‘The Princess and the Frog’ gave black girls their first taste of Disney royalty 10 years ago, the film starring Anika Noni Rose opened to praise and criticism

Elizabeth Dampier was living a fairy tale. It was Nov. 15, 2009, and the 10-year-old from Mississippi was walking the red carpet at the world premiere of Walt Disney’s animated musical The Princess and the Frog.

The fifth grader beat out hundreds of girls to land the gig voicing the young Tiana, Disney’s first animated African American princess. It’s a role that would become synonymous with Tony Award-winning actress and singer Anika Noni Rose, who played the older version of Tiana. Besides Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998), characters of color were nowhere to be found in the vanilla worlds of Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, and Belle. To mark the long overdue moment, the House the Mouse Built opened its Burbank, California, studios to the public for a special screening, the first time it had done so since the 1940 showing of the classic Fantasia.

A decade after that 2009 premiere, Dampier, now 20, is still marveling that she was a part of the game-changing moment.

Actresses Breanna Brooks (left) and Elizabeth Dampier (right) attend the world premiere of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog at Walt Disney Studios on Nov. 15, 2009, in Burbank, California.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

“I couldn’t wait to go back home and tell everyone about the premiere,” recalls the former child actor, who is now a beauty and fashion blogger. “Everyone [was] standing up and cheering for the entire length of the credits. It was an amazing experience, but I did not realize that [we were] actually making history. I honestly didn’t realize it until the movie came out.”

Based on the Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince, Walt Disney’s 49th animated film was released widely on Dec. 11, 2009, amid deafening buzz. Not only was The Princess and the Frog the studio’s first hand-drawn movie in five years after Disney laid off most of its traditional animators before switching to CGI, it was its first animated picture since 1946’s offensive Song of the South (the stereotypical Reconstruction-era Uncle Remus and the black help existed only to bring happiness to a white family living on a Georgia plantation) to feature an African American character.

Directed by Disney stalwarts Ron Clements and John Musker, The Princess and the Frog is set in a 1920s black community in New Orleans. Tiana, a poor yet determined young woman, dreams of opening her own restaurant and serving her late, beloved father’s signature gumbo. Soon the ambitious waitress meets a talking frog named Naveen (Bruno Campos), who claims to be a prince from the fictional country of Maldonia. He’s been cursed by the villainous voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier, played with velvety aplomb by veteran actor Keith David (Gargoyles, Todd Macfarlane’s Spawn, Ken Burns’ The War, Greenleaf), who could make a greasy fast food receipt sound like a Langston Hughes poem.

Along with its throwback Disney musical numbers, Anika Noni Rose (Princess Tiana) was a major reason for the film’s success. Tiana is seen here with Prince Naveen (voice: Bruno Campos).

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

“There is no way I would ever, ever, ever kiss a frog. Yuck,” bristles Tiana.

But of course she does. That’s when the old fairy tale trope is turned on its head as Tiana is transformed into a frog. Time is of the essence as the pair rushes to upend Dr. Facilier’s evil spell, get married and live happily ever after. With a Roaring ’20s jazz age soundtrack written by Grammy and Oscar winner Randy Newman, syrupy vocals from Dr. John, and a deep bench of A-list voice talent headed by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Jenifer Lewis, and Terrence Howard, the movie would go on to earn $267 million globally at the box office and receive three Academy Award nominations, including two for Newman’s songs.

Along with its throwback Disney musical numbers, Rose was a major reason for the film’s success. The Bloomfield, Connecticut, native beat out the likes of Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Tyra Banks to score the groundbreaking part. For many, she proved to be a revelation.

“Anika has long carried big projects,” said Michael-Leon Wooley, the voice of fan favorite Louis the Alligator, speaking from his New York City apartment where he has a statue of the gregarious trumpet-blowing reptile on top of his grand piano.

“Anika has always been able to handle pressure. She was the lead in Caroline, or Change,” for which she won a Tony Award in 2004. “She brought a lot of grace, dignity, and humor to Princess Tiana, which has become such an iconic character.”

The film had an immense impact on children, especially black girls, who finally saw themselves as a Disney princess.

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

Wooley met Rose on the set of the 2006 Oscar-winning film Dreamgirls. Two years later, the pair would find themselves together again at Los Angeles’ Disney Studios recording Princess’ show-stopping number “When We’re Human.”

“That was a great day,” Wooley recalled.“I knew it was a great number because Randy Newman was writing the music. I remember me, Anika and Bruno [Campos] were in the studio together to record ‘When We’re Human.’ When you are working with that level of talent you have to bring your A game. I don’t think I talked the day before. That’s how much I rested my voice!”

Critic Roger Ebert praised the film, marveling at lead animator Mark Henn’s “lovingly hand-drawn animation that proceeds at a human pace, instead of racing with odd smoothness. I’m just gonna stand here and let it pour over me.”

But the project was not without its detractors. For starters, Tiana spends much of the film as a frog. The racially ambiguous Prince Naveen sparked debate about whether Disney was ready for a black prince. Some writers took exception to the fact that the story takes place in the racially segregated Jim Crow era at a time when interracial marriage was outlawed.

In a 2010 essay published by the Journal of African American Studies, educator Sarita McCoy Gregory summed up the ambivalence of some observers: “Disney’s attempt to render blackness visible and human must be read against its objective of maintaining whiteness in the movie. Food and jazz share the burden of serving as metaphors for colorblindness and black humanity, leaving the audience with a feeling of accomplishment that they have moved beyond race in their acceptance of Tiana as a princess.”

From left to right: Peter Del Vecho, Marlon West, Bruce W. Smith, Quvenzhané Wallis, Jenifer Lewis, Anika Noni Rose, Michael-Leon Wooley, Randy Newman, Rob Edwards, Ron Clements and Keith David attend The Academy Celebrates The Princess and the Frog 10th Anniversary at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Sept. 5 in Beverly Hills, California.

Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images

The criticism did not take away from the immense impact the film had on children, especially black girls who finally saw themselves as a Disney princess. “The fact that she was the first black princess meant to me that she was going to be, like, influence for other kids,” said one child during an opening night screening covered in a 2009 NPR segment. “I like that the princess was black,” exclaimed another.

Wooley can attest to the movie’s legacy. “I judge a big singing contest here in Los Angeles,” he said. “There were a few black girls ranging from 16 to 18 in the competition who were amazing. When I told them that I was Louis the Alligator, they all had the same reaction … They burst into tears. And I love that.”

During a 10th anniversary screening of The Princess and the Frog in September at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, the film’s cast and crew reunited for a Q&A session. Hosted by self-described “superfan,” actress Quvenzhané Wallis (she was 6 when the movie dropped!), the event was a celebration of the film’s enduring reach.

Sitting onstage alongside the actors and directors were producer Peter Del Vecho, head of effects Marlon West, supervising animator Bruce W. Smith and screenwriter Rob Edwards. “You want to root for her,” said Edwards of the universal appeal of the strong-willed Tiana. Rose held back tears as she explained to the audience the responsibility she accepted in taking on such an important role.

“Never once did I feel, ‘Oh, my God I can’t believe I have to do all this,’ ” she said of the myriad auditions and early-morning plane flights she endured to get the part. “Never once did I feel I was not where I was supposed to be. Never once did I feel like this girl was not me.”

But The Princess and the Frog nearly got off to a disastrous start. When Disney leaked some concepts from the film in early 2007, there was immediate backlash. Among the grievances was the lead character’s original name, Maddy, which for many African Americans came too close to the offensive term “mammy.” Fans and media outlets also balked at Tiana’s original occupation as a maid to a rich white family.

Since the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a lot has changed. More than ever, movie studios are recognizing the importance of empowering women and people of color to tell their stories.

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

The directing team of Clements and Musker had worked on huge titles such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and, later, Moana (2016). The two white animation vets understood that The Princess and the Frog needed a shot of celebratory black culture and nuance. The pivotal casting of Winfrey as Tiana’s mother Eudora in September 2008 got the ball rolling.

The directors then brought in Smith, creator of the animated Disney Channel series The Proud Family, to assist with character animation and voice. Edwards, a veteran television and film writer whose credits include A Different World, In Living Color, Roc, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the Disney feature Treasure Planet, was also instrumental in injecting much needed authenticity. Both played roles in establishing the unmistakable black hues, contours and vocal inflections of each character, from their dialogue to the bombastic Broadway-style performances.

Rose’s character struts infectiously on the high-kicking “Almost There.” David soaks up all the menacing fun on the bass-thumping “Friends on the Other Side.” A nearly unrecognizable Lewis delivers foot-stomping gospel-inflected joy on “Dig a Little Deeper.” And Wooley and company serve up sheer bliss on “When We’re Human,” which has become an indelible addition to the Disney songbook.

The end result was a commercial and artistic triumph despite its flaws. The Princess and the Frog is as entrenched in the pop culture landscape as Bambi, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Toy Story or Frozen. For example, Play Like Mum, a British website, looked at 20 years of records of babies’ names and found that Tiana was the second-most popular Disney-inspired name in the United Kingdom, just behind Elsa of Frozen.

In August, Disney announced that Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen are part of its new Midnight Masquerade princess and prince doll sets (with a price of $200), just one more addition to a long list of The Princess and the Frog merchandise. This Halloween there was no shortage of little girls wearing Princess Tiana’s green gown. And a Princess and the Frog-themed restaurant is set to open in a new hotel at Walt Disney World.

There’s such passion surrounding the film and its title character that Disney was forced to reanimate scenes from 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet that featured Tiana hanging out with a group of her fellow princesses, including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jasmine, because she had been portrayed with lighter skin and more Eurocentric hair than in the original film.

“We were disturbed when she was changed so radically from the original movie,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter of the civil rights organization Color of Change, which led the charge to switch Tiana back to her prominent black features. “She’s incorporated into the Disney theme parks now. They have to hire black women to be Princess Tiana. So to whitewash that character was basically recasting Tiana.”

Rose released her own statement on the controversy, revealing that she met with the producers of the sequel, Wreck It Ralph 2. “They explained how CGI animation did different things to the characters’ color tones in different light compared to hand-drawn original characters,” she noted, “and I was able to express how important it is to the little girls [and let’s face it, grown women] who felt represented by her that her skin tone stay as rich as it had been, and that her nose continue to be the little round nose that Mark Henn so beautifully rendered in the movie; the same nose on my very own face and on many other little brown faces around the world, that we so rarely get to see represented in fantasy.”

Since the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a lot has changed. More than ever, movie studios are recognizing the importance of empowering women and people of color to tell their stories. And there’s plenty of money to be made, too, as proven by the $1.3 billion box office earned by 2018 blockbuster Black Panther.

At New York Comic Con in October, Rose appeared on a panel with three other actresses who had portrayed Disney princesses and noted her character was the only one whose film had not been remade or had a sequel announced. She told fans to start petitions and write to Disney. “Send them a physical letter,” Rose said amid applause.

It is not unrealistic to believe that if The Princess and the Frog were released today, it would be bolstered by black directors, a black writer, a black composer or even a black lead animator. But its universal message of never giving up in the face of the obstacles would remain the same.

“It was very important to be from Mississippi, being that [The Princess and the Frog] was based in the South,” said Dampier, who will never forget her part in that watershed cinematic moment. “It helped to inspire other girls and show that [everyone can] make a mark, too.”

