Kamara for the culture He grew up with the Migos, wears nose rings and a grill in games and is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year — but who really is Alvin Kamara?

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.

Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”

A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.

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Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.

“I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”

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True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.

No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.

Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.

“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”

The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.

“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”

Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”

But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”

Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff.

It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.

It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”

“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”

At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”

Alvin Kamara runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL combine.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”

Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?

“He didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. One thing led to another and he ended up saying at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”

Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.

“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy.He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”

Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara jumps over Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.

“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.

Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”

Alvin Kamara (right) and Mark Ingram talk during a game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”

He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.

It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.

It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”

Alvin Kamara celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”

“All he had to do is play ball. Be young. Bring the swag. And do his thing.”

Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.

So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.

“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.

“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”

A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”

Cardi B, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and more dropped a slew of new music in one night Hip-hop must’ve caught the holiday spirit

Maybe it’s because Friday is the last business day before Christmas. Or maybe it’s simply hip-hop caught the holiday spirit. Whatever the reason, Thursday night/Friday morning saw a slew of drops from a who’s who kick-started by Quavo and Travis Scott’s joint project “Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho.” But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

The long-awaited Cardi B second single. If there was any question following the overwhelming success of arguably the single of the year in Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow,” the wait is now over. Featuring 21 Savage, Cardi B returns with the next look into her forthcoming solo album. Complete with Offset mentions galore and a Migos-like flow, expect to hear this at any New Year’s Eve party where hip-hop is played. So, like, 95 percent of them.

A new Gucci Mane album. 2017 was the year Gucci became the pop culture star he seemed destined to be when 2009’s “Wasted” dominated airwaves. “This has been the best year of my life,” he told Zane Lowe earlier this year. And while it may have been for reasons far more than music (a book, new $10 million deal with Atlantic Records and a high-profile wedding), Gucci stayed true to the reason for his season. Guwop and his Tupacian work ethic dropped his third album of ’17 with El Gato: The Human Glacier. Happy holidays, from The Wops, indeed.

Nipsey’s next leg of his “Victory Lap.” If there’s one song I’m anticipating listening to in the whip this weekend, it’s Nipsey Hussle and Swizz Beatz’s new cut, “Been Down.” The Crenshaw OG’s new album, Victory Lap, drops Feb. 16, which coincides with the star of NBA All-Star Weekend in his hometown of Los Angeles.

Lil Wayne’s Dedication 6 preview. Set to drop Christmas Day, Weezy dropped off two sneak peeks last night over Jay-Z’s “Story of OJ.” and 21 Savage’s “Bank Account.” Both are strong offerings from the man who for years had a legit claim to “The Best Rapper Alive,” but it’s the latter where Lil Wayne really flexes. It’s one of the better tracks he’s dropped in quite some time. Maybe 2018 is the year when Tha Carter 5 is released from Cash Money purgatory. Maybe.

Daily Dose: 10/18/17 Gucci Mane ties the knot

Hey, now! Got another win on Around The Horn on Tuesday, which was fun. Of course, Wednesday night is the season opener for the Washington Wizards, which should be exciting, so I’ll be there.

Even when it comes to showing concern, President Donald Trump has problems. After falsely claiming that various presidents had not contacted the parents and families of soldiers who were killed in action, when he finally decided to do it himself, he made things worse. According to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), Trump told the widow of the late Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson that “he knew what he signed up for.” He leaves behind two children and an unborn child. If you’d like to donate to their college funds, you can do so here. Trump has denied it happened.

Gucci Mane is now a married man. In a lavish $1.7M ceremony dubbed The Mane Event on BET, Radric Davis wed Keyshia Ka’oir in front of a celebrity crowd all dressed in white. Because this is 2017, the entire process will be part of a 10-part special for the network, The Wopsters, which will be must-see TV. We need not extol the virtues of Gucci and his turnaround — except, actually, we do. His new album, Mr. Davis, is way better than the two previous post-jail projects he’s dropped. This dude is such an inspiration.

Chris Long puts his money where his mouth is. Earlier in the year, he pledged to give game checks to start scholarships for college in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. You might recall that a white nationalist rally in that city sparked huge outrage when a driver plowed into a crowd of people in a scarily violent and deadly scene. Now, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman is donating his next 10 game checks to launch the Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign, designed to support educational equality efforts. Great cause.

NFL 1, President Trump, 0. After a meeting Tuesday with players, the NFL decided that it will not be penalizing players who don’t kneel for the national anthem, a far cry from all the bluster that was spoken in previous weeks. Remember when Trump got on stage and started screaming that if guys didn’t stand for the anthem they should be fired on the spot? And then Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones backed that up with a toothless statement that no player of his would kneel without getting benched?

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know you’re an important person in society when Lego decides to re-create your likeness for kids across the globe to play with. Lego’s now done so for female scientists with the new “Women of NASA” set, which features Nancy G. Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

Snack Time: When it comes to cultural appropriation, some people are so ruthless with it. Take for example this restaurant in California that serves Popeyes chicken, which they PROUDLY have delivered twice a day. Wow.

Dessert: Let Thundercat take you away this afternoon. We love him.

Aux Cord Chronicles XIII: 28 songs that could replace the national anthem What if we switched from ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ to something from Aretha Franklin, Dipset — or Kendrick and Beyoncé?

