Bree Newsome’s social justice fight continues two years after taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina ‘Staying quiet is also like its own form of death’

It has been more than two years since Bree Newsome became a household name for climbing a 30-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and removing the Confederate flag. She knew jail would follow. However, Newsome, now 32, knew it was a task she had to do.

The mood in South Carolina at the time was bleak following the evening of June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof gunned down nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The flag that Newsome removed was originally raised in 1961 as a statement of opposition to the civil rights movement. Many individuals have always hated what the flag represents.

In many communities, Newsome became a hero and her actions caused a domino effect. In August, two years after Newsome’s act, 22-year-old Takiya Thompson was arrested after helping to take down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina. Thompson was charged with disorderly conduct by injury to a statue, damage to real property, participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 — and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. This was following a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly and prompted a call to action by many people for the removal of Confederate statues.

“I just see this shifting in the consciousness, and people just kind of reaching a point where we just can’t be quiet anymore, because I think there has been, in some ways, this belief that we keep ourselves quiet in order to survive,” Newsome said. “But staying quiet is also like its own form of death. I think people are just tired of living that form of death.”

Newsome is now a local organizer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and focusing on housing.

“We have a real affordable housing crisis going on in our city, as many cities around the country are,” Newsome said. “We have communities that were redlined in the late Sixties, that’s kind of when the cities drew, basically, lines around areas that were predominantly black that had been segregated. So, these are areas that were basically divested from, by the city and now they are prime real estate. So we have a lot of developers wanting to develop in this land, but the folks who have lived here for decades are not benefiting from it. So, housing remains an ongoing justice issue.”

Newsome says housing is a human right.

“A lot of times people say, well, it’s just a byproduct of development. But, it’s really important, again, to understand why,” Newsome said. “That’s obviously one of the basic things that we need in order to live. Then, it’s a justice issue, because we’re still very segregated. Segregation is not forced upon us anymore, it’s not part of the law, but we are still largely racially and economically segregated. How are we addressing any of these issues with wealth and with race if folks are being pushed out of their homes?”

Newsome’s father, Clarence G. Newsome, served as the dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and was the president of both Shaw University and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Her mother spent her career as an educator addressing the achievement gap. Newsome studied film at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

She spoke to The Undefeated about social justice, today’s battle for equality and her plans.


How do you feel about today’s racial climate?

What we are seeing today is kind of part of a pattern, I would say, in history. On one hand, I was born in ’85; in my lifetime it is maybe one of the most tense periods, racially, that I have experienced. But, when I look back over the history of America, it’s kind of part of a pattern where racial tensions kind of ebb and flow.

We’re integrating certain institutions. We obviously had the election of the nation’s first black president. Now what we’re seeing is, again, this period of racist backlash to that. But there is, kind of, this pattern of like, we make this progress forward and then there is this racist backlash. No, it’s not as bad, and I think if you talk to most folks, like my grandmother, my grandmother is 91 years old. When she saw on TV the police in Ferguson tear-gassing folks in their yard, she said, ‘It reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan.’ So, on one hand, yes, we’ve gone far, but clearly we haven’t gone far enough at all.

When I look at what is going on today, the main thing it says to me is that we cannot rest on our laurels. And that’s part of what spurred me toward becoming an activist in the first place, it was after the Trayvon Martin case.

What do you think about the protests for Colin Kaepernick?

I think that’s amazing. I support that. Two histories in America that I find really fascinating is the treatment of black veterans and the treatment of black athletes. … Even at the college level, there’s a real justice issue around the treatment of black athletes. They are clearly the majority, especially when you are talking about a sport like football. The majority of athletes are black men. They generate billions of dollars for this industry, not just in pro football, but also in college football. In many ways they are exploited. They are exploited physically. We see the kind of damage that is done physically to their bodies.

Part of what I think is really awesome about what is happening right now is there’s greater solidarity. In some ways, it’s bigger than the NFL. It’s about protesting for Colin Kaepernick to have a fair shot, but it’s also kind of bigger than that because it’s like, he has a right, as a human being, to speak. Especially to speak about a system that is killing us. When he’s out of uniform, and he’s off the field and he’s just driving down the street, he has just as much a chance of getting killed by the police as anybody else. I think that that is sometimes what people forget. They think just because a black man puts on a uniform and goes in to play football that he is supposed to disconnect from all the other realities of the nation in which he lives.

Do you recall the first thing you did as an activist?

I don’t know if you remember the Moral Monday movement that was happening here in North Carolina. That was organized by Reverend Barber and the North Carolina state chapter of NAACP. This was back in 2013. This was the same summer that George Zimmerman was acquitted. This is the same summer that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina just went H.A.M. on the voting issue. They hadn’t yet passed it, but they brought up this legislation, House Bill 589, and at first it was this five-page bill that focused on student voter ID. It said the students could no longer use their IDs to vote.

I go up to this Moral Monday protest about voting rights. At that time, I wasn’t considering myself an activist. I was very much aware of things that were going on. Literally overnight, between that Monday and the Tuesday, they sent the bill from the House to the Senate and they added almost 50 more pages to the bill. It was clear that they were targeting black people. They had things like ending Sunday voting.

That was the wake-up moment for me. I had always been socially and politically conscious, but I wasn’t the person out on the street protesting.

Why did you make the decision to fight for justice in North Carolina?

When I was about 2, my family moved up to Maryland. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. I would spend all of my summers in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live now. That’s where my grandmother is.

My grandmother would come stay with us during the school year and then I would come stay with her during the summer. Then my dad’s family is from eastern North Carolina, so the Carolinas have always been kind of like home. In a way, it’s kind of like my family home. It really wasn’t until I got back in the Raleigh-Durham area and Moral Monday was going on and I kind of connected with the folks there and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t go back to work now, this is too crazy.’

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

I think it’s always finding the balance. I would say, you know, in 2013 when I’m walking to the protest and I was like, ‘I can’t go back to anything, I’ve got to stay in the street.’ And I pretty much did, for like the next two years. Just protesting. I went up to Ohio when John Crawford was killed. I marched with the Ohio Student Association. I went down to Florida. We were just out protesting, just trying to raise this awareness around what was happening.

I was getting to a point where I’m exhausted. It’s traumatic. … When you ask me what has been the greatest challenge or struggle, I think it has been finding out how to sustain in this work. … How do we continue to support ourselves and do this important work? How do we balance life, and all these other things, because we’re out here fighting for our lives and there really is nothing that’s more important. But I know I reached a point where I was, like, you know, I have to live too.

Living is also resistance. If I’m out here killing myself, that’s not, at a certain point I’m no longer resisting. I have to thrive at the same time.