As for Wooley, he’s still boogying in the bayou.

“When I have the Disney radio station on and ‘When We’re Human’ comes on, it’s a whole thing,” he said. “I will stop the car in a parking lot just to sing it! As a voice actor, being an animated Disney character is like getting the ultimate brass ring. But more importantly, to star in the first Disney film featuring a predominantly black cast … it’s surreal.”

Behind the complicated relationship between Washington and baseball The Nationals could win their first World Series, but would it be bittersweet?

D.C. baseball fans were ecstatic last week when the Washington Nationals captured their first National League pennant, high-fiving, screaming and hugging each other all around town. Three local TV affiliates stayed with crowds outside the ballpark and on nearby streets long after their normal broadcast lengths, including one that didn’t join its regularly scheduled programming until well past midnight. The following day, happy Washingtonians rocked Nats gear, recounted game highlights, and reached out to contacts about World Series tickets.

It was a moment many will cherish for the rest of their lives. But not for all Washington baseball fans.

Others reflected on the region’s complicated relationship with pro baseball, its racist past and its current dynamics.

Yes, the Nationals hosted their first World Series game on Friday night against the Houston Astros and hold a 2-1 series lead, but for a generation of locals there is still bitterness over previous teams leaving town. From 1972 to 2004, the nation’s capital was devoid of the national pastime on a professional level. Fans could experience every major sports league except baseball.

Washington had been branded as a place where baseball went to fail. For black sports fans, in particular, the city’s national reputation was especially troubling.


Why BASEBALL ABANDONED Washington

Washington had generally supported the game — in good times and the more frequent lean years — since the late 1800s. And in 1943, the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League began dividing time between Pittsburgh and Washington. Their Washington home was Griffith Stadium, owned by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.

Grays games were played in a predominantly black section of town called LeDroit Park, home to Howard University and the historic chitlin circuit entertainment venue, the Howard Theater. The team won pennants in 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1948, which happens to be the last time Washington hosted a baseball championship game. When the major leagues were integrated, and the Negro National League folded, the Grays disappeared after a couple of seasons as an independent team. The Senators were integrated in 1954 by signing Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula.

The Homestead Grays pose in 1943 for their team portrait. In the back row, Cool Papa Bell is second from left, and Buck Leonard, second from right. Ray Brown is in the front row, far right.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The 1960 Senators, who finished 73-81, drew more than 743,000 fans — a respectable number for the era (Griffith Stadium seated only 28,669 fans). But when the season ended, owner Calvin Griffith (the nephew of Clark Griffith, who died in 1955) agreed to sell the team to a Minnesota ownership group. Fans were upset that the improving ballclub was being relocated. And by 1965, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison led the Minnesota Twins to the World Series.

More damaging was the revelation that came years later, in September 1978, when Calvin Griffith explained the move at a Lions Club dinner in Waseca, Minnesota.

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” Griffith said. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

This confirmed what black Washingtonians and some sports media had suspected of Griffith all along, and it further branded the city as undesirable for his fellow MLB owners.

“The baseball owners and commissioner didn’t understand the historical bond between the black community and Griffith Stadium [which was open for many black community events], the legacy of the mighty Homestead Grays in the city,” said Washington native Brad Snyder, who has written books about the Senators and the integration of baseball.

The Senators were replaced in 1961 by an expansion team, also named the Senators, after the American League voted to add two new franchises.

During this time, Washington was a social tinderbox. Police brutality was rampant, and Marion Barry, first chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made his name locally in 1965 and 1966 by calling attention to the issue.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, things got worse. Washington saw a 67% increase in homicides between July 1967 and July 1968. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pronounced the District as “one of the crime capitals of the nation.”

Labels such as “crime capital” are difficult to shed. In the first few years after the ’68 unrest, the city experienced white flight by families apprehensive about safety, and black households with similar concerns. Those who could afford to move — not to mention spend money on a baseball game — relocated to Maryland or Virginia.

In 1971, Washington Senators’ manager Ted Williams (center) gets together with two newly acquired ball players Curt Flood (left) and Denny McLain (right) at training camp in Florida.

Getty Images, Bettmann / Contributor

Although the Washington ballclub drew 918,000 fans in 1969, finished 86-76, and hosted the ’69 All-Star Game to help commemorate MLB’s 100th anniversary, the 1970 and 1971 teams did not play as well, and attendance fell off. Fan sentiment about seeing games in a mostly black part of Southeast Washington contributed as much to the decline as losing records. The 1970 trade for former Cy Young winner Denny McLain, whose career had come to be marked by a suspension for bookmaking, another for carrying a pistol on a team flight, weight gain, and a considerable decline in his pitching skills, symbolized the fall of the franchise.

The Senators’ final home game was against the New York Yankees in 1971. They were leading 7-5 in front of more than 14,000 fans, many of whom hoisted banners and signs criticizing owner Bob Short, who had put the team up for sale after the 1970 season. But with one out remaining in the ninth inning, fans began to pour onto the diamond, pull up the bases, tear the turf, and touch the home players. Washington lost the game by forfeit, and MLB for a generation.

Short sold the team to a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, group after the 1971 season.

“Losing the team was devastating,” said Washington native Brian Gilmore, now director of the Housing Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. “I played little league coming up every year, so when the team left I eventually drifted away from it — as did so many black kids.

“Nevertheless, ‘Chocolate City’ was magical back then for a young black kid like myself. There was a sense of pride and purpose.”


‘City Under Siege’

By the 1970s, Washington became so synonymous with blackness that Parliament released an album titled Chocolate City. For decades, its mayors, police chiefs, school board commissioners and city council chairs were black. Twenty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, most of its high schools were upward of 90% black. Socially, the largely white pockets of Washington west of Rock Creek Park and the predominantly black corridors east of the Anacostia River seldom coalesced.

