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My former employer, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), invited me to moderate a panel discussion on jazz and race at its first Jazz Congress conference in New York this week.
Wynton Marsalis is the artistic and managing director for JALC. I’ve known him for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him for six years. From time to time, we’ve been able to steal a moment here or there to chat about things, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to have an extended dialogue, so I used this opportunity to sit down with him and have an in-depth discussion about the topic at hand: jazz and race.
JALC is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Marsalis is showing no signs of slowing down. He has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind on the record as well as on issues of race. He won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, which deals with slavery, and the content from his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is self-explanatory.
When asked about the impetus for the panel discussion on jazz and race, he replied, “Because race, race relations, racial tensions, racial harmony and questions of freedom are all tied up with the identity of jazz from its birth.”
Jazz music and Marsalis were both born in New Orleans. Dolores Marsalis gave birth to Marsalis at Flint Goodridge Hospital, and the mythic birthplace of jazz was Congo Square, an open space in the Tremé neighborhood.
When he talks about the origin of jazz, Marsalis is quick to point out the dangers of falling prey to a false binary choice.
“First off, the amalgam of elements in Afro-American music and in jazz come from different forms of European music, like the march form and the combination of a fiddle style or a European parlor piano style, which, when combined with the arpeggiated sound of a banjo and syncopation, becomes ragtime.
“The fact that the slaves could play the drums in New Orleans at Congo Square when they weren’t permitted to in other parts of the South allowed the drums to become the centerpiece of the style. Now the drums, while rooted in Africa, is Afro-American, which is American. To be Afro-American is also to be part Anglo-American. That is at the root of many of the problems related to race in America. It’s hard for us to come to grips with that notion. We have been conditioned into making a false binary choice, an either/or, when life isn’t that cut and dried. Oftentimes it’s both/and. But it’s hard for us to reconcile that both/and when we are so used to having to choose sides.”
Marsalis considers jazz to be America’s gift to the rest of the world and a perfect metaphor for democracy. Which is ironic because it is an art form forged in a foundry by founders who were not free.
“Now in terms of freedom, I think the way that the original jazz musician viewed freedom was extremely acute. It’s like the way a person who hasn’t eaten for days views food as opposed to someone who has a refrigerator full of food, like the way that people who were denied the right to vote, the way that they went out and voted when they finally got the right to vote as opposed to people who already had the right to vote and took it for granted.”
From the early 1900s until the 1950s, there was a very strong dance element to jazz music that began to fade. Marsalis believes that this is one of the contributing factors to the eventual decline in the popularity of jazz, which is now very much a niche music. In 2014, jazz only accounted for 1.4 percent of U.S. music consumption.
“We don’t have a national dance tradition that is intergenerational. Many South American countries have a national dance like samba or tango that is intergenerational that everyone can do that has some type of sexual content that is not pornographic. In a culture, there has to be a way that dance can express a fertility in the intermingling of the sexes that is not pornography. The only dance that we can think of like that in America is the Electric Slide at weddings. We had to find something, because you know you can’t be grabbing on grandma.”
One of the most devastating impacts on our culture in general, and niche music genres like jazz in particular, is the commodification of music, Marsalis says.
“At some point, people were trying to figure out how to sell music. In music, like anything else, when your primary goal is to sell, then you are going to focus on and highlight aspects that are most marketable, and many of those have nothing to do with music, like someone’s looks, their charisma or some type of tribal association. For instance, country music now is being equated with the military and with being white. That has nothing to do with the birth and origins of that music. Hip-hop is equated with some of the most pathological aspects of being black, and from the music has blossomed a culture of materialism and barbershop-level political discourse. It has also been used to reconnect with the minstrel tradition, with the ’hood replacing the plantation.
“The originators of that form were just creating something with what they had. Their creation was co-opted to tell an old tale. ‘Black people ain’t s—, especially men.’ Then, resources and support came pouring in from all corners of the country because that’s a comfortable story. Black and white people playing together and coming up with something creative, virtuosic, socially aware and elevatory is considered subversive. That’s why it’s so rare to see in the actual public space like on television.”
