The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley

Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.

“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”

“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas

Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”

“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

Don’t wait for Valentine’s Day to romance your bae All ages, all generations can celebrate black romantic love

Invitation to Love

Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.

Her name was Charmaine. With her round brown face, she looked like a candy teddy bear made from Sugar Babies.

I never knew where she lived. She always came to get me to go out and play. I always went. We always had fun. We ran the streets in North Philadelphia. Sometimes, I chased her. Sometimes, she chased me. We ran as if propelled by laughter. We laughed all the time.

And one day, we stopped running and laughing. I don’t remember why. We stood under the stairwell of an old row house that had been converted into an apartment building. Charmaine spoke in a soft and insistent voice. She told me to close my eyes. I did. She was just a little older. She told me she was about to give me a kiss. I braced myself. Then she gave me one last instruction: “Close your mouth, silly.”

I did. Then Charmaine gave me my first kiss. I was 5.

And if I saw her again, I don’t remember it. But I’ll always remember our magic moment, my closed eyes and the world of romance our sweet and fleeting kiss opened for me.

Nearly 60 years have passed, but telling that story always puts a smile on my face, just as seeing young couples running in the rain or older couples sitting and rocking always does.

Indeed, I love hearing romantic stories, especially those featuring black people, real-life stories that African-Americans star in more than they do in Hollywood movies, books or music — even those produced by black people.

And that’s too bad: When the popular culture omits black people from depictions and celebrations of romance, it dehumanizes us; it lies about who we are and how we live. Like faith, romance bolsters and redeems, heals and protects. During the 1960s, when our elders stood up to the high-powered water hoses and burning torches of hate, songs declaring black love and romantic devotion filled the jukeboxes and airwaves, a balm of Gilead rooted in hope.

Times change, but the need for black romantic love to take center stage endures.

Consequently, black America has two choices. It can bemoan our absence on the romantic stage. Or black America can take action to improve things. Among the things to do: promote writing contests where middle schoolers earn prizes for writing about the first time someone showed a romantic attraction to them and how that made them feel. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) can hold arts symposia in which black romance in pop culture is explored and celebrated. And our rich, black rappers, some involved in very public romances, can fund contests where aspiring rappers can win money and recording contracts by producing great love songs.

Rap’s contribution to pop culture has been vast and deep. But for too long, black rappers have done far too little to celebrate black romantic love or black women, who often give black romance its beauty and poetry.

That must change.

Furthermore, when African-Americans and others produce more art that’s centered on black romance, let’s patronize and promote it. It will be just as important to take our children to see movies where black couples embrace love as it will be to take them to see movies where black superheroes repel bad guys.

At holiday gatherings, let’s tell our children and grandchildren the romantic stories that are at the foundation of our families, how grandaddy met nana, how their everlasting love began.

As we close in on another Valentine’s Day, I’m reminded of something my wife told me a week ago. When it comes to romantic gestures, I have something in common with Stevie Wonder’s music career: My greatest and most enduring hits took place in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Still, this week, I plan to tell my wife of 36 years a story, one she might not have heard for a while, one she might have forgotten, but one I never will. We were young and in love. We stood at a bus stop in Philly. It was time for me to go home. We were the only two people in the world, or so it seemed. Snow fell.

I looked at her. She looked at me. One last kiss, and I began to float among the snowflakes.

I still haven’t come down.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson bring ‘2 Dope Queens’ to HBO The popular podcast is now a four-part comedy special

The first thing you realize while watching the 2 Dope Queens HBO special is that Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the aforementioned dope queens, would be perfect at hosting the Golden Globes.

In a television adaptation of their popular 4-year-old WNYC podcast, Williams and Robinson display a familiar, wisecracking comedy that made Tina Fey and Amy Poehler so enjoyable for the three years they hosted Hollywood’s annual alcohol-soaked tribute to arbitrary awards. It’s the magnetism that comes from watching two girlfriends hold court and have a good time while wishing you were cool enough to join the party.

Now, under the direction of comic Tig Notaro (a recent guest on the podcast), 2 Dope Queens has been turned into a series of four one-hour comedy specials. The first one airs at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 2. Each episode is a variety show built around a theme: blerds, New York, hair (because: black) and “hot peen” (because: alive). In each one, Williams and Robinson kick it for a bit, introduce a comic who does a stand-up set, then interview their celebrity guests before closing with another comic.

Robinson’s been performing stand-up comedy for 10 years and also solo-hosts another WNYC interview podcast called Sooo Many White Dudes, in which her guests are mostly anything but. Williams is best known as a former Daily Show correspondent (her old boss, Jon Stewart, makes an appearance on 2 Dope Queens), and lately she’s been throwing herself into acting. She recently released her second film with writer/director Jim Strouse, and the pair are working on a comedy series for Showtime.