Between 1972 and 2003, baseball owners who heard presentations about Washington, learned the city had a subway system with a stop at RFK Stadium, a vibrant sports talk radio landscape, avid rooters of the NFL franchise and Maryland and Georgetown college basketball, and baseball-loving transients from all over the U.S. But Washington suffered from its image as a crime capital. One local TV affiliate led its nightly newscast with the number of residents murdered to date, under the headline City Under Siege.

Between 1972 and 2004, Seattle Toronto, Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix all received major league baseball teams. Washington experienced only close calls (including from the 1974 San Diego Padres, 1987 San Francisco Giants, and the Houston Astros in 1995). The narrative about Washington in baseball media circles was that it was an unsafe, predominantly black city that had already lost two MLB franchises because white fans were afraid to go to the ballpark.

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners when Washington nearly received another team before the 1974 season,” Snyder said. “The baseball owners of that era were a racist and fearful bunch, especially after the 1968 riots about Dr. King’s death, about putting a team in D.C.”

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners.” — Brad Snyder

When Camden Yards opened in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles averaged more than 44,000 fans. A survey determined that 21.9% of fans at Camden Yards were from the Washington metropolitan area. Baltimore had a downtown ticket office in Washington, Orioles results were featured on Washington TV and radio sports reports and some fans rocked their gear, but the city was split on the long game. Some argued that their numbers at Baltimore games signaled a thirst for baseball. Others believed that giving money to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who opposed a Washington franchise, worked at cross purposes. Fans under 30 could not remember the Senators, so many grew up backing the Orioles.

When Washington investors appealed to MLB for a franchise during the 1990s, though, they cited their share of Baltimore attendance as a strong suit.

After the peak of the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, Washington saw an influx of young white professionals who sought to live closer to Metro transit system stations and their jobs, many of them singles who did not need a large yard or the highly ranked school systems of nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, or Fairfax County, Virginia, two of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. By 2009, the city was only 53% black, and violent crime decreased 50% from 1995 to 2010. Washington had become a more attractive destination to MLB brass.


Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper makes the first out of the game as he catches a hit by Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward during the opening day game at Nationals Park between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves on April 4, 2014.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The arrival of the nationals

Some of Washington’s black and civic leadership opposed the return of big league baseball. Opponents voiced skepticism that a new team would bring revenue or employment to an economically challenged section of the city, especially for its poorest residents. But when the Montreal Expos became available, Washington’s Lerner family put in a bid. Most National League owners favored a sale, not wishing for the league to run the franchise. Twenty-nine of 30 owners voted in approval of the Lerners’ $450 million purchase.

Washington was awarded the franchise in 2004 under the condition they would build a new stadium, given that RFK Stadium was more than 40 years old. This city-funded initiative was resisted by some elected officials, especially City Council member Linda Cropp, who opposed public funding for a ballpark, arguing that schools and community services were bigger priorities. Fellow council member and former mayor Marion Barry, meanwhile, advocated that black and Latino contractors and vendors be considered in the enterprise.

Fan reaction to the return was mixed. There were those who echoed the skepticism of city officials. But fans favoring the return were excited because it meant no more trips up to Baltimore. One of the most popular fan choices for the new team’s name was “Grays” in tribute to the Homestead Grays, but team management chose to call them the Washington Nationals.

E. Ethelbert Miller, who has lived in Washington since 1968 and is a former Washington poet laureate, is glad to have the game back.

“When I decided to make this city my home following my graduation in 1972, I didn’t view this city as being a home for baseball,” Miller said. “D.C. and sports seem to always begin and end with the Washington Redskins.

“I was very happy when the game returned to D.C.”

But as the city celebrates the success of its third major league iteration, less apparent to the general public are mixed feelings about the organization’s treatment of manager Dusty Baker, who was fired in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the playoffs, and the entitlement of white fans commuting to the game by subway.

“If you want to know how black people view baseball in Washington, simply ride the Green Line after a game ends. Notice how black folks who get on the Metro at Anacostia view the white baseball fans when the train reaches the ballpark stop,” Miller said.

“This is not the Underground Railroad. It’s easy to monitor fear in the eyes of white folks and disgust in the eyes of blacks. It’s a combination of race and class. … Some of this is not going to change.”

No matter the outcome of the World Series, baseball in Washington either symbolizes triumph over recalcitrant owners, or the gentrification of the 2000s, depending on one’s lens.

Harvard’s black students using game against Howard to celebrate culture First-time football meeting gives students opportunity to highlight diverse manifestations of blackness

The first football game between Harvard and Howard University has brought a new dimension to an age-old debate over “the real HU.” But for some black students at Harvard, the goal is bigger than bragging rights.

These students hope the game will help them build solidarity with Howard and strengthen the support network available to black students at Harvard.

When the leaders of Harvard’s Black Students Association heard about the game, they saw an opportunity for social engagement. Aba Sam and Kendall Laws, president and vice president of the association, respectively, started planning what is now being billed as the inaugural Black Ivy Homecoming.

This is a tip of the hat to the Black Ivy League, an informal reference to top-rated historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard, Hampton and Spelman. It’s also an acknowledgment that Harvard and Howard are top-tier institutions among the Ivy League and HBCUs, respectively; Harvard’s Business School accepts more students from Howard than any other HBCU, and many black students at both schools are working to create and maintain communities that celebrate diverse manifestations of blackness.

“We wanted to make it about more than just the game,” said Sam, a junior neuroscience major from Southbury, Connecticut.

In conjunction with Harvard’s Black Graduate Student Alliance (HBGSA) and the Howard University Student Association (HUSA), Sam and Laws organized a day and a half of social and professional events. Although administrators at both schools had to approve the plan, all activities are being led and funded by student leaders.

