Randy Moss talks the making of the ‘Super Freak’ — the NFL’s first signature Air Jordan The legend and his shoe designer recall the early Jordan Brand moments

Randy Moss didn’t always need a football field to put his inhuman speed on display. All he really needed was a treadmill, and a few spectators.

During one workout at a Florida gym back in the early days of his NFL career, the young Minnesota Vikings wide receiver pushed the limit of human athleticism. His training circuit began with a 15- to 20-second treadmill sprint at 15 mph, which Moss and a friend who joined him completed with ease. Next came 17 mph. They both jumped on and, for about 10 seconds, busted out another run.

Then Moss did something crazy: He upped the speed to 19 mph. “F— that, I’m done with this,” one spectator recalls Moss’ friend saying before tapping out. Moss, however, completed the rep and kept going. He cranked the treadmill to an unfathomable 21 mph and prepared to make his move. While holding on to the rails, Moss planted one foot on the machine’s foundation and used his other foot to judge just how fast the belt circulated as he nailed his timing down. The gears in his brain synced with the mechanics of his body.

“He jumps on and whips out 21 mph, just hauling a–,” said the aforementioned spectator, Gentry Humphrey, product director for Jordan Brand at the time. “Just watching him do that, to me, he was a freak of nature … purely a super freak.”

“I just wanted to pay tribute to Michael Jordan. But at the same time, I looked at the shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, those would look good with my uniform.’ ” — Randy Moss

Humphrey can’t recall the exact date or time of year that the treadmill incident unfolded before his eyes, but he does know it took place sometime between 1999 and 2000, within the phenom wideout’s first two NFL seasons. During this period, Humphrey spent as much time as he possibly could with Moss while in the process of designing Moss’ first signature shoe: the Air Jordan Super Freak.

“I realized,” said Humphrey, “that Randy was very, very different.”


In 1999, two years after Nike and Michael Jordan came to terms on Jordan Brand, Moss — then 22, and coming off a monster rookie season — became the first football player to sign an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand. “Jordans were a basketball shoe, but when I came into the league, I was still infatuated by Nike shoes and Jordan shoes,” says Moss now. “My first year, I was just pulling Jordans off the rack and lacing them up.” And playing in them.

Remember, by this point in 1999, Michael Jordan had already retired from the NBA for the second time in his career and had shifted his focus to the business world. In his early formation of Team Jordan, His Airness wanted to branch out from creating products solely for basketball, so he signed New York Yankees All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter to represent the brand through baseball and light heavyweight world champion Roy Jones Jr. to represent boxing. For football, Moss was his guy.

Randy Moss of the Minnesota Vikings plays in a preseason game in a pair of Air Jordan Super Freaks.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“I just wanted to pay tribute to Michael,” Moss said. “But at the same time, I looked at the shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, those would look good with my uniform.’ ”

Originally, Jordan Brand’s plan for Moss didn’t include a signature shoe. Instead, he was envisioned as the face of products set to be rolled out as part of a cross-training division. Two factors contributed to a change of plan. First, Humphrey took a look at some of the NFL’s fields and the type of shoes players needed to flourish on them.

“A lot of athletes at the time that were playing on AstroTurf were using basketball shoes,” said Humphrey, who’s now Nike’s vice president of footwear for profile sports. “They were using nubby-bottomed outsoles to really get the traction that they needed on the field. I looked at it as an opportunity to create a new silhouette for training by using that nubby bottom.”

Randy Moss was too athletic, and too much of a superstar-in-the-making, to not have his own shoe.

The second factor was simple: Randy Moss was too athletic, and too much of a superstar-in-the-making, to not have his own shoe. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Moss gave defenses matchup nightmares. “With 4.25 speed in the 40-yard-dash … an impressive 39-inch vertical leap and huge hands with tentacle-like fingers that rarely drop passes,” is how The Associated PressJim Vertuno put it in 1997. That was the year Moss emerged as a Heisman Trophy finalist at Marshall University with 90 catches for 1,647 yards and a Division I-A single-season record 25 receiving touchdowns. “Nobody,” Ball State coach Bill Lynch said of Moss after he caught five touchdown passes against his team in 1997, “in America can cover him.”

The Minnesota Vikings selected Moss with the No. 21 overall pick in the 1998 draft, and what the franchise quickly realized it got in him was a football player in a basketball player’s body. Before the start of his rookie season in Minnesota, Moss — a two-time basketball Player of the Year at DuPont High School near his hometown of Rand, West Virginia — flirted with the idea of trying out for the Minnesota Timberwolves and eventually playing in both the NFL and NBA. “I don’t think so,” said Vikings president Roger Headrick in June 1998. “Overlapping seasons.”

In his first year of pro football during the 1998-99 season, Moss recorded 69 catches for 1,313 yards (third most in the league behind Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman and Buffalo’s Eric Moulds) while grabbing an NFL rookie-record 17 touchdown passes, earning him a trip to the Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

“The things that he did on the field, the way he ran past people, the way he caught things,” Humphrey says, “he was like the Michael Jordan at the wide receiver position. I think that was kind of the obvious.”

After that record-setting rookie season, Humphrey and Team Jordan embarked upon the 16- to 18-month development process of Moss’ first shoe, seeking to incorporate every aspect of his life, training habits and style of play into the design. “ ‘All right, Gent! What do we got today?’ ” Humphrey remembers Moss animatedly saying in his Southern accent as he took the wide receiver through initial concepts and updated samples. “It was almost like watching a kid at Christmas … how much fun he had designing his first shoe.”

Moss knew exactly what he wanted to call the shoes he’d soon be donning on the field. “He’s the one that kind of came to us and told us that he had been given the name ‘Super Freak,’ ” Humphrey said. It was a moniker that Moss picked up during his high school days in West Virginia, and one that stuck with him through college and into the NFL.

To personify Moss’ freak-of-nature identity, especially after that otherworldly treadmill workout, Jordan Brand attempted to channel the wide receiver’s blazing speed into the shoe. Moss, in Humphrey’s mind, moved as fast as fire, leading the designer to test a metallic-sheen, flame-retardant material on the Super Freak as a unique play off the patent leather featured on the Air Jordan 11s. Humphrey, who began contributing to Jordan designs in 1990 with the Air Jordan 5, also toyed with a material worn on the uniforms and footwear of race car drivers. But because of bonding issues, neither material made it to final production. After trial and error, Humphrey finally found something with the stability and durability to match the tempo at which Moss moved.