Should they get the call (Dear Golden Globes producers, have some sense and enlist these two already), Robinson’s already thought of the celebrities she’d like to participate in their comedy bits. Oprah (“Because she’s amazing and delightful and she’s truly funny and she has a great personality”), former President Barack Obama (“He would be like, ‘Are you asking me to do a bit for the Golden Globes? I’m like, busy.’ ”) and Jack Nicholson (“I know you’re like semi-retired, but would you do something completely nuts with me? I think he would be like, ‘Sure.’ ”).

Robinson, 33, and Williams, 28, weren’t close friends when they originally began hosting the 2 Dope Queens podcast. Listeners witnessed their chemistry develop in real time as they’ve attended Billy Joel concerts and AfroPunk together. The result is a duo who shimmy and yaaaaaaaaasssssss their affirmations to each other and everyone they interview. In the case of the specials, that includes Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black), Sarah Jessica Parker (Divorce) and Stewart.

“Minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative.”

“We were becoming friends as we were working together,” Robinson said by phone recently. “Like any sort of intimate relationship, we’ve learned what works for us, what doesn’t. It’s a really cool process to balance the friendship with working together.”

Both had some advice for new residents of New York, with Williams sounding like Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw giving a clinic to singletons.

“You’re not finding the peen-age? Just walk outside and do exactly what it is that you want to do and go explore your interests,” she said by phone. “Like, go to a SZA concert or a pottery class. … Just go do that and I think you’ll run into some hot sausage.”

Robinson, on the other hand, admitted to being more in the camp of the blind leading the blind.

“If I knew [where to find it], I wouldn’t talk about it as much as I do,” Robinson said. “I’m lucky that I have a boyfriend and I’m off the streets, because I was truly a nightmare. I’m not good at flirting. I think it’s good to travel in packs with your lady friends. You need that line of defense.”

Robinson and Williams curated an eclectic collection of guest comedians for their HBO specials, some of whom, like Michelle Buteau and Aparna Nancherla, may be familiar if you watched Wyatt Cenac’s Night Train series for the now-defunct streaming service Seeso. And like Night Train, 2 Dope Queens relies heavily, and deliberately, on minority comics. Other guests include Baron Vaughn, Sheng Wang and Naomi Ekperigin. Amy Aniobi, a writer and producer on Insecure, served as executive producer.

“We always try to make sure we have stand-up, storytellers or celebrity guests that are … a woman or a person of color or a member of the LGBT community,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative. It’s inherently built into the show.”

The specials, which were shot in Brooklyn, New York’s, Kings Theatre, are set against the backdrop of a typical New York rooftop, complete with string lights, a grill and crates that double as seating. Both women said that working with Notaro, who recently wrote and starred in the Amazon series One Mississippi, was pivotal to the show’s success.

“Even when women are the stars of their comedy specials, they still have men directing them,” Robinson said. “I really wanted to have a woman directing ours. … I learned so much from her. She’s a great leader. There’s no drama. She comes in, she does the work and she makes it really fun. Every time we had a meeting, my stomach would be hurting because she’d be making me laugh.”

Chicago minister Derrick B. Wells shares 12 steps to happiness His new book draws lessons from the cult martial arts movie ‘The Last Dragon’

The most recent Happiness Report revealed that happiness in America has fallen to its lowest score since 2006, due primarily to social issues rather than economic causes. Taking this into consideration, one Chicago reverend has formulated Guidelines for a Master: 12 Steps to an Extremely Happy Life, a practical guide to help readers pursue happiness.

Derrick B. Wells, senior minister of Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, felt compelled to write the guidelines after noticing a shift in energy and attitude during the 2016 presidential election.

“There just seemed to be a great deal of angst in the public space,” Wells said. “I wanted to be able to offer a writing that could perhaps serve as a counterbalance to some of that dialogue and at the same time give the reader some very practical steps and things that they could do to begin to effectively reclaim some of what they might’ve been giving away in terms of their personal power.”

Settling on the 12 steps, Wells said, was a twofold process. He had to find ways to narrow down the steps in terms of practicality while making his book stand out from other self-help books and articles. Wells’ use of two key components makes all the difference: First, the guidelines can be followed by anyone, regardless of where they are in their lives, Wells said. “There’s also a spiritual connotation [the number] 12 carries with it as some sense of completion and fulfillment.”

Second, Wells draws parallels with the 1985 cult classic The Last Dragon, about a young man looking for “the master” to help him attain the highest level of martial arts expertise. He uses examples from various scenes and turns them into relatable lessons.

“Leroy serves as a wonderful symbol as how we oftentimes think that the pursuit of fulfillment exists outside of ourselves,” Wells said of the lead character. “And so, in the movie, he’s really kind of fascinated with this idea of meeting the master and being able to attain the glow. He feels that his journey to meet the master and to learn from the master will be the same. That served as a catalyst to help him get to that glow, that enlightenment. If you look at the story … he’s demonstrating incredible awareness and mastery.”

