‘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.

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Rapper Dupre ‘Doitall’ Kelly now wants to do politics and join the Newark, New Jersey, City Council Member of ’90s group Lords of the Underground says arts and culture can create jobs

It was the early ’90s. 1993 to be exact. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was top of the charts. “Whoomp There It Is” by Tag Team was rocking clubs. “That’s The Way Love Goes” by Janet Jackson was the swoon fest of probably the decade. And this was all according to Billboard‘s top charts. Meanwhile, BET crowned Lords of the Underground, a hip-hop trio from Newark, New Jersey, as the best rap group for hits from their album released March 6 of that same year, Here Come the Lords.

Twenty-four years later, group member Dupre “Doitall” Kelly has traveled the world, achieved fame, and is now bringing his talent back to his hometown. He is running for another title — an at-large council seat in Newark. If elected next year, he will be the first platinum-selling hip-hop artist to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city.

Newark is no stranger to being led by men within the arts community, as poet Ras Baraka, son of the late Amiri Baraka, serves as mayor. Kelly is a native of Newark’s West Ward, where he attended public school and honed his craft as a rapper. He attended Shaw University, a historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. With his group he earned platinum and gold success, and as an actor he appeared in hit shows such as The Sopranos, Oz and Law & Order.

He currently serves as co-founder and executive director of 211 Community Impact, a nonprofit that promotes literacy, good health and giving. Alongside a host of other organizations in early 2017, Kelly helped raise funds to purchase a lift bus for children at John F. Kennedy School in Newark.

After a meeting with his campaign staff, Kelly spoke with The Undefeated about his run for City Council.


How did you decide to engage in politics?

My decision was made because of my journey through living the hip-hop culture and seeing how it has grown into a culture that influences and inspires the world. I decided, why not use it to help my community on an elected-official level?

Why is it important for hip-hop to have representation in government?

It is super important to have someone at the table of politics that understands and speaks the language of the community. For the last 20 years, hip-hop culture has been the most popular on this planet and is indeed a movement by definition. Hip, meaning in the now, and hop being a form of movement. If looked at that way, you can see that hip-hop is the now movement.

How do you feel about Jay-Z’s latest album?

I feel like it’s part of the evolution of hip-hop. The points and subjects Jay chose to address with a feel of honesty were topics that a 25-year-old Jay-Z would have never talked about. The experiences that he has encountered on his journey, using hip-hop as the vehicle allowed him to articulate to the rest of the hip-hop community and beyond in such a way that in my mind displayed his genius.

Do you hope more people within the hip-hop culture engage in local government?

Yes, I pray so. I hope to be the spark that ignites the flame of any and everyone who has a platform that can galvanize citizens in every city. If that happens, we can really effectively make changes in our communities.

What plans do you have for the city of Newark?

I plan on making a greater investment into our youth by bringing new innovative ideas that will generate revenue through arts and culture that can be used to spur job creation. Keep our young people engaged and residents invested into making the quality of life better for everyone in every ward of the great city of Newark, New Jersey.

What did people say when you decided to run?

It depends on which person you or I ask. When asking seasoned political figures, they would say, ‘Maybe you should wait until the next election to be ready.’ If you asked a person from 35 to 55 years old, they would say, ‘You have my vote and I’m with you.’ If you asked a 25- to 34-year-old, they would say, ‘You are going to win this by a landslide,’ but clearly don’t know what it takes to enter into a political race, let alone win one. If you ask an 18- to 24-year-old, they want to know more about me and once they find out, by searching the internet and doing their research of what I have done in the community, they also say that they are with me. The 60-year-olds-and-over residents want to know who I am, but more importantly where I stand on certain issues and policies.

Interesting theory based upon age ranges. How old are you?

Well, if you have heard the classic Lords of the Underground single ‘Funky Child,’ the intro begins with ‘The year is 1971.’ … I will let you math experts figure out what age that makes me. [Laughs.]

Who are you mirroring this campaign off?

I am mirroring chess players like grandmaster and Hall of Famer Maurice Ashley and Garry Kasparov.

What is your mission statement for your campaign?

My mission is [to] add on to the great things that are happening in the city of Newark, New Jersey, and help create bigger and better opportunities for the residents, entrepreneurs and local businesses. I also will talk to the people of the community in every ward to work on a solution to get residents to come from out of their individual silos, making every neighborhood in the entire city inclusive. When people love their city, they can change it.

As someone passionate about our home teams, will the New Jersey Devils win the Stanley Cup this year?

Absolutely. (Laughs)

David Robinson’s advice on effective social change: ‘Slow down’ ‘The Admiral’ says it took years to get his school and investment fund up and running

SAN ANTONIO — The students making their way through a first-floor corridor at Carver Academy and College Prep grew wide-eyed when they bumped into the school’s founder. A few gasped when the still-trim, 7-foot-1 Spurs legend David Robinson stopped to wave, and they beamed when he posed for a few selfies.

