With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”

A$AP Rocky case shows the discomfort of fighting for freedom Wanting black folks free means freeing even those we disagree with

Grammy-nominated Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Athelaston Mayers) has spent the past three weeks in a Swedish jail. He was arrested on July 3 after a now-viral video allegedly showed the MC and his entourage beating up two men. In the multiple videos of the incident to hit the internet — Rocky himself released two to tell his side of the story — the two alleged victims are seen following Rocky and his crew, refusing to leave them alone, before the attack transpired. But cooler heads did not prevail, and Rocky’s crew is seen punching and kicking the two men. Rocky himself tosses one man, sending him flying before he crashes down on the street.

Rapper A$AP Rocky speaks at the 2019 SXSW Festival Featured Session: Using Design “Differently” to Make a Difference on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

While Rocky’s video did garner him some sympathy — he is, after all, seen trying to defuse the situation before any blows land — it hasn’t gotten him out of jail. Now, Rocky’s arrest and impending July 30 trial have become the focal point of an international debate over prison reform, race and politics, a debate that has involved everyone from Rocky’s rap peers to fans bombarding trending Twitter hashtags with demands for his release to Kim Kardashian and even President Donald Trump. All of this is intersecting with Rocky’s past comments and the realization that freedom for all also means freedom for people we don’t always agree with or even like.

One reason so many rallied behind Rocky was that he was held in jail for weeks before even being charged with a crime. One of the touchstones of prison reform, in America especially, is that in America alone there are more than half a million people in jail, mostly minorities, who have yet to be charged. They’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail. The most infamous example is Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who was jailed in Rikers Island for three years in a minor theft case because he couldn’t make bail. He was the victim of brutal violence and spent two years in solitary confinement. After being released, he committed suicide in 2015 and is the focus of a Jay-Z documentary.

Additionally, sources told TMZ that Rocky was being held in abhorrent conditions in Sweden — unclean rooms with feces on the walls, he was eating only an apple a day and sleeping on a yoga mat — and we have the makings of a human rights story that shows how incarcerated people are treated across the world. The widespread support for Rocky, however, has waned in the past few days, as an old interview of his surfaced in which he disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’d rather talk about fashion than liberating black folks:

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall in New York on Feb. 23, 2016. About a dozen prison reform activists demanded the closing of the long-controversial Rikers Island Corrections facility, where Browder was held.

Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the f— am I? Al Sharpton? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my … lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about … Ferguson … because I don’t live over there! I live in f—ing SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

For many, this was quite the karmic treat. A man who didn’t believe in the most prominent black liberation movement of his lifetime is suddenly in need of help from the activists he would have continued to ignore had he not been incarcerated. And while the schadenfreude is quite delicious to some, that shouldn’t mean that anyone should feel less obligated to find justice for the rapper if they believe he is truly being mistreated. Wanting black folks free means freeing even those black folks we disagree with — even black folks who don’t care about extending that freedom to the rest of us. A$AP Rocky deserves the same revolutionary acts of liberation and kindness we extend to any other incarcerated people, regardless of his stupid comments on activism.

Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served.

Rocky’s situation has been further complicated in recent days by newly converted social justice activist Kardashian lobbying for Trump to get involved. Trump responded by tweeting out support for Rocky, directing aggressive tweets toward the Swedish prime minister and stating that “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”

So to recap, we have a man in jail who has expressed ambivalence about black liberation movements being supported by a woman who has made a career mining black culture for her own gain and who asked for help from a president who went on a racist outburst just last week demanding that four Democratic congresswomen go back to the countries they “came from.” The rest of us have been handed a cocktail of race, entertainment and politics in which we’re left wondering whether the enemies of our enemies are really our friends and which side is right here.

In the end, there should be only one winner: justice. Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served. Because so often, our black and brown brothers and sisters are denied their rights. Of course, if we can extend the resources of Kardashian and the president to get one black man free, then it should be no problem to find the same justice for the Kalief Browders of the world. Then we can really talk about what liberation looks like.

World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe helps continue Nipsey Hussle’s marathon Charismatic, defiant and independent, the U.S. women’s team is hip-hop

Just hours after the U.S. national team captured its second consecutive Women’s World Cup with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, forward Megan Rapinoe, winner of the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament, took to Instagram quoting Nipsey Hussle’s rallying cry:

“Ain’t really trip on the credit, I just paid all of my dues I just respected the game, now my name all in the news,” Rapinoe wrote. “Trippin’ on all of my moves, quote me on this, got a lot more to prove.”

The caption, from the Victory Lap standout “Hussle & Motivate,” eloquently summarized both the late rapper’s untapped future and the upward battle Rapinoe and her teammates continue to face as female athletes in a society that requires them to play for less than their worth.

The truth of the matter is the U.S. women’s national team is hip-hop. Their swagger? One-of-one. In a matter of weeks, Rapinoe, Alex Morgan & Co. became the international version of the 1980s Miami Hurricanes. They were bullies, lovable antagonists who walked with a bop and played with a peerless cockiness. They ran the score up and bathed in the tears of thin-skinned critics. They toasted their 2-1 victory over England in the semifinals to Crime Mob’s “Rock Yo Hips.” Rapinoe defiantly refused to visit the White House — even before winning the tournament.