All of this conspires to create those false binary choices that force us to choose sides. In discussing how polarized we’ve become as a country, we both harkened back to one of our favorite quotes about American and Afro-American identity from Harold Cruse in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership:
Said Marsalis: “… without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that American whites, as a whole, are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negroes. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.”
America is a very young country when we compare ourselves to other countries and cultures, and as such it would stand to reason that our cultural identity is in limbo and still in the process of formation.
Marsalis sees jazz as part of the solution for a shared cultural mythology between blacks and whites as Americans that could help move the needle on race relations. The problem is that both blacks and whites aren’t willing to allow jazz to be placed in its rightful place on the cultural landscape of American greatness.
Interestingly, that cultural mythology already exists in other parts of the world. Jazz has been and continues to be celebrated abroad as a uniquely American art form while at the same time being understood to be Afro-American.
Marsalis explained: “In the places abroad, mainly European countries, they have a tradition of listening, especially to long-form music. They have a concert tradition where music is removed from dance, which suited jazz once the communal dance element stopped being a part of the music like it was from the early 1900s to about 1950.
“They accepted it because it was Western art, they could accept an African-European combination, the Americanism, the optimism in the music. There was also a level of one-upmanship by the Europeans who were saying that America was supposed to be this bastion of freedom, but look how you dog these black musicians and we accept them over here. So in that way it was symbiotic, because the jazz musicians liked to say it and the people in those countries liked to say it.
“The population at that time [1940s-’60s] in those countries did not have the same type of pressure to denigrate people who were not like them, especially people with brown skin. There was less pressure to do that. Of course now there is much more pressure because their brown populations are larger. Also, it didn’t drive Europeans crazy that a black dude was with a white lady. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t go crazy over it, where in America you could get killed over it at that time. A false construct like race which has been used to lord power over the designated group must be protected with punishment and violence. Because if not, people will realize it’s all some bulls—.”
When asked what are the barriers to jazz becoming the catalyst for a shared cultural identity that could help advance the national conversation on race, Marsalis responded, “Jazz is not really in the contemporary conversation on race in any meaningful way because it is the one form of entertainment that was integrated first. So if you’re looking to sell something and you’re looking for the kind of titillating thing that’s on one side or the other, you need people cursing and acting a fool.
“Jazz is too rational. It has a history of maturity and of confronting different issues from different perspectives.”
Another reason is because jazz suffers from an identity problem of its own. Every musical genre is defined by a rhythm. There is no consensus among the jazz community as to what if any rhythm defines jazz.
Marsalis has been on a crusade for the past 30-plus years to promote swing as the foundational rhythm of jazz.
“Swing is the rhythmic identity of the music. Musical genres are defined by rhythm and the swing pattern is the foundational identity of jazz.
“Aside from the technical aspects of swing, there are elements to it that when done a certain way can bring about something that is fundamental to resolving differences.
“It’s about opposites coming together. The bass has to be at a certain volume, it has to be soft to make the drums play softer. The loudest instrument has to play with the softest instrument. Jazz is a music that depends on a balance and an intimacy because it is a music of conversation and dialogue.
“The mobility of the bass allows you to have conversations that are ongoing. Once the bass becomes immobile, meaning playing the same pattern over and over again, the music can still be great, but it regulates the way you are going to speak in that conversation.”
When asked why there is so much rancor over something seemingly so trivial, Marsalis said, “… because swing is equated with the American Negro, and nothing objective that comes from the American Negro is being studied with any level of seriousness by any significant numbers of whites or blacks in this country.”
Over the years, there have been some collateral damage in the black community over some of Marsalis’ musings about jazz and his promotion of swing.
I asked Marsalis questions that many black folks ask me when they find out that I worked with him.
Does Marsalis really think less of other forms of black music like rhythm and blues? Does he think there is some type of hierarchy?
Does Marsalis still hate hip-hop?