In some ways, Wells leaned on his own experiences. As a Chicago native, Wells knows how the surrounding environment can affect people. According to the Urban Institute, the rate of long-term anxiety and worry among Chicago youths hovers around 24.1 percent, while the national average sits at 3.5 percent. But Wells believes hearts and minds can always be changed and damage done from environmental factors isn’t irreversible.

“I think we’re all, to some degree or another, a product of our environment. We also recognize, in being products of our environment, to a very large extent it’s how we process our environment that gives us the ability to navigate it effectively or not,” Wells said.

“It helps to have a sense of self-determination and to be able to move out of an experience that you have outgrown. As someone who was a drug dealer, in a gang, who spent time in county jail and have done things I’m not proud of, I still consider myself a rose that grew from concrete. I learned how to make different decisions, and through learning how to make different decisions I was able to create a different life.”

Wells hopes that those who read his book will not only gain a positive outlook about what is possible in their lives but also gain an understanding of the tools that the book offers.

“I don’t want the book to only be informative. I don’t want it to be only transformative. I want it to be practical,” Wells said. “The content within Guidelines is intended to be very practical and spiritual so that anyone at any knowledge or level of education, experience or background can have a tool. Even if it’s a single tool that they take away — a single tool that they can be able to use to build and design and create a life that works for them.

“I want Guidelines to serve as motivation to get into action. A plan without action is really just a dream.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Fresh Prince and a Grammy boycott that set the tone for three more decades of rap — and culture ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ was the first hip-hop song ever nominated for a Grammy


It was 1989. The scene: Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. The host: Billy Crystal, who then was starring in films such as Memories of Me and When Harry Met Sally. The event was the 31st Annual Grammy Awards. George H.W. Bush had recently been sworn in as president of the United States, and the Gulf War would soon be looming. In the last year of the 1980s, pop ruled the Billboard charts but hip-hop continued its rise in sales and its impact on culture. Pioneers such as Public Enemy, Heavy D, 2 Live Crew, The Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Special Ed, 3rd Bass, Boogie Down Productions and more were changing music and the music industry.

That night though: Bobby McFerrin, would-be 10-time Grammy winner, won song of the year and record of the year for “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The song was McFerrin’s only No. 1 hit and had a layer of controversy attached, as it had been used by the Bush presidential campaign in 1988 without the permission of McFerrin. In protest, McFerrin for years removed the song from his concert set lists. The televised broadcast of the Grammys also featured what would become a legendary performance by Whitney Houston — she sang her “One Moment in Time” against a montage backdrop from Team USA highlights of the ’88 Olympics.

But it’s what didn’t happen during the televised broadcast of the 31st Grammy Awards that made the 1989 event even more memorable. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, aka Jeff Townes and Will Smith, who had been nominated for the first-ever best rap performance Grammy for their hit crossover single “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” were not there to pick up their award. When it had been decided that the only rap award would be announced during the nontelevised portion of the show, hip-hop had its own decisions to make. “We chose to boycott,” Smith said at the time. He called the idea of the afternoon award a “slap in the face. … You go to school for 12 years, they give you your diploma and they deny you that walk down the aisle.”

Besides Jeff and Will, the other first rap Grammy nominees were:

All of these songs had been released one, two or, in the case of “Push It,” even three years before. Hip-hop by 1989 was going through a transformation. The anger was no longer mostly underground but rather more out front. Public Enemy would release its critically acclaimed Fear of a Black Planet in 1990, and the cracks in the foundation of revolutionary supergroup N.W.A. were beginning to show.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were in a playful, more mainstream rap lane that included MC Hammer and his diamond 1990 Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” peaked at No. 12 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, but it was the building momentum that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince saw on one of their first big tours that cemented for the West Philly duo what everyone else was seeing. “We were on the road, so we had no idea how the record was doing on the radio,” Jazzy Jeff said in Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique: Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. “I remember one night … Will did the first verse and then did the first line of the second verse, but told the crowd to finish it. And I thought, Oh, no, this could be the biggest disaster in the world! But … 20,000 people finished the verse.”

Rap was still considered a fringe force, fighting not only for its place at the Grammy Awards but also for acceptance as a respected musical genre.

MC Hammer’s massive sales numbers, though, were the exception at the time for hip-hop, not the rule. Rap was still considered a fringe force, fighting not only for its place at the Grammy Awards but also for acceptance as a respected musical genre. It was just that fight and the almost constant controversy surrounding hip-hop that fueled its ascent to being the most popular musical genre in the world.

The news started out great. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) had announced that rap would have its own official category. “The excitement was through the roof,” said Jazzy Jeff. “It was validation for the culture.” But when the news quickly turned bittersweet, Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen of Def Jam Recordings led a boycott of the 1989 Grammys. Joining them were the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff along with Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, Ice-T and others. Def Jam spokesman Bill Adler’s press release said that NARAS was “ghetto-izing” rap. The boycotting group even held a “Boycott the Grammys” party on the night of the broadcast.