Most importantly, though, the U.S. women did so without sacrificing what made them the most dominant soccer team in the world. And they did it understanding the battles for fair treatment that they face at home, which often are relegated to back-page news.

It’s why the lyrics Rapinoe quoted matter. And why it mattered that she was the one quoting them. Rapinoe is a face of social justice in sports, a hero to the LGBTQ community and one-half of sports’ most accomplished power couple, along with WNBA player Sue Bird (who came to her defense after President Donald Trump’s response to Rapinoe’s White House comment).

The World Cup champions are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for appropriate compensation. The crowd in France was chanting, “Equal pay!” on Sunday after the team’s victory — a reminder of the reality that lay just beyond the euphoric accomplishment. Last week, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that the 2023 Women’s World Cup prize money would double from $30 million to $60 million. In comparison, the men’s prize pool sits at a gaudy $440 million for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. Rapinoe scoffed at the financial insult.

“It’s certainly not fair,” she said during a news conference on July 6. “I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step. I think we’re done with the ‘Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay?’ … Everyone is done with that. … Let’s get to the next point of what’s next, how do we support women’s federation and women’s programs around the world.”

Megan Rapinoe (right) kneels during the national anthem before a match between the United States and the Netherlands at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 18, 2016, in Atlanta. Rapinoe was the first white athlete and first woman to follow the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the anthem.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Rapinoe, too, will always be linked to exiled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As the former Super Bowl signal-caller protested systemic oppression against black and brown men and women in America by kneeling for the national anthem in 2016, it was Rapinoe who became both the first white athlete and the first woman to follow his lead.

So when she decided to quote Hussle on Instagram, it felt authentic. Rapinoe saw portions of her marathon in Hussle’s.

Sports were an integral part of Nipsey’s life. He was a regular fixture courtside at Lakers games. (“Courtside Chamberlain throwback match my Rolex,” he flexed on “Blue Laces 2.”) During the final hours of his life, Nipsey was in Anaheim, California, celebrating Texas Tech’s Final Four berth with a family friend. The outpouring of support from athletes such as LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden and others after his death was massive, including Russell Westbrook’s exultant 20-20-20 triple-double, a nod to Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips.

Like luminaries such as Ice Cube and the late John Singleton, the businessman, philanthropist, activist and rapper affectionately dubbed “Neighborhood Nip,” brought South Central to the world’s doorstep. Hussle preached the value of integrity, and why maintaining it was vital for the upkeep of a (wo)man’s soul.

Rapper Nipsey Hussle attends the first annual YG and Friends Daytime Boogie Basketball Tournament at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2018.

Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

“It’s crazy to see the shift that’s happening just to raise good people that have a foundation of principle,” he said on Stephen Curry’s 5 Minutes From Home series. “You know, when I drop my daughter off every day, I drill her when I take her to school. … Like, what is integrity? Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. … It seems basic, but I want her to get older and look back on the things I thought were important.”

Rapinoe is just the latest to invoke Hussle’s memory — and the raw emotional wounds of his slaying on March 31. Recently released court documents revealed 515 pages of grand jury testimony, a considerable chunk of which dealt with Hussle’s final moments after he was allegedly ambushed and shot by Eric Holder. His daughter, Emani, recently graduated from elementary school. And BET posthumously honored Hussle with its Humanitarian Award last month.

On Sunday afternoon, YG, one of Hussle’s closest collaborators and friends, posted a picture on Instagram with 2017 NBA MVP Westbrook and a framed image of Hussle’s 2013 project Crenshaw. The caption was as heartbreaking as it was cryptic. “Where you at,” YG pleaded, “I need to talk 2 you foo.”

Another recent reminder of the man is “Perfect Ten,” the title track from DJ and producer Mustard’s new compilation album. It’s Hussle’s second record post-obit, following DJ Khaled’s “Higher,” and a glimpse into the state of mind Hussle was evolving toward. “Stacked every chip on myself, time to collect,” Nipsey boasted. Betting on himself wasn’t just financial literacy. Rather, it’s the spiritual currency Hussle applied to his everyday life. “All money in, just imagine what I gross back.”

The questions he strings together on “Ten” are more internal reflection than external validation. “Where your backbone, n—a, where your code at? / Where your down since day one real bros at? / Where them stories that you tellin’ unfold at? Where your heart, n—a? Where your soul at?”

Hussle knew the location of his soul. There’s honor in loyalty. In the company one keeps, and the morals one lives by. The graphic stories Hussle narrated were born and bred in South Central. They were for his people. But they were meant to be heard, embraced, and they were calls to action for neighborhoods far beyond Slauson and Crenshaw. Clearly, that resonated with Rapinoe.

Megan Rapinoe (second from right) and her U.S. teammates celebrate their 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in France on July 7. Rapinoe won the Golden Ball award given to the best player in the tournament and the Golden Boot as top scorer.