In response to the first question, Marsalis said:
“It is hierarchical. Let’s be clear, there are hierarchies in everything that exists. Like a family, like a classroom has a teacher, a basketball team has a point guard. Hierarchy doesn’t mean that one thing is necessarily better than another. It just means that there is a relationship of how things relate to one another.
“Those other forms of music came out of jazz. Any form of music with a bass and a drum can draw a line back to jazz. The difference is, like I said before, when the bass becomes immobile the conversation and dialogue become constrained.
“But where we find ourselves now, it really doesn’t even make sense to talk about hierarchies because we have slid so far from where we once were as a culture. It’s like food companies are trying to figure how much food can I take out of this food and still be able to sell it as food.”
In response to the hip-hop question, Marsalis smiled wryly and said, “The results of its 40-year reign are clear. You can draw your own conclusion.
“I’ve said to people over and over again that it is the minstrel show of our time, and nothing that I have seen in this time period has dissuaded me from that point of view — listening to it, having kids that like it, reading books about it, checking out the lyrics. Nothing has dissuaded me from that as a generalization.
“Are there people with a tremendous amount of creativity? Yes. Human beings are creative in whatever they do. If you read that manual that was published during slavery times about how they kept slaves in order, that was creative.”
(Something struck a chord, so he stood up and began to gesticulate as he continued.)
He began to calm down, sat down next to me and said to me in a hushed, almost defeated tone.
“I don’t really argue about it anymore. I spent my 20s and 30s arguing about this, but then it dawned on me that people want this, and now 40 years later the results are clear.
“So the people have spoken.”
As we wrapped up, I referred Marsalis to the article that The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan being inspired by Marsalis’ book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.
I asked him to explain how the fundamental aspects of jazz could be helpful to people in their everyday lives the same way that it was beneficial to Donovan.
“Jazz can help us all understand how to better manage our space in relation to other people’s space. The three fundamental aspects of jazz are:
“Improvisation: I am. Identifying who you are and bringing your unique self and personality to the table.
“Swing: It’s the opposite of that. Other people have personalities too. Other people need space too. With the same intensity of how you found yourself, find them. Find that common ground and nurture it. In jazz, it’s the opposites. The bass is way down at the bottom and the cymbals are way at the top, and they have to play on every beat together.
“The blues: Stuff doesn’t work out sometimes.”
At that I ended with my final question: “As you know, in the blues form, there’s a turnaround. It’s the place in the music for me when you can palpably feel the hope in the music. For many, Obama represented the ultimate turnaround for black people. It feels now like we’ve gone back to the top of the form.
“Where do you see the next turnaround coming?”
He smiled at me and said, “I don’t see it coming, but I believe in it. I believe in it because, because I believe that your belief creates it and if enough people believe, you all can create it together, and that’s the essence of democratic action. We’ve seen it time and time again in different ways.”
As a kid growing up in Jamaica, the only sport I ever played — at recess, in the house, in the neighborhood — was futbol. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t destined to be the next Pelé, the Brazilian star who brought the South American country its first World Cup title in 1958 when he was all of 17. Futbol, in my world, was really the only sport worth watching and playing, with all due respect to cricket.
But when a packed Eastern Airlines flight touched down at Washington National Airport on May 7, 1982, American football entered my world. I became a fast Redskins fan, growing to admire the quiet but effective leadership style of coach Joe Gibbs; the bruising running of John Riggins; even the team’s brash, single-bar-helmet-wearing quarterback Joe Theismann. So big a “Riggo” fan, I asked my middle school soccer coach to assign me his jersey number: 44.
I remember watching a Monday Night Football telecast on Sept. 5, 1983, where legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell said of Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett: “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”
The response to Cosell’s description of the 5-foot-7, 178-pound wide receiver was quick, even in our pre-social media world. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, denounced Cosell’s comment as racist and demanded a public apology.
But Cosell refused to do so, citing his past support for black athletes, Muhammad Ali being the biggest, and stated that “little monkey” was a term of endearment he had used in the past for not just black athletes but also for diminutive athletes of all shades, white included. (Cosell is on record having used the term 11 years before in describing Mike Adamle, a white journeyman running back who played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Chicago Bears.)