“We sold out of tickets to the event in two hours,”said HUSA president Taylor Ellison. As a result, about 55 Howard students, grad and undergrad, will make the trip from Georgia Avenue to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They can participate in a career panel, a talent show pitting Howard against Harvard, a pregame breakfast and a tailgate. And, of course, parties.

“We’re definitely not a big, big football school, but we do come out for certain games, like our Harvard-Yale game. We have tailgate culture. For this game, we think people will fill up the stands,” said Laws, a junior economics major from Atlanta.

Perhaps even more impressive is the housing plan. Travelers from Howard will be hosted by Harvard students the day before the game. This custom is traditionally only bestowed upon Yale students when their school plays Harvard. (Yale’s rivalry with Harvard is as historic and fun as Hampton’s is with Howard.)

“This event is going to be legendary,” said Ellison. She, Laws and Sam hope Black Ivy Homecoming becomes an annual event between Harvard and Howard.

Harvard defensive back Bennett Bay in action against San Diego on Sept. 15, 2018, at Harvard Stadium in Boston. The Crimson take on Howard this weekend.

(Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

According to Harvard doctoral student Tauheedah Baker-Jones, 41, more tailgate tickets were sold for this game than for ones against Yale. This is a big deal because the rivalry between Yale and Harvard is as significant as the one between Howard and Hampton. Baker-Jones is part of HBGSA as well as a Howard alum. She was happy to promote the event to graduate students and alumni from both schools. She’s enjoyed her experiences at both institutions.

“I can’t put a price on Howard,” said Baker-Jones, who completed her undergraduate degree at UCLA. “It prepared me for UCLA, for the social challenges I would face there.”

When she decided to go to graduate school, part of what attracted her to Harvard was the number of black faculty members in the Graduate School of Education. When she enrolled, she said, seven black female deans had just been hired, and she recalls proudly tweeting, “#Mydeanisblack.”

Just over 9% of Harvard’s graduate student population is black, and the percentage of black undergrads is slightly less than that. More black students are admitted than enroll at the Ivy League school.

Harvard’s name is impressive, but black students are also looking at other factors such as programs offered, financial aid packages, how comfortable they feel on campus, and location. As it competes with premier schools such as MIT, Stanford, Duke and Howard for high-performing black students, the school has also been working to make space for and embrace diverse expressions of black culture. There are several black organizations on campus, such as the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Caribbean Club, and the Black Community and Student Theater (BlackC.A.S.T.). Other groups embrace mixed-race students, black LGBTQ members and black engineers.

Technically, there are no sororities or fraternities on campus, but Baker said the members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity will be helping with the tailgate. In 2017, members of single-gender social clubs were banned from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations, becoming varsity captains, or receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships. A plan to phase out such social clubs by 2022 was also implemented that year. However citywide chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc currently accept members from Harvard, MIT and other Boston area schools.

“The black community is small, close and tight-knit across social and gender lines,” said government and economics major Meshaal Bannerman, vice president of Harvard Black Men’s Forum. He said the group is a preprofessional organization geared toward masculine-identifying black men. While it’s important to Bannerman that Harvard’s black community be supportive of each other, he added, “The academic rigor at Harvard can be challenging, so it’s important to have a space for people who support you, not just look like you.”

Part of what influenced Sergine Cindy Zeufack and Antonia Scott to commit to Harvard was the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

“We celebrate black excellence. We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.” — Sergine Cindy Zeufack on Kuumba, Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus

“I wanted to join a singing group of some sort with a group of people. It [Kuumba] celebrates black art, creativity, spirituality. I enjoyed the people and community,” said Zeufack, a senior human developmental and regenerative biology major from Rockville, Maryland. She’s also first-generation Cameroonian American.

Scott added, “Kuumba supports blackness in all of its forms. And there are no auditions; anyone can join.” The Cranston, Rhode Island, native is a senior majoring in African American studies and minoring in molecular and cellular biology.

Kuumba is Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Zeufack said it’s as close as Harvard gets to an HBCU.

“We celebrate black excellence,” she said. “We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.”

“Creating safe spaces” is a phrase several black student leaders used to describe the mission of their organizations. In part, this is because in 2019, some people still question whether black students are smart enough to be there.

Zeufack said she’d had a few encounters with strangers who asked her where she went to school. When she replied that she’s at Harvard, they seemed to not believe her. One person even asked if she was on the track team.

“Nope,” she recalled. “I guess I’m just smart.”

She’s not knocking any athletes. Black students make up just under 9% of Harvard’s athletic population, while 16% are white and Hispanics and Asians each constitute 4%. Zeufack just wonders why her admittance is questioned.

“If there are so many people who question if you deserve to be there, you start to wonder about it too,” she said. And she’s not the only one.

Experiences like these led to the #ItooamHarvard photo campaign and play in 2014. Led by black and Japanese student Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, 40 black students, including those with multiracial backgrounds, shared their experiences with institutional racism and feelings of alienation on campus. Similar campaigns were launched at Georgetown, UCLA and the University of Michigan that year. The campaign at Harvard is officially over, but black students still talk about it and its impact.

“That campaign was about black students feeling unwanted and disrespected,” said Bannerman. “But it’s twofold. We black students are working to fix the community on the inside so the outside noise doesn’t hurt as much.”

For some black students, the work to make black students feel comfortable on Harvard’s campus is paying off.

Police were called on three black female students at Harvard; Baker-Jones was one of them. She said a woman in her off-campus apartment called the police on Sept. 8 because Baker-Jones’ music had too much bass and she couldn’t focus. The ordeal ended peacefully, and the two women ended up exchanging contact information. The neighbor felt bad and agreed to contact Baker-Jones if the situation happened again.