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

“For us, it’s not only leaving our sport in a better place [or] leaving it better for the young girls that will come after, but just in general,” Rapinoe said on Good Morning America in April. “But just inspiring women around the world to stand up for what they believe in.”

Rapinoe’s sentiment sounds familiar because it is. “That’s the only distinguishing quality from me and probably whoever else is going through this, went through this or is gonna go through this,” Hussle lamented in a widely circulated interview with radio personality Big Boy in January 2018. “[It’s] that I ain’t quit … I went through every emotion with trying to pursue what I’m doing. And I think that’s what gon’ separate whoever’s gonna try to go for something is that — you ain’t gonna quit. … You really gonna take the stance of ‘I’m gonna die behind what I’m getting at right here.’ ”

Perhaps that’s what Rapinoe saw in Hussle and what inspired her to bring him along during one of her proudest professional moments. For all of us, the marathon continues.

As 2019’s new fall TV shows come into focus, more black antihero stories need to be told In putting black characters who dwelled in darkness on screen, ABC and others expanded the meaning of mainstream blackness

TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.

Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”

“Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.

So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.

As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.

That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.

The hit show Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (left) and starring Kerry Washington (right), debuted in 2012 and announced the arrival of a new era in black television.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.

The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.

The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard (right) star in the Fox hit Empire as Cookie and Lucious Lyon.

Photo by FOX via Getty Images

And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?

The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting.

On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.

Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.

In ‘When They See Us,’ Ava DuVernay shows the horrors that swallowed the Central Park Five Netflix series establishes her as the pre-eminent truth-teller about our flawed justice system

Ava DuVernay has now established herself as the country’s pre-eminent director in using film and television to foreground the truth about black people, white supremacy and justice.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is after watching When They See Us, DuVernay’s limited series about the Central Park Five, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

When They See Us represents the pinnacle of a directorial career examining injustice. A righteous confidence propels her telling of the story of Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray, the five boys who were wrongfully convicted of the brutal 1989 rape of a woman known simply as the Central Park Jogger.

Trisha Meili, who is white, was sexually assaulted and left for dead while running in Central Park. A group of brown and black teenagers was implicated. The five were all between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were held for hours by the New York Police Department, without lawyers, and coerced into confessing to the assault. The demand for blood — for revenge, really — reached a fever pitch. Donald Trump — then a publicity-seeking real estate developer, not a president — paid for ads in four New York newspapers calling for the state to bring back the death penalty and apply it in the case.

Although the five were minors, the police released the names of the teens as suspects, and their reputations were trashed across print and local news before their guilt or innocence had been proven.

It wasn’t until 2002, when the real rapist confessed to the crime, that Wise, Santana, Salaam, Richardson and McCray were exonerated. At that point, four of them had served six years each in prison. Wise, who was prosecuted and sentenced as an adult at age 16, spent 13 years bouncing from Rikers jail to Attica prison before he was finally released.

In 2012, Ken and Sarah Burns told the story in their documentary The Central Park Five. It revealed that DNA testing done by the FBI in 1989 concluded that none of the five boys could have raped the victim, yet the New York Police Department and New York district attorney Linda Fairstein proceeded with their prosecution anyway. The Central Park Five told a straightforward story of a horrifying miscarriage of justice, with Wise, Santana, Salaam and McCray speaking about their experiences. But it didn’t have the power to match the onslaught of media coverage from 1989 that defamed a group of scared boys as out-of-control hoodlums and bloodthirsty monsters.

When They See Us does. It is David come to slay the Goliath of a destructive, wrongful, racist narrative once and for all.


Storm Reid (left) and Jharrel Jerome (right) in When They See Us.

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Reframing the systematic and racialized indignities inflicted by America’s prison system is a recurring theme in DuVernay’s narrative and documentary work, from Middle of Nowhere (2012) to Queen Sugar (2016) to 13th (2016) and now When They See Us. In each of these, DuVernay repeatedly turns her lens on those who are dismissed, disregarded and thrown away because they’ve been labeled as criminals. Furthermore, DuVernay always expands her view to consider how mass incarceration affects not only those serving time but also the people they love.

That’s where the impact of When They See Us truly lies. DuVernay takes full advantage of the limited series form, patiently unfurling humanizing details about the lives of the five boys before, during and after police hauled them in for questioning and prosecutors tried and convicted them.

The moral confidence of When They See Us is especially notable considering the flak DuVernay received during the awards campaign for Selma because of her refusal to paint President Lyndon B. Johnson as an anti-racist saint. Selma (2014) took a huge hit in its Oscar campaign when former Johnson aides expressed their discontent with the way he was depicted. A lesser director might have backed down in subsequent projects after weathering such consequences. DuVernay simply dug in.

Fairstein, who went on to become a successful crime fiction writer after leaving the prosecutor’s office, comes off especially poorly. Even though the timeline of the jogger’s run and the vast geography of the park made it impossible for the group to have raped her, Fairstein doubled down on their guilt anyway. The series is sure to reignite questions about the consequences (or really the lack thereof) that she faced for knowingly stealing years from the lives of five innocent boys.

