would definitely trade places for that!

If you could go to dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?

The first person that popped into my head is my dad. I lost my dad when I was 9, and I would drop everything, give up everything, for one last dinner with him.

Who would you want to play you in your biopic?

Right now, I would want to play myself! Twenty years from now I wouldn’t know, but right now, if they were like, ‘Sydelle, we’re going to do a film about you right now. Who would you want to play you?’ I’d be like, ‘Uh, no one’s playing me but me.’ Not only do you have to have the acting down, but you have to be physical and have the athletic background. There are a very few — a handful — of African-American girls out there in the entertainment world where we can act, be physical and actually do your own stunts. There’s not many of us out there.

What’s your favorite throwback television show?

Fresh Prince! I love The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When it’s on, I always have to stop and watch it.

“I lost my dad when I was 9, and I would drop everything, give up everything, for one last dinner with him.”

What’s the last show you binged through?

Dear White People. I was sad that it was over. I actually didn’t know it was over. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. What?’ With Netflix, shows just literally go on. In 30 seconds the next episode just goes on, and you just need it. It was done and I was like, ‘What just happened?’

What will you always be the champion of?

I will always be the champion of Monopoly. Always. Hands down, no one can beat me in Monopoly.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I’m starstruck all the time. I ran into Laurie Hernandez. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re so cute! I love you!’ The most [starstruck] that I’ve ever been, and it really brought me to tears, is when I was working on Black Panther and I saw Angela Bassett. I went weak in the knees because I’ve always wanted to work with her. She’s one of my idols. Finding out she was so down to earth and chill and fun, it was amazing working with her. When we wrapped, I just had to go over and knock on her trailer and let her know how much it meant to me, and I almost started crying.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 15-year-old self?

I would tell her not to stress so much about the future, because the future will be just fine. I used to stress myself out, especially with … my track career. I used to stress myself out … and would have to tell myself to relax, and just go with the flow. Let things be. Things will always work out.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Even after 40 years, Maze and Frankie Beverly play on A loving history of the band that always spreads happy feelings before they let go

In 1976, a demo tape came across the desk of Capitol Records vice president Larkin Arnold. The clunky reel-to-reel featured songs written and performed by Raw Soul, an unsigned San Francisco combo that had created a buzz opening shows for Marvin Gaye. Arnold cued up the tape and was immediately struck by the band’s deft reconciliation of groove-intensive rhythm and blues and California-style singer/songwriter balladry. “It reminded me,” Arnold recalled, “of a black, Eagles-type sound.”

His curiosity piqued, Arnold arranged to attend a Raw Soul concert at San Francisco’s now-defunct Fillmore West. Just minutes into the band’s performance, it was clear that Raw Soul’s feel-good vibes translated well to the stage, fueled by the soulful voice and teddy bear charm of frontman Frankie Beverly. “It wasn’t a hard-driving, rhythm and blues band,” said the now-retired Arnold from his Los Angeles home. “They were more melodic … a seductive sound. Before you realized it, they had you moving.”

Arnold was sold. As a means of getting Raw Soul to join the Capitol family of artists, he said he made singer-songwriter Beverly an offer he couldn’t refuse — sign on the dotted line, and you get to retain the publishing rights to all your songs. So Raw Soul signed with Capitol, home to some of pop’s most influential acts, from Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole to the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. When the septet finally issued its 1977 debut, it was released under its new moniker: Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly.

This year, Maze and Frankie Beverly celebrate the 40th anniversary of that now-iconic debut. Showcasing the R&B hits “While I’m Alone,” “Happy Feelin’s” and “Lady of Magic,” the self-titled album has long been certified gold. Maze generated 10 recordings for Capitol, including six studio albums, two live albums and two greatest hits collections. Seven of those recordings are gold, including 1978’s Golden Time of Day, 1979’s Inspiration, 1980’s Joy and Pain and Live in New Orleans, 1983’s We Are One, and 1985’s Can’t Stop The Love. The band racked up impressive sales when it defected to Warner Bros. Records in the late ’80s, scoring two more gold certifications for 1989’s Silky Soul and 1993’s Back to Basics.