The show wasn’t an all-out rap boycott, however. JJ Fad attended, as did Kool Moe Dee, who presented the embattled best rap performance award at the pre-show, saying, “On behalf of all MCs, my co-workers and fellow nominees — Jazzy Jeff, J.J. Fad, Salt-N-Pepa and the boy who’s bad — we personify power and a drug-free mind, and we express ourselves through rhythm and rhyme. So I think it’s time that the whole world knows rap is here to stay.”

The “boy who’s bad” refers to his rival LL Cool J. Years later, Moe Dee told The New York Times that he believed a better strategy than boycotting would have been for all the artists to show up and “make our case in that space where the world was watching.” Except, of course, that world wouldn’t have been watching the nontelevised version of the show.

One person who did agree with the boycott and believed it ultimately helped the duo cement their place in hip-hop was one of the producers of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” Ruffhouse Records founder Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo. “It was important to make that stand,” said Nicolo. “I actually thought it would help them. They weren’t bowing down to the Grammy gods, and people respect you for that.”

Not even a Grammy slight could take the shine off “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince perform onstage at Nassau Coliseum on August 12, 1988 in Uniondale, New York.

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Also supporting the boycott was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s A&R representative at the time, “Tokyo Rose,” aka Ann Carli. “I supported the boycott,” recalled Carli. “Jive Records was always very supportive of artists.”

The stance taken by Smith and Townes in 1989 is difficult to imagine now. At the 58th Grammy Awards in 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was nominated for album of the year. And while the album didn’t win, it was a reminder that rap music is no longer a fringe genre but rather the most important and influential music in the world. But for every Kendrick moment, there is another example where what Smith, Townes and others fought for seems to be all but forgotten — like at the 57th Grammy Awards in 2015, where no rap awards were presented on the televised broadcast for the first time in 25 years.

Looking back on the protest in 2016, Jazzy Jeff (at this point with four Grammy nominations and two wins) said he felt that he and Smith (at this point with eight Grammy nominations and four wins) represented the culture well and ultimately had an impact. “We … were very, very young and thrust into a position with the eyes of the world on us,” he said. “And to see somebody like Kendrick … it just makes you proud.”

Not even a Grammy slight could take the shine off “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Its success, and how it sparked the duo’s careers and the meteoric rise of Smith as a Hollywood heavyweight, is stunning. Carli recalled shooting the video for the single, which was done in one 18-hour shoot, and then watching the footage with director Scott Kalvert.

“Holy crap, the camera loves [this kid],” Carli remembers saying. “He’s so incredibly expressive, and he’s selling the story. I called my boss and I said … ‘You know, this kid is going to be a movie star. I think he can be as big as Eddie Murphy.’ ” Carli then proceeded to call Simmons, who managed the duo at the time, to share her feelings about the budding star. Famously, Simmons told Carli that he might be as big as Malcolm-Jamal Warner, but not Eddie Murphy.

Except for Lil Yachty as someone who presents a similar youthful, colorful vibe, Carli doesn’t see many who compare to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in today’s current rap climate. “They had a real love and understanding of the genre,” said Carli. “These young rappers don’t seem to have a knowledge and appreciation for the history and the shoulders they’re standing on. … Still to this day, Will is where he is because of his self-confidence, talent and, as Quincy Jones would say, his ‘ass power’… he sticks in the chair until it’s done.”

But as the 60th Grammy Awards approach, the best rap performance award features a class of nominees who each represent something special and also build on the foundation of what DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and their peers did three decades ago:

  • Kendrick Lamar: The collective spirit of the West Coast
  • Jay-Z: A connection to four different decades of rap
  • Migos: The youthful spirit of the genre today
  • Big Sean: The holding of lyrics in high regard
  • Cardi B: A new rap superstar

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

The tragic loss of Erica Garner Garner’s own loss of her father made her a woman her family wants remembered as a ‘human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.’

It’s cruelty befitting a Greek tragedy.

A young grief-stricken daughter reluctantly transforms herself into an activist after her father is killed by police during a controversial encounter — a struggle in which the officer chokes the very life from the father, apparently deaf to his repeated gasps of “I can’t breathe.”

Three years pass, the daughter, now an outspoken hero to countless others who have lost loved ones at the hands of police brutality, is a high-profile face for an insistent new police reform movement called Black Lives Matter.

Then, in a twist of fate that mirrors her martyred father’s horrifying demise, the daughter herself is felled by a heart attack brought on by a breath-depriving asthma attack. As if to compound her family’s seemingly endless suffering, the daughter dies during the holidays, Christianity’s celebrated season of miracles, wherein the faithful are offered a path to redemption.