Congratulations, America. You’ve successfully stiff-armed Colin Kaepernick’s original protest, meant to shed light on police brutality and systemic injustices against people of color, from the national conversation. Now, despite the fact that Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk, suggested that Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid take a knee as a sign of respect, the national discussion is centered on the supposed disrespect of the flag, the men and women of our military and the national anthem.

So let’s be proactive. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was penned in 1814 by Francis Scott Key. On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act officially declaring it the national anthem. Well, 86 years is quite the lifetime, but everything deserves a revamp — or at least an alternate. Below are 28 possibilities. (Aside from the obvious choice, John Rosamond Johnson’s musical adaptation of his brother James’ poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” otherwise known as the black national anthem.)

Aretha Franklin — “Respect” (1967)

Franklin has a legion of iconic records to her name, but this is the zenith. Want to win a free round at the bar? Ask who sang the original. The answer is Otis Redding, who wrote the song and dropped the original in 1965. Franklin’s version put the song into another stratosphere, becoming an anthem for black America in the process.

Maze featuring Frankie Beverly — “Before I Let Go” (1981)

Imagine it’s Friday night. It’s been a long week at work. You and your co-workers are this close to quitting and traveling the country and living off of your savings. Then you realize you absolutely suck at saving money, so there’s that. But you’ve got tickets to the big game this weekend. And when the announcer tells everyone to stand for the national anthem, they play this. For about three minutes, nothing else in the world would matter. Vote Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly 2020.

Kool & The Gang — “Get Down On It” (1981)

If you play this around your parents, aunts and uncles, they will immediately break out into a two-step and reminisce on what they were doing when this killed at the clubs.

The Gap Band — “Outstanding” (1982)

Is there any self-respecting human being who doesn’t love this song? I mean, other than this guy. This technically already is the national anthem, if you’re familiar with black cookouts and family reunions.

Will Smith — “Fresh Prince Theme Song” (1990)

I couldn’t recite the current national anthem without looking at a cheat sheet. But I could absolutely recite this — arguably the most iconic theme song in the history of theme songs. I’m not the only one, either.

Public Enemy — “Fight The Power” (1990)

Pretty self-explanatory, if we’re being honest.

Queen Latifah — “U.N.I.T.Y.” (1993)

“Unity” is a great idea, but in this case it sidesteps the original point of Kaepernick’s protests. But since we’re on the topic of unity, 1993 was a good year for Queen. This song dropped (and eventually won a Grammy), as did the classic ’90s sitcom Living Single.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony feat. Eazy-E — “Foe Tha Love of Money” (1994)

Because C.R.E.A.M:. Cash Rules Everything About America.

DMX — “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” (1998)

Stop. Drop. Shut ’em down, open up shop. Francis Scott Key couldn’t hold a candle to Earl Simmons.

Lauryn Hill — “Ex-Factor” (1998)

Just don’t have L-Boogie sing this Miseducation standout for Sunday Night Football — she might not show up until Thursday night. #AligningMyEnergyWithTheTime

Juvenile — “Back That Azz Up” (1998)

1. See my signature at the bottom of this post. 2. MAKE AMERICA TWERK AGAIN.

C-Murder feat. Magic & Snoop Dogg — “Down 4 My N—” (2000)

One thing for sure. Two things for certain. This beat will always be hard enough to convince a person he or she can run through a brick wall. And while it may sound odd to nominate a guy with a first-degree felony in his name for national anthem consideration, I’d argue this country has had far more head-scratching moments.

Sunshine Anderson — “Heard It All Before” (2001)

Because, being black in America, you actually have heard it all before.

Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz — “Get Low” (2002)

You know how the “land of the free, and the home of the brave” part gets everyone riled up? Hear me out. Imagine if it were To the window!/ To the wall!/ Till the sweat … well, you know the rest. Plus, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle would agree. Just look at how sad this guy got:

Jay-Z — “PSA” (2003)

It’d be fire to be at a New York Knicks game and the announcer says, “Everybody please rise for the singing of our national anthem.” And the next thing you know, over the PA system, Allow me to reintroduce myself/ My name is Hov!/ H to the O-V/ I used to move snowflakes by the O-Z …

The Diplomats — “Dipset Anthem” (2003)

I’m on the west side of Chicago, lookin’ for a bust-down/ To make me put my two arms up, touchdown!/ You stay in touch now, but when I touch down/ I’m like Buckshort shorty, you better duck down/ Yeah I must clown/ I’m from Harlem, uptown/ Where we flash money, take your b—- and ask you what now?

Cam’ron is an American institution and should always be respected as such. Also, my request of the National Museum of African American History and Culture still stands.

UGK feat. Outkast — “International Players Anthem” (2007)

Most songs on this list you can play for a verse and a hook and be fine. But this one? You play all four verses. You rap all four verses with as much conviction as you’ve ever done anything in your life. In particular, like Jay-Z said at Made In America a few weeks ago, you rap Pimp C’s verse loud enough so he can hear it in heaven. This is a perfect song. And no, it’s not up for debate.

Foxx feat. Lil Boosie and Webbie — “Wipe Me Down” (2007)

It’s not even a question I’d pledge allegiance to a song where a man got to the club with gas tank on E, still gets in VIP and proclaims all drinks on him. I’m proud to be a (trill) American.

F.L.Y. — “Swag Surf” (2009)

It’s a song that requires you to put your arms around the shoulders of your fellow man or woman. How much more unity do you need?