DuVernay repeatedly turns her lens on those who are dismissed, disregarded and thrown away because they’ve been labeled as criminals.

Once again, DuVernay has teamed with Selma cinematographer Bradford Young. The effect is similar to that of If Beale Street Could Talk in the way it captures both the preciousness and banality of freedom and everyday life. DuVernay shows us young love before it’s interrupted, with Wise (Jharrel Jerome) joyously flirting with a girl he likes named Lisa (Storm Reid). Richardson (Asante Blackk) exclaims his pride about making first chair trumpet in the school band. It’s these moments that most get to take for granted that become so precious when they’re wrenched away. She named the series When They See Us as a cue to the audience to really see Richardson, Salaam, Wise, McCray and Santana as discrete individuals rather than as part of the Central Park Five, a moniker, which they had no part in choosing, that works to obscure and dehumanize.

Except for Wise, each of the five is played by two sets of actors, first as free children and then as wounded, previously incarcerated adults. When They See Us follows the group after they’re exonerated in 2002, as they try to reintegrate themselves into society and find new obstacles at every turn, from the difficulties of finding a new job or navigating romantic relationships to the hardship of being an innocent person who still has to register as a sex offender. By its end, the audience understands the true cost of the case, of the unseen toll of wrongful conviction that extends far beyond the prison yard and into the soul.

The decision to keep Jerome, best known for his role as Kevin in the second act of Moonlight, through the entire series is deliberate on DuVernay’s part. It’s meant to underscore that Wise, 16, was the only member of the group tried and sentenced as an adult. Jerome shows impressive range as he charts the loss of Wise’s innocence at the hands of unscrupulous guards and disgusted fellow prisoners who don’t know that he’s been wrongfully imprisoned. Though solitary confinement offers some respite from the physical violence of being in the general population at Rikers and later Attica, it brings madness too. Jerome’s take on a young man whose most resonant life lesson is “trust no one” is impressive and devastating. It stands apart, even as the ensemble cast of When They See Us delivers one gutting performance after another.

Caleel Harris (left) as young Antron McCray and Michael K. Williams (right) as Bobby McCray in When They See Us.

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Michael K. Williams, who plays Bobby McCray, the father of Antron, provides another. When the police are holding Antron for questioning, Bobby tries desperately to persuade his son to tell the police that he was involved in the rape — not because it’s true but because it’s what they want to hear, and the cost of not cooperating is just too high.

“Goddamn it! Why you not listening to me? Tron, these police will mess us up,” says Williams-as-McCray in a heart-rending scene that fully illustrates the racial power imbalance between the police and the black people they’re pursuing. “They’re not playing. They’re not. Look, when the police want what they want, they will do anything. Do you hear me? Anything. They’ll lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us. I ain’t gon’ let them kill my son. But you don’t know nothing about that yet. But you will do what they say. You will go along. Do you understand me? Do you understand me?”

What’s incredible is how DuVernay weighs and balances each boy’s story across four episodes. No one gets short shrift. Instead, she marries the drive of a historian with a keen sense of fairness, purpose and, frankly, love. When They See Us gives Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson back their names. DuVernay knows that she can never replace what was lost, but she is fearless and direct when it comes to revealing what was taken, and why.

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

DJ Khaled’s ‘Higher’ is a heartbreaking victory lap for Nipsey Hussle ‘Almost like church,’ the song is part history lesson, part manifesto

Back in March, a smirk flashed across Nipsey Hussle’s face. Pictures of him and DJ Khaled in the studio had surfaced on social media. The two had known each other for some time, even joining an investment group last year in an attempt to purchase the luxury Viceroy Santa Monica hotel. But how would a collaboration between the two sound, he was asked on Power 106’s The Cruz Show.

“It’s crazy,” Hussle said. “It’s like a real album favorite, you know what I’m saying? It’s one of them ones I think you gon’ appreciate the album for.”

Three weeks later, Hussle would be gunned down in front of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in Los Angeles. Hussle’s death reverberated worldwide. Former President Barack Obama wrote a letter read to mourners at his funeral, a massive gathering held at the Staples Center in his hometown of Los Angeles. In the month and a half since Hussle’s death, he has become almost a religious figure in hip-hop. He was a man who stayed, in his words, “10 toes down” to the community that he not only represented and believed in, but also invested time, money and, most importantly, his soul in.

That was the background when a flood of new music and projects invaded streaming services on May 17, including Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever, Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR and Chance the Rapper’s “GRoCERIES.” Yet another project, Khaled’s Father of Asahd, carried with it a sense of wistfulness. Not just because the typically loquacious Miami-based DJ adopted a reserved approach for the album’s rollout. But also because it includes a cut called “Higher,” a collaboration with himself, singer John Legend and Hussle — the first new work from the rapper since his death.

Khaled announced a day before the album came out that Hussle’s death had changed the energy behind the album. “Higher” “reminds us that vibrating on a higher level was the essence of Nipsey’s soul,” Khaled wrote in a statement posted on Instagram. All of the song’s revenue, he said, would go to Hussle’s children, Emani and Kross.