That is the heart-shattering story of Erica Garner. In 2014, the then-23-year-old was thrust into the global spotlight when her father Eric Garner died from an illegal choke hold after resisting arrest by New York police. Eric Garner’s videotaped dying words; “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for the anti-police brutality movement, helping to fuel the Black Lives Matter crusade for police reform.

That 2014 choke hold reopened a wound in the African-American community, one that is not God-given, but rather inflicted by law officers who vow to “serve and protect.” In his 2013 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone writes: “In the ‘lynching era’… white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” Indeed, as Eric Garner’s death proves, there is a crooked and disingenuous through-line between the Crucifixion and the kangaroo-court justice visited upon blacks since the Jim Crow era. Eric Garner’s death, along with those of many other blacks killed in fatal police encounters, was a chilling reminder that state-sanctioned executions are still a frightening component of African-American life.

Into this millenniums-old narrative arrived Erica Garner. The spitting image of her dad, Erica said she even inherited her father’s take-no-guff spirit (“If he had survived what happened to him, he would be out here advocating and doing exactly what I’m doing, if not more,” she once said.) But while she aligned herself with the Black Lives Matter movement, Erica demonstrated a diplomat’s conciliatory grace, carefully framing police brutality as a universal problem that affects everyone. “This is not a black-and-white issue,” she said during a 2014 CNN interview. “This is a national crisis.”

She displayed that same sensibleness when it came to the topic of activism itself. Writing in 2015, Erica urged peace and unity within the police reform movement. “As we activists fight each other, our opposition — from killer cops to corrupt elected officials — upholds this broken system and covers up injustices,” she wrote. “No movement is immune to conflict, but it’s up to every last person on the side of justice to make the decision to move forward together.”

It was Erica’s yin-yang combination of persistence and political savvy that prompted many to post condolences and tributes upon news of her death. Rev. Al Sharpton described her as “a fearless outspoken activist that never stopped fighting for justice for her father,” while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Though Erica didn’t ask to be an activist, she responded to the personal tragedy of seeing her father die while being arrested in New York City by becoming a leading proponent for criminal justice reform and for an end to police brutality.” Her family commented, “When you report this you remember she was human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.”

Nor, it seems, did destiny give Erica a fair shake. The world had a scant three years to know Erica, yet she shined brightly during her short time on the international stage. Her father’s death was such a cause célèbre that many people would have excused her for simply expressing inchoate rage over her dad’s mistreatment at the hands of police. Yet instead of being consumed by anger, Erica became of an insistent voice of reason during one of the most racially sensitive periods in America’s modern history.

Her entry into activism was a veritable trial by fire, a learn-as-you-go experience. “It was something that happened basically overnight,” Erica recently told New York Magazine. “I started out with protests, small little gatherings outside the post office … and then I traveled to different cities to talk about this issue with local communities and elected officials.”

Spurred by grief and indignation — she said she watched the video of her father’s death “over and over again” — Erica helped organize a 2014 “die-in” at the Staten Island location where her dad was killed. There, she and other protesters lay on the cold pavement, creating a haunting tableau vivant in tribute to the scores of citizens injured or killed during police encounters. She continued to lead a series of weekly marches at that same spot, all conducted after 6 p.m. to increase participation from workaday nine-to-fivers. Erica claimed the New York Police Department attempted to dissuade her and others from marching. “They’ve stopped protesters from coming across the water [to march],” she told NBC News. “They’ve followed me in unmarked cars, and even barricaded the Supreme Court steps so people will think [the march] isn’t happening.”

Erica was applying increasing pressure on one of the world’s most assertive law enforcement agencies, the New York City Police Department, which has been consistently dogged by accusations of institutional racism. Evidence has revealed that blacks and Hispanics make up most of the citizens stopped for street interrogations allowed under the department’s stop-and-frisk policies. Since the 1980s, the department has made international headlines for fatal encounters involving blacks, including Eleanor Bumpers, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and countless more. In 2004, the department acknowledged the existence of an intelligence unit designed to perform surveillance on rappers and others involved in the city’s hip-hop scene. This is the police organization Erica fearlessly challenged during her stint as an activist.

But not only was Erica was courageous, she also demonstrated an impressive knack for diplomacy. In a tremendously polarized nation where taking a stand against police brutality often results in accusations of being “anti-police,” Erica’s agitating for justice was no small risk. To have any hope of earning sympathy from her reflexively unsympathetic critics, she suppressed whatever rage she must have been feeling, opting instead to coolly advocate for due process. And when due process failed her family, she continued to press for justice. “People ask, ‘When will you stop marching?’ ” Erica said. “ ‘What do you want from marching?’ He was my father. I will always march.”

Erica’s cause was taken up by pro athletes, including NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and more. Eric Garner’s dying sighs of “I can’t breathe” became a galvanizing slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement. Before long, Erica was fielding interview requests and speaking invitations from schools, colleges, churches and social justice organizations. She made television appearances, both nationally and in her native New York. After a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved, the Garner family brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against New York City, winning a $5.9 million settlement.