Gucci Mane feat. Ester Dean — “I Think I Love Her” (2009)

I’m all about ending gender discrimination. I’m all about ending the pay gap women face every day. And I’m all about gender equality. Hence our inclusion of this Gucci Mane classic. And, yes, while it is his song, everyone knows why we’re here: Well, my name is Susie and Gucci think I love him/ That sucka think I’m loyal but I f— with all the hustlas/ I be wit all the ballas/ I be at all the spots/ I might be in yo’ kitchen n—- cooking with yo’ pots. What a woman … **swoons**

DJ Khaled — “All I Do Is Win” (2010)

America has always operated under the Ricky Bobby gospel: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris — “We Found Love” (2011)

My all-time favorite Rihanna song. It doesn’t have to be on your list, but it’s staying on mine.

Drake — “Started From The Bottom” (2013)

I just think it’s funny how it goes … that Kaepernick’s original protest was gentrified and had a Whole Foods move into its neighborhood.

Travis Scott — “Antidote” (2015)

Have you ever seen him perform this live? In fact, let’s give it a test run. For the Houston Rockets’ home opener, let’s do this song before tipoff.

Future — “March Madness” (2015)

Because Dress it up and make it real for me is now etched into America in much the same way as JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” quote. If we’re being honest, too, this has been the national anthem since the summer of 2015 anyway.

Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar — “Freedom” (2016)

Can’t have a list like this and not include Blue, Rumi and Sir’s mom. And while I’m sure the #BeyHive will tell me I omitted 240 other songs that fit the list, it’s hard to deny this Lemonade standout and its soulful, uncompromising hook. Having Kung Fu Kenny on it doesn’t hurt either.

Cardi B — “Bodak Yellow” (2017)

Since it’s currently No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it technically is the national anthem.

Kendrick Lamar — “DNA” (2017)

When you think about it, Kendrick resurrected the pride of James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and gave it a bounce.

In all seriousness, if none of these selections works and we stick with the current iteration we do have, might I suggest the only version that even matters. Francis Scott Key could never …

Daily Dose: 9/19/17 Chris Long to donate six game checks to Charlottesville, Virginia, students

All right, gang, I’m back from Los Angeles after getting stuck on planes all day Monday, which was not fun at all. But, good news, I’ll be on Around The Horn again Tuesday afternoon, so please do tune in to ESPN at 5 p.m.!

President Donald Trump spoke at the United Nations on Tuesday, and it was extremely eventful. Instead of a measured speech in front of all of the world’s leaders, he went full fire and brimstone and basically threatened to blow up North Korea. If you’re wondering, that’s not typically how these things go. He also called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” which is a nickname I definitely don’t understand. He also threw a shot at Iran, calling it a “murderous regime.” Overall, though, Trump’s relationship with the United Nations has been a rocky one.

When it comes to community policing, St. Louis has an awful reputation. After the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, put the entire city and its environs on the map, we’re back in the state in a similar situation. Last week, another officer was acquitted in the killing of a citizen. The entire thing is on body cam, which didn’t help put the cop away in the end. We’ve seen this movie so many times before, and the people are speaking out against it yet again. There’s an eerie Groundhog Day effect to all of this, but here’s a timeline of everything, starting in 2011.

Are things getting better for black people in America? Well, it depends on whom you ask. For someone my age, you’d say definitely not. It seems that around every corner people are appropriating the culture and disrespecting legacies and, in general, are not here for our presence. But if you’re older, you might think it’s better than, say, the 1950s or ’60s. But if you’re white, you apparently believe that things are certainly improving. That’s according to a new study from Yale University. The numbers there are fascinating.

Chris Long has a permanent invitation to the cookout. The superwoke NFL defensive lineman has been extremely vocal about his feelings on the state of the nation and not afraid to stand up, as a white guy, for what he sees as injustice. He also happens to be from Charlottesville, Virginia, where we recently saw one of the ugliest scenes in modern history during a white supremacist rally. Now he’s putting his money where his mouth is, as he will donate six game checks to start scholarships for high school students in his hometown. What a boss.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Nas and Nicki Minaj are dating. Not only that, but the two Queens, New York, rappers are stunting on Instagram for everyone, letting the world know just how strong their bond is. Check out these photos of the two in matching Gucci outfits, stunting around Queensbridge. Peak blackness.

Snack Time: The incredible return of Gucci Mane continues this month, with the release of his autobiography, aptly titled The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. If you don’t have time to read it, here are a few things we learned.

Dessert: Apparently, there’s an entire underwater city developed strictly by octopi. It’s called Octlantis, natch.

Growing up Gucci Mane With a new book, new album and new reality show, the Atlanta star is ready for prime time

Radric Delantic Davis wanted the Christmas his mother couldn’t afford to give him — and the eighth-grader was willing to sell slabs of dope to make it happen. Toward the end of 1993, Davis, then 13, had his eyes on a pair of jeans, some new Air Jordans and a Starter jacket. Going back to school, postholiday break meant his classmates would show off their gifts from Santa.

But when his mom told him that bills were really tight and that she could only give him $50, Davis, today known as hip-hop star Gucci Mane, left the apartment with the money and walked to the other side of Mountain Park in East Atlanta’s Zone 6. Davis, who was already selling marijuana for his older brother, Duke, handed a dope man his mother’s $50 in exchange for two tightly wrapped slabs of crack cocaine, roughly 1.5 grams each.