For a band whose success has gone wholly undetected by mainstream media, Maze’s influence and positive regard within the black community is nothing short of incredible.

But though Maze never enjoyed gargantuan crossover success or earned a Grammy, the band is still something like a phenomenon. Classic Maze tracks such as “Happy Feelin’s,” “Joy and Pain” and “Back In Stride” are essential listening for black baby boomers and many of their kids. Attend a wedding, picnic, backyard barbecue or any similar black American family outing and you’re bound to hear Maze tracks on the playlist, the band’s full-bodied funk blending seamlessly with edgier fare by the rap and R&B idols of the current day.

Indeed, over the course of its four-decade career, Maze has endeared itself to the black community in a special way. Some fans cite moments when the band’s upbeat lyrics helped get them through personal struggles, prompting them to prescribe Maze tracks like a doctor might prescribe antidepressants (“Listen to ‘Inspiration’ and get some rest, girl!”). Other fans report being so spellbound at first hearing Beverly’s billowy voice that they remember the experience as vividly as their first encounter with their spouses. For a band whose success has gone wholly undetected by mainstream media, Maze’s influence and positive regard within the black community is nothing short of incredible.

And as with just about everything in America, race plays a role in the saga of Maze and Frankie Beverly. The band evolved into a decidedly black R&B phenomenon, but Arnold believes Maze’s rootsy sound could easily have played across a range of traditionally “white” radio formats, including Top 40, adult contemporary and even the rock stations where white, soul-influenced acts such as Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers held court. In Arnold’s mind, Maze had crossover potential on par with Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, yet Maze never breached the multiplatinum stratosphere. The question is, why?


We’ve been judging people by colors/ maybe we should all be color blind …”

— “Color Blind,” by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, 1977

Philadelphia. 1970. Philly Soul was making inroads, with manicured, Motown-influenced acts such as The Delfonics and The Stylistics and writers and producers such as future Hall of Famers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff climbing Billboard’s R&B charts. Unfortunately, for a young singer named Howard “Frankie” Beverly, the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t showing much affection to his band, the very raw Raw Soul. Having recorded some independently produced singles that went nowhere, Beverly boldly decided to pack up the band and head to the then-freewheeling San Francisco. Raw Soul thrived in the multicultural Bay Area.

Music lover Michael Burton first encountered the band in the East Bay, at a 1973 Contra Costa College performance. At the time, the band’s lineup was Beverly, drummer Joe Provost, bassist Robin Duhe, guitarist Wuane Thomas, and percussionists McKinley “Bug” Williams and Roame Lowry. “It was a mixed crowd: black, white, and some Spanish,” Burton recalled of the audience. “Frankie played all his own music. He could either sing Top 40 or stay Raw Soul, and he chose to sing Frankie Beverly. He didn’t veer from his commitment.”

That Contra Costa performance blew Burton’s mind — it gave the 20something a purpose in life. Like a commoner abandoning his old ways to become an apostle, Burton threw his lot in with Raw Soul, becoming the band’s self-styled stage manager. He purchased a van to haul equipment, then booked Raw Soul into venues along the California coast, from Stockton and San Pablo to Santa Rosa and Tomales Bay. “At the time, a lot of Grateful Dead-kind of music was going on, and people would all support a particular bar or club,” said Burton. “You had these venues that already had a built-in following, and they loved the kind of music Frankie played.”

Rumor spread about the no-nonsense Bay Area funk band with the dynamic singer, and before long Raw Soul had gained an influential fan in the form of Jan Gaye, wife of Marvin Gaye. “Come to find out, one day Marvin was in the audience,” Burton said. “Blew us away! That was when Marvin opened the door for Frankie.”

“New York was one of my hardest markets to break Frankie. It was a disco city … and Frankie really didn’t fit into that category.”

