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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five highlights from the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’: You won’t want to miss these moments when the Honors are broadcast

Sometimes you need a bit of black tie glam to remember there’s beauty in the world, and that it’s worth celebrating.

Thank goodness for the Kennedy Center Honors.

On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., held its 40th Honors ceremony to fete contributions to American culture. This year’s Honors were a celebration of Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear (at 95, the oldest person to be honored), LL Cool J (at 49, the youngest), Carmen de Lavallade and Lionel Richie. LL Cool J was also the first rapper to be recognized.

Certainly there’s plenty of darkness these days. Have you read a newspaper? Sunday, as journalists and spectators huddled around velvet ropes for a word with the night’s VIPs, CBS chairman Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, quickly swooshed by and managed to avoid being harangued about the firing of CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rapper Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J were confronted about multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. LL Cool J declined to discuss the allegations, while D.M.C. condemned Simmons’ actions. Both rappers were key players in the success of Def Jam, the record label Simmons founded.

But the Honors reminded us that the performing arts aren’t just a distraction from the serious, gloomy issues of the day but rather the thing that makes us able to persist through them.

Here are five magical highlights from the evening that you can see Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

Meryl Streep’s salute to Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Meryl Streep is always fun to watch during awards shows. There’s a reason that her reactions turn into viral GIFs. She was on the list of expected guests for Sunday evening, as a former honoree, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her take the stage.

Streep was a student of de Lavallade’s at Yale School of Drama, and she lovingly described her dance teacher’s soft-spoken methods and teaching philosophies. Streep affected de Lavallade’s famous hand motions, which she’s executed for decades with an enviable and flawless seeming grace and natural ease, as she spoke about her admiration for de Lavallade as a role model and dance pioneer.

Replicating de Lavallade’s soft-spoken manner, she cooed, “No one is late on the second day of class.”

The musical tribute to LL Cool J

In person, the Honors can be a bit of a staid Washington event. Its attendees are not known for taking chances with fashion, and it’s the one night of the year there’s probably enough brocade in the building to make curtains for the center’s many windows. But this was the first time in the history of the event that a rapper was being honored.

The tribute to LL Cool J was loud, boisterous and funky, and some of the younger audience members, namely Becky G, a young singer who performed earlier in the evening for Estefan, could be seen bobbing their heads and rapping along to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” This wasn’t polite hip-hop, toned down for the opera house. This was the real deal, and the audience was treated to footage of an oiled-up, shirtless LL Cool J as Queen Latifah extolled his position as “rap’s first sex symbol.”

The elephant not in the room

Norman Lear, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Months ago, the president and first lady announced they would not be attending the ceremony. Richie, Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception that’s part of the weekend’s celebrations.

But the president’s absence was noticeable, especially during the tribute to Lear. You can argue that all art is political, but few make it as obvious as the storied television producer. In expressing gratitude for Lear’s cultural contributions, the video short about him focused on his decision in 2001 to buy one of the last remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he sent on tour around the country so Americans could see it up close.

Dave Chappelle was on hand for Lear’s tribute, and after expressing surprise that a copy of the country’s founding document could simply be purchased with enough money, he dropped the hammer: “I’m sure we’ll fetch a lot of rubles for that.”

Then, the U.S. Air Force band performed “America the Beautiful” while Lear’s copy of the Declaration sat center stage.

A surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder

The honorees have no idea who will be performing their work until they see them on stage, but those who keep an eye on the red carpet can guess. Leona Lewis, D.M.C., MC Lyte, Questlove, Kenya Barris, Anthony Anderson and Rachel Bloom were among the glitterati spotted in the center’s Hall of States early in the evening.

But the real magic takes place when the Kennedy Center sneaks in some unexpected cultural royalty, and Sunday it was Stevie Wonder. There was an audible gasp in the audience when he turned up on stage to honor Richie by singing “Hello,” one of Richie’s many solo hits.