How would you describe your personal feelings after seeing what happened in Charlottesville?

The first word that’s coming to my mind is revelation. But I don’t know if that’s the right word. I’m trying to think of a word that is kind of revealing, because I feel like what happened with Charlottesville was, like, it was all there. All of that was there. But, it was kind of like Charlottesville was the moment that it could no longer be denied. … We’ve known for a while, we’ve known since 2008, at least. Because as soon as Obama was elected, you had a surge in white supremacist groups.

White supremacist groups have been out here organizing. They have been out here planning and connecting. And in a lot of ways folks are looking away.

So, when I think about Charlottesville, to me it was kind of ‘blatant.’ It was like that’s when America could no longer look away from what had been going on, cause here you had all of these white supremacist groups from around the nation organizing and converging on this city over this monument. And, the same way people kept saying, ‘Well, you know, does the monument really represent this, does the Confederate flag really represent that?’ People were really trying to still be kind of wishy-washy about it and it was like Charlottesville was the moment that they could no longer deny what had already been there. It’s not that Charlottesville was new. It’s that Charlottesville made plain what was already there.

How do you see your work in social justice?

The way I look at the work is two ways. One, I think we have system-facing work. There’s work where we are trying to dismantle a racist system. We have a system of white supremacy, and that’s one of the main things I speak about all the time is trying to get people to understand. Racism is not just prejudice. It’s not just, ‘I don’t like somebody because of the color of their skin.’ It’s a system that was designed. It’s an economy. It’s a social caste system that is built based upon, not just the color of a person’s skin, but African ancestry. It is built on the subjugation of people who are descended from Africans. So, I think there is system-facing work and then there is community-facing work. And I try to get people to see both ends. Because I think sometimes we think it’s either-or. Either we’re out here fighting white supremacy or we are doing work in the community. We’re trying to come out of 500 years of slavery.

My family was enslaved in South Carolina and North Carolina. So, I know the personal story of my family trying to come out of slavery. But as a people … that’s the work that we’re trying to do. It’s about economic freedom, it’s about mental freedom. It’s about having agency over ourselves. It’s about how do we break free of oppressive dynamics that we have internalized from the people who have oppressed us. … Sometimes I’m speaking to the system and then sometimes I’m just talking to my people.

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

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

N.W.A. “Express Yourself” (1986)

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

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

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

Nas — “The World Is Yours” (1994)

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

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

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

Buju Banton — “Champion” (1995)

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

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

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

Juvenile — Back That A– Up (1999)

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

Jay-Z — Dirt Off Your Shoulder (2003)

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

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

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

MF DOOM — “Deep Fried Frenz” (2004)

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

DJ Khaled — “We Takin’ Over” (2007)

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

Little Brother — “Dreams” (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travis Scott — “Apple Pie” (2015)

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

Kamaiyah — “How Does It Feel” (2015)

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

2 Chainz — “Get Out The Bed” (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nnamdi Asomugha is taking a quick break.

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

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

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

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

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

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

That preparedness was crucial.

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


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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

Daily Dose: 7/20/17 The nation’s eyes are on O.J. Simpson yet again

Sometimes you wake up in the morning and you can feel a crazy news day in your bones. At least at this stage of my life I can. Thursday is going to be one of those days, I think.

So, where to start with the president. First off, there was the interview with The New York Times. Rambling doesn’t even begin to describe how all over the place that conversation was, just on balance. Then he said he would have never hired Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he knew he’d recuse himself from the Russia investigation, which is a staggering admission. There’s also a story circulating that the White House is using funds designed to promote the Affordable Care Act to denigrate it.

O.J. Simpson is legitimately back in the news. We all knew this was coming, but it’s somehow still surreal to think that we’re going to be looking at Orenthal, once again, in a courtroom, rapt to find out what his fate will be. It clearly won’t have the same social impact as The Verdict, but this is straight-up huge news across every network. This scenario is obviously opening up some very old wounds for a lot of people, so whatever the parole verdict may be, it will be extremely emotional.

Some ideas are so misguided that you often wonder how they got so far. Such is the case over at HBO, where apparently the adapters of Game of Thrones are going to create another show called Confederate. And it sounds like it plans to be exactly what you might imagine: a world in which slavery is still legal and the South succeeded in breaking away. We need not point out how instantly awful this might become. But the risk of letting someone run wild with an ahistorical reimagining of our past is just one that few of us will trust, overall.

In the past five years, the NBA has made real efforts to expand its footprint globally. Since the Dream Team in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the league’s popularity has blown up and the league continues to push. The NBA Africa Game, a matchup that began in 2015, takes place Aug. 5. Now they’re heading to one of the biggest nations on Earth: India. The Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant will be the face of that tour. While there isn’t a full game yet, he will be holding camp and basically acting as an ambassador. Very cool.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I don’t typically freak out over every single leaked still shot from a set or makeup room, but in the case of Star Wars, I’ll make an exception. We’ve finally got a visual of Donald Glover playing a young Lando Calrissian, which is a very tough role to tackle for so many reasons, namely Billy Dee Williams.

Snack Time: Speaking of bad ideas, Atari is putting out a new product that puts speakers in the bill of a baseball cap, meaning the notion of private listening on, say, public transportation is one step closer to complete oblivion.

Dessert: This song blew me away.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’ turns 50 With hits like ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Third Stone From The Sun,’ the rock superstar’s first album is as revolutionary as ever

It commences with a buzz. A high-pitched drone, insistent and frenzied, like a wasp tunneling for your brain. The sound builds, intensifying until it erupts in a blast of lurching rhythm and stabbing electric guitar. A male voice, sly and insinuating, arises from the din:

You know you’re a cute little heartbreaker (foxy!)
You know you’re a sweet little lovemaker (foxy!)
I’m gonna take you home, I won’t do you no harm
You’ve got to be all mine! All mine!
Ooh! Foxy Lady …

Today, the buzzing sound that opens “Foxy Lady” seems like a metaphor for the buzz Jimi Hendrix created 50 years ago upon his arrival on the international music scene. Released May 12, 1967, “Foxy Lady” is the opening track on the U.K. edition of Are You Experienced, the debut album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (the LP wouldn’t be issued in the U.S. until August that year). The absolute Molotov cocktail of 1960s rock recordings, Are You Experienced was so powerful, so volcanically innovative, so out there, it changed the course of music history. After its release, rock and R&B music would be harder, funkier, more street, and with an emphasis on virtuosity that rivaled the postwar bebop jazz era.

Along with mid-1960s recordings by the Beatles and Cream, Are You Experienced ushered in the age of psychedelia and high-concept albums. Widely regarded as a benchmark in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal music, Are You Experienced was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, an honor extended to records of “lasting qualitative or historical significance.”