Marvin Gaye was so enamored of Raw Soul that he took the band on the road with him as an opening act in 1976. Gaye even afforded Beverly the opportunity, at the infamous Marvin’s Room recording studio, to perform on one of his recordings. That distinctive clinking sound heard on Gaye’s chart-topping 1977 “Got to Give It Up” is Beverly playing an improvised cowbell. “That’s Frankie on the milk bottle! Marvin was [recording], and Frankie goes down there, but he didn’t bring his ax,” said Burton. “So Marvin’s like, ‘Here’s a milk bottle. Get in the groove!’ ”

But while Gaye loved Beverly’s group, he took a dim view of the name Raw Soul. He felt it did a disservice to the band’s honey-drip R&B sound. “For the next [few] months, we kicked names in the butt,” Burton said. “We go back to Marvin and say, ‘How about Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly’? We did a name check and found out there was a band already called Maze. Marvin said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of that.’ From my understanding, we bought the name. It’s been Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly ever since.”

As Capitol Records geared up to release the band’s debut album, Arnold instructed the label’s art department to create an album cover incorporating a maze. They came up with a seven-digit hand in the form of a maze, each finger representing a band member. The puzzlelike design instantly became Maze’s official logo, as identifiable as the Rolling Stones’ splayed tongue or Led Zeppelin’s cryptic runes.

Maze’s debut album was released in 1977, the same year as historic albums by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Peabo Bryson, Bootsy Collins and more. It was also the year of classic singles such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire,” the Commodores’ “Brick House,” Parliament’s “Flashlight,” and the Isley Brothers’ often-sampledFootsteps in the Dark.” Amid this funk explosion, artists such as Chic and Donna Summer were starting to get traction with their opulent disco sounds. The year concluded with the release of Saturday Night Fever, the album that would ultimately lift disco from the underground gay clubs of New York into the annals of record sales history.

Caught in the crossfire of all this was Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly, an album recorded in Tacoma, Washington, by a band from Philadelphia, that migrated to San Francisco, yet sounded like they came from Long Beach, California. British music writer David Nathan described it as “California Soul,” citing the album’s laid-back grooves. “Obviously, the sound is rooted in traditional R&B,” said Nathan. “It’s got a smoothness to it, and of course, sometimes they’re very funky … Frankie’s voice has got a kind of yearning to it … smooth yet soulful.”

Across the country, many were having the same reaction to Maze’s music, and Arnold saw an opportunity to shore up his reputation as the man who put Capitol Records on the R&B map. A Howard University law grad, he’d been given the task of starting Capitol’s black music department from scratch. At the time, the label’s black catalog featured iconic but out-of-vogue jazz artists such as Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderly. But with the signing of talented up-and-comers such as Natalie Cole, Bryson and Tavares, Arnold gave Capitol much-needed R&B clout. But they were still struggling. “We went from being not any way in contention,” he said, “to like the seventh or eighth [in] black music … in the business.”

Armed with the premiere single “While I’m Alone,” Arnold stormed radio stations. “I knew I could bust the [song] out of Los Angeles, D.C. and Houston; those were my three biggest markets,” Arnold said. “I went over to Howard University and WHUR, which is the No. 1 station in D.C. Back then, if you broke a song in D.C., you could go from Philly down to Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia. New York was one of my hardest markets to break Frankie. It was a disco city … and Frankie really didn’t fit into that category.”

Even without the Big Apple’s support, Arnold’s cross-country hustle made Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly a steady seller. The band took to the road in a couple of station wagons and a U-Haul, stretching the little cash support they received from Capitol. That first national tour saw Maze opening for some of the biggest acts of the day, including Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers and the Brothers Johnson.