“Now you owe me $50,” Gucci recalls the drug dealer telling him. “Get it?”

It was the moment Gucci realized he was officially waist-deep in Zone 6’s drug game — even if he didn’t have a clue of what he was getting himself into. “I remember … trying to carve out my own individuality,” he said. “I felt like fashion [was] a way to express myself, and I knew the only way I could get it at the time was that route: selling crack. I felt like dope would be the best route … at that time. That wasn’t one of the best decisions I ever made, but I was young.”

“There’s a lot of pain and heartache associated with the drug game that kids need to know about.”

Gucci’s family life, drug dealing and arrests — as well as the perfection of a musical style that would help elevate the careers of a slew of young Southern artists such as Migos, Young Thug and Zaytoven — are on full display in the new The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. In the book, co-authored by Neil Martinez-Belkin, Gucci, who has four top-10 rap singles — including this year’s hit with Migos, “I Get the Bag” — digs deeper into his upbringing than ever before, offering insight into how a kid caught up in Atlanta’s drug game made it through violence, rap beefs, a crippling addiction to the drug lean and run-ins with the law, including a 2005 murder charge (which was eventually dropped), to become the undisputed king of trap music.

“I finally know what it’s like to be a professional, to feel what’s going on,” Gucci said just ahead of the release of the book and his 11th studio album, Mr. Davis (due Oct. 13). The BET reality show Gucci Mane & Keyshia Ka’Oir: The Mane Event, featuring his fiancée, is set to debut Oct. 17. “I now appreciate that, and I’m not trying to take my talent or those opportunities for granted.”

By the time Gucci moved to Atlanta with Duke and his mother, Vicky, in August 1989, he had already experienced the highs and lows of family life.

Growing up in his grandfather’s house at 1017 First Ave., an olive-green two-bedroom near the train tracks in Bessemer, Alabama, young Radric took to his grandfather, the closest thing he had to a father. Gucci remembers Walter Davis Sr. as someone he’d run to and help walk with the rest of the way. He’d dive under his bed in laughter when his granddaddy chased him. But his granddaddy was a drinker, with bourbon often fueling those drunken stumbles home.

Amanda Dudley

When Radric was 7, his grandfather suffered a fatal heart attack. Losing the patriarch of the family triggered infighting that went on for years — his mother and aunts spilled blood on multiple occasions. “My granddaddy’s death divided the family,” Gucci said somberly. “Eventually, we figured it out, to be a tight-knit family again. But I learned a lot in that house.”

“I didn’t want to get caught up in that corner again, so I had to get creative.”

His brother Duke would head down to the Bessemer Flea Market and come home with whatever hip-hop cassettes he could find. The brothers would listen to the albums they could get their hands on, from Run-D.M.C. to N.W.A., committing lyrics to memory, rhyming back and forth. Soon, the bedroom they shared was covered in posters ripped from Word Up! magazine. “He definitely helped shape my taste in music,” he told me. “It kind of formed my love for hip-hop.”

This was long before Gucci’s idea of reaching out to local bootleggers (as a way to get his music out to the locals) came to fruition. With Bessemer in the rearview mirror, Gucci was living in deep financial fear in East Atlanta, worried about how his mother was seemingly always behind on rent and why they couldn’t pay the light bill. “I learned young that if I ain’t got s—, then I just ain’t got s—,” Gucci writes in the book. “If I wanted something in life, I would have to find a way to get it myself.”

Gucci said that while he’s glad he experienced what it was like to sell drugs, it’s a part of his life he never wants to return to — a point he’s trying to make clear to young people tempted by the hustle and the money. “Everything isn’t as glamorous as it seems,” he said. “It ain’t all glitz. … There’s a lot of pain and heartache associated with the drug game that kids need to know about in order to deter them from taking that route.”

Brandon Putmon

By the time he was 21, Gucci was hustling every day on the corner of a Texaco gas station, which had become a place of trade. He was in college at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College when his formal education came to an end. In April 2001, he was arrested for criminal possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to 90 days in jail. It was the first time Gucci had been charged with a crime — and the experience made him think about pursuing music.

“It forced me to make a choice,” he said. “I didn’t want to get caught up in that corner again, so I had to get creative. It made me go, What else can you do? I wanted to challenge myself to try to make a career of being a rapper.”

More than a year removed from a stint in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, Gucci, who started writing the memoir while incarcerated, knows his comeback was never a sure thing. If he could do some things over again, he would. But the trap king’s roots, and his past, remain close to his head and his heart.

Cam Kirk

“I would tell my young self, ‘Hey, Gucci, you got an amazing future ahead of you. You’re a fascinating person. You’re going to be one of the most remarkable people to ever walk the face of the earth,’ ” he said. “So with that being said, you gotta conduct yourself with class, you gotta conduct yourself professionally, because the world is going to watch you and the world is going to imitate you.”

Daily Dose: 9/7/17 Gucci Mane’s long walk to freedom

Just want to thank everyone who tuned in to Around The Horn on Wednesday. It was a long, fun trip to get there, for those of you who don’t know. Also, I filled in Thursday on The Dan Le Batard Show, if you want to check that out here.

Hurricane Irma is already doing major damage. In the Caribbean, the storm has basically destroyed Barbuda, and 13 people are already dead. This event has brought quite a bit of turmoil to the sports world already, with various games and things having been moved around because meteorologists are calling it basically the biggest storm of all time. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, alone, it appears that 400,000 people are at risk of getting hit by the winds and rain. That Miami Dolphins-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game might not be the only one delayed in the coming weeks.