Before his death, Hussle stressed the record and the visual’s importance. It wasn’t intended to be a No. 1 record. But “Higher” would undoubtedly resonate in a way no Khaled record had before. “It almost sounds like church,” he said.

With Hussle decked in a fitted blue satin shirt and pants, his angelic aura in the visual for “Higher” is no coincidence. Though not as morbid as Tupac Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” video — like “Higher,” the last one Shakur filmed before his death — it is part history lesson and part manifesto.

“My granny had 13 pregnancies and has two kids. She had 11 miscarriages from my uncle to my mom,” Hussle revealed earlier this year. “She was just telling me, ‘Imagine if I would have gave up on my 10th miscarriage, my ninth miscarriage.’ … I never thought about it. I wouldn’t be here. You can never repay your mom, your granny, with material s—. You gotta repay them with standing up in life, being something they could be proud of.”

Even through the pain his grandmother endured, he was a product of her faith. Her relentlessness. Her pride. Her love. “My granny 88, she had my uncle and them/ A miscarriage back-to-back every year for like 10,” Hussle raps on “Higher.” “Pregnant with my moms, doctor told her it was slim / Was bed rode for nine months, but gave birth in the end.”

A sense of peace amid chaos looms over “Higher.” It is apt, too, considering the concern expressed by Hussle’s team on the day of the video shoot at an Inglewood parking structure in late March. Security was added to prevent an attack on Hussle, TMZ reported. Whatever tumultuous energy surrounded him that day, Hussle appeared to handle it with street-savvy grace.

DJ Khaled reveals the official cover for his new album Father of Asahd while visiting Extra at the Levi’s Store Times Square on May 15 in New York City.

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Maturity isn’t necessarily a product of age. Instead, maturity evolves through life experiences and how a person chooses to grow. Careening through his parents’ love story into his own with actress Lauren London, he says on “Higher”:

“Pops turned 60, he proud what we done / In one generation, he came from Africa young / He said he met my moms at the Century Club / Los Angeles love kinda like Hussle and Boog / Mani turned 10, Kross turned 2 / Startin’ to see this life s— from a bird’s view.”

That evolving sophistication, akin to what happened with Biggie Smalls, is a painful musical “what if” he leaves behind.

“[Nipsey and I] used to talk. We gotta go. We don’t know if we gon’ go at 80, 60, 30 or 20. But the one thing is to make sure when you go, you go the right way,” Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom, Hussle’s older brother, said, fighting back tears at the funeral last month. “You stand up for what you believe in.”

The edict the Asghedom brothers lived by is at the heart of both the song and the video for “Higher.” From the obvious gospel influences to Legend’s mammoth presence and the video’s references — the 25-second mark symbolizes the gates of South Central heaven in the form of his partners in the street opening up as Hussle, back turned, stares at a bright beam of light — the song feels Hussle’s entrance into the same heavenly ghetto his idol Shakur once eulogized.

“South Central state of mind, high crime rate / Homicide, hate, gang banging’ll get you all day” — Hussle forecast the environment he grew up around and died attempting to shift the narrative it carried. But not before the song’s hardest-hitting and most painful bar: “And look at my fate.” Unless other tracks are tucked away, those are the last words we’ll ever see Hussle spit in a music video. It’s inspiring, yet chilling. Stirring, yet macabre. “Higher” is a fitting connection to a life whose spirit will loom over hip-hop, the home turf that now bears his name and a promise he made only months earlier.

“I’d just like to have laid the blueprint down that other people could follow that come from similar situations,” Hussle said of how he wanted to be remembered. “Elevated my team, my family, myself and inspired [others]. [That] would be the most important thing looking back 10 years from now.”

“Lookin’ back at my life make my heart race / Dance with the devil and test our faith, he waxes. I was thinkin’ chess moves but it was God’s grace.” “Higher” feels like the soundtrack that accompanied Hussle into the afterlife.

“Higher” is a beautiful reminder of who Hussle was as a man and artist, and also a tragic reminder of the reality he leaves behind. The first release from a deceased artist, in particular one slain in the manner Hussle was, is always a unique experience. There’s a human desire to have one last conversation with a loved one who has died. In the days after Hussle’s death, his music streams increased by nearly 2,000 percent. But moving forward, this is the new normal. We watch Nipsey while Nipsey presides over the marathon he mandated continues even without him.

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

Life After Nipsey: heartbroken Los Angeles tries to keep running Hussle’s marathon Slain Los Angeles rapper laid to rest Thursday at Staples Center

“When you seen so much death you start dealing with Christ / If you ever make it out you give em different advice / Put my truth in this music hope I’m givin’ em light / Just another flawed human trying to get this s— right…”

— Nipsey Hussle, “Blueprint” (2016)


LOS ANGELES — Ermias Asghedom was Marcus’ boss at Marathon Clothing, a tech-friendly shop located near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in South Central Los Angeles. Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom, with a team of business partners, owned and operated the store, a neighborhood staple since it opened nearly two years ago. Hussle was shot and killed in front of his store in the afternoon of March 31. A suspect has been apprehended. Hussle’s funeral, to be held at Staples Center — home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings — is set for Thursday, after what is reported to be a 25-mile procession.