Most of these young people were not yet born when Robinson’s Hall of Fame NBA career ended in 2003. But, to them, the man nicknamed “the Admiral” is as much a star for what he has done off the court as for what he did on it.

Robinson launched what was then called Carver Academy 16 years ago with $10 million of his own money. It began as a small parochial school serving elementary students, but it is now a publicly funded charter school that enrolls more than 1,100 pupils. Most of the students are Hispanic or black, and most of them are from low-income families. Nearly all of them are on track for college, school officials say.

We’re in an age when athletes are embracing social activism in a way that rivals anything in the past. Following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, scores of NFL players have stirred a national debate by taking a knee or sitting during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Others have worn T-shirts or hoodies to protest the deaths of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin. Many athletes have started foundations or otherwise tried to leverage their wealth and fame to spur social change.

It is a level of consciousness that heartens the 52-year-old Robinson. And while Robinson is careful not to criticize any protesting players, he says it remains to be seen whether their strong words will be matched by meaningful deeds — or make the kind of difference that is happening at Carver.

“There is certainly more awareness now. Guys understand their influence and opportunity,” Robinson said. “I’ve talked to a lot of young athletes. They care. They want to do something significant. The question is, how? How do they do it?”

It is something Robinson knows firsthand. It took him years to turn his dream of a school into reality. He says the athletes eager to make change should be prepared for a similar struggle.

A line of students eagerly greet David Robinson as they walk to their next classroom at the IDEA Carver College Prep campus. “I’m a teacher at heart,” said Robinson. “I’m a lifelong student.”

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“Guys in the NBA visit Carver all the time. Some of them say, ‘This is great. I want to start a school too,’ ” Robinson said. “My reaction is usually, ‘Wait. Slow down.’ You’ve got to be sure this is what you want to do. There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

Robinson’s patient brand of activism led him to not only open a school but to also co-found Admiral Capital Group, a private equity firm that helps pay for his good deeds. Admiral controls more than $1 billion in office space, hotels and apartment developments. The company also has invested alongside several NBA and NFL team owners in an online platform that helps coaches at all levels break down game film as well as a separate online platform that automates management of youth athletic leagues. The firm sets aside 10 percent of its profits for donations aimed at making social change.

“The business is a sustainable way of making a long-term impact,” said Daniel Bassichis, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the firm’s co-founder, who once served on Carver’s board. “It has a constant income, which is key. Most [athletes’] foundations do not have this kind of income.”

Admiral has also helped guide investments by other professional athletes, including Spurs guard Tony Parker, former NFL defensive lineman Justin Tuck (who served an internship with the firm as an MBA student) and retired major league outfielder Torii Hunter. Not only are the investors immersed in the details of their investments, but they also receive advice on how to make lasting social change.

“There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

For instance, each year the firm hires 25 Houston-area high school students to work in a Hilton Garden Inn hotel it owns there. The idea is to expose young people to careers in the hospitality industry. If students take to the work, they are given scholarships to the University of Houston, which they attend as Admiral scholars.

Robinson’s vision for social activism came into focus three decades ago during a two-year military commitment after his graduation from the Naval Academy. During that time, Robinson visited a couple of dozen Washington, D.C.-area high schools to deliver a simple message: Just say no to drugs.

Most students seemed thrilled to have the basketball star in their midst. Still, Robinson’s words frequently fell flat, particularly with the students who most needed to hear them. He realized he had to do more than say something. He had to do something.

“I realized it was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a big wound,” Robinson recalled. “Some of the kids would say, ‘This ain’t reality to us.’ From what they knew, drug dealers were making money. Or education wouldn’t change their lives. I found myself wondering, what can I do to help these kids? How do I make change?”

Robinson, a devout Christian, prayed on it. The answer he got convinced him that he should one day open a school to help guide young people to make better choices, regardless of the difficult circumstances they may confront.

“You can talk until you are blue in the face, but you can’t change people,” he said. “But you can plant seeds, and education is a natural way to plant seeds.”

Robinson nurtured his dream for most of his NBA career, making donations and connections and learning what he could about educational policy. Finally, he made his move, opening Carver Academy in 2001, two years before he retired from basketball. As a parochial school, it had just 120 students. To expand its reach and relieve the constant fundraising pressure, Robinson agreed in 2012 to convert Carver into a publicly funded charter school by joining forces with IDEA, a nonprofit that operates 61 schools serving 36,000 students across Texas. Robinson is now a member of IDEA’s San Antonio regional board.

The school, renamed Carver Academy and College Prep, now has more than 1,100 students in kindergarten through 11th grade. (It will add 12th-grade classes next year.)

David Robinson originally founded George W. Carver Academy in 2001. Eleven years later, he partnered with IDEA Public Schools to expand his goal of accessible quality education for all children.