After all, Hendrix’s high-wire solos on Are You Experienced transformed guitar playing into a competitive sport, inspiring generations of guitarists, including Carlos Santana, Prince, Ernie Isley, Lenny Kravitz, Vernon Reid, Slash, Tom Morello, Gary Clark Jr. and countless others. Are You Experienced also signaled the arrival of the power trio, a rock threesome capable of creating a symphony-scale commotion, with the help of amplification technology. Following the Experience’s lead, influential bands such as The Police, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Nirvana, Green Day and John Mayer Trio took the power trio concept to the bank.

Jimi Hendrix live in Gulfstream Park, Florida, (near Miami) in 1968

But most of all, Are You Experienced showcased Hendrix’s extraordinary musical range, from the acid-dropping euphoria of “Purple Haze” to the folklike storytelling of “Hey Joe” and the sensitive R&B balladry of original Hendrix compositions such as “May This Be Love” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” Rolling Stone ranks Experienced No. 15 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, praising Hendrix for establishing “the transcendent promise of psychedelia.” Smithsonian musicologist Reuben Jackson has said Are You Experienced changed music just like James Joyce’s Ulysses changed literature. “You read a page or two of Ulysses,” Jackson told NPR in 2006, “and then you listen to just ‘Purple Haze’ and you think, My goodness, what is this?’ ”

“Purple Haze”


For Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced was the culmination of a lifelong musical obsession.

Born James Marshall Hendrix on Nov. 27, 1942, he took up the guitar because “every house you went into seemed to have one lying around.” Enthralled by blues and rock legends such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Buddy Holly, Hendrix became proficient via sheer will. Self-taught, he practiced incessantly, taking his guitar almost everywhere.

After a stint with the 101st Airborne Division, Hendrix hit the road, performing with chitlin’ circuit legends such as Little Richard, the Isley Brothers and Wilson Pickett. In 1966, Hendrix was discovered performing at New York’s famed Café Wha? by Chas Chandler, a budding British manager. Sensing he’d struck pay dirt, Chandler whisked Hendrix to England, teaming the guitarist with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was born.

Though the trio had yet to play its first gig, the Experience had already done something revolutionary. Here was Hendrix, a foppish black man from segregation-torn America, calling the shots in a rock trio featuring two white British musicians. The Experience’s inverted chain of command was almost as jarring as its music, a symbol of racial unity and growing black empowerment amid the backdrop of the civil rights movement.

Are You Experienced was so powerful, so volcanically innovative, so out there, it changed the course of music history.

To promote his controversial new band, manager Chandler arranged a grinding European tour that found the Experience performing in England, Luxembourg, Germany, France and Holland. Initially, the band padded its set with classics such as Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour,” but Hendrix’s songwriting muse shifted into overdrive as the tour wore on, resulting in the original tunes that would form the Experience’s debut album. “A lot of material suddenly came out in a very short space of time,” said drummer Mitchell.

The Experience was an instant sensation, garnering the enthusiastic support of Europe’s rock elite and netting the band a recording contract with newly established Track Records. “We got a tremendous amount of help from people like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and John Lennon,” Chandler recalled. “They would rave about Hendrix and turn the entire course of an interview around just to talk about him.”

The 11 tracks that would constitute Are You Experienced were recorded over five months in three London studios. The album’s U.K. release was preceded by the singles “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Purple Haze,” all of which rocketed to the British Top 10. To stoke demand for Are You Experienced, it was decided that none of the aforementioned hits would be included on the album’s U.K. edition.

Are You Experienced went on to spend 33 weeks on the British music charts, peaking at No. 2, a tremendous feat for a debut artist. Pundits speculate that the only thing that prevented Hendrix’s debut from reaching No. 1 was the June 1 release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But while Hendrix had taken Europe by storm, reaction to Are You Experienced wasn’t totally enthusiastic. (“The kindest thing I can say about … Are You Experienced is that I survived one full session,” huffed Liverpool Post critic George Gregson.) Still, such scathing reviews were rare. Having conquered Britannia and its Atlantic neighbors, the Experience set its sights on the U.S.

Fifty years hence, Are You Experienced still inspires both blinding awe and head-scratching bewilderment. “Manic Depression” employs a ¾-time waltz rhythm to communicate a message of mental torment. “Love or Confusion” starts out like a cosmic Indian raga before mutating into a lithe, sexy samba. On “Third Stone from The Sun,” the Experience pits amp feedback and Wes Montgomery-style guitar chords against whirling jazz drums, creating a sound that could only be described as “space swing.” With its stun guitar and lumbering beat, “Purple Haze” sounds like Godzilla leveling Tokyo, while the album’s title track resembles a Scottish bagpipe reel transposed for the rock trio.

Song after song, the album lobs sonic grenades at the listener, leaving mind-bending psychic explosions in their wake. The album betrays Hendrix’s disdain for pop music conventions: None of the LP’s 11 tracks possesses anything close to a traditional, sing-along chorus — unless you think Hendrix frantically repeating “Stone Free!” constitutes a chorus.

Yet, for all their idiosyncrasies, Hendrix’s songs feature some of the most memorable lines in rock: “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky”… “is this love, or confusion?”… “move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over!” His seeming contempt for songwriting norms is all the more impressive considering Are You Experienced was released before underground FM radio reached critical mass, offering artists like Hendrix a platform.

Curiously, music was only part of the debut album’s charms. Though Hendrix reportedly hated his singing voice, his vocals, which deftly staked out the space between whispery tenor and midrange-y baritone, possessed so much gravitas he could make even the most inane lyric sound like divine writ. His lyrics were street poetry that often veered into science fiction territory. OK, so tracks like “Foxy Lady,” “Red House” and “Hey Joe” find him portraying the tongue-flicking Lothario, or the vengeful jilted lover. But on ballads such as “May This Be Love,” he exhibits the vulnerable sensitivity that made him such an expressive musician.

Some people say daydreaming’s for all the lazy-minded fools
With nothing else to do

So let them laugh, laugh at me,
So just as long as I have you, to see me through,
I have nothing to lose …

But “May This Be Love” is a rarity. The tracks that bookend that gorgeous ballad seethe with frustration, befuddlement and fear of persecution, including “Purple Haze” (“don’t know if I’m coming up or down”) and “Love or Confusion” (“my mind is so mixed up, goin’ round and round”). On the self-explanatory “Manic Depression,” Hendrix’s frustration seemingly knows no bounds.

Manic depression is searching my soul
I know what I want, but I just don’t know … how to go about getting it
Music, sweet music, I wish I could caress
Manic depression is a frustrating mess!