While Erica may have been soft-spoken, she was fiercely independent. When many blacks threw their support behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Erica raised eyebrows for backing Bernie Sanders, citing the Vermont senator’s long-standing civil rights record. At the time of her death, she was in the process of starting a nonprofit to identify and endorse candidates sympathetic to the cause of police reform.

Like Rodney King — himself a police brutality victim who pleaded for peace amid the havoc of the 1992 Los Angeles riots — Erica never sought to become a civil rights lightning rod. She occasionally let her frustration slip, like in 2017 when she voiced her exasperation with the Department of Justice. (“The DOJ literally gathered my family in one place,” she tweeted, “after we have been waiting for answers for 3 years to say they cant answer S—!”). By all appearances, Erica was catapulted into activism by her father’s death, and was carried along by her own grit and a sense of purpose. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I connected with the right people and went from there,” she said.

By and large, Erica wore the mantle she assumed with powerful restraint. Now, the pain many of us felt after viewing her father’s protest-prompting death is magnified by Erica’s own passing. The hurt we experienced after her dad’s killer was let off the hook is now magnified by the knowledge that Erica’s two kids will grow up without their mother.

The daughter who tirelessly sought justice for her slain father has gone to join him in the afterlife, all too soon.

Former NFL linebacker Aaron Maybin’s new book, ‘Art Activism,’ is an ode to Baltimore and its challenges Former first-round pick includes his own paintings, photography and poetry

The words and images are searing. They speak to the destructive nature of poverty, miseducation and murder. But they also speak to the power of perseverance and the indomitable spirit that has always allowed African-Americans to find a way out of no way.

Those are but a few of the themes captured in the new book Art Activism, the product of the restless mind and talented hands of former NFL linebacker and Baltimore native Aaron Maybin. The work is both an ode to Maybin’s hometown and a lament of the city’s many challenges. He uses his paintings, photography, poetry and prose to convey both the pride and pain of Baltimore.

In a powerful open letter to his city, Maybin compares Baltimore to that girl from around the way: maybe a little ratchet with a little too much attitude, but with that mix of smarts, moxie and sexy that never allows her man to stray too far. “Sometimes you love her, sometimes you hate her, sometimes you want to light her on fire; but you always stay loyal to her,” Maybin writes.

More than a few people wanted to set Baltimore on fire in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. During the uprising, Maybin grabbed his camera and went into the streets to document what he saw. Inspired, he also painted and wrote. It was only later that he decided to pull his photos, artwork and writing together into a book. The result is a collection that he hopes will add to the national conversation about what racial injustice looks like in the 21st century and how we should address it.

“I don’t profess to have all the answers. I don’t profess to know where to go,” Maybin said in an interview. “But I believe I raise a lot of questions.”

He also offers some suggestions, even if few would call them novel. He wants black churches to do more to lift up the city. He wants lawmakers to put more money into a public school system that does not have enough money to address the problems of its students. He would like to see more economic development in poor communities, and he wants employers to pay a living wage to workers.

He would like to see more drug treatment centers, and “more than anything else, we need to STOP KILLING EACH OTHER!!! How can we expect the outside world to value our lives when we don’t value them ourselves?” he writes. He also would like to see an end to the poverty, the blight, the drug addiction and the hopelessness that he sees as the root of Baltimore’s more than 300 murders a year.

Maybin, 29, was an All-American linebacker at Penn State and a 2009 first-round draft choice who made an estimated $15 million during a four-year NFL career that fell far short of lofty expectations.

But he was an artist and writer long before he played football. Maybin started studying art when he was still in elementary school, and he painted his first public mural when he was 11. Coming up, he also played the saxophone, acted in plays and sang in the choir. He was 6 years old when he read a poem he wrote for his mother’s funeral.

“Poetry for me was always a form of therapy,” Maybin said.

As Maybin started growing into a frame that eventually expanded to 6-foot-4 and nearly 240 pounds, he started playing football. By the time his family moved to a Baltimore suburb for his high school years, his goal was to play in the pros. But he also knew he would return to his art.

Some critics of his underwhelming professional football career have said that Maybin’s outside interests robbed him of the single-minded focus that transforms great athletes into great players. “Maybe there’s something to that,” he said. “[But] the game has always been a game to me. My family, my health, my mental stability have always been more important to me.” Not only that, but Maybin said he feels “more fulfilled in the aftermath of my career than I did as an actual athlete.”

Still, he has no regrets about his detour into football. “Without the platform that football created and the money I made, I would never be able to have the same impact that I am having now,” said Maybin, who heads a foundation that works to enhance art education to Baltimore schools. “Once people say ‘former first-round pick,’ then people start to listen.”

Maybin sees his new book, which is available on Amazon and at select Baltimore-area bookstores, as a weapon against injustice. “I try to use my platform as a basis for social critique,” he said. “I hope this book can start a dialogue, not just in my bubble, but with people across the aisle from me.”