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“When I started Carver, I did not know what I was doing,” Robinson said. “It is a huge undertaking: fundraising, curriculum, finding partners. It is a commitment, and it takes a long time to learn.”

Carver is located not far from the Spurs’ home arena. “We have students in homeless shelters, or who have lived in cars for periods of time. There are all kinds of life issues,” said Guadalupe Diaz, principal of Carver’s elementary program. “But there is an abiding belief that they can overcome. They can do it.”

One of Robinson’s core beliefs is that tough circumstances should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles to achievement. He named the school after George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery but nonetheless went on to become a widely respected botanist, inventor and teacher. He thought Carver’s life story contained a lesson for young people today.

“If you think you have a bad situation, that man grew up in a worse situation,” Robinson explained. “But Carver knew there was a reason he was here. That led him to do amazing things. We have to start where we are, use what we have and make something of it. And never be satisfied.”

Robinson says another one of his core strategies is to inspire young people to tap into their own gifts and leverage whatever opportunities they have.

“Every time you turn on the television, people see rap stars, athletes and actors. You don’t see the everyday people who are doing well. The culture points us to these unattainable roles. How many of us are going to be athletes? Practically nobody. Success is not being Jay-Z. There is only one Jay-Z. Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important? The idea is to get them excited for the life before them.”

Too often, Robinson said, schools that serve low-income students succumb to the instability and low expectations that often accompany poverty. It is a problem identified by many educators but one Carver has apparently found a way to conquer. Its elementary school students consistently score near the 70th percentile on standardized math and reading tests, an achievement that officials attribute to their individualized focus on the students. Parents have responded: This year the school could enroll just 120 new students out of 300 who applied through a lottery.

“Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important?”

“What I think Carver has figured out is how to help students grapple with community issues that might come up and not hold them against the kids,” said Brittany Hibbert, an assistant principal at Carver’s upper school. She said students and administrators do home visits, staff Saturday school and take calls from students at night. “We literally do whatever it takes.”

High expectations and individually tailored instruction help. But it is also helpful that one of San Antonio’s best-known celebrities is a regular presence at Carver. The first floor of the upper school has a small museum dedicated to Robinson, a two-time NBA champion, 10-time All Star and former league MVP. There are jerseys from the Naval Academy, the Spurs and the two U.S. Olympic teams he played for. There are also medals and trophies, and even a small section of basketball floor marked with the footprints of Robinson and some of his former teammates and coaches.

“His presence is significant,” said Chang Yu, principal of Carver’s upper school. “His name appeals, and it resonates quality, sportsmanship, education — all good things that people gravitate toward. He definitely is a factor in our success.”

Robinson says that is where many people who command the spotlight can be helpful. Robinson applauded stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and others who have backed up their calls for social justice by donating millions of dollars for things such as after-school programs and college scholarships. As he watches more athletes find their voice embracing the new civil rights movement, he said he will be dividing them into two categories: those who just say things, and those who back their words with action.

“I can say anything I want to say, but you can also go back and track what I’ve done over the last 20 years to see if what I’m saying matches up,” Robinson said. “Where is your money going? What have you given to? So you have the nerve to make a public statement. Now I am going to check and see how much you’ve done so I can determine whether your statement has any value.”

Five new TV shows worth watching this fall Last year’s bonanza of blackness hasn’t repeated itself, but you should still plug these shows into your DVR

What’s new in TV this season? Worth checking out? Honestly, the pickings this fall are slimmer than last year’s bonanza of blackness. Both The Carmichael Show and Pitch have been canceled. Atlanta’s second season was delayed so creator and star Donald Glover could go be Lando Calrissian, and Insecure became the most celebrated and discussed show — of the summer.

Empire, black-ish and ABC’s Shondaland lineup have been around long enough that they’ve morphed into reliable fall standards: This Is Us, though still young in television years, has clearly captured the country’s imagination — along with its appetite for Kleenex. And the OWN juggernaut and prestige drama Queen Sugar returns this week for the second half of its second season. We’ll finally get to see those episodes directed by Julie Dash!

[‘Queen Sugar’s’ second season explores a fraught mix of family and historical legacy]

So what’s left? Allow me to walk you through the best of the rest.

Big Mouth (Netflix)

Netflix’s oddball animated show about puberty is currently streaming. It features Jordan Peele as the ghost of Duke Ellington (he lives in one of the character’s attics) and Maya Rudolph as a hormone monstress. Yes, she’s a hairy, horny, imaginary monstress who puts bad ideas in the head of a 12-year-old girl named Diane.

Big Mouth follows the lives of a group of 12-year-olds navigating the hellacious road map of wet dreams, peer pressure, unfortunately timed boners, first periods and, yes, hormone monsters. Big Mouth also contains its share of meta TV and Hollywood jokes — there’s a shocking stinger about director Bryan Singer that I didn’t see coming — but mainly it really gets just how awkward, fraught, miserable — and, in hindsight, quite funny — puberty can be. It is not a show for 12-year-olds, but it is fun for anyone who felt like a mess as their hormones went bonkers for several years.