These tense, high-strung sentiments beg a question: Did Hendrix suffer from mental illness, perhaps bipolar disorder or worse? Though we’ll never know the answer, it’s interesting to speculate how an undiagnosed emotional disorder might have fueled the guitarist’s matchless creativity, influenced his music and fed his insatiable appetite for adventure.

The other thing “Manic Depression” underscores is Hendrix’s love of music, an affection so deep he wished he could caress it, make love to it. Are You Experienced would reveal just how close Hendrix could come to accomplishing that rhetorical goal, but first he had to endure the real-life experiences that would help sculpt him into rock’s greatest expressionist.


On June 18, 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience played the Monterey International Pop Festival, a first-of-its-kind showcase intended to promote artistic rock acts emanating from around the world. Performing on a roster that included Redding, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and sitar player Ravi Shankar, Hendrix and the Experience stole the show. Splendid in a ruffled orange shirt and feather boa, Hendrix pulled out all the stops, playing guitar behind his back, with his teeth, between his legs, the works. In a rock ’n’ roll sacrificial rite, the guitarist set his beloved Fender Stratocaster on fire, then smashed it during a finale performance of the rock anthem “Wild Thing.”

The shock of that set is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1986 documentary Jimi Plays Monterey. As Hendrix tosses his shattered guitar into the Monterey crowd, Pennebaker’s cameras pan on some young women in the audience, their faces pallid with horror, confusion and desire.

Roughly two months after that debut U.S. performance, Are You Experienced was finally issued in the U.S. on Aug. 23, 1967. The album remained on Billboard’s Top LPs chart for 106 weeks. Unlike the U.K. edition, the album’s U.S. version included the singles “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Purple Haze.” To date, Are You Experienced has sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S.

Here was Hendrix, a foppish black man from segregation-torn America, calling the shots in a rock trio featuring two white British musicians.

Many English rock fans today embrace Hendrix as an honorary Briton. Though he was born and raised stateside in Seattle, Hendrix was born again in the England. The country is rightfully proud to have served as the launching pad for the greatest rock musician ever. Hendrix, Mitchell and Redding are all dead now, the first classic rock band whose members are all dead. Ironically, a song from Are You Experienced suggests Hendrix may have harbored doubts about his future. Entitled “I Don’t Live Today,” the guitarist claimed the track was a paean to the world’s indigenous peoples, but the lyrics could easily be viewed as Hendrix pondering his legacy.

Will I live tomorrow?
Well, I just can’t say …

On its 50th anniversary, The Jimi Hendrix Experience is universally acclaimed. A half-century later, the Hendrix buzz still resounds.

Anthony Hemingway of WGN’s ‘Underground’ is creating some of the dopest — and wokest — culture on screens The director loves pingpong and ‘Good Times’ — and says Colin Kaepernick is his favorite athlete

Anthony Hemingway is here to teach. He’s a director, yes. But the work he’s been creating, on film and on television, informs us about history and pushes us to have complicated, and at times uncomfortable, conversations about contemporary headlines. Hemingway, from New York, has been working on WGN’s powerful Underground, a thriller about life on the Underground Railroad. He directed that impactful recent episode that featured a brilliant Aisha Hinds as former slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and he also recently directed an episode of Fox’s intensely socially conscious limited series Shots Fired. And he’s got more important, teachable work on the way.


Does championing the truth inform the decisions that you make as a director? You’re part of #WokeWednesdays with your TV projects.

Yes. As I look back on my life, and at the elevations I’ve made, the blessings I’ve had and what really connects and speaks to me in terms of material, it all has some social relevance to it, some social connection, and I’m very thankful for that. It’s something that I don’t seek out. It’s something that really finds me. That’s how I operate. I’m thankful that what I do and what I’m able to really champion as a director or a filmmaker is not in vain. It really is serving a purpose and being meaningful.

What’s your favorite throwback TV show?

Most of what I loved growing up had a pretty comedic drive to it … a lot of the [Norman Lear] sitcoms, so it was done in ways that [told] a great story and made a connection, or was relevant. Like Good Times or What’s Happening. These shows affected my life and were a part of what shaped my childhood. I love the early sitcoms — those shows that I saw myself in.

What made you want to be a director?

I was 16 or 17 when I really made the decision to make this my career. I was a production assistant, and … I continued on the production train and became an assistant director. And along the way of AD’ing, I was included in a lot of the creative circles and I was allowed to have a voice. It just started to slowly click … just happened organically.

“I didn’t go to college, so my favorite team is unconventional — it’s the University of Hard Knocks!”

What’s your favorite college team?

I didn’t go to college, so my favorite team is unconventional — it’s the University of Hard Knocks! That’s my favorite team because I’m a product of it. And I’m proud that someone like myself, as a young black man that can be successful and can make it, can be an example to others to realize that there’s more than one way to go about things. I’m not trying to persuade someone not to go to college, because school is very necessary and, I think, important. But it’s not for everyone. I stand strong in knowing that my destiny and divine order was in the way that it happened. And so because it happens for me, it could happen for someone else. So that’s my team!

Favorite pro team?

Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s been a natural, organic favorite of mine because my cousin played for them and won two Super Bowl rings with them. Willie Williams. He was a cornerback for the Steelers. The Jets and the Knicks are also going to be all the way on the list because I’m from New York.

Do you have a favorite athlete?

Colin Kaepernick right now is someone I support because I love what he stands for and what he’s done … not being afraid to voice his point of view. And regardless of the controversy that it caused, I support him.

“I love the early sitcoms — those shows that I saw myself in … I could relate to [them] and even use [them] as somewhat of an education.”

Is there a sports story out there that you’d love to tell?

I’m actually in development on a couple films right now. One is a story about James Harris, who was the first black quarterback in the NFL. He came out of Grambling State University and made it to the Buffalo Bills. The name of the film is called Man on the Field, and it’s the story of his life. The other one that has been a long passion project of mine … is Emile Griffith, who, God rest his soul, passed a couple years ago. But he was a boxer in the ’70s in New York, and the tagline for his story was basically, ‘I killed a man, and the world forgave me. And I loved a man, and the world wants to kill me.’ That touched my heart when I heard that. To see someone who’s just passionate at what they do and love what they do and is amazing at what they do, and because of who they love they get crucified. It’s just one of those things that I think really kind of has multiple connections to many walks of life.

What will you always be a champion of?

Table tennis, pingpong, whatever you want to call it. I’m the master at that. But in terms of life and my focus? I will always champion truth.

In ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ a postracial, patriarchal hellscape What happens to white supremacy in a totalitarian theocracy? It depends on whom you ask

This article discusses details of The Handmaid’s Tale, both the book and the 2017 television adaptation.

