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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Nipsey Hussle, “Blueprint” (2016)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

All Get Right” (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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

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

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

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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

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


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

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

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

Instagram Photo

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HBO’s new ‘Native Son’ still can’t figure out Bigger Thomas Latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel excises some of the crucial violence against a black woman

Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.

The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.

What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.

When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.

Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?

Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.


Ashton Sanders, as Bigger Thomas in HBO’s Native Son, stands in front of “The Bean,” a landmark public sculpture in downtown Chicago.

Chris Herr/HBO

This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.

Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:

Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.

The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.

Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror? Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.

Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.

They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.

Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.

From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.


Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in Native Son.

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?

If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.

Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.

“We can’t murder and rape Bessie.”

“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”

Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.

In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.

When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.

This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?

We lost more than a rapper today: Nipsey Hussle, killed at 33 The beloved, Grammy-nominated rapper was the best of us

Ermias Davidson Asghedom — better known as rapper, businessman and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle — was killed today, gunned down in front of his own Marathon Clothing Store in his hometown of Los Angeles. Two others were wounded. Hussle was 33 years old. Hussle’s acclaimed 2017 Victory Lap was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rap Album category. He is survived by his two children and by girlfriend, the actor Lauren London.

Standin’ so tall, they think I might got stilts / Legendary baller, like Mike, like Wilt.

I spent 10 minutes staring at a blank word document. Then wrote the above paragraph. Then stared that that paragraph for another 10 minutes still in shock at what I’d just typed. In one afternoon Nipsey Hussle went from living the inspirational tale of how one man can ascend beyond the conditions of his childhood and become a pillar in his community to being shot to death by an assailant or assailants yet to be arrested.

In 2018 Hussle opened a STEM center and a cowork space called Vector 90 in Palo Alto — Silicon Valley’s other-side-of-the-tracks. Now the avid Lakers fan is also another reminder that escape from the so-called ‘hood can be a fleeting dream for even the best of us.

And by all accounts, Nipsey Hussle was one of the best of us. In addition to being an undeniably authentic rapper, he was a disrupter in the business of music, banking on himself by selling albums for $100 and for $1,000 each, respectively — moves that inspired Jay-Z to buy 100 copies of the former. Hussle pumped resources back into his beloved Crenshaw neighborhood, including investing in the real estate that housed his Marathon Clothing store. His business acumen and philanthropy had become as legendary as his mixtapes and albums.


We lost more than a rapper today. We lost someone who loved us. As of this writing there are no suspects in the shooting, and it’s easy to feel there never will be. Bullets that end in black bodies after flying out of unidentified phantoms is far too common in America. Hussle never shied away from his troubled past, he was a member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips and focused a lot of his early music on the life he lived before turning himself around. Like he said on “Grindin’ All My Life” from Victory Lap: Damn right, I like the life I built / I’m from west side, 60, shit, I might got killed / Standin’ so tall, they think I might got stilts/ Legendary baller, like Mike, like Wilt. He rapped about all of it.

“I grew up in gang culture,” he told the Los Angeles Times last February. “We dealt with death, with murder. It was like living in a war zone…people die on these blocks, and everybody is a little bit immune to it. I guess they call it post-traumatic stress, when you have people that have been at war for such a long time. I think L.A. suffers from that because it’s not normal yet we embrace it like it is.”

We lost more than a rapper today. We lost someone who loved us.

I often think about a study released in 2017 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It stated that it takes twenty years of nothing going wrong in a person’s life — perfect education, great college decisions, financial perfection — to escape poverty. Two decades. I think about what that means for people like Nipsey Hussle — black people who had to claw to survive and, no matter how much money he makes or how much good he does, the bullets still find him. He escaped poverty, but he couldn’t escape America.

The best we can do is keep his memory alive the best we can. For Nipsey. For Mac Miller. For Tech 9. For Tupac, Big L and Biggie before them. And far too many others. Learn his lessons. Give back. Believe in ourselves. That’s their legacy, and the real victory lap for Nipsey Hussle.

 

Obama and Curry join together for My Brother’s Keeper Alliance A new program, MBK Rising!, is set to ‘bring opportunity for youth and community leaders to connect, learn, and share’

OAKLAND, California – Former President Barack Obama sat on a stage next to 23 young men of color, looked toward the audience and said solemnly, “Trayvon [Martin] could have been my son.”