The Good Place (NBC)

If it feels like all of your favorite smart internet people are talking about The Good Place on Twitter, it’s because they are.

The Good Place, which recently began its second season on NBC, is a sitcom about ethics and philosophy — yes, the stuff Immanuel Kant spent so much time noodling in his brain about. It’s smart, funny, fresh, inventive and quite good at anticipating the questions viewers will form in their own minds. It’s also like The Good Wife in that it excels at finding ways to circumvent and poke fun at profanity restrictions on prime-time network television (and The Undefeated). You can’t curse in The Good Place, and so “f—” has been replaced by “fork.”

The show stars Ted Danson as Michael, the architect of what he hopes will be The Worst Place in the Afterlife. His grand plans for reinventing hell — or The Bad Place, as it’s known — keep getting upended by his wards, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason are all dead and have been sentenced to spend eternity in The Bad Place, though they don’t know it. They think they’re in The Good Place, although they all (except for Tahani) have a sneaking suspicion that they’re not supposed to be there.

By the end of season one, Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason have figured out that they’re in The Bad Place and that Michael is using them to experiment with a new form of torture. Rather than subjecting folks to lakes of fire — you know, your run-of-the-mill hellish unpleasantries — he’s created an elaborate scheme of psychological torture and gaslighting, mostly by making an environment that’s supposedly perfect a bit of a drag. To Michael, hell is the suburbs.

Now that we’re at season two, there’s just one problem with Michael’s scheme: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani keep figuring out what he’s doing and Michael constantly has to erase their memories so he can start over with his experiment. Being middle management in hell is tough, man. Michael’s problems just keep compounding: Even though Eleanor and Chidi are deliberately mismatched as soul mates, Eleanor’s begun to fall for him anyway. Even Jason, the dumbest of the bunch, has independently figured out what Michael’s up to. There’s also a very helpful android named Janet (D’Arcy Carden). Every time Michael has to wipe the memories of Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, he has to reboot Janet too.

There’s a lot to like about The Good Place, from its critique of our conceptions of utopia to its interrogation of what it means to be truly “good” or “bad.” The show follows four characters who are kind of terrible, but not genocidal maniac terrible. They’re terrible in an everyday, narcissistic, common sort of way — and they’re capable of change.

The Good Place also works in diversity in a way that doesn’t feel forced or like an afterthought, or as though it came from a network on a cookie-seeking mission. It just feels natural. Anagonye is one of the few African characters on television. (While both Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji are kids of African immigrants in real life, their ethnicity hasn’t come up in Insecure.) There’s such a dearth of characters who are Africans living in America, which is why I was disappointed to hear that HBO would not be developing the K’naan Warsame pilot Mogadishu, Minnesota.

Loosely Exactly Nicole (Facebook)

After garnering less-than-impressive ratings in its first season as an MTV comedy, Loosely Exactly Nicole, starring Nicole Byer, has moved to Facebook for its second season.

Given the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s obviously still an audience for shows about people who are awful and also unaware of (or maybe simply don’t care about) their awfulness, and the comedy that ensues as a result.

[The temerity to be terrible]

Byer is quietly daring in that the Nicole of Loosely Exactly Nicole is sexual, nervy and self-obsessed in a way that’s generally reserved for Beckys. Like Gabourey Sidibe’s Empire character (actually named Becky), Nicole hooks up with cute guys (white guys, at that). She’s not consumed with hatred of her body or her hair or her blackness, and she’s not an irritated government employee in the way that fat, dark-skinned black women often show up on television.

I want to see success for Byer, for Yvette Nicole Brown, for Retta, for Amber Riley, for Leslie Jones and for all the funny black women who don’t necessarily look like Yara Shahidi or Tracee Ellis Ross but are still bawdy, dangerous and funny. What’s more, their youth and sexuality deserve acknowledgment, and I don’t just mean in the predatory, Leslie-Jones-is-obsessed-with-Colin-Jost sort of way either.

That’s part of the reason that the summer show Claws was such a hit. In many ways, Niecy Nash is a precursor for a lot of these younger women. It’s taken years for her talents to be acknowledged, although playing Nurse Didi in Getting On may have been what it took for her to be taken seriously — she was nominated for Emmys twice for the role. Octavia Spencer is a terrific comic actress (see: Spencer as Harriet Tubman in Drunk History). There’s no doubt her career has blossomed since The Help, but I hate seeing her typecast as dowdy, matronly figures, and the more women like Byer insist on playing otherwise, the more that will hopefully change.

The Mayor (ABC)

From creator Jeremy Bronson and executive producer Daveed Diggs, The Mayor (which debuts Tuesday on ABC) stars Brandon Micheal Hall as Courtney Rose, a rapper who just wants to get some shine — so he decides to run for mayor of his hometown of Fort Grey, California. And, as you might have guessed from the title, he wins. So now you’ve got a person with zero experience or qualifications, who really just wanted a bit more fame, in public service as the head of the executive branch of a city.

