Why ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was a game-changer The longest-running sitcom about an Asian American family is entering its last season

Progress can feel both glacially slow and lightning quick at the same time. In 2015, when ABC premiered Fresh Off the Boat, it was the first network show with an Asian American cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994. Now six seasons later, the longest running sitcom about an Asian American family in television history will come to an end in February after 116 episodes.

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke said of the show: “We couldn’t be prouder of this game-changing show and the impact it has had on our cultural landscape.” It was an impact that deserves its due.

From left to right: ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat stars Forrest Wheeler as Emery Huang, Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang, Ian Chen as Evan Huang, Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Randall Park as Louis Huang, Lucille Soong as Grandma Huang, Chelsey Crisp as Honey, and Ray Wise as Marvin.

ABC/Andrew Eccles

I grew up in Southern California, infatuated with Hollywood. That was fitting, considering my mom named me after actor Cary Grant. She and I bonded over movies and TV. For an immigrant who came to this country with little family and no friends, movies often provided a respite for my mom’s transition to a new world despite the language barrier. It was a joy she loved sharing with me. That’s the power of film. But for all the content we consumed, we rarely had the chance to watch vivid, complex characters who looked like us.

When I was in kindergarten, Top Gun came out and my friend and I were on the jungle gym pretending to be Maverick and Iceman. I distinctly remember not even considering being Maverick because I thought there was no way I could possibly be the most important person in a story. Even if it was my own. I didn’t look the part. People like me never looked the part. Maybe, just maybe, I could be the main character’s friend.

I remember acting out imaginary movies in my house, pretending to be the blond, white hero, because that seemed like a better reality. I didn’t see any American-born Asian man without a heavy accent living his best life on-screen. It’s so clichéd and I roll my eyes as I write this — but that’s why representation matters. It’s not an affront to the status quo, it’s just a minority voice that says, “I also exist.”

In Netflix’s new film, Dolemite is My Name, the Lady Reed character (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) says: “I’m so grateful for you putting me in this movie because I ain’t never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” It’s a common sentiment among minorities. Randall Park, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat, posted on Instagram about the show’s cancellation: “When I first started in this business … I would’ve been completely happy to be a funny neighbor or snarky co-worker. At the time, those were the kinds of roles that were available for folks like me.”

From left to right: Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler and Hudson Yang in Fresh Off the Boat’s Cousin Eddie episode on Dec. 14, 2018.

Byron Cohen via Getty Images

Actor Ken Jeong recently tweeted: “If it wasn’t for #FreshOffTheBoat there would be no #DrKen or #CrazyRichAsians.” Fresh Off the Boat set the course for what could be for Asian American representation, while Crazy Rich Asians, the highest grossing romcom in the last decade, sprinted away with the baton. Since Crazy Rich Asians, which stars Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu, studios are suddenly interested in Asian American stories, including Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe with Randall Park and comedian Ali Wong, a former writer on Fresh Off the Boat.

By no means is Fresh Off the Boat a perfect show. Loosely based on chef/author/long-suffering Knicks fan Eddie Huang’s memoir, the show’s ratings have been in steady decline and even Wu voiced frustration when the show was last renewed. But I will always remember the first episode of its third season, which encapsulated the first-generation immigrant experience in a way I’d never seen before. In the Coming to America episode, the Huang family visits Taiwan, where they emigrated from. While there, they realize they’ve changed and Taiwan is no longer the comforting home it once was. But when they are in America, they have no family, stick out as the only Asian Americans in their white suburban neighborhood and never truly fit in because of their appearance and traditions. At this point, the father character (Park) says: “We are Patrick Swayze in Ghost — stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither.”

Fresh Off the Boat was the first network show with an Asian American cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994.

Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

That episode explained and made relatable in one sentence a tough experience to describe: the in-betweenness of immigrant life. That’s not just applicable to Asians, but to everyone — Latino, African, European, etc. How do you connect to your root country if you’ve never been there? How do you wholly embrace America, when America doesn’t always embrace you back? Where do I belong if I’m always proving or defending my right to be here?