New York City is an interesting beast. Having lived there when I was 18 years old, I didn’t love it. Before that, having visited and stayed for so many times with family, I had. But now, being an adult and it being a necessary part of life, I can deal with it. But the so-called charm of the city versus what it actually has to offer is always an interesting battle. That said, taxicabs are still the domain of reality when it comes to basically all walks of life. This interview with a New York cabbie who photographed his customers for decades is really a fun one to watch.

Gucci Mane’s come-up is officially complete. We all know the story. After landing himself in jail for his longest stint yet, he decided to make a turnaround. He relied on his girl Keyshia Ka’oir, a fitness-product maven, to help him revamp his life, and now it’s in the clear. According to Fader, Big Guwop has done so well on his probation that it is being terminated entirely in September. To be honest, I didn’t even know this was a thing. What a year it’s been for East Atlanta Santa.

The Los Angeles Clippers are going full Hollywood. That sounds odd, of course, because they’re already in Los Angeles. But when it comes to the bright lights and famous people, that’s usually the territory of the Los Angeles Lakers. But that doesn’t mean the Clips can’t make it happen when they need to. Instead of having the usual scorers table setup, they’ve broken that up to create something they call “star seating.” While in theory this looks like a decent idea, in practice I imagine it’ll be a logistical disaster on many levels.

Free Food

Coffee Break: For all of the things that people had to say about the Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett and everything that happened in Las Vegas recently with the police, there are still plenty of people who have to explain why they’re protesting, to make people happy.

Snack Time: A$AP Rocky never ceases to amaze me. His newest exploit is a signature luxury line of vape pens that even have the wood grain finish. For the distinguished smoker, presumably.

Dessert: Even though I am one of these people, reading this gives me anxiety.

Lonzo Ball and LaVar Ball: Can their new reality show keep up with the Kardashians? The new Facebook series is produced by the same creative team

Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2 | “Bittersweet Victory” + “Forging a Path” | Aug. 31

A couple of weeks ago, I sat in an Uber with my boy when Gucci Mane and Drake’s hit “Both” came on the radio. See the power of the mind is not a joke, the Canadian kingpin rapped in one of the 2016 song’s more recognizable lyrics. Man, I said that I would do it and I did. “I’m surprised LaVar Ball hasn’t taken that line,” my homey said with a laugh, “and ran with it.” Call the man a lot of things, but make sure “right” is one of them. Love LaVar, hate him or be annoyed by him — Father Ball called his shot.

It’s tough to remember the first time the name “LaVar Ball” made ripples in my corner of the universe. It seems he’s always been in the public lexicon despite the fact that he’s still a relatively new name in pop culture — and one that even has Jay-Z buying into what he’s cooking. Ball, the person, isn’t foreign to anyone familiar with the AAU circuit. He’s an overly involved dad invested in his kids’ professional athletic future. Go to any AAU game in the country and there’s a LaVar Ball — or 12 of them. The only difference is LaVar’s sons are all Division I-bound — and, in his eldest son’s case, the most recent No. 2 overall draft pick by the Los Angeles Lakers. Lonzo Ball is already an insanely hyped lottery pick in the NBA’s most historically glamorous franchise.

Ball’s antics — loving, comical, arrogant and problematic — have all led to the reality series (properly titled) Ball In The Family. The 10-episode trek, airing on Facebook Watch, chronicles the life of basketball’s newest first family. There’s Lonzo and his younger brothers, LiAngelo (who recently played in a pickup game with LeBron James) and LaMelo (who recently played in the most publicized amateur contest of the summer versus phenom Zion Williamson and became the youngest player ever with his own signature shoe).

There is also their mother, Tina; Lonzo’s high school sweetheart, Denise; and, of course, the Dre Johnson of basketball himself, LaVar. Broadcasting the show on Facebook, the world’s most popular social media platform with nearly 2 billion monthly users, may just ensure that the Ball family revolution is digitized.

And if there’s any humanizing moment for LaVar, it’s his “private” moments with his wife.

If the first two episodes seem to resemble another high-profile, polarizing family, you’re not tripping. Bunim/Murray Productions, the minds behind Keeping Up with the Kardashians, have their hands on Ball. The series kicks off by taking a look into life leading up to Lonzo’s big day in June. The Ball brothers are comically familiar in terms of personality types. Lonzo’s the oldest and most chill. LiAngelo is the GQ model of the clique. And Melo’s the goofy younger brother (with Nick Young shot selection) who is treated as such.

There’s a designed system at play, and one that’s so ingrained in not only LaVar but the entire family too — so much so that LiAngelo moves into Lonzo’s UCLA apartment intending to focus on school and basketball, not parties. All of the sons follow the same path that Lonzo broke the barrier for, and which was mapped out, on the show as apparently in real life, by sports’ most outspoken patriarch. There are no new or explosive revelations in the first two episodes. No plot twists. The family is who we thought they were: laser-focused on the success of dad and sons, which is either a huge selling point or a huge deterrent depending on what side of the aisle one sits on.

On an “unscripted” date night with Lonzo and his girlfriend, the future of their relationship is the topic of conversation. This leads the No. 2 pick to joke that he can’t see how their relationship will change now that he’s in the NBA — except for when he travels to Miami on the Los Angeles Lakers’ annual East Coast road swing.