In concert, the band applied all the lessons learned from roughly a decade of performing. “I’ll tell you this for a fact: Some of the headliners didn’t want to come on after Frankie Beverly,” Burton said. “A lot of them said, ‘Oh, hell naw! I’m not going on after this guy no more!’ Sometimes, they wouldn’t let Frankie close the show. … We used to call it, ‘Let’s go out and Put The Hand on these m—-af—as!’ ”

Betty Shaw experienced Maze’s engrossing stagecraft firsthand. She was 25 when she first saw the band in 1978. At the time, Shaw was a recently separated mother of three with dim employment prospects and a deeply troubled mind. One day, she took her sister up on an invitation to attend the Kool Jazz Festival in Milwaukee. There, during Maze’s performance of “Happy Feelin’s,” Shaw had an epiphany. “It was such an experience,” she recalled. “I had never even heard ‘Happy Feelin’s’ … but the way Frankie presented the song, it was giving you the feeling like everything is going to be all right. The song says, ‘I’ve got myself to remind me of love,’ and since I have this love in me, I’m not going to give up on life. It was like a turning point in my mind.”

With Maze winning converts on the road and Arnold converting the nation’s programming directors, the stage was set for Maze to become a crossover breakthrough. Yet, despite all the hard work, debut album sales stalled at around 600,000 copies. It was an impressive showing by ’70s industry standards but far from the million-plus units that Arnold had envisioned. He believes Capitol didn’t try hard enough to help the album realize its tremendous sales potential.

“I had a lot of fights with my pop promotion department because they would never expose the album to white FM,” Arnold said. “That first time I saw Maze at the Fillmore West, the whole audience was white. I know if white people were exposed to Maze, they’d like it, but the belief at the time was, ‘Well, white people really don’t want to listen to black music.’ And I’m saying, ‘Look — it’s not just ‘black’ music!’ ”

Beverly may not have been on what was then the all-powerful FM rock radio, but he must have been making serious bank. He had initially signed with Capitol on the condition that he retain his own music publishing, and in the record biz, that’s where the big bucks are. Publishing is intellectual property, and most record companies negotiate to split copyrights with composers. The annals of pop music teem with horrifying stories of naïve artists who signed away their publishing rights to calculating record moguls. That wasn’t Frankie Beverly. Every time a radio station played Maze jams such as “When I’m Alone” or “Happy Feelin’s,” the royalties went straight to Beverly’s publishing company. Not even rock luminaries such as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger enjoyed such a perk.

Hoping to capitalize on their momentum, Maze repaired to a Colorado recording studio to create the band’s 1978 sophomore album, Golden Time of Day. Recording was an easygoing affair, with Maze refining the organic sound that made its debut a gold-certified smash. “The way Frankie made records, he didn’t use a lot of frills, so it sounded more for-real,” said former Maze drummer Ahaguna Sun. “There’s a lot of toys in the studio, and if you don’t really know how to produce a good record, you can get swallowed up … you might go out on tour and not be able to play that way. That’s one of the things I admired about Frankie. He kept [the arrangements] close to the way we played them in the studio, so on a good night, we sounded better than the record.”

Maze returned to the road, this time doing popular shows like Soul Train. Still, the band just couldn’t clear the half-million sales hurdle. That was it. Exhausted from his experiences, a frustrated Arnold departed Capitol in 1979. He would eventually become senior vice president at CBS Records, where he found a kindred spirit in the form of CEO Walter Yetnikoff. Together, they transformed Michael Jackson’s Thriller into a crossover sales juggernaut. In a raspberry rebuke to the old radio dictum that whites won’t listen to black music, Thriller today ranks as the biggest-selling LP of all time.

Burton left the Maze crew on friendly terms in 1979. He still resides in California, working in music management. He believes the recording industry never gave Beverly a fair shake because the singer refused to sign over his prized publishing rights. “He still hasn’t won an award,” an indignant Burton said. “That’s all motivated because he didn’t open up to these [recording industry] people. You got George Clinton still fighting for royalties. You got Sly Stone just now winning a multimillion-dollar claim against the industry. And then you’ve got Frankie Beverly, who kept all his s—. He didn’t go to the crossroads and sign his soul over to the devil. And because he did that, the industry turned their backs.”

Beverly, now 70, still dresses in low-key white outfits that give him the appearance of a sporting R&B archangel.