Hussle’s “Smart Store” was a definitive moment for South Central. The space was Hussle, a child of cracked concrete, not only giving back but planting deep roots in the community where he was born and raised. The neighborhood came out in droves to the store, as did celebrities such as Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, 21 Savage, Jim Jones and Hussle’s longtime partner, the actress Lauren London. “I remember being shot at by the police in that parking lot,” Hussle said earlier this year. “Getting taken to jail, raided in that parking lot … to actually owning that building.”

Marcus (not his real name), though, is a young man from around the way and was hired shortly after Marathon opened by Hussle’s brother and Marathon co-owner Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom. “Nipsey just set off that vibe,” Marcus said via FaceTime. “You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation. Even me working there, seeing him all the time when he comes through, you’re like, ‘Oh, s—. It’s Nip!’ You can see him every single day and it’s still a shocking surprise.”

The two bonded over financial literacy. Marcus yearned to learn more about investing and stocks. Hussle loved to create a cycle of independence those around him would take pride in. “Lead to the lake if they wanna fish,” he rapped on “Hussle and Motivate” from his Grammy-nominated 2018 Victory Lap (which re-entered the Billboard charts at No. 2 this week. Marcus, like Hussle, wanted his money to make money. “[Our last conversation] was more of a business talk.”

On the afternoon of March 31, Marcus was working in the stockroom. Loud pops rang out. He figured they were from nearby construction sites, but something told him to walk outside and check. Chaos had erupted in the parking lot of Marathon. The pops were actually gunshots. “I just seen him laying there,” Marcus said. “He was still breathing, still fighting, but the conditions were critical. It was blood everywhere, man.” Two other men were also hit.

“Nipsey just set off that vibe … You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation.”

Instead of panicking, Marcus called Samiel Asghedom. Marcus said he attempted to console co-workers and, as he puts it, to “be mentally cool and stable in that situation.” Hussle died a short time later. Two days later, alleged gang member and struggling musician Eric Holder, 29, was charged with his murder, two counts of attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon.

Hussle’s death capped what Los Angeles law enforcement officials are calling a “troubling surge” that included 26 shooting victims and 10 fatalities over a week. The Los Angeles Police Department police chief stated last week that Hussle and Holder knew each other and the “dispute” between the two was a “personal matter.” Tears led to questions. What exactly did Nipsey mean by his last tweet? What was going through his mind in his final moments? His partner, London? His family? Did he know how much his death would shake South Central?

“You get your real random moments [when you think about it]. I think about Nipsey before I go to bed,” Marcus said. “I just been keeping my mind distracted.” While the world mourns Hussle’s death, all it takes is standing in the parking lot of the Fatburger restaurant near Marathon Clothing for a new truth to become clear. Hussle was well on his way to becoming a global star in the entertainment universe. And when he was pronounced dead, Hussle took a piece of South Central Los Angeles with him.


They love me all around the world, my n—a / What’s your problem?

All Get Right” (2013)

Grief’s black cloud is everywhere. Washington, D.C., Miami, San Diego, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Houston. London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fans in these cities have paid respect to Hussle through candlelight vigils. Celebrities are deeply moved, some to tears: Westbrook, Snoop Dogg, LeBron James, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Meek Mill, Issa Rae, Jalen Ramsey, Drake, John Legend, YG, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Odell Beckham Jr. and countless others. Both Hussle’s hometown basketball squads, the Lakers and Clippers, paid homage to him. The Eritrean community (Hussle’s father was born in Eritrea) was hit noticeably hard.

Some fans find solace in Hussle’s music — even as hip-hop struggles to find peace just six months after the soul-shattering death in September of Mac Miller. Hussle’s childhood poems — unearthed by an elementary school classmate, revealing a child with vision and empathy beyond his years — have gone viral. Many think constantly of Lauren London and his children, Emani and Kross, as well. There’s also the too-familiar, agonizing pain of Hussle’s parents, siblings, close friends and others — survivors of gun violence, struggling to make sense of it all.

What has so struck countless people — such as Rep. Karen Bass, who’ll honor Hussle this week on the House Floor — was Hussle’s philanthropic and entrepreneurial spirit. There were his real estate ventures — such as placing a bid on luxury beach hotel Viceroy Santa Monica with partners Dave Gross, DJ Khaled, Luol Deng and others. There’s the community pride via Hussle’s advocacy of Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile open-air museum that pays homage to the black history and art of Crenshaw Boulevard. He was active in community revitalization projects, such as refurbishing and reopening L.A. skating rink World on Wheels.

He also launched Vector90, a coworking space, and Too Big To Fail, a science, technology, engineering and math pad where young boys and girls could obtain professional development skills. Deeply personal for Hussle was eliminating the gap between Silicon Valley and children in his Crenshaw community.

At the base of the fanship is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul. This mindset resonated deeply with fans.

Hussle’s death has shifted pop culture’s needle unlike any since Prince nearly three years ago. Hussle’s homegoing service figures to be the biggest funeral — upward of 12,000 are expected — in Los Angeles since Michael Jackson’s a decade ago.