“The great thing about someone who is so frickin’ fast is … we always found ourselves using analogies and inspiration that represented speed to show what Randy was all about,” Humphrey said. “We wanted to provide a product that could ultimately give people a piece of the Randy dream.”

By July 25, 2000, in the brief section of a St. Paul Pioneer Press story published at the start of Minnesota Vikings training camp, the last line read, “Randy Moss debuted his new cleats. The high-topped, black cleats are called the ‘Super Freak.’ They will be commercially available soon.” With the arrival of his first signature shoe, which he wore throughout his 77-catch, 1,437-yard and 15-touchdown 2000-01 season, Moss lived and breathed the “Super Freak” persona that matched his fresh new Air Jordans.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss of the NFC runs a pass pattern against the AFC in the 2000 NFL Pro Bowl on Feb. 6, 2000, at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. The NFC defeated the AFC 51-31. (Photo by Martin Morrow/Getty Images)

“I mean, they call me ‘Super Freak,’ ” Moss told a reporter after making a 39-yard game-winning catch in a 31-27 win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 22, 2000. “Ain’t nobody out there that can really do it like myself.”


It was Jan. 6, 2001, in an NFC divisional-round playoff matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. For the game, Humphrey designed Moss a custom pair of purple and yellow Air Jordan 11s, with his No. 84 emblazoned on the heel of each shoe. But everywhere Moss turned on the AstroTurf field, a different player was sporting his signature Super Freaks — from his Vikings teammates, most notably veteran wide receiver Cris Carter, to Saints opponents, including wide receivers Joe Horn and Jake Reed, as well as running back/return specialist Chad Morton.

“About eight to nine guys had my Super Freak shoe on,” said Moss. “I’m sitting there thinking like, ‘Wow.’ It was kind of overwhelming to see some of the guys with my shoe.” During an era when Jordan Brand had just begun to expand outside of hoops, Moss had sparked a cultural movement in the NFL that witnessed players taking the field in Jordan cleats on grass and Jordan basketball shoes on AstroTurf.

“He was definitely the right guy for Jordan Brand at the right time,” Humphrey said. Soon, the league witnessed Donovan McNabb, Charles Woodson, Warren Sapp, Marvin Harrison and Michael Vick join the exclusive Air Jordan-rocking football fraternity that Moss founded. Nearly two decades later, that family has grown to include Jamal Adams, Dez Bryant, Corey Coleman, Michael Crabtree, Thomas Davis, Joe Haden, Malik Hooker, Melvin Ingram, Alshon Jeffery, DeShone Kizer, Jalen Ramsey, Jordan Reed, Golden Tate and Earl Thomas as active NFL players endorsed by Jordan Brand.

Yet, Moss still remains in a league of his own as the only football player in history to have his own signature Air Jordans — first with the Super Freak and then with the “Mossified,” released in 2001.

“You still got guys out there wearing Jordans, but it started with me,” Moss said. “I don’t know who it’s going to end with, but I am happy to say that I did start that trend.”

SportsCenter’s ‘Gear Up,’ Week 7: Florida players channel inner Gators with Nike ‘Swamp Green’ alternate Meanwhile, Central Florida reaches for the stars with ‘Space Game’ uniform

In Week 7 of “Gear Up,” SportsCenter’s weekly segment previewing the best uniforms in college football, The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson breaks down the style combinations of Liberty, Campbell, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Florida, James Madison, New Mexico State, Tennessee State, Tulane, Georgia Southern and Central Florida.

Liberty goes all-red, while JMU breaks out the all-white. Campbell represents as the only team in any division of college football with a camel mascot. For Minnesota, Tulane and New Mexico State, it’s all about the helmet. Rocking all-blue, Tennessee State becomes the first historically black college or university to be featured on “Gear Up.” Pittsburgh pays homage to a golden age of football with throwback uniforms while also honoring former Panther and current Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back James Conner with a bobblehead. UCF recognizes the school’s connection to the U.S. space exploration program with a “Space Game” uniform. And Florida players become Gators in a “Swamp Green” alternate designed by Nike.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

What motivated you to get involved with the film?

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

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

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

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

What triggered the need to learn more about sex trafficking?

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

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

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

What have you learned from your co-hosts?

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

What’s the secret behind your positivity?

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

What’s the best advice you ever received?

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

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

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

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

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

SportsCenter’s ‘Gear Up,’ Week 6: UAB pays tribute to patients from Alabama’s children’s hospitals The segment shows off a one-of-a-kind UAB uniform honoring 10-year-old Griffin Devor

In Week 6 of Gear Up — SportsCenter’s weekly segment previewing the best uniforms in college football — The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson breaks down the style combinations of Troy, TCU, Oklahoma, Texas State, Slippery Rock, Northwest Missouri State, Rice, Nebraska, Utah, Eastern Kentucky and UAB.

After a huge upset over No. 25 LSU on Sept. 30, Troy switches up the swag yet again, with the team’s fifth different uniform combination in as many weeks. For the first time, Gear Up features the uniforms of two Division II schools: Slippery Rock and Northwest Missouri State. As a nod to the past, Nebraska, Utah and Eastern Kentucky all unveil classic throwbacks. TCU and Oklahoma both break out fresh and funky patterns, while Rice shows off its patriotism with a U.S. flag-themed helmet. The uniform of the week goes to UAB’s Children’s Harbor combination, which allows players to honor patients from children’s hospitals across Alabama by wearing their names on the backs of jerseys.

Draya Michele on her swimsuit empire, her Dallas Cowboy fiancé — and two new movies Plus, she’ll take heels over sneakers any day

Self-made millionaire Draya Michele is a designer, actress, mother and soon-to-be wife. She made her first impression on the public on VH1’s Basketball Wives, but her lasting impression has become that of a businesswoman. Andraya Michele Howard turned a $12,000 dream into a reality when she launched swimwear line Mint Swim, a “swimwear line designed with all shapes and sizes in mind.” Mint, with big nods to Michele’s on-screen stardom and a social media community of close to 10 million, exploded with more than $1 million in sales in 2015.