I know — impossible to imagine something like that happening, right?

The Mayor reminds me of the 2003 Chris Rock movie Head of State, in which Rock stars as alderman Mays Gilliam, who is engaged in a long-shot bid for president (mostly for the publicity) with Bernie Mac as his take-no-prisoners, blackity-black hype man and brother. Head of State found comedy in the process of running for office, and the movie ends just as the awesome, weighty reality of being president is falling on Gilliam’s shoulders.

The premise of The Mayor is certainly interesting, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t necessarily make me excited about where the show will go once Courtney has to actually start governing. It’s hard to avoid cynicism there, but maybe as the mayor, Courtney will grow into something a little more like Leslie Knope. Otherwise, there’s a scenario that’s so serious, there’s little to laugh at. Yvette Nicole Brown, who was such a treasure in Community, stars as Dina Rose, Courtney’s mother. It’s a bit of a waste to see Brown, who in real life is young and vivacious in the role of churchy, kinda sexless (though quite funny) mom. Which again, says something about the type of woman Hollywood sees as plausibly forkable.

White Famous (Showtime)

White Famous, the new comedy from creator Tom Kapinos starring former Saturday Night Live actor Jay Pharoah, joins the ranks of shows that expose, comment on and make fun of the artifice of Hollywood, such as BoJack Horseman, Episodes and Entourage.

In terms of the callouts that raise eyebrows for torching real-life relationships, White Famous, which premieres Oct. 15 on Showtime, does not disappoint. Pharoah plays an up-and-coming comic named Floyd Mooney who’s a bona fide star with black people but still gets mistaken for a restaurant valet by white Hollywood producers. Within the first 15 minutes of the show, Pharaoh has already thrown two symbolic middle fingers at director, producer and vocal Bill Cosby critic Judd Apatow.

It’s a tricky jump. Mooney has a meeting with the thinly veiled Apatow character named Jason Gold (Steve Zissis), who is directing a movie about an imaginary attorney who was the first woman Cosby assaulted. Gold wants Mooney to play the woman, a la Eddie Murphy or Tyler Perry. Mooney tells Gold that focusing solely on Cosby’s lechery is racist, although he makes the unfortunate misstep of downplaying the accusations against Cosby of drugging and sexual assault from more than 50 women.

[Why the hot black bodies on ‘Insecure’ are more revolutionary than you think]

White Famous engages in a practice I find annoying about premium cable shows: It treats naked women as mostly silent pets that can be sent to another room when their nude bodies are no longer useful to a scene. Sometimes that works as a reflection of the actual sexism that pervades Hollywood and makes pretty women disposable. For example, there’s a scene in which Mooney and Gold walk in on Jamie Foxx going to town on some unnamed woman in his trailer, and he just keeps going while continuing to hold a conversation. But sometimes, like the moment we’re introduced to a clothed Gold sleeping next to a naked woman, it’s not saying much of anything except, “Hey, I too have the power to put naked women on TV for no reason except to show boobs and butt.”

How novel.

Despite its sexist deficiencies, White Famous is still engaging. It confronts race and success in Hollywood head-on, raising questions about when and why artists end up compromising their own principles.

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.”

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.

John Carlos, John Wooten know Kaepernick’s road is a long one After 50 years of fighting for change, these old warriors are unbowed but tired

Five decades before a backup NFL quarterback used the national anthem to tell America it can do better — enraging a U.S. president and millions of others, suffering the personal and professional consequences — John Carlos did the same.

He was the original.

He paid his dues, put in the time, working for social change for so long that he and Tommie Smith, his teammate on that Olympic podium in Mexico City, became the gold standard of athlete activism. They’re now so revered for their conviction and courage during the bubbling-over racial cauldron of the 1960s that there are statues of them on their college campus at San Jose State.

Carlos is now 72 years old. But he still can’t smell the roses. Or catch barely a sniff of satisfaction for all the work put in. His voice is raspy. He sounds exhausted. He knew it wasn’t over, this centuries-old cage fight for human rights. He just figured there would be more enlightened soldiers by now.

“It’s been a wakeup call for the last 50 f—ing years to let them know,” Carlos says from his home in Atlanta. “Excuse my language.”

“Like I been sayin’ for 50 years, there ain’t no neutrality. You gotta be on one side or the other. This man [President Donald Trump] is pushing them to make a decision, to find out who they really are. It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.”

You don’t want to be a sucka for all eternity.


A group of top African-American athletes from different sporting disciplines gather to give support and hear the boxer Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War, at a meeting of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, held in Cleveland, June 4, 1967. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Standing behind them are: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

John Wooten was blocking for Jim Brown in Cleveland and learned a brother needed help: Muhammad Ali was facing charges for refusing to fight the war in Vietnam. Wooten began calling famous black athletes willing to stand with Ali at the Cleveland Summit. From Brown to the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they all said, “No problem, we’ll be there.”