Like any content featuring minorities, Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t represent the entire Asian American diaspora, but I sure could relate to a helluva lot of it. It helped usher Asian American faces into the limelight, share some of our culture and dispel stereotypes. And it just might help some little Asian kids struggling with their identity to believe they don’t have to be Iceman in their own life story. They, too, can be Maverick.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a dream Photos of superfans celebrating the world of Disney

D23 is the yearly expo for the official Disney Fan Club. Held near Disneyland in California, it’s a three-day convention filled with parades, panels, celebrities, Mickey Mouse and, of course, cosplay. Fans showed up dressed as their favorite characters from the world of Disney, including Marvel, Star Wars, iconic princesses and even Walt Disney himself. As Disney strives to be more inclusive to people and fans of color, we celebrate the creativity that was on full display in Anaheim this summer.

Naomi (left) and Kaliya Trias (right) as Valkyrie and Hela, characters from Thor: Ragnarok.

Aleu Moana dressed as Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Pernell Langhorne dressed as Captain America.

Tahirah Agbamuch dressed in a look inspired by Shuri, Princess of Wakanda, from Black Panther.

Phoenix Skye dressed as Disney’s Moana Waialiki.

Joel Alexander laughs as his Hulk head is removed.

Melanie Strickland as Disney Princess Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Skyler Harper as Black Panther.

Nicole Shea dressed as Captain America.

A fan dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle.

Madison Rose shows her Disney pride, tooth gems and all.

Day Truong dressed as Aladdin.

Taylor Godfrey dressed as Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.

Amanda Temporal dressed as Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Hyuma Atushi dressed as a well-known statue of Walt Disney holding the hand of Mickey Mouse.

LeBron James missed an opportunity with his comments about China The NBA star used a lot of words to say nothing

LeBron James had more than nine days to study the conflict between China and the NBA and formulate an opinion. What he finally said was disappointing for a man who is “more than an athlete” and built much of his brand on social justice and awareness.

On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong who say they are seeking to hold China to its promises to protect certain freedoms. China characterizes the protests as rebellion against its sovereignty. Hong Kong has seen increased violence between demonstrators and police during four months of protests sparked by China’s attempt to legalize extradition from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.

The context for all this is China’s treatment of its own citizens, which according to Human Rights Watch includes “arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance”; persecution of religious communities; censorship of the media and public speech; and the mass detention and torture of Turkic Muslims.

These are all topics that the LeBron James we’ve come to know would care about.

When Morey sent his tweet, James and his Los Angeles Lakers were headed to play two exhibitions in China, which is a $500 million market for the NBA. China also is an essential partner for Nike, which employs James under a $1 billion lifetime contract, and a key market for James’ growing TV and film empire. (The Undefeated is an ESPN platform; ESPN and its parent company Disney have various business relationships in China.)

China responded to Morey’s tweet with the cancellation of both Lakers-Brooklyn Nets broadcasts and several NBA community events, and the suspension of a smartphone company’s NBA sponsorship. Also suspended were the Rockets’ TV broadcasts, its relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association, and its online news and game streaming deals. NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried to mollify China while standing up for the principle of free speech. The response from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

On Monday, this is what James told reporters before the Lakers game:

“When I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about, something I’m very passionate about. I feel like with this particular situation, it was something not only I was not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself or my teammates or my organization had enough information to even talk about it at that point in time and we still feel the same way.”

That’s implausible. As if James couldn’t get any historian, diplomat or other China expert on the phone in the nine days since Morey’s tweet. As if there is no Google.

What makes this sadder is that Chinese citizens have no Google. It’s blocked.

James doesn’t need to denounce or boycott China, no more than Walmart, Coca-Cola or the NBA should. We all use Chinese products every day, and that relationship creates more opportunities for change. If James had simply said, “No comment because I do big business in China,” at least that would have been honest. Or he could have courageously affirmed the principle of human rights while expressing respect for China’s people and sovereignty.