But let’s do the math here, though. Lonzo is a 19-year-old, living in Los Angeles, who gets lit to the Migos and Future. He’s the face of the Lakers and a household name before he’s even scored his first official bucket in the league. And the All-Star Game is in L.A. in 2018, too? If he’s half as good as most expect him to be, then Jesus be a faithful commitment between these two young and in-love souls.

The most revealing part of the 18-minute episodes centers on a part of the Ball family we knew little about: LaVar’s wife, and the boys’ mother, Tina. Mrs. Ball suffered a stroke in late February, and in the first two episodes she is attempting to learn how to walk again. She’s learning how to talk again. And if there’s any humanizing moment for LaVar, it’s his “private” moments with his wife. LaVar successfully rejects the idea of a speech pathologist helping his wife, insisting instead that he be the one to be there with “his girl” each step of the process. The idea seems insane but status quo for a man whose stubbornness is the reason he landed this documentary. In a particularly memorable scene, he teaches his wife how to say “I love you” again. Lonzo, LiAngelo (called “Gelo” in the show) and LaMelo also express love and adoration for their mother. They’re insanely attached to her, and her stroke did scare them. In the Balls’ rise to fame, she has often been kept out of the news cycles, for obvious medical reasons. Now appears to be her time to step into the spotlight.

The characters basically hold a middle finger up to pro basketball norms as it relates to taking control of one’s own destiny.

LaVar is, of course, the series’ main attraction so far. At least through the first two episodes — 10 in total, with the next seven released in weekly installments — he’s more than enough to hold your attention. The characters basically hold a middle finger up to pro basketball norms as they relate to taking control of one’s own destiny. Pass or fail, if the Balls actually do ball out, it’ll be because they built and walked on their own path.

There is one surprise, though. Lonzo orders his steak medium well. I threw up a little bit in my mouth. The best steaks are medium rare or medium. Any other temperature is for the people who confuse “your” and “you’re” in texts and justify it by saying it doesn’t matter because it’s a private conversation. It does matter! And it absolutely matters that Lonzo Ball is purposely cheating himself out of the delicacy that is steak by essentially ordering a piece of leather for his entrée. I’m really starting to second-guess my hot take prediction for the season of him finishing with at least 22 10-assist games. It’s like I don’t even know who this kid is anymore.

Kennedy Center is bringing hip-hop center stage and Simone Eccleston is making it happen A full season at the nation’s premier performing arts venue signals the art form is adulting

Four decades after its birth in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop has moved into the era of adulting. Among the many markers of maturity, one of the most significant happens today when the nation’s premier home for the performing arts announces its first full season of hip-hop programming.

The performance season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., was curated by A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip along with the center’s first director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston.

And while this moment says something important about the evolution of a still-young art form, it also marks a necessary evolution in the tradition-bound world of high art. After years of lower-profile partnerships with hip-hop festivals and free performances in its lobby, the Kennedy Center is moving hip-hop out of the programming D-League to join theater, opera, jazz, dance and classical music as featured art forms.

The season will open Oct. 6 with a performance featuring Q-Tip and Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, and closes in spring 2018 with a multimedia performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

Besides the big-name acts to open and close the season, the schedule is light on live performances, relying heavily on curated dance parties. The center is also re-upping its longstanding partnerships with hip-hop advocacy organizations Hi-ARTS and the D.C.-based Words Beats & Life. The programming, which isn’t limited to music, includes a staging of Chinaka Hodge’s Chasing Mehserle, a performance piece about Oakland, California, and gentrification.

The Kennedy Center will host a 35th anniversary screening of Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, a documentary about the early days of hip-hop, followed by a panel discussion including Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Caz and Busy Bee.

The commitment of full-time staff and space to hip-hop sets the Kennedy Center apart from other marquee arts institutions such as Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center while expanding the definition of American culture. Like jazz and the blues — and even the iPod one might play them on — hip-hop is a uniquely American invention, a beacon of coolness that shines brightly around the globe.

“As the nation’s cultural center, that’s a heavy-duty title that we hold,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “It’s important that we have all of the nation represented here. And candidly, we still have a long ways to go. … Hip-hop is a 40-plus-year-old art form. It ain’t going away. It isn’t a fad. This is an art form that continues to develop and grow and have impact, and it is broadly seen throughout several generations as the voice of their generation, and how could we not have it fully here at the center? The sophistication of the work that’s being done has to be brought here.”

The hiring of Eccleston, 37, and the announcement of the new season are only the latest in a series of events that suggest hip-hop is thriving even as it starts to get gray around the temples. That maturation isn’t just an accounting of raw years of existence, but also the emotional growth in the genre’s most high-profile acts. Certainly, earlier hip-hop featured adult, introspective voices such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Little Brother, Consequence and Talib Kweli. But witness the confessional nature of Jay-Z’s 4:44 or Dr. Dre confronting his past sins as a woman beater in the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones.

Simone Eccelston

André Chung for The Undefeated

Hip-hop is now old enough to inspire nostalgia and reflection. In the past few years, there have been the retrospective gazes of The Get Down and The Breaks, and Jigga’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — heralded by consummate Jay-Z fan President Barack Obama. And don’t forget about Snoop Dogg pooh-poohing misogyny, releasing an album one critic called “the audio version of linen pants and fish fries,” and co-hosting an Emmy-nominated reality show with an ex-con 30 years his senior, Martha Stewart. Even Atlanta trap god Gucci Mane seems like a new man after exiting federal prison last year. Rather than touting his time as a signifier of masculinity, Gucci was candid about just how unpleasant the experience was.