“It’s difficult to start any type of clothing line, because your head is filled with a bunch of ideas,” said Michele. “You want to make something that you love, but then there’s a fear that everyone else isn’t going to love it.” It’s safe to say that Michele is past that fear, with six successful swimwear summers under her belt. She’s launched two more apparel lines: Fine Ass Girls and Beige & Coco. “Fine Ass Girls is streetwear,” she said. “Beige & Coco is a little more sophisticated, and matches how I’m growing up as well.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Michele is starring in two films opening this month. Opposite Columbus Short and Vivica A. Fox, Michele is a drug lord’s ex-lover in True to the Game (Imani Motion Pictures). It’s based on the best-selling Teri Woods trilogy. And on Sept. 29, Michele portrayed a waitress in the nationwide premiere of ‘Til Death Do Us Part (Novus Content/Footage Films), a thriller starring Taye Diggs.

While Michele got her hair and makeup spruced up before slipping into a delicate Chanel lace top for an afternoon in New York, she talked about her fiancé, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick, getting acting advice from Jill Scott and more.

What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?

Don’t have a baby until you get married.

What’s your favorite memory from growing up in Pennsylvania?

I hated the snow growing up, but now that I live in L.A., I miss the snow and I realize just how beautiful it actually was.

Last song you listened to?

Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid.

Heels or sneakers?

Heels.

First concert you ever went to?

A Mary J. Blige show, with my mom, when I was a kid.

Favorite social media platform?

Instagram.

Last stamp on your passport?

Thailand.

What made you try out acting?

Living in Los Angeles, it’s just something that you end up trying. If you’re good at it, you keep doing it, and if not, you move on from it. It’s not easy, but I was really determined to try.

What acting advice have you received?

I took a big piece of advice from Jill Scott. I asked her about acting classes, and she told me how important they’ve been for her.

What does ‘self-empowerment’ mean today?

To me, it means being your own boss and making decisions for yourself. I do that every day.

Who is your Super Bowl pick?

I mean, duh, Dallas!

What is your demeanor when you’re watching your fiancé on the field?

Every time Orlando plays, I get nervous. I’m quiet until something big happens.

What was your first date with Orlando?

We went out for ice cream. It was important to me to see him during the day outside of a low-lit restaurant or movie. I wanted to get the real version of him.

How have you two grown together?

Besides raising [four] kids together, we are best friends. I learn from him and he learns from me. He’s taught me so much about finances. … I’ve become more financially responsible.

Why did you choose to put your toddler on a vegan diet?

I wanted to make sure he wasn’t exposed to growth hormones that are in [some] foods and give him the opportunity to reach his natural growing infant and toddler size. We prepare his food fresh every day. I’ll start introducing different animal proteins at age 3, and of course they’ll be hormone-free.

What sports do your kids play?

My oldest plays soccer, Orlando’s twin girls play basketball and the baby is still deciding.

What is your workout routine like?

I used to be an occasional gym rat whenever I felt out of shape. But once I got pregnant, I needed to make it part of my regular routine. I wanted a hobby that was constructive, so I started going to the gym. I love all cardio-type workouts. Cardio helps me burn off fat and reach my goals.

Tell us about your partnership with Headbands of Hope.

For every headband purchased, one headband is given to a child with cancer. I go to the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and give out headbands to the sick children there. A lot of them are going through chemotherapy. You can’t help their health conditions, but you can help their attitude. And it really brightens their day, as it does mine.

Forty years later, George Clinton’s Mothership is still landing A look back at the P-Funk — and a look ahead

George Clinton, the big-picture man behind the music juggernaut that came to be known as P-Funk, talked big trash on Parliament’s Chocolate City, tormenting white keepers of the status quo about the African-American majorities in the nation’s capital and other urban cities bogarting local political power. The large-scale power grab, Clinton fantasized on the album’s title song, was a prelude to electing the first black president of the United States — Muhammad Ali.

Provocative ideas for the time (early 1975), yes. But Clinton had larger targets in mind and knew where he had to go to hit them. He had to go astro. “We had put blacks in places where they had never been perceived to be,” Clinton said in an interview with The Undefeated. “So the next one was to have blacks in outer space, and I knew that a clones concept would get it too. It was thought of even before we did the Mothership Connection studio album.”

The “it” that Clinton speaks of was a funk attack of successive studio albums by Parliament, 1975’s Mothership Connection and 1976’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, with tales of blacks as street-savvy “afronauts” returning to Earth to reclaim secrets hidden inside Egyptian pyramids, including “using science to cheat death.”

Those record projects begot the P-Funk Earth Tour in 1976 and ’77. The concert offered pimps as stage characters, lyrics that equated the band’s music style, uncut funk, with pure cocaine and a prop that the Smithsonian Institution describes as the most iconic stage prop ever: “A huge, multicolored-lights-flashing, smoke-spitting spaceship that landed onstage during a gospel-heavy call-and-response rendition of ‘Swing Down, Sweet Chariot’ ” that whipped audiences into spiritual frenzy.

“Only if P-Funk could sell their records to a mass pop audience, and thus encourage whites to attend their concerts in force, would whites feel safe.”

And off the spaceship came Dr. Funkenstein, one of Clinton’s lasting musical characters, in a floor-length fur coat striking a pimp pose with his index finger held straight beneath his nostrils.

Parliament’s label then, Casablanca Records, captured the hugely successful tour on record, releasing Parliament Live: P-Funk Earth Tour on May 5, 1977. Acknowledging the 40th anniversary of the double-album release, Clinton talked about how the tour came together and why the band’s music and philosophies, particularly from that double album, have endured for generations. Ever the salesman, Clinton also took the opportunity to hype “I’m Gonna Make You Sick,” which, when released this fall, will be the first Parliament song to be released since 1980.