Instead, James said Morey was “misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” which would be hard for James to judge after just claiming he was not informed himself. (Later Monday night, James tweeted that he was referring to the consequences of Morey’s tweet, not the substance.)

James also said that “social media is not always the proper way to go about things,” which is hypocritical for a man whose primary means of engaging with fans, building his brand and calling out injustice are Instagram and Twitter.

“We all talk about freedom of speech,” James told reporters, “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you are not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself.”

Morey has been silent since deleting his tweet, but he was likely thinking about millions of Hong Kong residents. Morey had nothing to personally gain. James, on the other hand, had his business empire to think about when he implausibly claimed ignorance on all things China. Besides basketball games and shoes, James will be selling his upcoming Space Jam reboot, which could earn nine figures in the nation that James has chosen not to be informed about.

I respect and appreciate James’ activism for social and racial justice, which began in 2012 when he and his Miami Heat teammates tweeted a photo supporting slain teenager Trayvon Martin. In many ways, that photo launched the current resurgence of black athlete activism. Back when Trayvon’s shameful killing gave rise to Black Lives Matter, few top athletes engaged in racial advocacy, fearful that fans would stop watching or buying. James had something to lose when he and his team were photographed in hoodies, but he did what was right. That’s part of what makes his China comments more hypocritical and disappointing.

I’m not one of the critics who want to silence James on racial justice, who want him to “shut up and dribble.” I believe in James’ proclamation that he’s “more than an athlete.” This is his time to be that, to fully inhabit the activist legacy of a Muhammad Ali or an Arthur Ashe. James once had the gumption to call out Donald Trump in a tweet, and the president stayed silent — Trump “did not want it with the King.” Now James is cowed by Xi Jinping? Or maybe he should be leery of the Chinese president ruthless enough to disappear Winnie the Pooh.

James’ voice is so influential, he could help crack the great wall of silence that China has erected against dissent. If James chose to speak on China, how many athletes would follow, as they did after Trayvon? Or do we expect that human rights will never come to China?

On Tuesday, James followed up on his previous comments by basically saying that China is not his problem: “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well. When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up. There’s things that happen in my own community in trying to help my kids graduate high school and go off to college; that’s been my main concern the last couple of years with my school [in Akron, Ohio]. Trying to make sure the inner-city kids that grow up in my hometown can have a brighter future and look at me as an inspiration to get out of the hellhole of the inner city.

“We don’t talk about those stories enough. We want to talk about so many other things as well. There’s issues all over the world.”

James’ admirable efforts to educate his hometown’s children have received massive media coverage, including from me. And helping Akron should not prevent him from talking about Chinese issues. Nor should China’s distance from Akron. Based on one of James’ own tweets, he should understand why.

On Jan. 15, 2018, James quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from Birmingham Jail in a tweet, adding the hashtag #ThankYouMLK50. King wrote that letter in 1963, after being arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama. While King was behind bars, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy released a statement calling him an “outsider” engaged in “unwise and untimely” demonstrations.

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” King wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Yes, LeBron James is an American, and he admirably addresses American problems. But China makes and buys his shoes, watches his games and movies, puts untold millions in his pockets. China is James’ country too.

The world has become much smaller in the five decades since King wrote his magnificent letter.

The economies of China and America would suffer without each other. A game perfected by black Americans enraptures millions of Chinese. King wrote, “I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” James can do the same. He still has time to realize that claiming ignorance of repression in a country where he makes millions of dollars contradicts the calls for justice he has championed at more convenient times.

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.”

Check out our remix of ‘Undefeated,’ an anthem for black female athletes Diamond Kuts remixes Rayana Jay song that celebrates the resilience of women who face opponents on the court and in society

The Undefeated and Disney Music Group have released a remix by DJ Diamond Kuts of “Undefeated,” an anthem celebrating the resilience of black female athletes who face opponents on the courts, the playing fields and the track as they battle stereotypes and the weight of racial history.