Recently, Elisabeth Moss, the star of Hulu’s new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, was a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Colbert invited Moss to explain the show’s premise to those who might be unfamiliar with it. “It’s about, in America, a right-wing totalitarian fundamentalist regime …,” Moss said, smiling coyly.

She paused for effect, and the audience laughed.

“… takes over the country. Women are enslaved and made to be breeding hosts. All reproductive rights are stripped, and the Constitution is blown to smithereens. So I don’t know if you can imagine (pause, more laughter) such a world. Try to go there.”

Such is much of the conversation surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale: that it’s an unsettling, beautifully executed work that also happens to be frighteningly timely.

For all the talk of The Handmaid’s Tale’s equal parts exquisite and disturbing look into the future, there’s one area in which the television adaptation departs from an otherwise fairly close reading of Atwood’s original text: race. It’s also the area that suffers from a lack of deep interrogation of how to make such a change realistic in a series that has been commended for, and that prides itself on, a vision of the world that feels all too possible.

Adapted for television by Atwood, Bruce Miller (The 100, ER) and Ilene Chaiken (The L Word, Empire), The Handmaid’s Tale reveals what happens to women when the United States is taken over by religious fundamentalists who change its name to Gilead. It’s a world in which widespread pollution has dropped the fertility rate to species-threatening lows and fertile women of childbearing age are conscripted into serving as “handmaids” for the Gileadean aristocracy: men known as Commanders, and their barren Wives. The rules and realities of living in Gilead are revealed through the eyes of a handmaid named Offred (Moss). All the handmaids are stripped of the names they had in their former lives once they’re assigned to a Commander and Wife. Offred is assigned to a Commander named Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and the handmaid who accompanies her on daily errands, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is assigned to a man named Glen. Lower-income men who cannot afford a handmaid and a wife are assigned women, known as Econowives, who are expected to perform the duties of several women.

Hulu is releasing the first three installments of the 10-episode limited series Wednesday, April 26, and releasing a new episode each week thereafter. Strategically, staggering the release of episodes in the way regular television does (Hulu also does this with its new original period drama Harlots) just makes sense. It’s eight weeks of recaps and writing and discussion about a vision of the future that feels less and less like an impossibility. And its stunning, all-too realistic execution is precisely why I wouldn’t recommend spending 10 straight hours in Gilead — that is, unless you just enjoy having nightmares.

A scene from Episode 1 of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale

Take Five/Hulu

Gilead’s borders are heavily policed to prevent people from fleeing. People guilty or suspected of crimes against the state are executed and their bodies hung in public at a place called The Wall, serving as decomposing, fly-infested warnings to other potential dissidents. Placed throughout Gilead are secret informants known as Eyes, charged with enforcing loyalty to the totalitarian regime by spying and snitching on citizens, sowing distrust and preventing any sort of open, widespread oppositional solidarity.

The environment of The Handmaid’s Tale is culled from historical events: American slavery, the Holocaust and World War II, postwar East Germany, totalitarian Stalinist Russia.

Women are not allowed to read. Everyone has a specific uniform that corresponds with their societal duties. The handmaids are dressed in red full-length dresses and cloaks, with stiff white bonnets, called “wings,” that cover the sides of their faces.

Only a warped form of Protestant evangelicalism is allowed. Catholics are forced to convert or are banished to an area known as the Colonies, where they’re forced to clean up toxic waste until they die. Gay people — labeled as “unwomen,” “unmen” and “gender traitors” — are largely banished to the Colonies as well.

“We’ve seen this so many times in history, so what are you going to do? These people are violating your rights and killing your relatives,” Atwood said of totalitarianism. “What are your choices? You shut up and try to get through it and not get killed yourself. And those have been the kinds of choices for subserviented, for oppressed, for people with very little power, throughout history.”

There’s a reason that Atwood’s novel has felt so eerily prophetic in the 30-some years since it was first published. The environment of The Handmaid’s Tale is one culled from historical events, among them American slavery, the Holocaust and World War II, postwar East Germany, totalitarian Stalinist Russia. When it comes to the horrors human beings can inflict on one another, Atwood, 77, didn’t have to use her imagination; she merely had to look back in history.


“It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

In the book, black people are banished and sent “back” to Africa, while Jews are sent to Israel. The few black people who remain are postmenopausal women, known as Marthas, who perform domestic duties as maids and cooks. Everyone in the world of the Commanders, Wives and handmaids is white and Protestant. When childbearing women are kidnapped, they’re brought to a place called the Red Center, where women known as “Aunts” train them in their duties as handmaids. They’re white, too.

Moira (Samira Wiley), shown in the first episode.

Take Five/Hulu

But Hulu’s adaptation features actress Samira Wiley, best known for playing Poussey on Orange is the New Black, as Moira, Offred’s best friend. Moira gets kidnapped too, and she finds herself being trained for life as a handmaid at the Red Center at the same time as Offred.

In a hierarchical society propelled by religious fundamentalism, just about everything in this history of this country suggests that racial divisions would become far more deeply entrenched.

Miller, Chaiken and Atwood took care to preserve the exacting rituals and ceremonies that characterize life in Gilead and bring them to life on screen. There’s the awkward, uncomfortable, perfunctory sex that happens when a handmaid is ovulating. The mandated positioning stipulates that the handmaid lay supine between the legs of a Wife, with their arms intertwined, so that the standing Commander may look into the eyes of his Wife as he’s having sex with the handmaid.

When a pregnancy results in a birth, there’s a special chair devised for Wives and handmaids once a handmaid goes into labor, one that positions the handmaid (rather uncomfortably) below the wife and between her legs. Wives are encouraged to experience birth days as if it is they who are going through labor to deliver a child.

All of this serves to reinforce the idea that the handmaids are merely ambulatory wombs. They serve one purpose, which is to pop out babies, then give them up as soon as they’re weaned. And so introducing the idea of nonwhite handmaids prompts a question: What happens when a black woman gives birth to an interracial baby who serves as a daily reminder to a Wife that she’s not the child’s biological mother when so many rules and ceremonies have been created to obscure that very reality?

“Let’s assume that fertility, which is already going down — male fertility is being affected by plastics in the water even as we speak — let’s suppose that the ability to have a child, any child, is higher in rank than racial feelings,” Atwood answered.

“Fertility trumps everything,” Miller chimed in. “And if you posit a world where the fertility rate was falling well before this, that change would have happened before Gilead came.”

Offred (Elizabeth Moss) and her fellow Handmaids assist with the delivery of Janine’s baby.