Staples Center sources say that some of Hussle’s friends will be sending signed National Basketball Association memorabilia. This includes Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game-worn jersey and and sneakers, as well as jerseys from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma and others — all featuring personal handwritten messages to Hussle. At the base of his loyal fanship, which includes these star athletes, is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul.

This mindset resonated deeply with fans: “Royalties, publishing, plus I own masters,” he boasted on “Dedication.” “Taught you how to charge more than what they paid for you n—-s / Own the whole thing for you n—-s / Re-invest, double up then explained for you n—-s” was his truth on “Last Time That I Checc’d.”

“To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

This being Los Angeles, there is no shortage of celebrity deaths. Eazy-E died of complications from AIDS. Hattie McDaniels of breast cancer at 57. Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest, Richard Pryor of multiple sclerosis. Whitney Houston and Ray Charles both died in Beverly Hills, California. Sam Cooke, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Marvin Gaye and The Notorious B.I.G. were all murdered in the city. Tupac Shakur’s spirit eternally looms over the City of Angels, although he died in Las Vegas.

But Hussle is the first musical artist of his stature, native to Los Angeles, to die in such a violent manner. Hussle’s bodyguard, J Roc, retired immediately because he was so overcome with grief and survivor’s remorse. “I would switch places with you any day,” he wrote. “The world need you here … ”

School officials in South Central spoke off the record to say students have been deeply shaken by the tragedy. Who do we look up to now? some ask. Others remain committed to continuing Hussle’s marathon. Others wonder if this endless cycle of violence is the life they’ll always be forced to endure.

“Losing someone like [Hussle] … he was proud to be from here. He was never afraid to represent and say what he’s done in his life — good and bad. It’s tough to swallow that,” says Los Angeles music reporter and photographer Mya “Melody” Singleton. “He was only 33. He was blessed to know what he was put here on this Earth to do. … To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

Making sense of senselessness is an exercise in futility. Hussle’s death gave immediate rise to countless conspiracy theories. And a running sentiment is that Hussle was killed over jealousy and hate. Hussle, a man of both principles and flaws, didn’t always say the right thing at the right time, but did tend to own up to his shortcomings. And when discussing Hussle’s death, in particular in Los Angeles, it’s important to look at and listen to to black women. He gushed over having his grandmother in his final video. His mother, Angelique Smith, shared a poignant message about strength, fearlessness and empathy. Samantha Smith, Npsey’s sister, honored her brother as a real-life “superhero.”

Asia Hampton, 26, visits makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his store The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“I need you, I need you please let me hold you again,” she wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post. “I love you forever, and I will cry forever.”

“I’m feeling heroic but life is a dice game / And they dare you to blow it / You might get a stripe man, but that ain’t gon’ pay for the strollers.” Like so many Hussle lyrics now, this one from 2016’s “Picture Me Rollin’” — about his daughter, Emani — is agonizing to hear: “It’s never enough to console her / Telling, your daddy’s a soldier / She needs you right now in this moment / Not dead on your back pushing roses.” Hussle’s relationship with London was another growing branch on his tree of life. The two first met in person at The Marathon Clothing. London called Hussle her best friend, sanctuary, protector and soul in her first public statement after his murder.

LAPD officer Jonathan Moreno, left, receives a bouquet from Rochelle Trent, 64, to be placed at a makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his business The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“When I think of myself as a black woman, and him as a father, and I think of him having Lauren as his partner, I feel like that has to be one of the worst nightmares that any black woman can go through,” says Singleton. “I think about [his children, Emani and Kross] and what they’re gonna have to endure as they get older. I thought [he and Lauren] were one of the cutest couples. It was so cool to see that they really were each other’s equal. And it’s heartbreaking to see that she has literally become part of a sisterhood that nobody wants to be in.”

The despair is palpable for Los Angeles DJ Iesha Irene. “I knew Nipsey knew this. [But] I just want black men to know we really ride for y’all. Nobody is gonna understand you like us. Nobody is going to love you like we do. Even when you leave this Earth, we still mourn you in death. It makes me sad that the world doesn’t love you as much as I do.”


“Where Nipsey got caught up is where so many other n—as got caught up,” says my Uber driver, Chris. He’s a Watts native. Chris didn’t like when a clearly grieving Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, apparently shouted out Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Crips set after his iconic 20-20-20 (equals 60) triple-double against the Lakers on April 2.

“You can’t have one foot in the game and one foot out. It’s just not how this works. But beyond all that … Nipsey … should be saluted because, while I wasn’t the biggest fan of his music, it’s no denying [he] had a good heart, regardless who he banged with. He was actually doing something positive. That’s more than I can say for a lot … out here. But still, if you from here, you know how they get down. And Russ from here!”

“Here” are the ’hoods of Los Angeles — and there’s a long and complex history of gang culture. Yet on April 5, hundreds of Bloods, Crips and other gang members held a private a ceremony at The Marathon Clothing. Leaders from Compton, Inglewood and Watts met the day before and decided to honor Hussle with a peaceful demonstration.