Published by Hollywood Records, “Undefeated” features an all-female writing and production crew, including singer Rayana Jay, songwriter Blush and producer Trak Girl. The original single was recorded at the San Francisco-based Women’s Audio Mission, the only professional recording studio in the world built and run entirely by women.

You can download the remix here.

“Undefeated” is an extension of a joint project between The Undefeated and the Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication. Morgan State produced an academic study entitled “Beating Opponents, Battling Belittlement: How African-American Female Athletes Use Community to Navigate Negative Images” that examined the historical portrayal and imagery of black female athletes across sports from 1900 to the present.

Besides the song and the academic study, the project includes conversations with black women about their daily lives in athletics, work from visual artists looking at their struggles and triumphs, a timeline of black women in sports, and “letters” from Olympic athletes Claressa Shields, Simone Manuel and Tori Bowie. For a complete menu, click here.

As Kofi Siriboe returns in ‘Queen Sugar,’ he’s still remembered as Malik from ‘Girls Trip’ One of the Sexiest Men Alive wants more people to talk about mental health

Kofi Siriboe began displaying his star power first as a model and then by appearing in Ice Cube’s The Longshots (2008), a film about the first girl to play Pop Warner football. He also appeared in 2011’s Disney ensemble Prom, as well as Straight Outta Compton (2015) and MTV’s Awkward. Siriboe’s looks and charm have solidified his bae status — fans affectionately call him “Siri-BAE” or “KoFine.”

His breakout role though, was portraying Jada Pinkett Smith’s love interest in the 2017 hit Girls Trip. Hearts throbbed and jaws dropped over his scene-stealing performance as Malik. People named Siriboe, who is of Ghanaian descent, one of its Sexiest Men Alive.

In the 2016 debut season of Queen Sugar, Siriboe gained even more notoriety with his portrayal of Ralph Angel Bordelon, a formerly incarcerated single father struggling to move forward as a sugar cane farm owner in fictional St. Josephine Parish, Louisiana. The Undefeated chatted with the Los Angeles native about the award-winning series, now in its third season, his Ghanaian roots, and how he’s using his platform to get more people to talk about mental health in the black community.


What’s the most challenging aspect of bringing Ralph Angel to life?

Honestly, it’s how real Ralph Angel’s character is. It’s such a relatable experience Ralph Angel has in the world of Queen Sugar to the experience I have in the world of living in America. I use Ralph Angel’s character as a source of therapy. You grow from challenges, and Ralph Angel has helped me grow in many ways by helping to acknowledge certain things, not only in my very own life but also in the world in general.

What’s a common misconception about Ralph Angel?

I really don’t know, because I try not to dive into the psychology of people’s perception about who Ralph Angel is. I hear a little of everything — that he is annoying, fine or he’s ambitious. I agree with it all, because at the end of the day, he’s a human being. As an actor, tapping into the truth of his character can be uncomfortable because people truly believe these characters are real.

Q: When did you realize you were famous? A: When I was sitting directly across from Oprah Winfrey.

What will you always be the champion of?

Identity.

What song best describes your work ethic?

“Young N—-,” from Nipsey Hussle, featuring Puff Daddy (2018).

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

Muhammad Ali.

What are you looking forward to achieving in 2018?

I’m launching a platform called Via Kofi. It’s a space for young black people to ask questions and provide answers from filmmakers, designers, photographers and creative directors. I now have the resources, and there are many others doing the same work. It’s a great time. We all join together and use our perspectives to bridge the pieces together. Also, I can’t tell you too much about another new project I’m working on, but you will hear about it very soon.

When did you realize you were famous?

When I was sitting directly across from Oprah Winfrey.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was starstruck by Oprah.

Is there a Twitter feed or Snap or Instagram thread you’re currently obsessed with?

I’m not obsessed with social media.

Where did you draw inspiration from for the directorial debut of your film Jump?

My friends and I have these conversations in private, but I wanted to take an artistic approach and produce something we were able to watch collectively and reference universally. There’s much more to discuss, and since we are now talking about mental health I want to begin coming into the communities and having events for people to really share their experiences. It’ll serve as an opportunity for all of us to heal together, because it’s a much deeper conversation … about mental health and what it means to our community.