George Kraychyk/Hulu

So Gilead is postracial because the human race is facing extinction, and that prompted Americans to get over several hundred years’ worth of racist education and social conditioning that depicted black people as inferior and less than human? Because Jesus? Recent findings from researchers at Villanova and Texas A&M universities suggest that’s highly unlikely. Glenn E. Bracey II and Wendy Leo Moore found that white evangelical Protestant churches subjected black parishioners to “race tests” and would push them out if they were found wanting.

Women are not allowed to read. Everyone has a specific uniform that corresponds with their societal duties.

“When people of color were unwanted and/or potentially threatened the boundaries of white institutional space (through their presence or their racial perspectives), white insiders in the churches employed exclusionary race tests to identify and repel people of color whose racial status, non-white customs, and/or racial politics disrupt the norms of white space,” Bracey and Moore wrote.

“My understanding was that there were slight differences in the evangelical movement, at least in America, that have gotten a little more diverse in the 35 years since the book came out,” Miller said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a kid in school where there isn’t a kid in school that’s a different race than their parents, because that kind of adoption, international adoption, has really happened.”

But the world of Gilead is not a world of adoption, not really. It’s something else entirely. And even if it were, that argument neglects to consider that nonwhite babies available for adoption are more difficult to place than their white counterparts and are usually accompanied by less expensive adoption fees.

This is where the series departs from its characterization by so many as prophetic: It ignores historical evidence that when white people feel existentially threatened, some double down on their prejudices, and it ignores how religious fundamentalism has been used to justify such prejudices and their incorporation into American institutions.

What happens to women when the United States is taken over by religious fundamentalists who change its name to Gilead.

The insecurity that drives the Wives of Gilead to create seemingly irrational rules governing the lives of handmaids are not so different from the tignon laws of New Orleans. Handmaids are forbidden from owning or using lotion because the wives want them as unattractive as possible, lest they tempt the wandering eye of a Commander, just as black and multiracial women in New Orleans were once required to cover their hair as a way of reinforcing their diminished social standing. In the Hulu series, the Aunts punish an insubordinate handmaid at the Red Center by gouging out one of her eyes, because handmaids don’t require eyes to reproduce.

It’s nearly impossible for me to see how a black handmaid would not find herself subjected to similar cruelties faced by Harriet Jacobs and countless other enslaved black women, whose mulatto children bearing their slave-owning father’s features served as constant reminders of infidelity and lechery. In a hierarchical society propelled by religious fundamentalism, just about everything in the history of this country suggests that racial divisions would become far more deeply entrenched, not less.


I’m not arguing that Wiley shouldn’t have been cast — far from it. Especially in flashbacks to modern-day city life, Wiley performs beautifully with Moss, creating exactly the sort of intimacy, normalcy and day-to-day happiness that becomes a distant memory once Gilead’s totalitarian regime is firmly ensconced in power. And for those familiar with Moira’s ultimate fate, serving up the sort of celebratory, “dirty,” illicit sex that’s been all but outlawed in Gilead, her blackness actually works quite well. Of course a black woman would be prized as exotic at an underground bordello that’s known as Jezebel’s.

Furthermore, in our current climate of heightened media literacy, I doubt that Hulu would have been able to get away with airing such a high-profile series with no women of color in consequential roles. So it’s up to writers to do a better job of addressing the complications that race presents, especially in a work that’s being sold as a glimpse of a possible future.

Imagining a dystopia in which misogyny takes center stage makes total sense because an America in which abortion is outlawed and women are forced to give birth seems frighteningly realistic. But one in which racism is no longer an issue is about as real as the unicorn tears and fairy powder being used to make Starbucks’ latest Frappuccino. If dystopic art is to serve as a commentary on what’s currently taking place in the world, its stewards would do well to remember that.

A scene from Episode 1 of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale

Take Five/Hulu

The oversight from Miller, Chaiken and Atwood doesn’t necessarily make The Handmaid’s Tale a bad series, but it does make it an incomplete one. Just as America’s origins as a nation founded by Puritans and Calvinists still inform our modern-day politics, so too does America’s original sin of slavery. Those two ills fit hand in glove, with religious fundamentalism often serving as the velvet cudgel justifying white supremacist dogma. In a fictionalized world, maybe it’s possible to separate them for the sake of convenience, but in the America of the past, present and near future, religious fundamentalism doesn’t usurp the power of racism. It helps to reinforce it.

‘Little Boxes’ and the issue of nonblack artists depicting black subjects The indie movie is just the latest in a string of works wrestling with how to authentically portray black lives

Little Boxes, a hit at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, comes out Friday in theaters and video on-demand. And yet it somehow already feels a bit anachronistic in a world where racial division is much more sharply defined than it was just months ago.

Based on writer Annie J. Howell’s own experiences in an interracial relationship, according to Reel Talk Online, Little Boxes follows a family of liberal Brooklyn intellectuals during their first days in the fictional town of Rome, Washington, which is a three-hour drive from Seattle.

Gina (Melanie Lynskey) is a white photographer and professor who just got a tenure-track position at the local college. Her black husband, Mack (Nelsan Ellis), is trying to bang out his second novel. They have an 11-year-old son, Clark (Armani Jackson), with an enormous Afro. All of them are trying to adjust to new surroundings and the unfurnished, moldy house in the middle of white exurbia.

Directed by Rob Meyer (A Birder’s Guide to Everything), Little Boxes ends on a note of Pollyanna-like optimism, suggesting the world’s racial problems could be solved if people just talked to each other more and black people didn’t make everything about race. (There is actually a line in the film in which Gina yells at Mack, “Not everyone is racist!”) It suggests that two black men can be the flies in middle-of-nowhere buttermilk and make it out OK, even as they’re side-eyeing microaggressions, in Mack’s case, or, in Clark’s case, beginning to learn that the world sees them differently. And maybe they can, although they’ll certainly sustain a few emotional scars.

Nelsan Ellis, Melanie Lynskey and Armani Jackson in a scene from “Little Boxes.”

Courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky

Little Boxes is the latest in a succession of indie films in which nonblack directors and screenwriters wrestle with black or multiracial leads in spaces that are overwhelmingly white. There’s Deidra and Laney Rob a Train (directed by Sydney Freeland, who is Navajo, and written by Shelby Farrell), as well as Morris From America (written and directed by Chad Hartigan).

These films raise questions about writing and empathy: When you have black or multiracial characters in settings that are largely white, how important is it to address race and racism? How do you present characters who are authentic when their experiences may be vastly different from your own?

Such questions aren’t limited to the big and small screens. They exist across the artistic spectrum. In literature, the current answer seems to be an explosion of sensitivity readers, who read books before they’re published in order to flag culturally insensitive stereotyping or details that are culturally inaccurate. These people are paid to submit detailed, honest critiques to authors dealing in subject matter that may be foreign to them, and they are most common in children’s and young adult literature.