Cosell, then 64 years old, admitted to calling his own grandson a little monkey; he’d leave the Monday Night Football booth after that 1983 season, citing his waning interest in professional football.
This week I harkened back to that moment in time when the pictures of an African-American boy, Liam, in an H&M ad wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” inscribed on it broke Twitter.
The response on social was fast and furious. Manchester United and Belgian national soccer star Romelu Lukaku, LeBron James, Diddy, The Weeknd and many more were among the big names to slam H&M, calling for shoppers to boycott the Swedish clothing company.
When Cosell said, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” my 13-year-old self missed it. Completely. I don’t remember my parents discussing it in the house in the days that followed. But this much I’m sure of: Even if my parents had heard the comment, I doubt there’d have been an outcry for Cosell’s dismissal from his job. Why? As West Indians, raised in the Caribbean and educated in the U.K., our sensibilities toward issues of race, racism and social activism were far different from 1983 America’s.
It matters not that Cosell used the term in reference to a white player. It doesn’t matter that he used it toward his own family. The bottom line is there are people who were offended when he used it in reference to an African-American player; therefore, he should have apologized for it and never done it again.
Why? Because he used the term out of context, and context matters.
So I understand that Liam’s mom didn’t grow up here and is Nigerian-Swedish and is not tuned in to the many nuances of being woke in America. So … she don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter — because there are people who were offended. In American context, the sweatshirt was out of context and that reference is offensive. So H&M should apologize, which it did, and never do it again. Ever.
Know this: What happened to that kid in the H&M ad could never have happened to my sons — not if I am breathing, anyway, and certainly not if I’d been on that photo shoot. No doubt, my reaction to the ad was no different from yours; I share the outrage, particularly at such a time in America where subtle and not-so-subtle racism in all its forms, from intentional and murderous to intentional and microaggressive, has dominated our lives, from the athletic field to the White House.
When the mother of 5-year-old Liam ranted on social that America’s reaction to the image was “unnecessary,” I suspected she might not be African-American. (Turns out, Terry Mango moved to Sweden from Nigeria.)
In a series of Facebook posts, Mango urged critics, including high-profile musicians and sports stars, to “get over it” and to “stop crying wolf.”
She wrote: “Am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled… stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here… get over it [sic]. … ‘Not coz am choosing not to but because it’s not my way of thinking sorry [sic].’ ” In a separate post, she added: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
That last point is probably Mango’s best, and only, good one. Growing up in Jamaica, we all spoke different versions of the patois dialect — and that included Chinese-Jamaicans, white Jamaican and Indian-Jamaicans and various combinations thereof. Our issue in Jamaica is not one of race, it’s of class. We had, and still have, a class problem.
Mango’s reaction tells me that this simply wasn’t her reality growing up; the American reaction irked her, maybe even surprised her too.
I have two black sons, ages 16 and 13 (and a daughter too). The world they live in scares the bejesus out of me; I worry about them walking home from school or, God forbid, driving my car without fear of being randomly harassed by police, who are supposed to protect them. Those are the fears that sparked this “quick” reaction, and Mango, I suspect, doesn’t understand that because that is not her reality. For those reasons alone, the national reaction cannot be deemed a small deal.
As you’d imagine and may have seen, Mango has taken more than a few hits on social, and for her comments, perhaps it’s well-deserved. She won’t have to defend herself to me. But I do hope that when the dust settles, she will look at this episode as a teachable moment — for herself and for young Liam, because the world in her head is not the world little Liam will live in.
Slow down on the Oprah presidency talk. This still is America.
Since Oprah Winfrey delivered her dazzling acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes, political talking heads have buzzed about whether she will seek the 46th presidency. CNN recently reported that Oprah, according to two close friends, is “actively thinking” about running. And her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, informed the Los Angeles Times, “It’s up to the people. … She would absolutely [run for president].”