What’s the most important lesson you learned while creating the film?

People react strongly and negatively to the concept of mental health. It’s a big stigma, a taboo no one wants to dive into. Personally, when I hear of mental health issues, it literally means something to work through in order to achieve your emotional well-being. I know this because I was one of those people who had a few things to work through.

Many things in life happen to us that we don’t get to choose … particularly, being a black man and the fearful possibility of getting killed in the street by a cop. We should have spaces to work through the weight that comes with being who we are in this world. By learning we have a place within ourselves of harmony and balance does not mean s— isn’t going to happen. It means you’re able to process, deal and heal from it all to create structure for yourself where you can be a functioning human being.

Getting to know the ladies of ‘Star’ Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O’Grady bring real-life situations to their roles

Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O’Grady have been wooing viewers for two seasons now on Fox’s music-themed drama Star, created by film director and producer Lee Daniels.

The storyline follows the journey of a girl group named Take 3 as they navigate the cutthroat music industry with their manager and mother figure Carlotta (Queen Latifah).

In casting the girls in the group, Daniels wanted race to be in viewers’ faces without apology. Daniels, who is also behind films such as The Butler (2013) and Precious (2009) and TV hit Empire, cast Demorest (Star Davis), 26, as the white girl from the ’hood; O’Grady, 21, as Star’s half-black sister Simone; and Destiny, 23, as the rich black girl Alex.

Star is an inspirational and cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and not working on yourself before reaching for fame,” said Demorest. “You can get stuck in the darkness really quick.”

Demorest relates to her character and brings her true-life situations to the series. The Detroit native describes Star as driven, hurt and aggressive and relates to her character in the sense that both are “delusional.”

“What I mean by that is Star is able to imagine herself out of a situation and I’ve done that my whole life,” Demorest said.

Growing up in predominantly black neighborhoods as a foster care kid, she attended more than 10 schools. She fueled her faith at church, where she learned dance, drama and choir. At 16, she headed to Los Angeles with no car or place to live to pursue acting, but music got ahold of her first. She signed with Epic Records, where she co-wrote the hit “Work From Home” for Fifth Harmony. She later landed roles on television series such as Jonas and Dallas before Star.

“Alex is a realist but ambitious,” Destiny said of her character. “There’s passion behind what she does. She was born to be an entertainer and knows it, and I feel the same way.” Destiny is also from Detroit and the daughter of Deron Irons of ‘90s rhythm and blues group Guesss, which first hit the music scene as part of the group Love Dollhouse under Russell Simmons’ All Def Music label (the group parted ways in 2015).

Destiny’s backstory includes facing colorism in high school. Among her group of friends, she was the only one with dark skin and she’d receive backhanded compliments such as, “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” She’s even more comfortable in her skin now from working with model Naomi Campbell, who plays her mother in the series, and gives her a super-model on how to reflect strength, confidence and pride within your own hue.

Because of O’Grady’s last name, people assume that she will look like the typical Irish woman. When they meet her in person, they assume she is Latina and speaks Spanish. As a half-white, half-black girl from Northern Virginia, she takes pride that for the first time she gets to play her own race on television while acting in Star. Deep, sensitive and irritable are the three words O’Grady attributes to her character, Simone, who has a quieter demeanor than the other members of the group, along with a history of alcohol and substance abuse. O’Grady was on a theater scholarship at Pepperdine University when she got the call to audition for Star. Before Star, she had roles in Trophy Wife, The Night Shift and The Messengers, and as early as 4 years old she appeared in national ad campaigns in Washington, D.C.

The Undefeated linked up with the trio in New York City to talk about working with Queen Latifah, how they stay “woke” and being starstuck when meeting Isiah Thomas, Snoop Dogg and Misty Copeland.


How has it been working with Queen Latifah?

Demorest: For us, it has been watching and learning from the best.

Destiny: She is definitely one of the realest, for sure. She pulls us aside and gives her advice as a person, actress and musician.