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ — and the poster that sold it Remembering The Champ’s historic comeback


In the darkest night part of morning they came 60,000 strong — to watch undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman take on challenger Muhammad Ali. It was another time. The 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire, is now the Stade Tata Raphaël in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and The Rumble in the Jungle, as it was known, was scheduled to begin at 4 a.m. local time on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1974. This was so the match originally titled From Slave Ship to Championship would air live on closed-circuit television in U.S. theaters at 10 p.m. EST.

From backstage, journalist Norman Mailer described the scene. Although his entourage was somber, Ali appeared relaxed as he addressed himself in a mellifluous tone: “I been up and I been down. You know, I been around. It must be dark when you get knocked out. Why, I’ve never been knocked out. I’ve been knocked down, but never out.”

Ali was about to prove, once again, why he was the greatest of all time. Ever since the boxing commission stripped the champ of his title and suspended his boxing license for refusing to serve in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War, Ali had been on a mission to reclaim all that had been stolen from him. Ali fought the law — and won, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he was vindicated in June 1971.

“No one had heard the word ‘Zaire.’ ”

Boxing license back, Ali took on then-world champion Joe Frazier in The Fight of the Century in March 1971. It was the first time that two undefeated heavyweights had battled in a title fight. They went the full 15. Frazier won by unanimous decision, handing Ali his first loss.

By 1974, George Foreman held the title. Undefeated, Foreman had more than 35 knockouts under his belt, and at 25, seemed an unstoppable force, but Ali, seven years his senior, never lost heart.

On most fight posters, the location was not a visual part of the story. Whether held in Las Vegas, Chicago or Miami, the location was simply a matter of logistical information. But with The Rumble in the Jungle, Africa was a central character. “No one had heard the word ‘Zaire,’ ” recalled sports photographer Neil Leifer. “If you want to put your country on the map — what a way to do it. If you wanted the world to know who you were, get the most popular black man on earth to promote it. It was probably a good business move for Mobutu.” Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was noted for his cruelty and for being a master of terror on a grand scale, died in exile in 1997.

Set against a blazing yellow background, black and white photographs of Foreman and Ali floated above the continent of Africa, silhouetted in verdant green, perfectly matching the colors of the flag of Zaire. The poster had gone through slight modifications after Foreman cut his right eye during training, pushing back the date of the match, and it ran in both English and French. The French version of the fight poster included the words Un cadeau du President Mobutu au peuple Zaïrois et un honneur pour l’homme noir: “A gift from President Mobutu to the people of Zaire and an honor for the black man.”

Leifer, a boy wonder who began his professional career in 1958 at the age of 16, produced arguably the most famous photograph of Ali on earth: the image of him standing above Sonny Liston after throwing “the phantom punch” that sent the challenger to the mat during the first round of the 1965 world heavyweight title fight.

A photographer, like a boxer, has to be fully prepared for the fight, to be in peak condition and determined to make history. With more than 200 magazine covers and 17 books to his name, Leifer’s most recent book, The Fight (Taschen) is a triumph of book publishing. Limited to just 1,974 copies, the book features photographs by Leifer and Howard L. Bingham, Ali’s best friend, who died in 2016.

Using abridged copy from Mailer’s 1975 The Fight as its departure point, the Taschen volume follows Ali’s path through Zaire, crafting a comeback that blew people away. The book comes inside a slipcase that is modeled after the fight poster, using the same colors and design concept. “An image has to stop you — otherwise you will walk right by it,” said Leifer. “A cover is a poster — and if you take a second look at it, you might want to look inside. That yellow just jumps out at you … you can see it from half a block away.” But it’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement and the African independence movements.

It’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement.

The story belongs to the champion. This is increasingly clear when paging through The Fight. The Rumble in the Jungle was Ali’s return to glory. Unlike Foreman, whose strengths did not translate outside the ring, Ali took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, never meeting a camera or a reporter he did not like.

As Mailer reported, after shaking hands, Ali told Foreman, “You have heard of me since you were young. You’ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now, you must meet me, your master!” Foreman blinked.

The bell rang, and 30 seconds into the fight, Foreman had Ali on the ropes. They sparred, landing blows. It was an intense round, but people feared Ali would not be able to sustain that level of aggression. They weren’t wrong. Somewhere in the second round, Ali switched it up: rope-a-dope.

Ali hung back against the ropes, inviting Foreman to charge, then ducked, bobbed, weaved and blocked the champ’s fists of fury. Everyone was stunned. “What Muhammad did was so unusual, I honestly didn’t know when he would win,” Leifer recalled. “Any sensible person said, ‘What is he, out of his mind? He’s letting himself get hit.’ Foreman was an incredible puncher. You had to assume that at some point he’s going to break through Ali’s defense … but it didn’t happen that way.”