“I’ve never not felt welcome at Harvard,” said Baker-Jones. “Campus has done a lot to make us feel supported, but now we have to work on how we are treated outside the community.”

Since then, the black students association has established a black graduation ceremony that honors the accomplishments and culture of black graduates. Additionally, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, appointed its first black editor to lead the newspaper. Kristine Guillaume is Haitian and Chinese.

And then, of course, there’s Harvard’s football team. Bennett Bay is a junior government major from Atlanta. He’s a member of the black students association and a defensive back who plans to play in the game against Howard.

“The black community definitely makes an effort to make the freshmen feel welcome,” he said after practice. “The biggest shock for me was the weather. I was not used to six months of snow.”

Besides the black students association, Bay has found his community on the football team. At the end of the day, that’s the goal of each black student organization: to help black students find spaces and groups where they feel accepted and respected.

“I love the culture of the team. It’s bigger than me,” he said. He’s excited about the game and for the opportunity to be on the first Harvard football team to play against an HBCU.

Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

Happy birthday to Kurtis Blow, the original ‘King of Rap’ ‘The Breaks,’ ‘Christmas Rappin,’’ ‘If I Ruled the World’ made him rap’s first major solo star

As a genre, hip-hop hits the big 4-0 this September. That’s when the seminal 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” celebrates its 40th anniversary. Widely lauded as the first hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight” opened the floodgates for a host of rap records to gain mainstream appeal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers, The Sequence, Busy Bee, The Funky 4 + 1 and The Treacherous Three took hip-hop from the South Bronx parks to the recording studio. But of all the early hip-hoppers who broke that ground, no one crashed the mainstream quite like Kurtis Blow.

Blow’s musical legacy is without question. Born Kurtis Walker in 1959, Blow, who turns 60 on Aug. 9, was the first rapper to sign with a major label and the first to become a mainstream star. Signing with Mercury Records in 1979, Blow was managed by an up-and-coming Russell Simmons and had instrumentalists Orange Krush playing on his tracks. His charisma made him hip-hop’s first major solo star, and his hooky songs got him airplay in places most of hip-hop hadn’t reached yet. Before forming Run-DMC, a teenage Run got his big start as Blow’s deejay, and Blow would collaborate with rhythm and blues stars René & Angela and produce tracks for the platinum-selling Fat Boys. Between 1979 and 1985, Blow delivered classic radio hits like “The Breaks,” “Christmas Rappin’,” “If I Ruled the World” and “Basketball” — songs that would be sampled and revisited by everyone from Nas to Next. With the possible exception of turntablist Grandmaster Flash, Blow is arguably the most famous of hip-hop’s pre-Run-DMC pioneers.

It may not be realistic to expect early rap acts to suddenly be thrust into the epicenter of contemporary pop culture. But it’s not a stretch to suggest we show these artists the kind of love we’ve shown to beloved rock and soul legends of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Flash turned 60 back in January 2018, and there wasn’t much celebration for the hip-hop legend. But that’s not an anomaly. Forty years after “Rapper’s Delight,” early hip-hop tends to be celebrated for its historical importance but not as classic music. It doesn’t help that the music born of the Bronx and spread via boutique labels like Sugar Hill and Enjoy had a fairly limited audience. Artists who laid the foundations in the days before Yo! MTV Raps and multiplatinum albums weren’t always visible outside of the 1970s and ’80s New York City, so acts like the Cold Crush Brothers and The Treacherous Three didn’t have the reach that their funk and disco contemporaries enjoyed — and so many of those acts can still sell tickets and enjoy major streaming numbers today.

But that’s why Kurtis Blow matters so much: He had the most mainstream appeal. He broke through to pop and R&B audiences at a time when rap music was still seen as a novelty. His signing with Mercury gave him a platform most of his peers didn’t have. Dubbed “The King of Rap,” Blow gained a much higher profile. As hip-hop is lauded for its ability to affect contemporary trends and tastes, it should also be recognized as a genre and art form that has a long history. This is no longer a “young genre” per se; it’s been four decades since the Sugarhill Gang and more than 25 years since The Chronic. Part of recognizing the maturation of hip-hop would be to acknowledge how rich its legacy is. That means celebrating the greatness of its pioneers, not just for “paving the way” for what came after but also for the merits of their actual music.

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On April 30, Blow announced via Instagram his hospitalization for heart surgery. He explained that he would be undergoing surgery at UCLA Medical Center.

“I am preparing for an aortic artery repair procedure tomorrow morning,” read the post’s caption. “The procedure will stabilize the artery from further damage caused by the hematoma I contacted from my recent travels to China.”

And just three days later, Blow shared that he was on the road to recovery. “Hey everyone- I started physical therapy yesterday and occupational therapy today. I am on my way to a full recovery 100%. Thank you for all of your prayers and well wishes. I love you all and I will be back really soon!!God is most powerful in these times!!!! Please keep the prayers going up so the blessings will come down!!!To God be the glory Amen!!!”

But shortly thereafter, Simmons shared troubling news:

“F—, Captain Kurt damn!!! He just informed me that prayers are needed ..Please put @kurtisblow THE ORIGINAL ‘KING OF RAP’ back into your prayers. He has been called to second emergency open heart surgery. Kurtis Blow is a survivor, but this is not good. I say this to all who loved his music, his heart is bigger than his music. His family is a testimony to his goodness. His loving wife of at least 35 years and beautiful children are examples of his willingness to give. Let’s all give him the prayers and our blessings. Update from his wife Shirley ‘Kurtis’s heart is beating on its own. They are closing should finished closing in less than 2 hours. Glory to God Glory to God hallelujah hallelujah’ 🙏🏽❤ Shirley Let us continue to pray.”