Need convincing of the Live P-Funk Earth Tour’s impact? A replica of the original mothership anchors the Musical Crossroads exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Music from the album has been sampled by a who’s who of hip-hop: Common, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Digable Planets, Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Listen closely to the opening drum rolls on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 “The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let It Die)” and it’s clear the inspiration came from P-Funk drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey’s drum intro on the live version of “Do That Stuff.” The influence on Lamar can also be heard on To Pimp A Butterfly’s “King Kunta” (2015): A female vocalist repeats, “We want the funk” in a nod to the Earth Tour’s “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker.” Afrofuturism artists such as the Sa-Ra Creative Partners and Flying Lotus acknowledge that their baptism into the movement came from the P-Funk Earth Tour.

“It was a dream of myself and Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records,” Clinton said. “He did it for us, Kiss and Donna Summer at the same time. He was a promotion man. He got behind us and backed all of us. And then we had the music from Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Garry Shider, Glenn Goins, Fred Wesley and Maceo, Eddie Hazel. He knew, especially after Chocolate City, that we knew what we were doing.”

Rickey Vincent, a lecturer in African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the 1996 book Funk The Music, The People, And the Rhythm of The One, said the P-Funk Earth Tour was a logical culmination in the mid- to late 1970s toward larger shows and profits in the music business. But there was more to it. “George can say he was just clowning, but at the same time he understands the ethos of soul music,” Vincent said. “And that is to put black people in a better place. You don’t have to be an ethnomusicologist to understand a lot of underlying themes in black music into the ’70s was ‘We’re going to be free.’ You can’t get much freer than outer space and reclaiming the power that came with building pyramids in Africa.”

Clinton has never claimed to be a guru. He shuns such talk. To hear him tell it, he just wanted to be big. Actually, the biggest. “The Who, David Bowie, Rolling Stones. I’d seen them all do those big shows, big productions, and I wanted to do one with funk music,” Clinton said. “I wanted to have a prop that not only was deeper than anything that any black group had done but bigger than any white group had done.”

The Earth Tour was a massive undertaking. And costly. Clinton said Parliament’s record label set up a $1 million loan for him, and he turned to Jules Fisher, a Tony Award-winning lighting designer whose work included Jesus Christ Superstar and Chicago. Fisher designed the stage set and props for Earth Tour, according to Clinton.

The show demanded that the band, famous for its onstage looseness and improvisation that could stretch a four-minute studio song into a 20-minute live jam, play and move with discipline. The show was essentially scripted. So the band needed to rehearse, and it did for two or three weeks, Clinton said, at a onetime airplane hangar in Newburgh, New York. He put Maceo Parker, the saxophone player who had joined P-Funk after years with James Brown, in charge. “Anybody from the James Brown bands, I don’t care if it’s Bootsy, Maceo, Fred Wesley, you learn so much discipline,” Clinton said. “They can pretty much run s—. And Maceo and Fred are so diplomatic. They know the writing side, they know the musician side. They made it so much easier.

“With the [P-Funk Earth Tour], we had props moving around. You had to be in a certain spot at a certain time. If not, that spaceship might knock upside your head.”

The Earth Tour opened on Oct. 26, 1976, at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. The band discovered right away that the show’s “script” was all wrong. “They had the mothership land first, at the opening of the show. That was the climax. As great as the band was, there was nothing we could do to top that spaceship landing,” Clinton said.

By the next show, the mothership landing came near the concert’s end. With that change, audience excitement and anticipation for seeing the mothership soared. And singer/guitarist Goins took full advantage. His vocal pleading with the audience to join him in calling for the mothership to land during a psychedelic, funky-church arrangement of “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot” elevated the live show to what many describe as a religious experience.

The energy jumps off the record. Brailey’s thumping foot on the bass drum. (“We want it to feel like a heartbeat,” Clinton said on the recording.) Worrell’s keyboard and synthesizer strokes filling in around, behind and on top of the rhythms. The crowd in the Oakland Coliseum clapping in unison on The One and answering Goins’ call for the mothership, singing, “Swing down sweet chariot stop and let me ride.”

The mothership lands. Audience screams fill the venue. They explode louder still when Clinton as Dr. Funkenstein disembarks the spaceship.

“It was like I was going back to church,” said Vincent, who witnessed the Earth Tour as a teenager. “They were signifying, bringing back those dreams.”

Parliament Live P-Funk Earth Tour captured all that sound and emotion during shows in January 1977 at the Los Angeles Forum and the Oakland Coliseum. The album offered live versions of hit after hit: “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Do That Stuff,” “Mothership Connection,” “Dr. Funkenstein,” “Tear the Roof off the Sucker,” “Undisco Kidd.” Eleven live songs in all, plus three new studio cuts.

The release stayed on the Billboard 200 album charts for 19 weeks, a May through September achievement even more impressive because the music was undeniably black and urban — as were most of the audiences at the Earth Tour shows. At that point, even with huge promotion from Parliament’s record label and free publicity generated by coverage of the never-before-seen spaceship landing in mainstream newspapers and newsweekly magazines, P-Funk Earth Tour had gained little crossover traction. Why? In early September 1977, John Rockwell, a writer for The New York Times, offered white fear as an explanation.

A replica of the original mothership anchors the Musical Crossroads exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“P-Funk music isn’t a real mass success yet because whites have grown afraid of black concerts in general. … In the big urban centers it’s mostly a black crowd, and whether it’s realistic or not, whites seem to be scared: There are too many reports of black gangs terrorizing isolated whites at black concerts,” Rockwell wrote. “Only if P-Funk could sell their records to a mass pop audience, and thus encourage whites to attend their concerts in force, would whites feel safe. But since their dazzling stage show helps sell the records, they have a self-perpetuating problem.”

Still, the album achieved platinum status. That summer, Billboard 200 album charts listed live concert albums from Marvin Gaye, Al Jarreau, Lonnie Liston Smith, the Bee Gees and two from the Beatles. In early August 1977, 16 of Billboard’s Top 200 albums were live concert recordings. In the same time span this summer, not a single live album was on the Billboard 200 chart. Live concert audio releases are no longer a thing, and not just because of DVDs.

Vincent, the funk history author, believes that artists take some of the blame for the disappearance of live concert recordings. In the late 1980s, he said, standards for live performances were lowered and bad reviews followed. Demand for lackluster concert recordings nose-dived, Vincent said.