He knew it wouldn’t be over in 1967 when he stood behind The Greatest and alongside Bill Russell at that historic conclave of change agents. But 50 years later, Wooten is 80 years old, and there’s no sense of triumph for him either. No sense of finality in his war against inequality.

It’s going on midnight at his home in Arlington, Texas. He’s tired, the words tumbling slowly and deliberately through the receiver.

“It’s obvious to me that nowhere does our president understand the Constitution of this country,” says Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in the coaching ranks and front offices of the NFL. “Because those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.”

Wooten has a couple of more thoughts before going to bed, so he can get up and fight tomorrow.

“When does unsportsmanlike conduct come in when men are standing to show this country that they are concerned about the young people being killed across the country? Are the football players and athletes to pretend this doesn’t exist?”


These two athletic icons for human rights know that change comes embarrassingly slowly. Fighting for it is soul-siphoning hard. Discouragement and defeat are just as frequent, if not more frequent, than success and victory. It wears you down and can leave you bitter.

“Listen, man, they are out there all the time,” said Carlos of the racists in our midst. “When they come, they come in numbers. The real sad thing is, they’re more united than we’ve ever been. Even people now, they think these dudes [protesting] hate their country instead of fighting for a better world and saying we can do better. Fifty years after Tommie and me, really, how far have we come?”

“It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.” – John Carlos

Next summer is the golden anniversary of Carlos and Smith bowing their heads, standing on the podium without shoes to symbolize American poverty, and raising their gloved fists. The next day they were expelled from the U.S. team and sent home. For the next 10 years, “my life was hell,” Carlos told Vox last year. He lost much more than money: friends, his marriage. They loved him. But they were scared they, too, would be ostracized.

Ali’s anti-war position was blasphemy to many Americans in 1967. But “we didn’t care about any perceived threats,” Wooten told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this past year to mark the summit’s anniversary. “We weren’t concerned because we weren’t going to waver. We were unified. We all had a real relationship with each other, and we knew we were doing something for the betterment of all.”

The country forked in thought with some repulsed and others viewing their acts as courageous.

Just like … now.

“Why does it take for [Trump] to make that one statement to make all [players] react now, when they know they should’ve reacted earlier anyway?” Carlos said. “They should have been out there a long time ago to support [Colin] Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. They all should have been rallying around them.

“But Trump done put it on the line now and told them, ‘If you do it, we gon’ spank your a–.’ And that’s a threat. So now it’s on the owners — should they disrespect the will of their players, their human rights?”

Says Wooten: “I hope these players will … show the president and the country the unity felt by all of us who want to see a better, more just world. And that those who feel it is an affront to patriotism will one day see that this act of solidarity is about making America better, not worse.”

Many NFL owners locked arms with their players on Sunday. Some released statements in support of their socially conscious employees. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith bonded over a common enemy.

“Those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.” – John Wooten

Former Cleveland Browns great John Wooten watches during an NFL football game between the Browns and New York Jets on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, in Cleveland.

AP Photo/David Richard

Wooten is more measured than Carlos, who is animated, sometimes angry and trying ineffectually to avoid a public scrap with Trump.

“The man is creating so much division in the country,” he continued. “You better get ready for the next Civil War, brother. Not to mention the wall. What can I say, man? If I get out there right now, I’m going to lambaste the man so bad, ’cause I ain’t gonna hold s— back about where his mind his. I don’t want to get into no running battle with this fool.”

Voice rising, Carlos is spiritually back in the ’60s. And, of course, that’s the most wrenching part: Fifty years later, not enough has changed.


Large chunks of our society don’t see black men kneeling for racial justice and a more equitable country. They see people demeaning Arlington National Cemetery’s dead.

Wooten and Carlos know of this historical bait and switch. They refuse to allow #TakeAKnee to be reframed as a referendum on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s a protest of police brutality and racism, the often senseless killing of black men by overwhelmingly white law enforcement. That’s it.

“You would think the NFL is a Hollywood show now, the way they promote it on TV, where it’s about family and inclusive and we’re all happy,” Carlos says derisively.

“Until we go into a meeting to find out why this young man isn’t in the NFL now playing. He’s played for several years. He’s gone to the Super Bowl. He’s better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league. Why is it that he’s not playing? But [Goodell] refuses to answer and address that, and the public refuses to demand him to do that. And everybody eats it up and does nothing.”

Carlos is resigned to the fact that most people will never care as much as he does. Wooten is more hopeful, if equally tired. For 50 years, nothing has happened quickly for either of them.

It’s the right fight; it’s just not an easy one. You devote your life to something for that long, you pay a price. People get burned out. It’s deflating.

But the best of them keep going, because they know the alternative. It’s too important, too ingrained in their identities. Today’s players need their wisdom and strength now just as Ali and Smith needed them then.