But while Maze never enjoyed gargantuan crossover success or even earned a Grammy, the band is still something like a phenomenon. The seven-piece group tours annually, having earned an ironclad reputation for delivering hypnotic performances that all but transform 10,000-seat auditoriums into intimate clubs. This year is no different, with the band embarking on a nationwide jaunt called The People’s Tour. Fans are flocking to shows, grateful for the opportunity to party again with Beverly, now 70, who still dresses in low-key white outfits that give him the appearance of a sporting R&B archangel.

The singer is notoriously media-shy, having consented to precious few interviews in recent years. True to form, Beverly did not respond to The Undefeated’s repeated requests for an interview, but the people who know the singer insist his diffidence toward the media isn’t peevishness. “He’s very intelligent, very easy to talk to … not a harsh personality,” said Nathan, co-founder of SoulMusic.com and a longtime acquaintance of Beverly’s. “I’ve always thought of him as someone who wasn’t affected by being a fixture in the music world. Frankie didn’t go to Hollywood.”

Maze’s touring success bucks convention. The band hasn’t had a studio album to promote since 1993, a lengthy abstention that today seems symbolic. Around the time that Maze stopped recording, pop culture took a sharp turn into fashionable edginess — the funereal gloom of grunge rock, the Lolita coyness of teen pop, the boastful criminality of gangsta rap. Maze and Frankie Beverly made their bones back in the ’70s and ’80s crooning about happy feelings, sweet Southern girls, and how joy and pain are two sides of the same coin. It’s conceivable that Beverly mulled the possibility of competing in an increasingly coarse pop world and decided ain’t nobody got time for that.

“Maze is like the urban version of the Grateful Dead.”

The Maze lineup has changed consistently over the years, with Beverly and percussionist Lowry being the only remaining founding members. The band was dealt a devastating blow in 2011 when original member Williams died suddenly of a heart attack. By all accounts, that death in the family is by far the saddest wrinkle in what has otherwise been a funk fairy tale. Maze could easily borrow the often-quoted refrain from a popular Grateful Dead song: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Or, as Beverly himself sang back in the day, Ain’t it strange / How things do change.

The similarities between those two lyrics underscore what some fans have noted for years — that Maze and the Grateful Dead are kindred spirits. The theory is summed up by ELWarren Weatherspoon, drummer for We Are One, a Maryland-based Maze tribute band. “Maze is like the urban version of the Grateful Dead,” said Weatherspoon. “Anytime you can have an artist who hasn’t had a new record for 30-something years, and the fans still will come out, that’s like [the Dead].”

The notion of Maze being the Grateful Dead’s sepia-toned twin isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Both bands came up through San Francisco’s Bay Area, home to liberal University of California-Berkeley and West Coast hippie culture. The region incubated the psychedelic rock movement, spawning pioneering counterculture pop acts such as Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. Maze arrived in San Francisco from its native Philadelphia in the early ’70s, and its simmering R&B sound fit the northern California music scene hand-in-glove.

Yet, while both bands were raised in the shadow of San Francisco’s anti-war movement, neither Maze nor the Dead has ever been stridently political, at least not overtly. As evidenced by Maze favorites such as “Love is the Key” in 1983 and “Working Together” in 1978, the band’s politics have always taken the form of nonconfrontational pleas for peace: We are one, no matter what we do/We are one, love will see us through. Moreover, although Maze and the Dead were both signed to major record labels, neither band succumbed to industry pressure to dilute their respective sounds for broader appeal. If either band was ever going to score a multiplatinum hit, it would have to be on their own terms. In the case of Maze, that meant radio listeners would have to accept the band’s mellow musicianship and just-folks image.

As a result of their stand-pat stubbornness, both Maze and the Dead loom today as symbols of integrity in a sellout world. Most fans insist Maze is incapable of delivering a subpar performance. To the band’s devotees, a Maze show is more than just a concert. Rather, it’s a gathering of America’s urban tribes, a come-as-you-are block party with seven of your best friends providing the butt-bumping soundtrack. Until recently, Maze routinely closed the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, an annual residency that implicitly tagged Maze as the official house band for black America.