It was only roughly 20 years ago that Eccleston was hopping on the D train from the Kingsbridge stop of her childhood home in the Bronx to go to her first rap concert at Madison Square Garden. Now, her task of making hip-hop a fixture at the Kennedy Center seems obvious, if not overdue.

Wait. Wasn’t this already a thing?

When the Kennedy Center announced in 2016 that it had netted Q-Tip as its artistic director of hip-hop culture, the move was part of a trajectory that had been in the works for years. Moran had been lobbying Rutter for more hip-hop programming. So had former White House social secretary Deesha Dyer, who had covered the scene in Philadelphia as a freelance journalist.

“[Dyer] and Jason really pushed me over the edge to say, ‘OK, we should do this more than just one-offs and really make it something,’ ” said Rutter, whose background is in classical music. “We have programs for young artists rising, and then we were doing these big names … but how do we really have that bigger impact? We were going to need somebody to curate it all. And that’s where having an artist and then an administrator [came in], because you can’t really have an artist who’s not supported by an administrator.”

Q-Tip offers name recognition and communicates something about the center’s intentions tastewise. Eccleston, on the other hand, is an experienced arts administrator well versed in the nitty-gritty duties needed to realize an artist’s vision. Before traveling south to Washington, she spent more than 11 years at Harlem Stage, finishing as its program director.

Previously known as Aaron Davis Hall, Harlem Stage is known for promoting artists of color. Eccleston was a natural fit for its hip-hop ambitions: a product of the borough whose Latino and black musical influences melded to birth the genre in the first place, she completed graduate studies in arts administration at Drexel University and studied curatorial practice in performance at Wesleyan University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Eccleston’s first job was at Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos, a nonprofit in North Philadelphia.

Rutter and Harlem Stage executive director Patricia Cruz say Eccleston possesses a valuable skill set: She’s got a good ear for finding new talent, she’s passionate about nurturing relationships with artists, and she’s got a knack for developing community outreach and education programs.

While at Harlem Stage, Eccleston took responsibility for an initiative to connect New York City students with playwrights, choreographers, musicians and dancers from around the world. Also, Cruz said, “She developed programs that were scholarly, that really communicated to an audience what this artist’s intent was, what their philosophical approach to what they were doing was, so that audiences could understand this was not just performative.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“We’re not just putting people on the stage and saying, ‘Here. Enjoy them.’ It’s not entertainment, in that regard. It’s about the ideas the artist is representing. … For us, if art is to have a meaning for people in their lives, I think it is critical to have a context and talk about the history.”

Q-Tip may be the initial draw, but if you want to see your favorite act on stage at the Kennedy Center (cough OutKast cough), Eccleston’s the person you want to lobby.

Let’s talk about sex music!

Perhaps surprisingly given her age, Eccleston is not an evangelist for ’90s hip-hop. Sure, she grew up loving De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kwamé, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill. She watched WNYC-TV’s Video Music Box and remembers dancing in the street when someone would start playing their radio in Kingsbridge.

But she’s not stuck in the decade.

“We’re always like, ‘It’s the golden age, it’s the golden age,’ ” Eccleston said. “I think that that doesn’t allow for the music and the artists to evolve. I think it’s about creating space for the next generation of artists. Who knew Kendrick [Lamar] was coming? When you think about the fact that [’90s artists] created space for alternate views of black masculinity, just the joy in music, just the intellect. It’s like being brilliant and comfortable with that. Not having to necessarily play to specific ideals of what masculinity looked like, what it meant to be black at a specific point in time.

“I think that they created space for us to be complex, diverse and really tell our stories. They were able to create these pathways within that generation of artists. I think that it’s interesting to see people that kind of take on the mantle and continue to move it forward.”

When it comes to revealing her musical tastes, Eccleston is a skilled politician. Asked to choose between Biggie or Tupac, the native New Yorker initially named Biggie. But there was an addendum: “You know what? Tupac was also very brilliant,” she said. “Just from an activist standpoint, in terms of being a woke MC.”

Eccleston has the potential to be an inspired choice as an administrator for a genre that has a complicated relationship with black women. While she straddled the East Coast/West Coast divide, for instance, she was fully comfortable sharing her thoughts about Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical endorsement of stretch marks on “Humble.”

“I was like, ‘Go ahead, Kendrick!’ ” Eccleston said, grinning.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“I think that there are certain images, certain artists, that are celebrated who may have had some augmentation. That is seen as beauty, or as beautiful. Then young women that may look up to the artist, or the ideals that are being portrayed in music videos, they then think that they have to alter who they are in order to be considered beautiful or attractive. We need to interrogate that, which is why it was great that Kendrick celebrated stretch marks.”

While hip-hop isn’t the only genre that features misogynistic themes and lyrics, it is the one that often gets publicly dinged for it. Eccleston, like many of her feminist friends who are also hip-hop fans, has experienced times where she felt that a particular artist or song just wasn’t for her.

“I think it’s important for us to maintain healthy critique,” Eccleston said. “I think that it’s also important for us, as we’re looking at the songs that we may want to challenge, or the artists that we may want to encourage to dig a little deeper, to look at all of the other work that’s being done that either celebrates us or provides a multidimensional portrayal of who we are.