With the idea of an Oprah candidacy bustling through the public debate, many journalists are weighing her odds of winning, concluding that Democratic challengers should quake in fear should she enter the ring.
Politico’s Playbook deemed her a formidable foe: “We bet she has pretty high approval ratings among, well, everyone. She’s universally known. She’d raise the money quite easily. She’s a billionaire, so she could say she has business chops. Imagine Donald Trump talking trash about Oprah! Quite frankly, there isn’t any clear Democratic favorite that would clear the field at the moment. Don’t count someone like her out.”
Alex Burns, political reporter for The New York Times, echoed the sentiments:
Still, Ms. Winfrey could face a difficult fight for the Democratic nomination, especially against _________
It is tough to finish that sentence
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) January 8, 2018
“But first, Ms. Winfrey will have to get past potential competitors such as Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.” You see what I mean.
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) January 8, 2018
Yet, this same crowd (political journalists) is the reason we should discount the likelihood that she could win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the presidency.
Many have overlearned a lesson from 2016, the lesson being that we must reimagine who can win the White House. No longer must a person be a politician or famous war general — celebrity satisfies the burden and thus Oprah, so the argument goes, presents a major challenge in 2020.
A necessary but not sufficient condition for Donald Trump’s win, however, was that the political media failed to seriously and continuously interrogate his political aptitude. The knowledge level of a political novice that close to the most powerful position in the free world should have been regarded as the most important issue in the campaign by the press but wasn’t. In what makes a lot more sense now, Matt Lauer, for instance, pressed Hillary Clinton during the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7, 2016, but allowed Trump to skate by, failing to correct misstatements of facts. Comparable failures continue to recur, most recently with an interview conducted by Michael Schmidt of The New York Times, who refused to probe Trump with pointed questions. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver highlighted the problem with this media failure:
One argument for asking follow-up questions when you actually get a chance to interview Trump is that he reveals his inner monologue all the time on Twitter anyway. The marginal value of publishing a one-way conversation would be higher if he were more reserved on this forum. https://t.co/ZsdNrI3SQQ
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) December 29, 2017
We should not expect the media to treat a black woman, not even Oprah, similarly. If she struggles to display command over domestic and foreign policy issues, the media will pounce, transforming the “Oprah is running” narrative into an “Oprah is unfit” narrative that will depress her likelihood of victory. And such a story is much more likely to occupy center stage for the duration of the campaign.
Women endure extra scrutiny when entering the political arena, as the previous election demonstrated, a reality only exacerbated when that woman has black skin. Our sexist society scoffs at the notion that women can perform as capably as men, forcing women, particularly black women, to clear hurdles men never encounter. Oprah will not benefit from the implicit assumption that a male nonpolitician would benefit from: that she could perhaps still do the job despite an atypical resume.
The media lacks racial diversity, and even if reporters and editors showcase more racial tolerance than the broader population, they nonetheless fall victim to racial stereotyping. Notice how the media, for instance, depicts white male murderers like good kids gone awry but recount the tales of black victims of police brutality through a prism of their personal failings. The media extends a measure of forgiveness and empathy to white folk that they hesitate to extend to black folk. Even if Oprah learned policy quickly, she will err on the campaign trail — even seasoned politicians do — and once that occurs, how will the media treat her?
White men have long reaped jobs and opportunities they had no business receiving. This subplot features prominently in the “white man in America” story. The “black woman in America” corollary contains no such entry. If Oprah stands a chance to be president, she will have to clearly demonstrate her fitness for the Oval Office beyond that of a similarly situated white man. The white journalists pontificating gleefully about the specter of President Oprah will make sure of that.
Sure, she’s Oprah, one of the most respected and adored living Americans, a feat managed in spite of her blackness. But still, twice as hard, twice as good.
Even for Oprah.
It was his speed. It was his footwork. His mesmerizing moves.
Watching Roy Jones Jr. in the boxing ring during his prime was like watching a well-crafted dance battle. In each of his bouts, Jones came out with a fight plan that would invite opponents into his world time and time again — a world where he won so much that he made history.