Paquito D’Rivera’s national anthem

Gloria Estefan, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

With Estefan in the mix, this year’s class of honorees included a Cuban immigrant who made Latin pop part of the fabric of the country. The Kennedy Center quietly thumbed its nose at nativism with the inclusion of Paquito D’Rivera, who got the evening started with a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem. He even worked in a couple of bars of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Daily Dose: 10/4/17 Kennedy Center creates its first hip-hop season

All right, gang, there’s another Around The Horn appearance Wednesday for moi, my second of the week, which won’t even be my last one.

Things are changing at the Kennedy Center. The nationally renowned performing arts center has long been the purview of so-called fine arts, your ballets, operas and stage plays of the world. But now that jazz and hip-hop have been part of the scene for some time, they are officially being brought into the fold. New hip-hop director Simone Eccleston has been working with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, KenCen’s first artistic director of hip-hop, and now we’ve got a full season of the culture. It’s so great to see us in these spaces.

Birmingham, Alabama, has a new mayor. And not just any old candidate. They’ve got Randall Woodfin, who, at 36 years old, is the youngest person to hold the position in more than a hundred years. Why does this matter? For one, he beat a guy who’s been in local Alabama politics for 40 years in William Bell. Secondly, he was also backed by Bernie Sanders. Meaning, if some wave of momentum in the South can suddenly overtake ballot boxes, we could finally see some things moving forward in that part of the country.

It feels like everything Larry Wilmore touches turns to gold. Even though his late-night show with Comedy Central was canceled, we all recognized its necessity, and it was certainly not a conceptual failure overall. Of course, he’s one of the lead writers of ABC’s black-ish, which is a hit by any measure of television or social capital. Now, teaming up with the great Viola Davis, they’ll be creating a comedy series called Black Don’t Crack, which will center on three sorority sisters who are reconnecting after years apart. YES.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most exciting players in the NBA. He’s also a big-time family person, considering their journey to where they are now. Unfortunately, he recently lost someone very important to him: his father. His dad was a soccer player and helped G and his brother become the ballers they are today. Their relationship was one that the Milwaukee Bucks fostered, and they also helped try to get his family over from Greece. The timetable for Giannis’ return is now up in the air. Hope this season isn’t a wash for him.

Free Food

Coffee Break: These days, we keep music in only a couple of different ways. Most people keep them on hard drives, some people keep them on their phones, and others don’t even bother with that and just stay in the cloud. Now, we’re encoding music onto DNA. Miles Davis is one of the first to have that done for his work.

Snack Time: Fixing things isn’t easy. And that’s just assuming you’re allowed to. But with so many products under various warranties and agreements, people want their right to repair back.

Dessert: If you don’t like food podcasts, I don’t know what to tell you. Here’s a good episode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simone Eccelston

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

Wait. Wasn’t this already a thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

Let’s talk about sex music!

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

But she’s not stuck in the decade.

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

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

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

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

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

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

What now?

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

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

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

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

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

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

March on Washington Film Fest features 9th Wonder, Diahann Carroll and Eric Holder This year’s festival looks at civil rights across sports, entertainment, higher education and the legal system

The March on Washington Film Festival returns this month for its fifth year of celebrating films that explore themes of civil rights, activism and social justice.

Panels and events including actress Diahann Carroll, producer 9th Wonder and former Attorney General Eric Holder are among the highlights of the 21 events that run from July 13-22.

Holder will be on hand for a couple of events. He’s part of a panel discussing Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith before an invitation-only audience July 20 at the Supreme Court. And he and his wife, Sharon Malone, will be presenting writer Ta-Nehisi Coates with the Vivian Malone Courage Award on July 15. Vivian Malone, Sharon’s sister, was one of two students who integrated the University of Alabama in 1963 and became its first black graduate in 1965.