Kurtis Blow performs during an old-school hip-hop show on Day 3 of the NAACP’s 108th Annual Convention at the Baltimore Convention Center in July 2017.

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Blow recovered from the ordeal and shared that he was recuperating, but his health scare was a reminder that hip-hop’s earliest stars are truly elders now. Those names like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, The Treacherous Three and Spoonie Gee, as well as even earlier pioneers like Kool Herc, Busy Bee and DJ Hollywood, deserve more than to be relegated to niche status.

It may not be realistic to expect early rap acts to suddenly be thrust into the epicenter of contemporary pop culture. But it’s not a stretch to suggest we show these artists the kind of love we’ve shown to beloved rock and soul legends of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. A Kurtis Blow tribute at a hip-hop awards show doesn’t sound all that impossible, does it? Couldn’t you see a cool little medley? With Nas flipping “If I Ruled the World” as a nod, Romeo milking the nostalgia with his cover of “Basketball” and maybe having Next remind everyone where “Too Close” originally comes from (that would be Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’”) — and close with the everybody-knows-this universality of “The Breaks.”

Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Or maybe it’s already on the radar — let’s be positive. But as hip-hop enters middle age, it’s past time we start treating it like a classic genre. And it’s time we treat its founding fathers like the music legends that they are. Give Kurtis Blow his flowers. The man who would rule the world.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

Janet Jackson trained like a sprinter for her new show Her personal trainer reveals how the 53-year-old star got herself into Vegas shape

LAS VEGAS — As a wall of digital screens flashes the initials of one of the most consistent pop superstars of the last three decades, a crowd of 5,200 Janet Jackson fans waits for the metamorphosis to begin.

Flanked across a stage inside of the Park MGM Theater, 14 backup dancers – ranging in age, size, gender and race — fall into formation as Jackson begins the first notes of her new track, “Empty.” They begin to deliver the precise, coordinated steps, high shoulder movement and head shakes that Jackson has been bringing to arenas since her first Rhythm Nation World Tour in 1990.

“I look at her as an athlete. I have got to make sure that she is fit to do the show.”— Paulette Sybliss, Janet Jackson’s personal trainer

But this one is different. This brief residency in Vegas — celebrating the 30th anniversary of her game-changing album, Rhythm Nation 1814 — began in May and will finish up in the next 10 days. Titled Metamorphosis, it takes place in the most intimate space she’s ever appeared in as a solo act. Over the course of 100 minutes, Jackson — at 53 — will run through a setlist of 37 hits from the entirety of her career.

And she does it without missing a beat.

Not one, single, solitary beat.

We’ve known Janet Jackson the Pop Superstar almost as long as we’ve known ourselves. But now we’re meeting Janet Jackson, the high-functioning athlete.

“I am from a sprinter’s background, so I train her at that level, and it’s intense,” said 49-year-old Paulette Sybliss, Jackson’s personal trainer who is a former amateur sprinter and long jumper who ran in primary and secondary school in London. “It is 45 minutes of intensity, doing some drills that I know from my athletics background. She — as a 53-year-old woman — will take on many who are half her age, and put them to shame, to be quite honest with you. She does that a lot of the times in sessions with the dancers. I look at them, and they look at me, and I am like, ‘Yeah …’ ”


On April 6, 2016, Jackson announced to her fans via video that she was unexpectedly ending her Unbreakable tour, because she and her then-husband, business tycoon Wissam Al Mana, wanted to start a family. The two had secretly married in 2012, didn’t confirm it until 2013 and at 49, Jackson wanted to become a first-time mom. (The couple divorced in 2017.)

She promised she’d hit the stage again as soon as she could, telling fans in a video she posted on Twitter: “My husband and I are planning our family, so I’m going to have to delay the tour. Please, if you could try and understand that it’s important that I do this now. I have to rest up, doctor’s orders. But I have not forgotten about you. I will continue the tour as soon as I possibly can.”

Jackson’s high-impact touring shows have come like clockwork for decades — Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990; 1993-1995’s Janet World Tour; 1998-1999’s The Velvet Rope Tour; 2001-2002’s All For You Tour; 2008’s Rock Witchu Tour, 2011’s Number Ones, Up Close and Personal World Tour; 2015-2016’s Unbreakable World Tour and her most recent State of the World Tour, 2017-2019. Emphasis on the high impact. Once she shifts into the first 8-count of a complicated choreography, it doesn’t end until the show’s conclusion.

According to her trainer Paulette Sybliss, Janet Jackson’s ability to endure her grueling schedule is due to intense weight training.

Photo by Farrenton Grigsby/Getty Images for JJ

Her ability to endure that schedule — especially now — is due to intense weight training, said Sybliss.

“Predominantly, all of her sessions are based around some kind of weight training, as well as interval training. Sprinters do a lot of interval training, where you’re working really hard for maybe 30-45 seconds. When I mean hard, I mean your heart rate is at the highest, and then she will maybe take a rest at that period of time,” said Sybliss, who claims that at 13 she was once clocked as the fastest girl in London. “If you ever see sprinters’ training sessions, that’s how they train. It’s full-on intensity, you take a bit of a recovery. And then you go again.”