O’Grady: We have so much respect for her and her process, and she gives it right back to us.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

Demorest, Destiny (singing in unison): Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you’re never coming around, turn around [Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”].

O’Grady: “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” by The Darkness.

Have you ever been starstruck?

Demorest: It really took me off guard when I met [retired NBA player] Isiah Thomas at the Four Seasons in Atlanta because I was wearing him on my shirt that day. And also, Ms. Tina [Beyoncé and Solange’s mom] at the Essence Festival. She held my hand, and I’m still in awe of that moment!

Destiny: I’m a huge Snoop Dogg fan. We were at the same hotel, and I don’t know what happened, but all I got out of my mouth was, “You’re, you’re …” I couldn’t get any other words out.

O’Grady: I met Misty Copeland at the premiere of our second season. I was so excited because she’s superinspirational and has really paved the way for black ballerinas. I was like, “Are you Misty Copeland?” And then another time was when I first moved to L.A. I was 17 and behind Zac Efron in line for popcorn at the movie theater.

First concert you went to?

Demorest: The Hope Filled Tour with Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin. And Mary Mary performed that weekend too.

Destiny: A Destiny’s Child concert. I was just ‘destined’ for it, ha!

O’Grady: Harry Connick Jr., my parents were big fans. My second was American Idol during Fantasia’s season. I just love her!

Most frequently used emoji?

Demorest: Prayers hands, which is not a high-five or clap!

Destiny: The alien.

O’Grady: The heart.

Favorite throwback TV show?

Demorest, Destiny, O’Grady [in unison]: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Destiny: … but you can’t forget about The Proud Family!

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

Demorest: Isiah Thomas.

Destiny: Allen Iverson.

O’Grady: One of the athletes from the first Jamaican bobsled team. I remember the [1993 Walt Disney] movie Cool Runnings that was based on their story. I’m not the biggest sports fan, but that story is remarkable.

How do you “stay woke”?

Demorest: Staying woke in this day in age is so much about being willing to learn and listen, and never closing your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you and strangers who have zero connection to you. Sometimes we’re so focused on being able to relate to a situation or a person that we forget that being woke is not about that. It’s about recognizing right versus wrong and constantly learning.

Destiny: It’s hard not to be woke with it constantly in your face on social media. It can be a little depressing with how much unfortunate and unfair realities are happening in the world. When you want to speak up on something, do it. But never feel pressured to, because that’s not good either.

O’Grady: Being woke is about being open to other people’s perspective. Not everyone is going to think the way you do, but you have to internalize what the person’s perspective and values are and where they are coming from. Staying woke is about making sure everyone feels loved and respected, and that’s something I value.

I owe my sister a lot because she’s supersmart and keeps me woke. I had a lot of privilege as a biracial girl. I didn’t experience racism like most of my peers. My sister and I have really acknowledged that as we got older and we take responsibility in educating people who are racially ignorant. We all have our own privilege, but we have to stand up for those who do not have that privilege and are still paving their own path.

This architect used to work for Disney. Now, he designs cannabis retail stores.

Architectural design firm The McBride Company has created everything from restaurants to hotels, theaters, casinos and most notably over the last two decades, its been the sole design ambassador for Margaritaville. Now, its architects lend a transformative eye to a whole new world: cannabis retail spaces.

The post This architect used to work for Disney. Now, he designs cannabis retail stores. appeared first on The Cannabist.

Emmitt Smith’s next chapter is as big as his record-breaking football career The former NFL running back on his real estate business and seizing opportunities like ‘Dancing with the Stars’

The Dallas Cowboys gave their fans a sense of pride in the 1990s. Wide receiver Michael Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman were in their primes. There was one other big playmaker on the field: running back Emmitt Smith.

Smith was a record-holding machine, known for his footwork and his winning attitude. He helped lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins over four seasons (1992-93 to 1995-96 seasons) and was named first-team All-Pro during that four-year period. He was league MVP in 1993 and followed that by earning MVP honors in the Cowboys’ 30-13 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII. He retired with a career total of 18,355 rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns, both NFL records. He’s also the all-time leader in rushing attempts with 4,409 and the only player to post three seasons with 19 or more touchdowns.