Dexter Story, a Los Angeles-based musician and producer who has been marketing director for record labels such as Priority, Bad Boy and Def Jam, thinks fans just turned to a different product to get what they used to get from live records.

“People like bonus material — remixes,” Story said. “Back then, in ’77, the live album was the bonus material. As a fan, getting live albums was a treat. The live interpretations of what the musicians had done in the studio were a treat as well.”

In late July, Story produced a show for the venerable Grand Performances summer concert series in Los Angeles. It was called Mothership Landing: Funk and The Afrofuturist Universe of ’77. Music from the P-Funk Earth Tour dominated the set. “They asked me what I wanted to do,” Story said. “I chose to focus on 1977 and Afrofuturism. It was a great opportunity for me to go back to my funk roots.”

Music from P-Funk — Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Horny Horns and others — carried the show. “As I started to transcribe their music for the concert, I found out it was a lot more complicated and complex. There was a complexity to that music that I hadn’t fully appreciated.”

That music — much of it credited to Clinton, Worrell and Collins — is one reason P-Funk has endured, Story believes. “They were laying a foundational aspect of rhythm that was informed by James Brown and Sly Stone,” Story said. “On top of that, they added jazz-influenced horns … four- and five-part horn harmonies. The horn players were jazz musicians. Another level was the church sound in the voices, gospel-influenced vocals. And still another level was Bernie Worrell. He was speaking on keyboards to me. From piano to organ to Moog, he was speaking.

“Lastly, you’ve got the layer of George Clinton on top of all of that great sound. I just gave you the ingredients of a P-Funk sandwich,” Story said. “Now, go ahead. Take a bite.”

A number of the musicians and vocalists who performed on P-Funk Earth Tour record have died. They include Worrell, Garry “Diaperman” Shider, Goins, Richard “Kush” Griffith, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson and Ray Davis. Among the other players, only former Bootsy’s Rubber Band vocalist Gary “Mudbone” Cooper currently tours with Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, Brailey, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas, Parker, Wesley, Rick Gardner, Lynn Mabry, Dawn Silva, Debbie Wright and Jeanette Washington have left the touring band. Some still show up on P-Funk-related studio projects, such as Funkadelic’s 33-song First, You Gotta Shake the Gate, released in 2014.

The massive change in touring personnel isn’t surprising, considering four decades have passed since the P-Funk Earth Tour. So much time has passed that Clinton’s Chocolate City is no longer majority black, and his fantasy of a black U.S. president actually happened. But Clinton tinkers with the band regularly. Adds new musicians. Brings back former ones. Introduces new sounds such as violin, mandolin and the didgeridoo.

“It’s hard to keep a band together over time. We get older and settled down, and want to do other things,” he said. “And there’s always a need for young legs and vibes. Younger players bring an energy. And you need that, especially the way I push the band. You have to have young legs to be out there.”

For his latest iteration of Parliament Funkadelic, Clinton leans heavily on family. There’s his son, Tracey Lewis Clinton, and three of Tracey’s children; Clinton’s stepdaughter; and another of his grandchildren, this one the daughter of Clinton’s daughter, Barbarella Bishop. The drummer, Benzel Cowan, is the son of longtime and current P-Funk trumpet player Bennie Cowan. And guitarist and vocalist Garrett Shider is the son of Shider, the band’s diaper-wearing musical director who served as Clinton’s No. 2 from the early ’80s until his death in 2010.

“Garrett was born into the band,” Clinton said. “He’d be backstage with his mother, Linda. We called him ‘Soundcheck.’ ” In keeping the strong family theme, Garrett Shider recently released his first solo CD, Hand Me Down Diapers. It includes contributions from George and Tracey Clinton and other P-Funk band members. The project is a heartfelt tribute to his father and sounds like Funkadelic during the Hardcore Jollies days.

“George was really good when my father passed, bringing me into the group,” said Garrett Shider, who joined Clinton on the road full time in 2011. “He knew I needed some help. It was his way of making sure he was looking out for his right-hand man’s son.”

Such strong family connections in the music business aren’t commonplace now, and if they exist, they aren’t factored into artists’ branding. That wasn’t always so. Black music groups often made family connections, real or contrived, part of their marketing strategy. The Jackson 5. The Five Stairsteps. Sly and the Family Stone. The Isley Brothers. The Sylvers, Pointer Sisters, The Brothers Johnson, DeBarge, and Earth, Wind & Fire. More recently, there’s Jodeci. And, of course, Wu-Tang Clan.

“There are not a lot of groups anymore, first of all,” Clinton said. “Hip-hop artists have different styles, and so many are focused on an individual. Plus, the record companies will try to separate you anyway. Wu-Tang has done it well.” For Clinton, bringing in family was relatively easy. “They all grew up together, basically. They knew each other,” he said.

“They were all doing different styles of music, and they were doing well. We were able to put them together. Younger musicians do things differently. They don’t mind sometimes playing live over recorded backing tracks. We just play on top of it. You get the best of both worlds.”

Clinton said he will release his first Parliament studio project since 1980’s Trombipulation by the end of 2017. It’s called Medicaid Fraud Dog. The first single from the album, “I’m Gonna Make You Sick,” should be released by the end of October.

“My son, Tracey, and my stepdaughter, Brandi, did a lot of work on the album,” Clinton said. “Lots of good sounds and grooves on it. Scarface is on the single. We’re doing three or four remixes. Junie Morrison [former member of P-Funk] was working on one of the remixes when he died.”

He plans for the single to be available just before he takes a short break from his current tour. Clinton still performs more than 200 live dates annually. “We still sell out all over the world,” Clinton said. “We work, ’cause it’s a job.”

O.J. Simpson is a relic in a new culture that celebrates unapologetic blackness The Juice re-enters American society at its most divided since his ‘Trial of the Century’

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” / Okay / House n—a, don’t f— with me / I’m a field n—a with shined cutlery.

— Jay-Z, 2017’s “The Story of O.J.