Sensitivity readers are an intellectual workaround to address the consequences of white people having systematically separated themselves from everyone else in housing, education and the workplace. They are a stopgap. They are not a replacement for writers of color, and they’re not a solution to the overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry. But they can play a valuable role.

The fracas over artist Dana Schutz’s Open Casket suggests that an art world equivalent to sensitivity readers wouldn’t be a bad idea. Schutz’s depiction of the face of murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till has perhaps drawn more publicity than any other work in this year’s Whitney Biennial because of the racial politics surrounding it and the exhibition’s own troubled reputation when it comes to race and gender (too many white guys, not enough women and people of color). Schutz is white, and her subject is the victim of one of the most notorious instances of racist terroristic violence in American history. Schutz’s work drew protests because, even though it was based on the gruesome open-casket photo of Till’s disfigured face, it was an abstraction, seemingly devoid of connection to the historic circumstances that led to his death.

“Open Casket” by Dana Schutz

MATTHIAS KOLB 12355 BERLIN / Collection of the artist

In response to Schutz’s painting, Hyperallergic’s Ryan Wong published A Syllabus for Making Work About Race as a White Artist in America. Wong suggested that rather than trying to depict black suffering, white artists instead interrogate their own histories and ties to racist institutions. “Consider the fact that your insurance company, alma mater, housing deed, bank, hospital, etc. probably all have direct ties to segregation and slavery,” Wong wrote. “Think about that uncle who served in Korea or Vietnam and how he processes the millions of civilian murders that happened ‘over there.’ Remember that, in this moment, you are sitting on land violently stolen from indigenous people. How do you recreate the archive of that intentionally erased history?”

While Open Casket drew protests and calls for Schutz’s painting to be removed, it’s not uncommon as a person of color to find yourself eagerly lapping up an exquisite work while also lamenting that your reflection in it is a little shallow. That’s what happened with the recent HBO hit Big Little Lies, written by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

Writers for Refinery 29 and Vulture both pointed out how the character of Bonnie Carlson did a disservice to actress Zoë Kravitz’s considerable talents. Bonnie, the only black lead, is the most underwritten character on the show, and there’s no attempt to reconcile her identity as a black woman living among wealthy white liberals in Monterey, California.

It’s easy to point to Little Boxes or Big Little Lies or Open Casket as evidence of white people’s deficiencies with anything remotely having to do with race. It’s even easier to use that failure to say that white people should just stick to writing what they know and not bother writing about people of color at all.

But inclusion requires not just more people of color telling their own stories but also white artists creating nonwhite characters who are more than just the Black Best Friend. Nonblack writers and directors should stretch outside their own experiences because it’s been demonstrated, time and again, that it’s possible, if not easy, to get it right. Most black film and television writers wouldn’t be able to feed themselves if they could write only black characters. For people of color, “knowing your whites,” as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, is a survival tactic. We cannot afford to not know them.

It’s just as important then, that they should know us too. That’s not an easy thing. Most white people have no nonwhite friends. They live in places surrounded by other white people, and decades of housing and banking policy have subsidized that existence.

So what has to happen for such art to do more than just inspire criticism about what it’s lacking?

In film and television, it’s imperative to genuinely prize collaboration. These are the moments when it’s important for actors of color to have the freedom to give honest notes about their characters and about dialogue and for writers and filmmakers to listen to them.

Maurice Berger, a research professor and the chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, put it best in a piece for The New York Times about Schutz and Till:

Ultimately, the white artist who chooses to explore issues of race has a responsibility to the history and content of work they appropriate. And while some critics have made Ms. Schutz’s race the overarching issue — that a white artist should not traffic in black pain — the problem is not about her race. White artists should, and indeed have a responsibility to, examine the most vexing and intransigent issue of our time: white racism in all of its forms, from that of the complacent liberal to the neo-Nazi supremacist.

But cross-cultural work demands insight, respect, sensitivity and rigor. It also requires honesty about and self-inquiry into one’s own racial attitudes. To be an artist, no matter how expressive or interpretive, does not give anyone license — or cover — to casually appropriate African-American history and culture.

Little Boxes generally accomplishes what Berger prescribes. Meyer and Howell aren’t shy about depicting the eyeroll-inducing blind spots of white people in rural Washington state who’ve only ever known other white people.

Consider an encounter Mack has with his neighbor, Tom (David Ebert). When the two go to a local bar together, Tom tells another patron: “The thing about this guy is, if you close your eyes, you can’t even tell he’s black.” A look of familiar exasperation makes its way across Mack’s face.

While the film does a fairly good job of holding up a mirror to white racial clumsiness, it flubs some details with Mack and Clark. But it’s not malicious.

For instance, when Clark introduces himself to two neighborhood girls who become his first friends in Rome, he lists his favorite music: “AfroPunk, Bjork, ’90s hip-hop, free jazz.” It’s a small detail, but one that would stick out to anyone familiar with the Afropunk Festival, which is that no one really refers to Afropunk as a genre. It’s known more as a movement or music festival and Clark would have been more realistic had he named bands such as Morcheeba or Fishbone.

It’s also worth remembering that having a black writer or director is no guarantee that they will render black characters without issue, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding writer/director John Ridley and the upcoming Showtime miniseries Guerrilla.

Guerrilla, which stars Idris Elba and Freida Pinto, depicts the work of Britain’s black revolutionaries during the 1970s. Elba and Pinto collaborate to free a political prisoner and form a radical underground group. Audience members at a recent London screening accused Ridley, the screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave, of erasing black women from historic events. Pinto, the only female lead in Guerrilla, is Indian.

“I don’t want to make this overly personal, but part of why I chose to have a mixed-race couple at the center of this is that I’m in a mixed-race relationship,” Ridley responded. “My wife is a fighter, my wife is an activist, and yet because our races are different, there are a lot of things we have to still put up with.”

So who can we trust to tell complicated, challenging, messy stories about black people and tell them well? Such artists come in an array of races and genders, from Ava DuVernay to Steven Spielberg to Mira Nair, just to name a few. What they all share is passion, empathy and a respect for source material and the people whose stories they are telling.

In Little Boxes, there’s cause for optimism because Meyer and Howell are doing interesting work that’s absolutely necessary and not always easy: interrogating whiteness and the ways it shapes the people of color who encounter it. In an interracial relationship, those encounters aren’t just limited to the outside world. They happen right at home.

This survivor overcame domestic violence and sex trafficking and is helping others do the same Author Toshia Shaw inspires at-risk girls to find a meaningful life’s purpose through Purple W.I.N.G.S.