Obama spoke those words Tuesday afternoon as part of a town hall discussion at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center in the first national meeting of the Obama Foundation program MBK Rising! Obama and Golden State Warriors all-star Stephen Curry participated in the event, discussing the importance of mentoring, being a role model and their personal influences before taking questions from the young men on stage.

My Brother’s Keeper was an initiative started by the Obama Foundation following the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin was a 17-year-old African-American fatally shot on Feb. 5, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Martin’s death led to national protests over racial profiling.

“Every single day there were young men of color who were being shot and killed … Every single day there were young men who were dropping out of school. Every single day there were men who were more likely to go to prison than college,” Obama said. “The requirement was for society to wake up and find ways where we can come together and say to all of our young people, but particularly young men of color who, according to a whole lot of educators, were having a more difficult time in society for a whole range of historical reasons, we have to be able say to them that, ‘You matter, we care about you, we believe in you and we’re going to make sure you have the opportunity and the chances to move forward just like everybody else.’ And through out of that, we decided to start My Brother’s Keeper.”

To kick off MBK Rising!, a national convening hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, participants attend a Day of Service at MLK Elementary School in Oakland, California, on Feb. 18.

The Obama Foundation

The goal of MBK Rising! is to “bring opportunity for youth and community leaders to connect, learn, and share.” The MBK Alliance, now part of the Obama Foundation, also is focused on encouraging mentorship and reducing youth violence for young men of color.

Obama and Curry also talked about fatherly influence — or the lack thereof. The questions from the young men on stage were about the large incarceration of people of color, receiving and giving support to women, police issues, the influence of music, high school discipline, masculinity and expectations for greatness and respect.

“From the moment I was elected president I was constantly thinking about how we make sure that everyone in this country has an opportunity and every child is valued,” Obama said. “This is the greatest country on Earth. And there are still people who are able to rise despite disadvantages. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of late bloomers who are still left behind and a lot of young people who sadly don’t have the resources, don’t have the support, don’t have the attention that other humans have.”

Curry once wore a pair of customized My Brother’s Keeper Under Armor Curry 4 sneakers during a road game against the Washington Wizards for charity. The hand-painted and autographed shoes were auctioned off for $28,000, according to EBONY.com. Curry also spoke about the importance of mentoring and said he and his Warriors teammates believe it is necessary to make an impact in the Bay Area and in their hometowns.

“How I carry myself, how I speak, what I am educated on, my willingness to try to meet people where they are, can make a huge difference whether it is five seconds, 10 minutes, multiple run-ins. We all have the platform and the responsibility to shape somebody’s perspective,” Curry said. “That one moment can be a difference-maker for a lifetime. I can speak for my teammates and a lot of people in this league that we have a social responsibility to take a stand for things that we believe in and look out for the next generation.”

To kick off MBK Rising!, a national convening hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, participants attend a Day of Service at MLK Elementary School in Oakland, California, on Feb. 18.

The Obama Foundation

Curry’s conversation with Obama came two days after the two-time NBA MVP played in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte. Curry and Obama, a huge basketball fan, have built a friendship that has led them to playing golf together several times and have dinner in San Francisco on Saturday night. Curry and the Warriors also celebrated their 2015 NBA championship with Obama in the White House but didn’t celebrate 2017 and 2018 titles with President Donald J. Trump.

The crowd booed when Obama mentioned a high school initiative changed by Trump administration. Obama responded by saying, “Don’t boo. What do I always say?”

The crowd responded, “Don’t boo. Vote.”

The friendship between Obama and Curry was easily visible as they opened their session in lighthearted fashion and had some fun along the way while talking about serious subjects.

Obama introduced himself as “Michelle’s husband” and Curry as “Ayesha’s husband.” Obama joked that he “lost his job” as president and is now retired and focusing on the Obama Foundation. Obama also said he helped Curry become the greatest shooter in NBA history, but “no one wanted to see my jump shot.” They also debated about who was better rapper: Drake or Kendrick Lamar.

“Even a Bulls fan has to acknowledge that he has been fun to watch with the Warriors,” Obama said of Curry. “He’s the greatest shooter of all time because I gave him some tips about five seasons ago.”

Former President Obama surprises participants in the Young Leaders Track for a class photo during MBK Rising! in Oakland, California, on Feb. 19.

The Obama Foundation

Curry would later get a laugh from joking about Obama’s age. But Obama got the loudest roar after joking about Curry’s past injury woes.