Fate has a fetish for O.J. Simpson. Oct. 1 is nearly 22 years to the day of both his acquittal after the double-murder trial that captivated the world and nine years since being sentenced for armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas. Both happened on an Oct. 3. And now the sharp winds of the judicial and correctional system once again gust in the direction of the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner. After serving nine years, the man known as “Prisoner 1027820” in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center is free.

Emphasis on free. Because what does it mean? What has it ever meant? And can O.J. Simpson, in particular, ever truly obtain freedom? He re-enters American society at its most divided since his “Trial of the Century,” and we are right now in an era defined by social, cultural and racial injustices — and the resistance and protests against them. The line between sports, culture and politics is as blurred and polarizing as it’s been since the 1960s. And the black world that Simpson sought to escape via football and a white wife is a world he can no longer run from — if he ever could. “The heartbreaking truth is,” says columnist and author Rochelle Riley, “O.J. Simpson is coming out of prison, and having to wake up black.”


Simpson’s former employer, the National Football League, looks a lot different from the one that existed before his 2008 conviction. There are Ezekiel Elliott’s crop tops and Dez Bryant’s custom Air Jordan cleats, Richard Sherman’s and Marshawn Lynch’s locks, and Odell Beckham’s Head & Shoulders-endorsed blond hair. There’s the NFL’s more cautious style of play apropos of player safety. Some aspects remain the same though — like the ongoing issue of the league’s embarrassing, harmful and erratically applied discipline for domestic violence offenders.

The NFL’s biggest lightning rod isn’t even in the league. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, intended to shine light on police brutality and the inequalities that persist within the criminal justice system, has reverberated far beyond football. Athletes like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Oakland A’s rookie Bruce Maxwell and the WNBA’s Indiana Fever have lent support to the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller.

Kaepernick’s won adoration from and influenced Stevie Wonder, Tina Lawson, Chuck D, Carlos Santana, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, J. Cole and others. Jay-Z donned a custom Colin Kaepernick jersey on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, as Nick Cannon rocked a classic one at a recent St. Louis protest after the acquittal of Police Officer Jason Stockley for the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. His No. 7 San Francisco 49ers jersey is now in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture announced in May that various Kaepernick items will be featured in future exhibits.

There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

The NFL also sits embroiled in a beef with President Donald Trump over protests inspired by Kaepernick — the same Donald Trump who entertained the idea of a reality show with Simpson back in 2008. And while we’re on reality shows, Simpson enters a world dominated by Kardashians. Keeping Up with the Kardashians has been a fixture in American pop culture since its premiere, 10 years ago this month. The family became famous during the fracas of Simpson’s first trial, where attorney Robert Kardashian — Simpson’s close friend and father of Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob — was part of O.J.’s legal “Dream Team.” Kim’s husband, the Adidas designer and Grammy awardwinning producer/rapper/cultural live wire Kanye West, references Simpson in 2016’s “THat Part”: I just left the strip club, got some glitter on me/ Wifey gonna kill me, she the female O.J.

Where we are now is this: Athletes and entertainers (and many, many others) have called the president of the United States outside of his name — and the president and his supporters clap back, tit for tat. There’s a culture war going on, and while it’s different from the 1960s and ’70s, it’s a vibe O.J. is all too familiar with. He’s seen it move like this before.

Getty Images

Consider the American psyche leading up to the pivotal year of 1967, Simpson’s first season as tailback at the University of Southern California, a private, predominantly white institution surrounded by black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In 1961, 61 percent of Americans disapproved of the “Freedom Riders.” Fifty-seven percent viewed lunch counter “sit-ins” as hurtful “to the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South.” The 1963 March on Washington was viewed unfavorably by 60 percent of voters. And by January 1967, 53 percent of voters believed black people, instead of protesting for equal rights, would be better off taking “advantage of the opportunities that have been made available.”

Compare all this to a survey conducted by Global Strategy Group for ESPN from Sept. 26-28, just days before Simpson’s release. A clear racial divide exists: 72 percent of African-Americans strongly or somewhat agree with the protests, which were started by Kaepernick last season. Sixty-two percent of white people strongly or somewhat disagree. Other polls revealed similar numbers.

In 1967, like in 2017, everybody makes the decisions they make. On April 28, 1967, when Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing induction into the U.S. Army, the revolt of the black athlete entered the living rooms of Americans. This was the same year O.J. Simpson rushed into USC immortality and the American consciousness with 1,543 yards and 13 touchdowns. This was the same year that, on Thanksgiving Day, Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State, organized the Western Regional Black Youth Conference. The gathering of about 200 people discussed the possibility of boycotting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans were there, as was UCLA’s star center Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). “Winning gold medals for a country where I don’t have my freedom is irrelevant,” Smith said at the meeting. “So far I have not won my freedom, and I will not turn back from my decision.” Alcindor refused to try out for the Olympic team, prompting critics to label him a national disgrace and an “uppity n—–.”

Though at a Western school, O.J. Simpson didn’t attend the conference. His epic 64-yard touchdown vs. UCLA, less than a week before, propelled USC to the national championship. Edwards had approached Simpson about lending his name and influence to the cause. Simpson disassociated himself from the movement, famously telling Edwards, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” Smith and Carlos’ decision to speak out hurt their careers, in Simpson’s eyes. He wasn’t going down like that. “He absolutely distances himself from everything, which turns out to be a pretty good career move,” says Dr. Matthew Andrews. “It opens up all these doors in advertising, movies and so on.”

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The assassinations of Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy defined 1968. Riots erupted throughout the country. Black America had seemingly reached its breaking point. The defiant and painful image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power fists at the Mexico City Olympics ingrained itself in sports and American history. Meanwhile, O.J.’s celebrity ballooned as he separated himself from the swelling movement. He won the Heisman in 1968 and was the first overall selection in the 1969 draft. For the next two and a half decades, Simpson enjoyed the fruits of his decision and became one of the most recognizable, marketable and celebrated black men in America.