Instagram Photo

“We having a gang truce and rally so all the different gangs in L.A. can get together and celebrate the life and gift of Nipsey,” said Eugene “Big U” Henley, a 60 who managed Hussle during his career’s early stages. “It’s a lot of people who were calling who said they wanted to get together and come to the vigil and pay respect.”

Most are taking a wait-and-see approach, but there is some hope that Hussle’s death can produce some change moving forward, both within gang culture and in the city and country’s collective mindstate.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from this,” says Irene. “But … I would like to hope that these gangs continue not just talking the talk for the sake of what’s going on right now. I would hope that they continue to promote unity. Beyond that, I hope that the rest of the nation, especially us as black people, [we] take notes from what Nipsey was doing, and what he was trying to do and what he did do, and try and implement that in our daily lives.”


The walk to Hussle’s memorial is nerve-wracking. LAPD officers are blocking off streets but mostly keeping to themselves. The Nation of Islam distributes copies of The Last Call with Hussle on the cover while directing pedestrian and street traffic. But along the way, so many landmarks command attention. There’s the liquor store where part of the “Rap N—as” video was filmed. The ’hood staple, Woody’s Bar-B-Que. The Slauson Donuts where Hussle and London did a portion of their recent, and now painfully immortal, GQ shoot. There’s the sign on a garage door, alongside photos of Muhammad Ali and biblical passages, that says, “LET THE HEALING BEGIN … ”

Racks in the Middle,” the last single Hussle released before his death, now sounds like a self-created eulogy, and it blares from cars. Those walking on the sidewalk rap along with Hussle. Others passionately sing Roddy Rich’s hook. It’s like Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” was 23 years ago — a goodbye first to his slain best friend Stephen “Fatts” Donelson. Then to himself. “We just embrace the only life we know / If it was me, I would tell you, ‘N—a, live your life and grow’ / I’d tell you, ‘Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know?’ ” Hussle’s cries kick down the doors of the soul.

Because his voice booms out of every car speaker, the closer The Marathon Clothing becomes, the harder it is to make out which Hussle songs are playing. The black All Money In (his record label) truck still sits in the parking lot, as does (at least as of last week) his black Mercedes GLE 350. In front of the Shell gas station at the corner, locals sell paintings and portraits commemorating Hussle, while music directs mourners to an informal memorial’s line. South Central’s ode to its own royalty.

“I would switch places with you any day … The world need you here …”

The line lengthens as afternoon transitions to dusk. To get to the parking lot and the memorial, mourners must walk through the same alley Holder ran through once he permanently altered the course of Crenshaw’s history. This is walking through trauma to attempt to deal with trauma. Perhaps no better description of life in the ghetto. “Put a circle around Nipsey,” a man says, holding a slab of ribs while waiting in line, tears streaming down his face from behind black sunglasses. “He put a circle around us.”

The number of mourners on the evening of April 6 reaches nearly 500. A potluck of ages, races and ethnicities converge on Hussle’s final living place. Saying goodbye is what brings them all here. Love for Hussle keeps them. African Americans are 20 percent more likely than the overall population to suffer from severe mental health problems. Among these conditions, is post-traumatic stress disorder: black people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Black children are more likely than other children to witness violence. It’s difficult not to think of these hurdles walking around Hussle’s ground zero.

For many, this isn’t their first makeshift memorial. Nor will it be the last. Barriers block off the parking lot where Hussle last stood. That’s part of the moment’s symbolism too. Hussle died on the land he owned. Now the neighborhood tries to piece together how life goes on without him.

Outside what was long ago dubbed by the community as “Nipsey’s Fatburger,” a man and woman console one another through conversation. “You going to the funeral?” she asks. “We have to. We owe that m—–f—– that much.”

“Hell, yeah, I’m going to that m—–f—–,” responds the guy, pulling on a cigarette. “Without a m—–f—ing doubt.”

Similar conversations are heard inside the Fatburger. “It’s a shame Nipsey had to die for the ’hoods to come together like this,” a woman says, eating her fries while looking at the different gang sets and neighborhoods standing in line for food. “I guess … everyone needs a reality check and a starting point. If they come together, and we stay together, at least it feels like Nip didn’t die in vain.” That’s true, yes, but 3420 W. Slauson Ave. is, unfortunately, rap’s newest public tombstone. It follows Koval and Flamingo in Las Vegas and Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard only 7 miles from where Hussle died.

On March 31, the world lost a man, a father, a partner, a visionary and an activist. Los Angeles, in particular South Central, lost a lifeline. Hussle’s creative spirit was lighthouse of prosperity built by a person who refused to give up on blocks many deemed a terror zone. Hustle had the swag and the community activist spirit of Tupac. The spectacular cool and charisma of Biggie Smalls. And the enterprising foresight of Jay-Z. While he surely Slauson’s Malcolm X, make no mistake — Nipsey Hussle was Nipsey Hussle. And one day soon, the corner of Slauson and Crenshaw will bear his name.

“My city won’t ever be the same. I won’t ever be the same,” Irene says. “He was the black American dream. That’s why this hits different. You found yourself in him.”