John Carlos is 72. John Wooten is 80. Their joints throb. They’re tired. And 50 years later, they still live for the fight.

All eyes on the Dallas Cowboys After a weekend of NFL protests in response to President Trump’s explosive comments, America’s Team is now center stage

Not even Hollywood could script this.

On Friday night, the president of the United States takes on the National Football League. He calls players who exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest “son of a b—-.” The next day, the president doubles down on Twitter, demanding those same players stand for the national anthem or face harsh discipline. A far cry from what he tweeted two days after his inauguration:

Then, on Sunday, more than 130 players from various teams kneeled, sat or locked arms during the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks remained in the locker room altogether. While all this is taking place, President Donald Trump’s administration goes on the offensive, suggesting the NFL should implement a rule with regard to anthem protests. Trump’s assertion Monday morning that kneeling for the anthem had “nothing to do with race” further sullies a yearlong campaign of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s original point: It was never about the flag. It was never about disrespecting the troops — the men and women of the military protected his right to kneel. And it was never about the anthem itself. Lost in an endless cycle of debates and purposeful misdirections is that Kaepernick wanted to bring light to police brutality and economic disparities and injustices in lower-income communities.

Which brings us to Monday night’s iteration of Monday Night Football, quite possibly the most American weekly sports tradition of all. And on this Monday, as fate has so lavishly prepared, the schedule features the NFL’s most lucrative, popular, hated and polarizing franchise: the Dallas Cowboys (visiting the Arizona Cardinals). What example, if any, does America’s Team set after a weekend of protests that had been brewing for over a year since Kaepernick decided to take a knee and then-candidate Trump suggested the quarterback “find another country” to call home?


Born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia, I should have been a Washington fan, but family ties won out — in favor of Dallas. The Cowboys, since the mid-’90s, constitute my life’s most emotionally taxing relationship: perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak. My deepest connection to the Cowboys is through my mother. Her favorite player was Jethro Pugh, a ferocious yet warm defensive lineman who played college ball at North Carolina’s historically black Elizabeth City State University under my grandfather, coach John Marshall, in the early ’60s.

Everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet.

Pugh, who died in 2015, became one of the greatest players in Dallas history and a key cog in the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” that helped deliver the franchise its first two Super Bowls. A pass rushing savant, Pugh also led the team in sacks for five straight seasons, 1968-72. My mother remained a Dallas fan over the years and grew to love former coach Tom Landry (and his fedora).

In the 1990s, when football became a major facet of my life, the Cowboys were lit. They won nearly as much as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, capturing three Super Bowls in four years. In truth, at least five Bowls were in order, had it not been for two fumbles: the first was Deion Sanders’ missed pass interference call on Michael Irvin in the 1994 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, and the second was owner Jerry Jones’ ego-driven decision to fire Jimmy Johnson after back-to-back Super Bowl victories.

Nevertheless, the Starter Jackets were fresh and, as trivial as it sounds now, the Dallas Cowboys — featuring names such as Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Charles Haley and more — were bad boys and rock stars in the age of Tupac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Nirvana. Their success on the field made them seem larger than life, and this outsize brand persona was made evident by Jeff Pearlman’s fascinating exploration of the teams’ 1990s run: Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.

America loves its reality television, and in football there is none greater than the Cowboys, a team often too comfortable operating under a veil of chaos. What spinach was to Popeye, headlines and controversy are to Dallas — despite the fact that there have been only two playoff victories since the organization’s last Super Bowl in 1996. As a fan, it’s fun to wallow in that attention. The Terrell Owens years are a prime example. The Tony Romo era is another. But at times, Jones’ willingness to embrace controversy is anything but enjoyable — most notably Greg Hardy’s signing after a graphically publicized domestic violence case. Or the frustration that came with the immensely talented but troubled linebacker Rolando McClain.

What will the Cowboys do Monday night? Not surprisingly, Jones recently said on Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan that he felt strongly about recognizing the flag and the people who sacrificed for the liberties we enjoy: “I feel very strongly that everyone should save that moment for the recognition of the flag in a positive way, so I like the way the Cowboys do it.” Glenstone Limited Partnership helped fund a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee earlier this year. Glenstone Limited Partnership is a segment of Glenstone Corp., which is led by Jones.

Despite mysterious posts on social media and conflicting statements from “inside” sources, nothing suggests the Cowboys will do anything of note. Dallas has yet to have a player engage in protest, last season or this season. The Cowboys would not be the only team to keep it business as usual.

But everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet. Jones has lived off that bravado since he purchased the team in 1989. The players and fan base followed suit. It’s part of the territory that comes with being a team whose stadium could pass for the eighth wonder of the world. The franchise is valued at nearly $5 billion and comes with A-list fans such as LeBron James, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington, Russell Westbrook, Jamie Foxx and Allen Iverson.