“You see, O.J. was under that illusion — ain’t been black since he was 17. Under that illusion of inclusion — [until he] got That N—- Wake-Up Call. Only n—- I know that could get on any golf course in America. They loved that boy! He had to come home when it got rough.”Paul Mooney, 1994

Simpson’s goal seemed to be: live a deracinated life. He didn’t want to make white people uncomfortable. He was handsome, charming and safe — and so, with 1969’s Chevrolet deal, became the first black corporate pitchman before playing a down in the NFL. Long after his playing career, Simpson was one of the few black faces on screen, as an actor or a commentator, during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “O.J.’s providing a very meaningful image for black kids in America,” said Ezra Edelman recently. He’s the Oscar-winning director of 2016’s O.J.: Made In America. “He deserves his due for the way he influenced culture, beyond being on trial for murder in 1994 and ’95.”

O.J. Simpson for Hertz, in 1978

Master Tesfatsion, 26, doesn’t remember the “Trial of the Century.” He’s a Redskins beat reporter for The Washington Post, and one of his most recent stories is about cornerback Josh Norman pledging $100,000 to Puerto Rico’s victims of Hurricane Maria. Tesfatsion’s first memory of O.J. is the 1997 civil case that ordered Simpson to pay $25 million to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Growing up Eritrean-American in Section 8 housing in Irving, Texas, Tesfatsion’s early O.J. knowledge primarily came from the neighborhood. “I just trusted the OGs,” he says. “If everyone on the block was telling you O.J. ain’t do it, what are you supposed to think?”

“O.J. really is this wisp of memory that is not as important because so much has happened since.”

Tesfatsion’s generation? They were kids when Simpson’s criminal trial happened. And they are well-aware of how deeply racial dynamics and police distrust played into Simpson’s case, and into their own lives. “People always think because you have a certain wealth status, whether it’s white people or even black people who are rich, they think they can escape colorism,” says the Arizona State graduate. “O.J. has proven on the highest of levels that that’s not the case.”

Tesfatsion remembers the passion the case evoked in his parents, and what was clearly two different Americas. So many white people mourned the not guilty verdict. So many black people celebrated quietly, or as if it were an NBA Finals victory for the home team. “The heartbreaking point about O.J.,” says Riley, whose The Burden: African-Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery is being published in February, “is not whether he got away with murder — if he did — but black Americans have been so mistreated and denied justice so many times and for so long that his acquittal was seen as a needed win.”

Simpson is a poster child for race and the legal system, but for Tesfatsion’s generation, he’s not on whom they hang their hat. Simpson’s verdict now of course has rivals in cases that have come to define this generation’s adulthood. “For a generation and a half, O.J. is not this larger-than-life person who meant so much, and who people paid attention to so much,” says Riley. “[O.J.] really is this wisp of memory that is not as important, because so much has happened since.”

Many of the same factors that came into play during the “Trial of the Century”—black bodies, white superiority complexes, and the assumption of black guilt have defined the cases of the Sandra Blands, Philando Castiles, Tamir Rices and Michael Browns. There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

“[Trayvon] was mine,” says Tesfatsion. “It was crazy how caught up I was into it.” Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict was delivered on his 22nd birthday. “To expect one thing, and see the other result, you know, as an African-American, the anger that you feel and the disappointment you feel it’s hard to explain.”


The question no one can truly answer is what happens next for O.J. Simpson. Fresh out of jail, he missed the entire presidency of Barack Obama and enters a world driven by Donald Trump — whose Twitter-fueled presidency has roots in the 24/7, reality-TV celebrity obsession culture rooted in the insanity that was his first trial. Rumors of a return to Hollywood even exist.

Former football legend O.J. Simpson signs documents at the Lovelock Correctional Center, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Lovelock, Nev. Simpson was released from the Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada early Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.

Brooke Keast/Nevada Department of Corrections via AP

But if there’s one reality starkly different from the one Simpson encountered pre-prison—and the beginning of it was the 24/7 coverage of his trial — it’s the extinction of the veil of anonymity. Does he attempt to live a life of modesty and recluse? Or has a nearly decade-long, state-mandated vacation done little to change him? Simpson’s been called a sociopath, one who craves constant attention strictly on his terms. Yet social media, his lawyers suggest, won’t be an issue for him. But he’s never dealt with the monster that is this iteration of media: social breaks stories and develops narratives before the first byline is written. Cameras don’t just sit on shoulders anymore, they sit in the palms of everybody’s hands. One click equals global broadcast.

Many already aren’t willing to deal with the potential fallout. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is attempting to bar him from the state — the same Sunshine State that houses the infamous generational antagonist George Zimmerman.

Dr. Andrews thinks that whatever the case, it will be interesting. “Which O.J. is he going to be? One would argue that pre-trial O.J. would distance himself from what many NFL players are doing. Certainly distancing himself from what Kaepernick’s doing. What Kaepernick did is exactly what [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos did in 1968. O.J. wanted no parts of that. [This] O.J. might get it a little more.”

But, Andrews asks, “Do you really want O.J. to be the spokesperson for this battle in racial justice?”

Riley is more than willing to answer. “The most important thing he could do for himself and America is to not answer the question,” Riley says. “To not weigh in and not try and make himself relevant in any way that he shouldn’t.”

It’s not just the NFL, and O.J. Simpson, but America itself that sits at a crossroads. All three face illness they never really addressed let alone medicated. O.J. walked out of prison Sunday a ghostlike relic of injustices he ignored, injustices he experienced and injustices he helped create. There is undeniable irony in karma greeting Simpson more harshly than his generational contemporaries. Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Smith, Carlos and so many others were in their early 20s fighting demons older than America itself. The athletes were considered pariahs then but stand as saints of progress now. The same will one day be said about Colin Kaepernick. And about those for whom the killings of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown and others inspire a lifetime of resistance and service.

This is the third time O.J. Simpson experiences the first day of the rest of his life. Everybody isn’t that lucky.

Ray Charles’ ‘America the Beautiful’ is our best hope for bringing us together If a patriotic song can divide us, this song can heal that divide

It would take a genius to ease the antagonisms surrounding the national anthem controversy. I know just the man for the job. His name is Ray Charles.

Often called “the Genius” during a long career, Ray Charles performed unique combinations of rock, country, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, jazz and gospel with such energy and style that he invited fans of one culture to cross over and taste the flavor of another. The fact that he was blind from childhood only added to the mystery of his mastery. He attracted appreciation from white folks and black folks, listeners from the country and the city, rich people and poor people, the up-and-coming and the down-and-out.