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APPRECIATION -Pt2 I am a working class gal from South London who is travelling the world with #Icon @janetjackson . I wake up everyday grateful,humble and determined to work harder in all aspects of my life. We live in a world where so many are takers, leeches, and are just plain greedy for other people's money .. People ask me often, how did I start working with Janet -It's a simple answer, I was busy working hard on my own business to be the best I could be and was discovered, there was no referral other than my work with my clients and on myself Nothing beats hard work and integrity. Keep your head down, stay focused, don't cause drama, don't try to f*CK others over( you'll always get found out, God doesn't like ugly ) Remember you never know who's in the background watching you .. Thank you Janet for the continued faith and love you show me. Vegas we are #READY #metamorphosis

A post shared by Paulette Sybliss (@paulettesybliss) on May 2, 2019 at 11:01am PDT

Sybliss said she uses Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, who ran at a world-class level into her 50s — as an inspiration for Jackson’s training. She first began working with Jackson when Jackson’s son Eissa was 6 weeks old. They’d work out four times a week for 45 minutes to an hour. Back in 2017, the goal was to trim the pounds Jackson gained from pregnancy — she eventually dropped 70 pounds — and to build lean muscle for her forthcoming State of the World Tour.

“Once she had the baby, we were doing a solid five times a week, because time was not on our side. With her hectic schedule now, it may be three to four times, sometimes five times a week. I never take her into an hour. She doesn’t need it,” Sybliss said. She stops to chuckle before adding: “She probably wants me to finish after 30 minutes, it’s so intense.”


Jackson doesn’t take her first significant pause until she’s 16 songs in, after she’s been going at it for about an hour. This is when she tells the crowd she wants to slow it down before going into her slow ballad, “Come Back To Me,” from the Rhythm Nation 1814 album. She chases that with three more soft ballads. As she works through the final notes of “China Love,” from her 2001 All For You album, she looks out at the audience and breaks into a smile. Satisfied with the eruption of cheers, Jackson then looks over her shoulders at everyone backing her up, nods her head and jumps into an uptempo track from 1997’s The Velvet Rope, “Together Again,” a house-music tune that pays homage to a friend she lost to AIDS.

“I am from a sprinter’s background, so I train her at that level, and it’s intense.” — Sybliss on Jackson

Jumping alongside her dancers — much like she did in the summer of 1998 as she performed “Together Again” at NBA arenas across North America — Jackson’s stamina is impressive for a performer of any age. But for one who in her fifth decade? It’s mind-blowing.

What we’re seeing on stage is a better version of Jackson, even better Sybliss thinks, than what she saw as a fan in her 20s, dancing to “Control” and “Nasty.” Those same movements that Jackson performed next to Tina Landon, the former Laker Girl who choreographed the tours in 1993 and 1998, sometimes look even better now than they did when she debuted them.

Throughout the entire show, Paulette Sybliss has Janet Jackson drinking water with electrolytes. After the show, it’s about muscle recovery.

Photo by Farrenton Grigsby/Getty Images for JJ

“She is probably a lot fitter now,” Sybliss said. “Sometimes [I] have to pull her back from maybe doing too much. As we get older, we get injuries, but it’s not necessarily getting the injury, sometimes it takes longer to recover from the injuries as we get older.

“For women as well, as we get close to our 50s, and then there are changes that are coming on as well. It’s accommodating things like that, and saying that we may need to tail back on something like this, or push harder in this section of the show. At the end of the day, she is doing a lot of shows, so we don’t want her to get burnt out during the first few shows. If Janet’s ill, there’s no show. My job is not just to train her, it’s to make sure she’s recovering, she’s getting the right fluids, the right liquids during the show, and also post-show as well.”

Throughout the entire show, Sybliss has Jackson drinking water with electrolytes. “If you see Janet during a show, it’s so intense. We don’t just lose water, we lose salt as well. I need to make sure that during the show, that she’s getting hydrated and getting electrolytes, because the worst thing that can happen is that she cramps on stage.”


After the show, it’s all about muscle recovery. “I look at her as an athlete. I have got to make sure that she is fit to do the show. She might want to train with me the day after the show, I will say, ‘Well, you know, it’s a rest day tomorrow.’ ”

“Sometimes [I] have to pull her back from maybe doing too much. As we get older, we get injuries, but it’s not necessarily getting the injury, sometimes it takes longer to recover from the injuries as we get older.”

“She’s competitive,” Sybliss said. “She likes to push herself, and she knows that I will be able to push her. If it’s a new session, as challenging as it may be, I can see in her face the determination … ‘Well, OK, I’m going to show you I can do this.’”

Near the end of the show, Jackson tells the audience she first performed at an MGM casino in Vegas as a 7-year-old with her brother Michael and her sisters.

The show appears to end with the title track of Rhythm Nation 1814 — the album she’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of. But Jackson still has three more songs left in her: “Morning,” “Doesn’t Really Matter” and “Made For Now.” On that digital screen, she’s draped in a gold material, and you can hear her son Eissa off-screen.

“Now she’s a mother and she’s still working, and she’s in Vegas. She’s touring around the world,” Sybliss said. “It really is incredible.”

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

From ‘The Last O.G.’ to hosting The ESPYS, Tracy Morgan is back Returning from a horrific accident, the comic had to learn to be funny again

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”

Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.

He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.

“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.

Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.

It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.

We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.

He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.

“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.

The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.


Tracy Morgan and Allen Maldonado of TBS’s “The Last O.G” attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.

The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.

“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.

And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.

“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”


June 6, 2019: Tracy Morgan at his home in Alpine, New Jersey just a few weeks from the five-year anniversary of the traffic accident that nearly killed him.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.

I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.

His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.

“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”

Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.

That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.

“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”

Morgan pauses.

“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”

Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”

“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”

Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.

His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.

“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.

“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”

“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”

And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”


Comedians Chris Rock, left, and Amy Schumer, center, sit with actor Tracy Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Maven during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, Feb. 26, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.

The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.

“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.

“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.

“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”

I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?

He nods.

“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”

Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.

In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.

“This story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.

“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”

“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”

Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”

That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.

It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.

“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


“I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?”

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”

Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.

“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”

“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.

“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”

“Yeah.”

“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”

Morgan laughs at his own story.

“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”