Carroll will be attending to support a documentary-in-progress co-directed by her daughter, Suzanne Kay. Festivalgoers will get a glimpse of the film from Kay and Margo Speciale about The Ed Sullivan Show and its importance in introducing America to black artists. Sullivan faced threats and boycotts for integrating his variety show, one of the most watched programs in America, but he persisted nevertheless. The full documentary is expected to be completed in 2018.

9th Wonder, the ear behind Jay-Z’s Black Album, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn., and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, will be on hand to discuss The Hip-Hop Fellow (2014) with the Kennedy Center’s new director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston, on July 21. The Hip-Hop Fellow follows 9th Wonder (also known as Patrick Douthit) as a fellow at Harvard’s Hip-Hop Research Institute, where he also taught for the 2012-13 school year. Among the records that 9th Wonder selected to be archived in Harvard’s Loeb Music Library: A Tribe Called Quest‘s The Low End Theory, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Nas’ Illmatic and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

This year’s festival also marks the introduction of the Freedom’s Children Student Journalists Competition. Earlier this year, students from around the country submitted work for the chance to cover the festival for various journalism outlets. The Undefeated is participating and will be running work from the winners.

Also worth a gander:

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

Deborah Riley Draper’s 2016 documentary, narrated by Blair Underwood, looks beyond Jesse Owens to the 17 other black American athletes who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, some of whom also won medals at the Games.

Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968

When many people think of violent clashes between college students and the police, the horrors of Kent State spring to mind. But Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, the 2008 film from directors Bestor Cram and Judy Richardson, reveals the history and context behind a standoff at South Carolina State University in 1968, when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers killed three protesters and injured 27 others who were demonstrating for the desegregation of an Orangeburg bowling alley.

Winnie

Director Pascale Lamche’s 2017 documentary about the freedom fighter and former wife of Nelson Mandela premiered this year at Sundance. Winnie Mandela sat for four interviews in two years with Lamche, and the result is a look at her fight against apartheid in South Africa and the toll it took on her and her marriage. The festival will host a discussion at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on July 19 with poet Elizabeth Alexander and Gay McDougall of the U.N. Committee for Ending Racial Discrimination.

Festival attendees can check out the full event lineup and purchase passes and tickets at http://marchonwashingtonfilmfestival.org.

This article has been changed to correct the number of events and the relationship of Vivian and Sharon Malone.

Kennedy Center names director of hip-hop culture Simone Eccleston is coming from New York’s Harlem Stage

The Kennedy Center is doing what most of America hasn’t done in pretty much forever: listening to a black woman. On Wednesday, the performing arts venue named Simone Eccleston as its first director of hip-hop culture and contemporary music.

Simone Eccleston will begin her Kennedy Center role on March 13.

Simone Eccleston will begin her Kennedy Center role on March 13.

Aurora Fiorentino Scerbo

“With the Kennedy Center serving as the preeminent home for our nation’s arts and culture, the creation of a programmatic platform for hip-hop culture is deeply significant,” Eccleston said in a statement, according to NBC4 in Washington, D.C. “It is also an important catalyst for community-building, activism and empowerment.”

You may recall that last year, the center named A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip as its first artistic director for hip-hop culture. Who knows how these two roles will overlap, but Eccleston is coming from Harlem Stage in New York, where it commissioned work such as Meshell Ndegeocello’s Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin.

Over the years, the traditionally fancy center has made incredible strides in opening up its performance and creative avenues to less traditional outlets. Hip-hop acts are now a regular mainstay on the Millennium Stage, so when Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, announced that he’d been doing one of his final U.S. shows there, it wasn’t entirely surprising. Last year, it even erected a skate park outside of the building as part of the Finding A Line skateboard, music and media festival. (Warning: explicit language in video below.)

It’s not just hip-hop, either. The Kennedy Center now runs the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which was created by President Barack Obama and heavily promoted by first lady Michelle Obama. Earlier this year, the center brought world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to Bunker Hill Elementary School to play with orchestra students as part of an outreach effort with a group called Turnaround Arts, which looks to give underprivileged kids chances to excel in the arts.

KenCen stays woke.