By the eighth round, Foreman was spent and Ali was prepared, landing several hooks followed by a five-punch combination that sent the champ sputtering to the ground. Mailer reported, “Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position … he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. His mind was held with magnets as high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground. He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news … ”

Determined to rouse himself, Foreman made it back on his feet after a count of 10, but he was finished. With two seconds remaining in the round, referee Zack Clayton stopped the fight. Ali had won the title back. Then he fainted.

Soon after the fight, the sky broke open and the rains came pouring down. The rainy season had been two weeks late, and the torrents flooded the stadium, drenching the batteries until the generators gave out. Half of the Telex machines shut down, and pictures and words could no longer get out — but they didn’t need to. Ali lived up to the poster — and did what he came to do as the whole world watched.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding is a good thing, right? A black feminist argues with herself about the impending royal nuptials

Rachel Meghan Markle and Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor (better known as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry) are getting married next spring. Upon official confirmation of this news, I immediately began vacillating between feelings of OMG … SO EXCITING … ROYAL WEDDING … BLACK PRINCESS … HARRY PUT A RING ON IT and Dear Lord, I hope someone has taught Prince Philip to stop saying racist stuff in public.

Markle is the biracial American actress who played Rachel Zane on Suits and helmed a popular lifestyle site called The Tig. Now, she’s vaulted to an entirely new stratosphere of fame, thanks to months of speculation about her relationship with Prince Harry.

I’m conflicted. I abhor our culture’s fixation with all things pink and fluffy and princessy because of the way they reinforce narrowly defined gender roles and limit the possibilities that girls imagine for themselves. It’s why, when my niece was born, one of my first gifts to her was a copy of The Paper Bag Princess. There are more important things in life than bagging a man, and doing so is no guarantee that one will live happily ever after. Just ask Charlene of Monaco. Besides, “happily ever after” is just a concept invented by men like Don Draper to sell nylons.

But I’m not immune to princess fever. The Windsors are the weak inheritors of my obsession with the Tudors, which was fed by a steady childhood diet of Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench movies. But the thing that turns my princess fever practically rheumatic is The Princess Bride. I loved that movie so much I named my cat after the title character. Then I rewatched it this year and found myself cringing at Princess Buttercup’s (Robin Wright) general inability to save herself or even recognize the voice of the supposed love of her life.

Still, my ambivalence about the gender politics of one of my favorite movies didn’t stop me from having a conversation with myself as Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) about Markle and her betrothed, Prince Harry:

On the one hand
Aren’t we supposed to be trying to upend the colonialist, imperialist, racist patriarchal system, not marry into it?

On the other hand
This will definitely piss off actual Nazis, especially the ghosts of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII.

On the one hand
Harry dressed up like a Nazi that one time.

On the other hand
We get to watch neurons short-circuit in real time on Fox News the first time Meghan says, “Happy Christmas” in public.

On the one hand
Our obsession with princess crap is bad and we should be trying to KILL IT WITH FIRE.

On the other hand
You definitely rewatched Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Freeform over the holiday and couldn’t tear yourself away, hypocrite.

On the one hand
You grew up obsessed with Elizabeth I and you turned out fine.

On the other hand
Yes, but I was obsessed with her speech-giving and political acumen and the way she navigated power as a woman (and also her relationship with the Earl of Leicester).

On the one hand
Poor Meghan’s going to have some seriously racist in-laws.

On the other hand
Stars, they’re just like us!

On the one hand
Didn’t we fight a whole war so we wouldn’t have to bow to white people who think they’re ordained by God to rule the world? I mean, Longfellow wrote a whole poem commemorating its start.

On the other hand
I hope the wedding dress is Alexander McQueen. (Sarah Burton for McQueen, yes, but McQueen all the same.) Everyone loves an impossibly expensive, pretty dress. Even me.

On the one hand
But Harry dressed up LIKE A NAZI.

On the other hand
We can fantasize about them reading the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning to each other. (You know Elizabeth was black, right? Robert used to call her “My Little Portuguese.” Don’t @ me about how Creole ain’t black. It’s just fancy black. Hush.)

On the one hand
I hope she’s not miserable like Diana and Fergie. I mean, I’m named after a woman who wrote a book called Palace of Solitude after marrying the Shah of Iran.

On the other hand
As far as we know, Harry is Wesley, not Prince Humperdinck. After all, Harry is probably the Obamas’ favorite royal.

On the one hand
Meghan had a website and a career, and now she’s already had to swear off all of that.

On the other hand
Amandla Stenberg can play her in The Crown.

On the one hand
Their kids won’t have a remotely normal life, and everything they do will be scrutinized.

On the other hand
BLACK ASHY BABIES ALL UP IN THE PALACE OF WHITEHALL (*briefly assumes Wendy Raquel Robinson’s role in Something New, whispering, “Nedra! Don’t be so crass!”*)