Jones is a six-time world champion whose career spans four weight classes (middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight). The elite boxer, rapper and commentator is the only boxer in history to start his professional career as a light middleweight and move up to win a heavyweight title. He won the silver medal in the light middleweight division at the 1988 Summer Olympics.
Jones has the combination of Sugar Ray Leonard’s handwork and Muhammad Ali’s passion. In a career that includes him soaring from obscurity to glittering fandom, his razzle-dazzle in the ring thrust him into the spotlight. Not that one needs to tell the Pensacola, Florida, native about the contributions he’s made to the boxing world. He knows his resume.
Jones also has a surprisingly prolific rap career, with one of his famed songs titled “Ya’ll Must’ve Forgot.”
Now he’s sharing his skills with the world. He has partnered with Star Vizn to offer a first-class experience in his boxing world.
Star Vizn is an online training platform where youths, adults, athletes, future entrepreneurs and aspiring entertainers can learn how to become better at their craft through an app. The platform allows anyone to gain exclusive, behind-the-scenes training from some of the biggest names in their industries on both iOS and Android.
The monthly subscription service is dedicated to users of all ages. Jones lends his expertise, joining other former professional athletes such as Jerry Rice, Robert Horry, Dominique Wilkins, Melissa Gorga and Cameron Mathison.
Focusing on fitness and sports training techniques, Star Vizn offers workouts ranging from as little as five minutes to a grueling 50 minutes as well as personal audio training. Jones’ 12-week training camp includes cardio, total body strength and endurance workouts through his legendary boxing and self-defense techniques and interval fitness training.
Jones applauds Star Vizn for introducing the platform, which was not widely available during his prime.
“You get to learn who I am through this app,” Jones told The Undefeated. “We didn’t have that when I was coming up. We didn’t have that in my prime. You feel me? If we would have, I’d have been watching Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan every day, along with a little bit of Barry Sanders.”
Jones, recently wrapping up his media tour in the ABC Studios in New York City, mic’d himself. He knew which camera to face. He recited rap lyrics during sound check and said he is always prepared. He didn’t need any direction.
Jones said Star Vizn gives him the opportunity to regain some of the time he lost not being part of social media. Collaborating with Star Vizn is important because to the boxer it’s a conduit to give back the things he learned during his journey.
“The things that God blessed me to be able to learn and accomplish, I can now share all my experiences with the world if you want to learn or if you want to know or if you want to be shared with,” Jones said. “It’s very beautiful for me because it’s an opportunity to give back yet to also strengthen the core of amateur boxing and professional boxing, because they saw what I did with my career, where I can show you how I did that now.
“God blessed me to be able to do so many remarkable things with my career and during my career that stays relevant because they are the best highlights on YouTube. We all get to benefit from the fact that people can go back on social media now, look at it and share it, and they share my videos all the time because nobody has more intriguing yet exciting videos of boxing than does Roy Jones Jr. You ain’t gotta go back and look at one fight; you can go back and it’s a whole collage. It’s songs, videos of true stuff that I did in fights that nobody else did. So that’s what kept me relevant. When people say they want to look at boxing, you want to see boxing, you want to see fighting with excitement to it. You’ll go watch probably two or three people: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr.”
Jones’ music even got noticed in the 1990s era when hip-hop connoisseurs appreciated elements of music that described real-life situations. His music was often a testimony of the portrayal of his life, except he said he didn’t smoke or drink.
“Once I learned how to box and I got my steps down pat, I used to go in my mirror at nighttime and I was practicing stuff. I put my music on,” Jones said.
He said that his most memorable fight was against James Toney on Nov. 18, 1994.
“At that time, I was trying to get to be the man and James Toney was the man,” Jones said. “He was knocking out all comers, he was beating pretty much everybody with the exception of Dave Tiberi, and he was a bully. He was a mean bully that really could fight, so it was no weaknesses in him. He had the attitude, he had the personality, he had everything. He had the skills, he had the power. He had everything. So when you look at him, you’re like, ‘Wow, how’s somebody gonna beat him?’ But I didn’t look at him that way. I looked at him like, ‘Ha, how’s he gonna last with me?’ And that’s what I did to him.”