“This may sound like sacrilege,” said another piano man, Billy Joel, “but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.”

I remember well the day he died: June 10, 2004. I was in New Orleans, scheduled to deliver a professional workshop on writing and music. A day earlier, a young woman slammed a car door on my left hand. When it was time for the workshop and I sat down at the piano, I learned the meaning of playing with pain. Using just one finger to play the bass notes, I offered my best tribute to Charles, brief versions of “What I Say” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

This tribute wasn’t planned, but I was inspired by what I had seen that morning on the news. It turns out that former President Ronald Reagan had died just five days before Charles. The two had a fine moment together during the final minutes of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Ray delivered his gospel version of “America the Beautiful.”

The effect was mesmerizing. While the crowd was overwhelmingly white, you could not help but notice a change in its demeanor. Some cried. Some swayed. Some nodded and looked up as if it were their first visit to a black church. The Reagans and the Bushes looked on with a curiosity that turned to warmth and then delight. When it was over, Reagan and Vice President George Bush climbed down to where Charles had been at the piano and lifted him up to the top of the stage, where the love of the crowd could wash over him.

Move forward now to Oct. 28, 2001. It is the second game of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees, a series delayed by the attacks of 9/11. The debris of the Twin Towers had fallen on a cross-section of Americans, and for a brief interval we were together in our misery, and resolved toward our recovery. Who better to express this emotion than the Genius. At a piano on home plate he once again performed “America the Beautiful.” As he sang and played with an easy soulful pace, people on the field, soldiers and first-responders unrolled a flag that covered the entire outfield. Cheers went up. When they created the illusion of the flag waving, cheers reached a crescendo. Charles rose from the piano bench. I am not sure I have ever seen a performer so moved by the response of an audience. It was almost a dance of delight, holding his face, hugging his body in recognition.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” have all made a claim to be America’s song. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Our national anthem (like the Pledge of Allegiance) too often carries with it a formalized test of patriotism: “Please rise and remove your caps …” (Hey, this is America. Don’t tell me what to do.)

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is easier to sing, but it can be rendered and received in a way that seems cloyingly sentimental. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to Berlin’s anthem, with choruses that focus on the poor and dispossessed who do not feel so blessed. To my ear, “America the Beautiful — at least the version rendered by Charles — exceeds all of them in its ability to raise our collective spirits.

It was not just this song that allowed Charles to use his powers for healing and reconciliation. In 1966, the Georgia State Assembly refused to seat an elected African-American, Julian Bond, because of his supposedly unpatriotic opposition to the Vietnam War. It took a unanimous Supreme Court decision to seat him.

Turn the calendar forward 13 years to March 7, 1979, to that same body. In what was considered a symbol of reconciliation and racial progress, Charles performed his version of the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Georgia on My Mind.” At the end the assembly rose as one in tribute. The speaker honored him with having performed a miracle, bringing political antagonists in the legislature together. One month later, they voted to adopt Charles’ version as Georgia’s official state song.

The song “America the Beautiful has its own rich and complex history, giving Charles the artistic freedom to make it his own. That history begins in 1893 when a young English professor from Wellesley College, Katharine Lee Bates, makes a trip across the country to Colorado. From the top of Pikes Peak, she is inspired by natural beauty she has seen. To honor that vision, she composes a poem, America, published in a church magazine for the Fourth of July. After some reworking, the stanzas of the poem become the lyrics of a song. A New Jersey composer, Samuel A. Ward, wrote the music. Over the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of “America the Beautiful” grew and grew, sung in churches, classrooms and patriotic festivals.

Charles recorded the song in 1972. In live performances he followed a consistent pattern, flavored by the improvisations we associate with gospel and soul music. He adds “I’m talkin’ about America” and “I love America, and you should too,” and “Sweet America,” fervent ornaments that offended the few but inspired the many — including my dad.

He begins his version, curiously, with the third of four verses, perhaps the least well-known.

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

America!

America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine!

Written just three decades after the end of the Civil War, those lines evoke the most traditional tropes of America’s civic religion. They include the heroes who give their lives to protect the country and keep it free. They remind us that we are an exceptional country, blessed by God but imperfect in his eyes. Its gold must be refined. The second stanza prays that “God mend” America’s “every flaw.”

What happens next in the Ray Charles version is especially interesting. He speaks directly to the audience over the music, “When I was in school we used to say it something like this. …” Only then does he sing the original first verse, familiar to generations.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America!

America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

It invites the audience to sing along, and we often do, a call-and-response pattern familiar in many churches and a powerful expression of unity, community, love of country — with all its flaws. Sisterhood and brotherhood — from the man who liked to be called not a genius, but “Brother Ray.”

It should be obvious by now that I love Ray’s version. When I sit down at my 100-year-old upright piano and try to play it the way he did, I always wind up crying. But I love “The Star-Spangled Banner” too, even with all those bombs bursting and its two challenging high notes.

There are hundreds of interesting versions, many available on YouTube, including ones in which African-Americans have offered their special take. We know what Jimi Hendrix did with his magical guitar in 1969 at Woodstock. In 1983, Marvin Gaye shocked the world with his slow-jam version before the NBA All-Star Game, the only version of the anthem I have ever seen in which the audience was moved to rhythmically clap along. Whitney Houston gave us the most elegant version before the 1991 Super Bowl. Maybe my favorite anthem moment was provided in 2003 by NBA coach Maurice Cheeks, who rushed to the rescue of a 13-year-old girl who forgot the lyrics. Mike Lupica once referred to this move, by the former point guard, as Cheeks’ “greatest assist.”

I am not advocating replacing the national anthem. I am proposing, instead, that some group (the NFL, MLB, Congress, the Georgia state legislature, ESPN) offer the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” as our hymn of national unity and racial reconciliation. My dream is to one day attend an NFL football game when, at halftime, an image appears on the screen. It is Ray Charles at the piano. As he sings and swings, and hums and prays, we see a montage of images: Americans, including professional athletes, working to help each other through storm and strife. Working across difference to find unity and build community. From sea to shining sea.

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.