Sex trafficking continues to plague communities worldwide. The underground organized crime epidemic claims the innocence of young girls and boys every year. One survivor made a pact with God that if she were able to reclaim her life, she’d help others do the same.

Meet author, writer and motivational speaker Toshia Shaw.

She is a survivor who uses a hands-on approach to help women deal with traumatic events. She also advocates for women and girls through her Las Vegas nonprofit organization, Purple W.I.N.G.S. (Women Inspiring Noble Girls Successfully), which she launched in 2010.

“I give a voice to the voiceless because there are women who weren’t able to survive what I survived,” Shaw said. “They’re unable to tell their stories.”

According to the International Labour Organization, 20.9 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking and forced labor. Twenty-two percent of individuals are forcibly exploited for sex, 68 percent for private labor and 10 percent for state-imposed work, state military or rebel armed forces.

The 43-year-old activist identified a need and has worked tirelessly by lending a helping hand to her community. She believes she speaks for those who have died because of the trauma, the women who are incarcerated and those who have developed mental illness as a result.

Purple W.I.N.G.S. helps at-risk girls through mentoring and leadership development. The program mainly works with girls and teens of color who are living in poverty. According to its website, the organization’s victim services Angel program is deeply committed to mentoring women and girls who have been identified as victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence and stalking. Through this program, victims receive intense case management for at least one year. Girls participate in weekly two-hour supportive conversation circles, goal-setting programs, peer and adult one-on-one mentoring, and a variety of community-based activities.

Shaw herself is a victim of sex trafficking, but it doesn’t define her as the woman she is today.

“Having survived trauma myself, I made a promise to God that if I survive, then I will help other people,” Shaw said. “I believe that we’re placed on Earth to help someone else. I don’t believe that we’re here just to be selfish, to get all we can and forget our fellow man.”

At age 26, Shaw had two failed marriages, was a single mother and survived domestic violence. She was living in Memphis, Tennessee, with hopes and dreams of starting a new life for her and her son. The worst trauma in her life began one night when she met two men outside a nightclub.

“The driver urged me to skip the club and meet them for breakfast at a nearby restaurant,” she recounted. “Against better judgment, I agreed, and I jumped in my car and followed them.

“Once there, the conversation flowed. I told the driver, who I thought I had a connection with, all about how I had just arrived in Memphis, was looking forward to starting college and was looking for a job. He listened intently, and it was easy for me to open up to. I left the two men to excuse myself to the bathroom, but on my way back to the table I knew something was off. I ignored my intuition.

“When I returned to the table, the driver’s friend was nowhere to be found, and I became nervous. My new friend asked me to sit down. I was hesitant, and that hesitation quickly turned into panic when I realized I left my purse at the table. He sensed my worry and held up my purse in a sort of mocking gesture to insinuate that yes, I indeed had f—ed up and left it.

“This time he didn’t ask me to sit down — he demanded that I sit down. He scooted in so close to me I could feel his breath on the back of my neck, and the steel from the gun he had pressed on my thigh. He proceeded to tell me that I had found the new job I was looking for. I had walked into that restaurant a free woman, but I left as a sex slave. The cloak of victimization became heavier than ever before, and now I had taken victimization to a whole new level.”

Shaw escaped, but she doesn’t dwell on the specifics. “I made the choice to stand up for myself and refuse to continue with risking him making good on his promise that he would kill me or my family.”

Although her experiences caused her to contemplate suicide, she knew she had to be there for her young son. It took her years to get her life back together. She sought counseling and tried different avenues to help her cope.

Now she takes pride in her advocacy for women. She started Purple W.I.N.G.S. because there was a void in the Las Vegas area for mentorship to at-risk girls. Shaw went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in human services and an MBA from the University of Phoenix and is now an experienced human services professional who has gained vast knowledge working with at-risk youth, battered women and girls.

While interning at a local runaway shelter, which serves runaway and homeless youths, she noticed the staggering number of homeless and runaway girls entering the program. After extensive conversations with these young girls she noticed a pattern that involved the lack of communication and involvement in the lives of these young women by parents and responsible adults. The girls longed for direction, communication and something to do after school.

Thus, Purple W.I.N.G.S. was born. Shaw started out on a quest to fulfill most of the desires of girls like those at the runaway shelter. She enlisted the help of other professional individuals desiring to make a change in the community, including the Las Vegas Police Department.

“The effects of living in a hypersexual city can’t be ignored,” Shaw wrote on Purple W.I.N.G.S.’ website. “Girls see their likeness on billboards, in city newspapers, magazines, leaflets and pamphlets being portrayed as sex objects. They grow up knowing prostitution is legal in brothels only 90 minutes away from here; they understand that while prostitution is illegal within the city limits, there is an allowance of the conduct on the Strip.”

Purple W.I.N.G.S. has affected the life of 18-year-old Jasmine Williams, who was exploited at the age of 14.

“Purple W.I.N.G.S. has impacted it [in] so many different ways,” Williams said. “The main way my life was affected was just being able to speak out and have a voice. Women in the sex industry have their voices taken away from them. Purple W.I.N.G.S. gave me a platform to be able to speak my mind, gave me a place to be completely comfortable and open up about my past experiences and what I’ve been through, which allowed me to become more expressive and comfortable with talking about my past and helping me heal and move forward.”

Williams credits Purple W.I.N.G.S. for giving her the strength and courage to talk about her experience in the sex trafficking industry. She plans to open a group home to help young women and victims of the sex industry have a place to stay and feel safe, as Purple W.I.N.G.S. did for her.

“My life has changed tremendously,” Williams said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of an organization that really cares about me and my spirit. Toshia [Shaw] really cares where I end up in life, and it shows. She often checks on me and my family just to make sure I’m on track mentally and emotionally, and my goals she helped me set are being met.

“It really is a blessing to have her and other counselors from Purple W.I.N.G.S. a part of my life and available for me to reach out to and call. I don’t know where I would be without the positive impact [it] has had on my life. I am forever grateful.”

Shaw said that in the age of social media, it has become easier for others to be victimized. She said it has become extremely easy for pimps to recruit and find their victims.

“We have to fix it and realize it’s not just girls, women, who are victimized in human trafficking. Boys are victims too,” she said.

Shaw, a Memphis native, said she sacrifices herself for others to have courage to tell their own truths. She provides trauma life coaching for individuals through her program, The Pact. The author of three previous books, Shaw is currently working on her fourth book, titled The Pact, A Workbook to Get Unstuck and Awaken to Your Life’s Purpose, which will be released via Kindle and paperback on Amazon this summer.