Still, the team appears unified in neutrality. Second-year quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t plan on participating in protests, saying last month, “It’s just important for me to go out there, hand over my heart, represent our country and just be thankful, and not take anything I’ve been given and my freedom for granted.” This was before ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity became a narrative. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Crock-Pot of moving parts, rumors and controversies. Pro-Bowl linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith provided virtually the same answer: Both disagree with Trump’s statements but refused to expand any further. And star wideout Dez Bryant seems content with his stance. “I’m not criticizing nobody,” Bryant said recently of the swelling number of players in the league joining the protest. “They’re free to do whatever they want. Hell, no, I’m not doing none of that. Their beliefs are their beliefs, and I’m not saying they’re wrong because they’re feeling a certain way. They’re supposed to.”

But this particular juncture feels different because it is different. New York Giants defensive end Damon Harrison said of the moment the president placed the entire league in his crosshairs that it was “bigger than money, bigger than the game,” and that if he didn’t voice his frustrations he “wouldn’t be able to sleep or walk with my head held high as a man or father.” And Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas was moved to tears by the magnitude of Trump’s comments, and our racial climate overall. The Cowboys have their on-field issues. They haven’t looked particularly dominant, even in their lone victory over an Odell Beckham-less Giants. And a week later, Dallas had its muffin cap peeled back by the Denver Broncos.

Kneeling at NFL games during the national anthem in protest of systemic inequalities went from being “Kaepernick’s fight” or “Michael Bennett’s problem” to a movement the leader of the free world not only monitors but also attempts to eradicate (while at the same time, Puerto Rico pleads for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that’s left most of the U.S. territory immobile and without electricity).

In an ideal world, the league’s most powerful owner and biggest cash cow of a team would make some sort of bold statement — more than locking arms or placing hands on shoulders. The president’s anger toward players who are not content with cashing checks and staying mum only scratches the surface of a far more cancerous issue: that players, who in the NFL are 70 percent black and are on the field destroying their bodies, are often seen as undeserving of earnings apparently awarded by owners to players who should be grateful for the money. White owners, on the other hand, are viewed as fully deserving of their billions.

The Cowboys may be fine with playing the role of an ostrich with its head buried in the turf. It’s the Cowboys I’ve come to expect. It still doesn’t make it any less weird that a franchise priding itself on being “America’s Team” remains self-muzzled during a time when America needs to be anything but, both in speech and in action. In a better world, and in a move that would shake both the league and the Oval Office to its core, the Cowboys would’ve long since signed Kaepernick — he’s of course far more polished than the team’s current backups, Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush. But this isn’t a better world. At least not yet.

Daily Dose: 9/25/17 Prayers for Puerto Rico

Happy Monday, kiddos. If you missed #TheRightTime on Friday, I explained why I feel that extending the nets at MLB ballparks will drastically affect the experience of any baseball game. Take a listen here.

President Donald Trump officially launched his beef with the NFL on Sunday. He did the usual throwing out of Twitter broadsides, and the league’s players responded much in kind. Even New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said that Trump was doing too much. But one guy who works at the Buffalo Bills stadium was so mad about national anthem protests that he quit his ACTUAL job at the facility. That aside, let’s be careful how we use the word “unity” surrounding what the NFL is doing now, because, well, it’s not even really about that.

It’s a sad day in Nashville, Tennessee. And not because Vanderbilt got absolutely destroyed by Alabama, or because the Tennessee Titans couldn’t pull one out against the New England Patriots. A masked gunman entered a church parking lot and shot and killed someone and injured a handful of others inside the church. Obviously, this could have been a much bigger tragedy, but thankfully a church usher stepped in to confront the gunman. It’s not yet clear what the motivation for the shooting might have been; there will be a civil rights investigation.

Puerto Rico is part of the United States. In case you weren’t aware of that. Because some people aren’t. The island territory that’s brought so much to the culture, from music to sports to fashion, etc., is so completely devastated from Hurricane Maria that it’s starting over from scratch. Their crops have been completely banged out, the place is nearly unrecognizable, and now they’re worried about the status of a dam, whose failure is apparently imminent.

Everybody loves Darren Sproles. The little man who managed to make it in the NFL for so long after being a star at Kansas State was such a genuinely great story in terms of his success in hanging around the league. But on Sunday he was dealt a blow that will basically end his career, which is awful. The Philadelphia Eagles running back broke his arm and tore his ACL on the same play, ending his season. He was within earshot of 20,000 career all-purpose yards. Sad.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Baseball has a long season, so you’ve got to run a lot of short-range bits to keep yourself entertained when you’re on the road. You can mark down “Blue Jays players wearing Blue Jays players Snuggies” as an instant classic.

Snack Time: Offset has been doing a whole lot in the past year, and that doesn’t even include Cardi B. But, since you need it, here’s a list of his best guest verses of the year.

Dessert: Never forget the Little Rock Nine.