The hardest part of Jones’ journey has been ending his time as a fighter.
“At the end of the journey, when you finally get everything that you want and you try to tap into that hunger or that drive or that motivation or that anger that you used to have … very difficult to get it because when you do everything you want to do, what’s left?”
Jones’ idol was the legendary Ali.
“Without him I would be nothing, because he set a standard and a bar for me that I had to follow suit with because he was the reason I started boxing,” Jones said. “Without him I’m nothing, because I wouldn’t know where to start without seeing him fight.”
Jones often thinks about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but he’s not too concerned about his own brain trauma although he has been taking blows since he was 10.
“It is something that you have to worry about,” Jones said. “I always have been concerned about it to a degree, but yet I knew I wasn’t wrapped too tight to start with, so it can’t mess me up much more than I already am. But I thank God that I’m still capable of handling myself, speaking to where people can understand what I say. Knowing how to slow down and be a commentator and do things in a way that or in a manner that people can comprehend exactly what I’m trying to say.”
He believes in causes such as fighting the Libyan slave trade and welcomes other athletes’ voices to shed light on social causes of interest.
“You’re gonna stand up for it when you first see it happening so that you can hope to bring enough attention to it to get it stopped before it does hit home,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. I’m here because I want to do the Star Vizn thing and ready to promote Star Vizn but I’m not afraid to speak out for what I believe in, and anytime that I have an issue or they have an issue, everybody’s entitled to what they want to do. We have freedom of speech in the United States of America, so you think something’s wrong with something or you think something needs to be adjusted with something, then you have a right to go stand up for it. Everybody don’t have to do it. It’s not an obligation of yours, but you’ve got a right to do whatever the hell you want to do. So if you want to go stand up for that, you have the right to go stand up for that.”
Jones lives a healthy lifestyle. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday he wakes up at 5:15 a.m. to play basketball at 6.
“Sometimes I go back to sleep. Sometimes I go home and eat breakfast and go to work in my yard, however it goes. But about 1 or 2, I train my fighters. Then most of the time about 4, I go back to the basketball gym and dominate the kids, and I come back home at about 8 o’clock at night. I train my fighters for a second time. Then I’m in the bed. And it’s a hectic week and a hectic day, but that’s how I live.”
He still maintains a healthy diet. When training he does not eat red meat, sweets, dairy or bread.
“I got myself in shape, went out to L.A. for the filming, got my mind right, went back to my old self. I put on my boxing uniform, got my workout uniform, got my mind into workout mode. Start thinking about what I did when I fight, what I do, how I see boxing on a whole, how I see the technique of boxing, and we went to work.”
Jones is also preparing to leave the ring. He announced that his farewell fight in the cruiserweight division will take place Feb. 8 in his hometown of Pensacola. Although his opponent has not been determined, he is set to headline the Island Fights 46 card that will include a mixture of boxing and MMA matches.
The 48-year-old (turning 49 on Jan. 16) in his prime was untouchable until his 2004 bout with Antonio Tarver.
Jones has won 11 of his past 12 fights, with his most recent on Feb. 17 last year when he knocked out Bobby Gunn in the eighth round in Wilmington, Delaware. The win was Jones’ third in a row against low-level opposition.
These days he begins his morning with an early basketball game with a few youth in the Pensacola area. Yet he remains one of the most viewed boxers on YouTube, and he is well-aware of the stardom younger generations of people still let him bask in — and he intends to keep it.
It’s really just a makeshift dance floor in a small hotel conference room.
But then a song — some might consider it the Black People’s Party Anthem — drops and everyone falls in line, moving, shaking and, yes, wobbling to the beat of V.I.C.’s 2008 “Wobble,” a song that hasn’t vanished from many black family gatherings, even after a decade. Everyone moves to the beat, celebrating, as if a couple has just jumped a broom.