“Why don’t we tell the kids about some of the struggles with your ankles?” Obama said.

Before the Obama-Curry conversation, Grammy award-winning singer John Legend led a discussion with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; Rev. Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant; and Rep. Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. All three mothers lost their sons to gun violence. McBath said all three women are fighting against injustice to help the nation. Fulton added that the three women have to be “the voice for the voiceless.”

“We continue to champion and fight with every breath of our being because we know it matters,” McBath said.

Said Fulton: “It’s not about Trayvon anymore. It is about everyone is in here.”

The event concludes on Wednesday with panel discussions that includes former NFL receiver Victor Cruz, Black Panther filmmaker and Oakland native Ryan Coogler, actor/producer Michael B. Jordan, actress and activist MJ Rodriguez and Queer Eye star Karamo Brown.

Michael Jordan visits a North Carolina sneaker store that has a community-based mission ‘When you drop a Jordan, to get MJ to walk through the door … is crazy’

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There was an inkling that he’d come, but no one knew for sure. We’re talking, after all, about the greatest basketball player of all time. But Michael Jordan arrived bright and early, with coffee in hand, to sneaker boutique Social Status. There in the Plaza Midwood area of his city, Jordan was greeted by store owner James Whitner, who might be just as important to the local community as MJ.

Why? Well, Whitner opened his first sneaker store, Flava Factory, in Charlotte in 2005, a year after a gunshot wound he suffered during a street fight nearly ended his life. By 2007, Whitner had launched Social Status, which has emerged as one of the best shoe and streetwear retailers in the country, having expanded to six more cities: Atlanta; Houston; Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; and Tampa, Florida. And now, Social Status has its own Air Jordan, which the man whose name is on it came to see for himself.

Instagram Photo

“It wasn’t like a secret, come-through-the-back-and-show-love type of thing,” Whitner said. “He came through the front door, froze and shocked the crowd. You can’t write a release better than that. When you drop a Jordan, to get MJ to walk through the door … is crazy. It goes down in the record books.”

It was three days before the All-Star Game, and folks lined up to cop the limited-edition Social Status x Air Jordan 6, one of several pairs of sneakers released by Jordan Brand for basketball’s biggest weekend. The collection tells the story of Jordan’s journey through his home state, from an Air Jordan 5 in his high school colors to a University of North Carolina-themed women’s Air Jordan 1 and a retro of the “Infrared” Air Jordan 6 that His Airness wore in the 1991 All-Star Game in Charlotte.

“The goal of the shoe was to just celebrate MJ and his legacy.”

The most distinctive of the bunch is without question Social Status’ rendition of the Air Jordan 6, designed with pony hair and reptile print as an homage to Jordan’s “Black Cat” alter ego. It’s a collaboration that’s been years in the making.

“The goal of the shoe was to just celebrate MJ and his legacy,” Whitner said. “Him as the greatest player to play the game means a lot for us. … I felt like we needed to wave a flag for the city through MJ.” With the superspecial Air Jordan 6, Social Status delivered quite the tribute to Jordan, whom Whitner first met in 2015 while helping Jordan’s son Marcus open Trophy Room, a boutique in Florida inspired by the space at the family’s residence where the Hall of Famer stores his awards.

Conversations began between Social Status and the Jordan Brand about cooking something up for 2017 All-Star Weekend, which was originally scheduled to take place in Charlotte but was moved to New Orleans because of the NBA’s objection to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 that limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. By May 2017, the NBA announced that the game would return to Charlotte in 2019.

Jordan Brand

“The delay gave us time to create a better experience,” Whitner said. “We’re in constant conversation with the brand about how to engage the kids, the community, and stay ahead of things.”

The experience Whitner envisioned started with the release of the Social Status x Air Jordan 6, which sold out online in 14 minutes on Feb. 13. The next day, when Jordan made an appearance at the store, reservation slots to purchase the shoes opened on Nike’s SNKRS App and filled swiftly. But Whitner wanted more accessibility for the people of the Queen City.

“We wanted … to make sure everybody was treated fairly,” he said. Since the original release, Social Status has restocked the shoe online multiple times. “We held pairs over the weekend … so people could still touch, see and feel the product. … The new world of retail is connected to the consumer and connected in the community.”