But the Maze concert experience has changed in recent years. After 50 years of constant performing, Beverly’s velvety baritone is today a crackling shadow of its former self. The singer often has difficulty getting through shows without his voice sputtering or giving out entirely at times. Yet this isn’t a problem for his devoted followers. Beverly enjoys such a strong bond with fans that his compromised voice has become a curiously integral part of Maze performances. When his voice founders, the fans gleefully step in, completing Beverly’s verses en masse. It’s a beautiful thing to experience, a heart-melting demonstration of love between performer and audience, like witnessing lovers affectionately finishing each other’s sentences.

No Grammy. No American Music Award. No Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. No worries.

Those who believe in God might even view Beverly’s faltering voice as divine intervention, a heavenly plan designed to strengthen the ties that bind the singer to his followers. Many Maze aficionados describe the band’s performances as spiritual experiences, during which time Beverly presides over his personal congregation with self-styled hallelujah fervor. One such fan is author and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley. Raised in a strict Indiana home where secular music was prohibited, the multimedia star spent much of his formative years attending Pentecostal church services. If anyone can attest to the ministerial qualities of a Maze show, it’s Smiley.

Smiley recalls the first time he witnessed Maze at an Essence Festival performance in New Orleans back in the ’90s. “The Superdome is filled to capacity with black people,” Smiley remembered. “Everyone is there for a Maze and Frankie Beverly concert, and everyone is joyful. People are on their feet, swaying and singing. It was the kind of spiritual experience I’d never had outside of a church. You could feel the spirit. I’ve never done drugs in my life, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to be high. But on that night, I felt one of the highest highs I have ever felt.”

Like many fans, Smiley is amazed by Beverly’s ability to break down people’s defenses and turn 10,000 perfect strangers into a community. “We live in a world where everybody wants to be cute, where everyone wants to make a fashion statement and be seen,” Smiley said. “When you go to a Maze concert, nobody is holding a mirror up to themselves to see how they look. Nobody cares if they’re sweating, or standing up for the entire show. It’s a spiritual connectivity that you feel with the person to your left and to your right, to the person in front of you and behind you.”

Beverly’s messianic magnetism has made him a role model to some, with his peace-loving songs motivating certain fans to do more than just purchase concert tickets and replace their worn-out CDs. Inspired by Beverly, a retired Savannah, Georgia, teacher named Cynthia Harris Casteel formed a social group called Frankie’s Angels in 2000. Initially intended as an online prayer group for their hero, over time the group has articulated a mission to make the world a little bit better on behalf of their hero. To date, Frankie’s Angels has sent Mazecentric care packages including food, mood-lifting knickknacks and, of course, Maze souvenirs to victims of Hurricane Katrina, U.S. soldiers and even crime victims. “That is our mission, to spread happy feelings, just like Frankie spreads them,” said Harris Casteel.

In 2009, Casteel self-published a fictional book aptly titled Frankie’s Angels, about five female Maze fans who tap Beverly’s lyrics for comfort and guidance. “I always say there is a Maze song for every occasion that you’re going through,” said Harris Casteel. “If I’m feeling down, I can pull up a Maze song and it lifts me. If I’m already happy, I can go to a higher level and be happier. That’s the spiritual part of Frankie’s music. I don’t say ‘religious’ … but it touches your soul … makes you want to do better.”

And Burton and Arnold are disappointed by Beverly’s lack of peer recognition; friends say the singer is philosophical about his career. OK, so he never scaled the high-wire heights of pop icons like Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston or Tupac Shakur, but neither has Beverly been assessed the catastrophic tax those idols ultimately paid for flying close to the sun. Moreover, Beverly is still filling coliseums and amphitheaters. No Grammy. No American Music Award. No Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. No worries.

“I think Frankie stopped caring long ago about accolades and honors,” said Smiley. “I think the most important thing [to him] is that it comes from the people. Being honored by an institution is wonderful … but being loved by individuals is a far greater thing. And that’s what Frankie Beverly has.”