At the center of this dance-happy moment is Venus Williams. She’s at her most comfortable, dressed in a look from her own athleisure line, EleVen by Venus, and surrounded by family members. For a night, anyway, she gets to just be Venus — instead of “Venus Williams,” who as a burgeoning star tennis player made her Australian Open debut in 1998, playing her baby sister, Serena, in a professional match for the first time at that tournament.
That was the Venus Williams who rocked freshly oiled cornrows adorned with blue and white beads that shook something fierce every time she whacked what became her signature serve return in the direction of Serena Williams, whose own cornrows were bright with green and white beads. This was the Venus Williams who, along with Serena, demonstrated early dominance and took center stage in one of the most stridently white of professional sports. Tennis, a game of rackets and stretched nets, that at times is played in the world’s most stridently white spaces.
But when “Wobble” was on? The revolutionary “Venus Williams” was just Venus — a woman with a mean body roll and a swag surf that dropped so low, gravity was no match for all 6 feet, 1 inch of her very recognizable frame.
Before the holidays, both Venus and her superstar sister sat on a panel to discuss violence in the inner city. A poignant and effective conversation, it reminded everyone at the December 2017 “A Family Affair” that these two beautiful brown women who have both helped change how we consume pop culture — and yes, tennis — aren’t immune to the harsh realities and social justice issues of American “inner” cities.
After all, they both hail from Compton, California — the birthplace of Kendrick Lamar, and the now-gentrifying city that Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre helped make infamous via their provocative supergroup N.W.A. Compton is the city that took the life of their sister, Yetunde Price, who was killed on Sept. 14, 2003, at the age of 31. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting.
But now the Venus Ebony Starr Williams who we all know best is back. And she’s ready to take the place of her rightful throne at the 2018 Australian Open. Serena Williams, a newlywed and new mom to baby Alexis Olympia, is still waiting for what her big return might be. But at the very least — which, certainly is the very most — we get to welcome back half of the duo who helped to change the pop culture game. And Lord, are we ever ready.
Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.
In 2015, a hater tweeted that Serena Williams was “built like a man.” It was a tweet heard round the world. That affected us all. It insulted us all. Then Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling shut it down by posting a photo of Serena Williams in a slim-fitting red dress with the text: “She is built like a man. Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”
A year earlier, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, called the tennis legends the “Williams brothers” and said, “It’s scary when you really look at them.” Insulting. The ensuing clapback was mighty too. Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and banned for a year, and Serena Williams called him out for being sexist and racist.
That insult penetrated, though. Throughout history, black female bodies have been both sexualized and besmirched. But the Williams sisters, via presence and practice, have turned any negative black woman body image trope on its head. They create and embrace their chiseled, athletic shapes and flaunt their world championship bodies in public arenas, draped in silks and jewels, in the coolest sneakers, in disruptively fashion-forward tennis “whites.” They continue to shock the world.
There are some who are afraid of the Williams sisters’ dominance, confidence and beauty. They both have a similar dark brown hue and features that read very the Motherland. They look like so many woman around the world do. Their hairstyles over the years have transformed as ours have — from little-girl cornrows to micro braids to tree braids to sew-ins with wavy tracks to just a simple hot comb and flat iron of natural hair, at times, brushed back into a bun. So much of this black girl beauty used to be hidden. Right now, at this moment, it’s on the cover of Vogue.
But perhaps the most amazing Williams sisters moment came in April 2016 when Serena made a surprise appearance in Beyoncé’s HBO special Lemonade, which itself turned out to be a surprise album. In “Sorry,” we see Serena (to the tune of close to 250 million views) displaying a not-so-secret talent of hers as she dances and twerks alongside the Bey, who is sprawled across a throne, declaring in a casually aggressive way that she, in fact, is not sorry for the ill behavior of an untrustworthy lover. Beyoncé is queen — and Serena is equally regal.
But perhaps the sisters’ biggest contribution to the culture is just by being excellent, and expanding our horizons through their excellence. The Williams sisters represent us. They make us strong.