After football, Smith wanted to focus on business and his family, including his wife, Pat, and their children. In preparing for this time, he knew he needed a plan. He once wanted to be an architect, but he switched gears and is now a commercial real estate developer.

“I was preparing for life after football before I even got to become a Dallas Cowboy,” said Smith, 49 after speaking to parents and children at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy in early March. “Then when I became one, it became more apparent that I need to be prepared for it because the NFL is a league that stands for Not For Long, whether they fire you or whether you get hurt. My coach told me, ‘Diversify yourself. Learn new things. And be open to understanding what goes on.’ ”

Smith was the 17th pick of the 1990 NFL draft, going to the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he spent 13 seasons. The final two NFL seasons of his 226-game career were spent with the Arizona Cardinals.

He later returned to the University of Florida to complete his bachelor’s degree in public relations, graduating in 1996. “I promised my mom if I left school early, I’d come back and get my degree,” Smith told the University of Florida alumni magazine. “I wanted to get that done.”

Teaming with former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, he launched Smith/Cypress Partners LP in 2005. The company transforms small properties into retail establishments. In 2013, he founded Emmitt Smith Enterprises, an umbrella company that includes his real estate firm and a commercial construction company. He’s also co-founder of E Smith Legacy, a Baltimore-based company that specializes in commercial real estate development and investment management. In 2016, he and Ben Davis founded The Gents Place, a premium men’s grooming and lifestyle club, with locations in Chicago; Leawood, Kansas; and Dallas, Houston, Frisco and Southlake, Texas.

“When you get to the National Football League level, you are around so many billionaires and you’re seeing how they operate and what they’re doing. It becomes very intriguing,” Smith said. “I’ve always been a kid to say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it too. What do they know that I don’t know?’ Obviously they knew a lot, they prepared a lot. And they studied in these areas, whether it’s oil and gas, whether it’s real estate, whether it’s mergers and acquisitions, but whatever it may be, those skill sets can be learned.”

He also teamed up with his wife and family in their reality show Mrs. & Mr. Smith on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Pat Smith, a former Miss Virginia USA, is the founder and spokesperson of Treasure You, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women in financial, emotional or spiritual need. The two also run the Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, which creates educational experiences and enrichment opportunities for underserved children.

Smith believes in putting in the time to master one’s next step.

“Put in your 10,000 hours there, as much as you put your 10,000 hours in sports, to master that craft,” he said. “And even when you master it, there’s always something to learn. And so just trying to become the best that you can at whatever it is, is just part of the process. … Outside of that, you’re just standing on the sideline watching ships go by.”

Sports helped him get ready for a business career, he said. “That’s the good thing about sports, in my opinion. It prepares you for life if you look at it as a life lesson. Whether it’s pregame adjustments, in-game adjustments, halftime adjustments, postgame adjustments, life is full of adjustments. Life is not a straight road, it’s a winding curve. And behind every curve, there’s something else behind it you need to learn or need to overcome. And that’s not going to change for my life, or yours.”

In a recent interview with Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes for The Players’ Tribune, Smith said he’s interested in owning an NFL team. “I think the biggest challenge for achieving more diversity is that not enough African-Americans have the capital to own a team,” he told Barnes. “I think that some African-Americans obviously have knowledge about playing the game of football. Most NFL owners today have never really played the sport. They’ve done great in business; they know how to run a company. So maybe more athletes have to go out and show the world that we know how to run a company too.”

Smith says life is all about opportunities.

He served as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant in 2006. He surprised the world by taking home the Mirror Ball trophy for winning season three of Dancing with the Stars.

“You can be the smartest person, you can be the most gifted person, but if you’re never given the opportunity to get in the game to showcase your talent the way that it should be showcased … equal opportunity, that is … then you’re going to be discouraged. And you’re going to keep butting your head up against a wall that’s not ready to move.”