“It’s delicate because you have to provide space for an artist to be an artist, you can’t censor them. … It’s just real complex because we all have our hopes for something that we’ve seen ourselves reflected in, something that provides us with a sense of space. I think we’ve all got to continue to complicate it and disrupt it.”

Eccleston now has the power to further that disruption. With the Kennedy Center’s resources, she can expose audiences to lesser-known female emcees such as Brooklyn, New York, rapper Jean Grae and Snow Hill, North Carolina, artist Rapsody. She wants to bring more female graffiti artists and beat girls into the fold.

“There’s a whole generation of hip-hop … culture producers that are impacting literature and theater and scholarship, and it’s getting pressed into that. I think that one of our roles as an institution is to create space for the celebration of all of those things so people understand the depth, the breadth, the complexity of the culture,” Eccleston said. “I think it’s important for people to know hip-hop culture isn’t just one thing.”

What now?

One of the most significant challenges Eccleston faces will be making the Kennedy Center feel accessible to everyone.

While it’s a national institution, it’s situated in a city that for decades was majority black and is still majority minority. Eccleston is adamant about wanting the community to feel a sense of ownership and investment in the center, rather than seeing it as a stodgy, predominantly white institution finally granting validation to a still relatively young art form.

While existing partnerships, such as those with Hi-ARTS and Words Beats & Life, the D.C. nonprofit dedicated to advancing hip-hop culture, provide a foundation, the Kennedy Center faces hurdles that predate Eccleston in attracting eventgoers who are economically as well as racially diverse. The most obvious hurdle may be geography. The Kennedy Center is situated in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom/West End, a neighborhood that’s home to George Washington University, where tuition and fees run nearly $70,000 per year. Its immediate neighbor is the Watergate complex.

Of course, black people frequent the Kennedy Center. They show up for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly appearance. They line up to see Brandy play Roxie Hart in Chicago, to hear George Benson, to witness the brilliant athleticism of Misty Copeland. And it has no problem selling out concerts like the ones Nas and Lamar did with the National Symphony Orchestra.

But the center is still figuring out how to extend the same sort of welcome to audiences with fewer resources, and that’s where the inclusion of free dance parties, open to the public, appear to come into play.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

These concerns aren’t exclusive to the Kennedy Center. They bubble up every time hip-hop veers into spaces such as Broadway that are traditionally coded as white. Class and accessibility were a big part of conversations surrounding Hamilton, so much so that its practice of making tickets available to those who couldn’t necessarily afford its astronomical market rate prices has become central to the show as it’s expanded into multiple cities. That includes the upcoming production of Hamilton coming to the Kennedy Center. (Hamilton, while heavily influenced by hip-hop, is still under the Kennedy Center’s theater programming slate.)

“Part of the goal in terms of instituting hip-hop as an integral part of our institution’s work is about creating space for the community to engage in the work that we’re doing,” Eccleston said. “To see themselves and their culture reflected. Right? That’s how I got into the arts, understanding the significance of it. As many opportunities as we can create for people to know that this space is theirs and open to them. A place that they can call home. I think that that is important.”

While there’s a moral argument for expanding hip-hop into a dedicated programming season at the Kennedy Center, there’s a financial one as well, especially when you consider the graying fan base for opera and classical music. The Kennedy Center relies on funding from corporate sponsors, philanthropists and paid memberships that unlock access to ticket presales and opportunities to hobnob with talent. If additional hip-hop programming results in more memberships from rap fans with money to drop, that’s all the better for hip-hop and the Kennedy Center. So far, it appears Q-Tip and Eccleston will have to figure out how to find a balance between buzz and revenue. While names such as Fab 5 Freddy and Kurtis Blow may draw older, more financially established attendees, a healthy dose of current voices is necessary too. Yes, hip-hop is famous for its backward-facing references and samples, but it’s always charging forward to new musical territory, thriving on the spirit of reinvention.

Still, if this experiment goes well, who knows? We might one day see the same programming in the ritzy fine arts institutions of New York — you know, the birthplace of hip-hop.

‘The Wopsters’ are coming Gucci Mane and Keyshia Ka’oir have a new reality show on BET

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Considering the year he’s had, Gucci Mane’s life has to be pretty interesting at this point. His comeback star turn has reached epic proportions, and he’s been putting out music the entire time as well. Now, it could take another step toward the top.

On Monday, his fiancée, Keyshia Ka’oir, announced via Instagram that the two would be starring in a new series called The Wopsters on BET, leading up to their wedding on Oct. 17. And for as much as we’re looking forward to more Guwop, the real star here is Ka’oir. This could be the Hollywood come-up she’s deserved for some time. If you don’t know, she’s a serious entrepreneur who, when this all is said and done, can take full credit for Wop’s life now.

She’s a fitness entrepreneur who’s been at it for years. Her “link in bio” game crushes yours. In an era in which the hustle from wherever you are to celebrity is finally being rewarded for black women (see: Blac Chyna and my personal favorite, Cardi B), this should do wonders for Ka’oir. By the way, if you don’t know the full story of how they met or how they managed to keep things together while he was in jail, and how she got him home without a whole bunch of nonsense from cameras, read this. It’s excellent.

A famous black couple on television living healthy lifestyles and enjoying life? Yes, more of that please. And make sure that Zaytoven writes the theme song and plays at the wedding.