Instagram Photo

Whitner also opened his store to host a design workshop for students from Charlotte within the Jordan Brand’s Wings Program. Since 2015, the initiative has provided more than 225 kids who experience financial barriers to pursuing higher education with full rides to their colleges of choice. For the workshop at Social Status, the Jordan Brand commissioned one of the most talented designers in the world, Dominic Ciambrone, who is known as The Shoe Surgeon.

The kids were also surprised by appearances from a pair of Jordan Brand athletes, LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs and Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons. The two All-Stars joined members of the Wings Program at tables and participated in the Shoe Surgeon-led session, which involved sneaker deconstruction and sewing machine practice.

“We’ve focused a lot on the process of design. Without the process you’ll never get to where you’re going, just like in life,” Ciambrone told students during the workshop. Afterward, they were each presented with a custom pair of the newly released “Infrared” 6s. Ciambrone also encouraged the students to pick the brains of the two NBA superstars.

“Events where you get to interact with kids … they just want to have real conversations. They ask you real questions,” Griffin said. “It’s cool to speak to kids at this level and hopefully say one thing that might inspire them or make them want to keep going on the right path.”

After first signing with the Jordan Brand as a rookie in 2012, Griffin extended for another two years last fall. Aldridge has been a part of the team since 2014. “When you join the brand, you put yourself on a higher level. You hold yourself to a higher standard because MJ is the best,” Aldridge said. “We have kids that follow us and look up to us. … If you have a chance to impact their lives, help them be more positive or have a good day, that’s our job. And the Jordan Brand supports us in any way possible.”

Jordan and his brand also support people like Whitner. During 2019 All-Star Weekend, 15 years after a near-death experience that was due to gun violence, he became the first recipient of the Wings Changemaker Award.

“I thank God, sometimes three times a day,” Whitner said. “Today was probably six or seven. It’s surreal to have the opportunities that I have now. I always wanna connect to the younger kids because I wanna find the kid that was me at that age in times when I was probably in my most desperate phases in life and didn’t understand my options. I want to be able to let kids know that there are options, regardless of what walk of life you come from. For me, it’s amazing. I’m incredibly blessed.”

Instagram Photo

Whitner received a certificate similar to the one given to Wings students when they’re awarded their scholarships, as well as the first pair of the exclusive “Wings” Air Jordan 4s. They will not be for sale but instead are used to honor people who give back to their respective communities.

“The shoe is amazing … but I can’t wear it! I need two pairs — one to display and one to rock,” Whitner said. “But bigger than the shoe is the commitment I’ve received from the brand … everyone down from MJ … and the leadership to continue to help build experiences and serve the consumer. That means more to me than any tangible object they can give me. … This is the first of many things we have to come.”

Grammys: From Cardi B to Drake, a night of come-ups, curves and side-eyes What’s next? That’s the real question

No. Question.

Best acceptance speech goes to Drake. In a surprise appearance, he picked up a trophy for best rap song (“God’s Plan”) in person. He also delivered some strong words to the Recording Academy (formerly the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, or NARAS) about past Grammy snubs.

“We play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport. It is not the NBA.” — Drake

“Know we play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” Drake said. “It is not the NBA. … This is a business where sometimes it is up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say … or a brother from Houston … my brother Travis. You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you are a hero in your hometown. If there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here, I promise you. You already won.” Nice. He was, though, like so many, cut off before completing his remarks.

In the days before the beleaguered show, which inched up in ratings last night, there was a lot of social conversation about how the Grammys are not and have not historically been welcoming to black people and people of color.

So when it was reported by The New York Times just days before Sunday’s telecast of the Grammy Awards at Los Angeles’ Staples Center that three of hip-hop’s biggest superstars — Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Childish Gambino — had turned down the opportunity to perform at this year’s show (Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift chose not to attend as well), the message was quite conspicuous, especially on the heels of recent Super Bowl halftime performance anxieties.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

“When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad,” Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich told the Times. Indeed, a hip-hop act has not won the much-coveted album of the year trophy since Outkast for their brilliant 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. In the 61-year run of the Recording Academy’s celebration of musical excellence, the prestigious album of the year has been won by black artists only 12 times, and, while he is no doubt a beloved genius, Stevie Wonder is single-handedly responsible for three of those wins: Innervisions (1974), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1975) and Songs in the Key of Life (1977). So yes, there was much drama heading into the ceremony.

What we soon discovered, among other revelations, was that 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys should be given the perpetual reins to host the aging music awards show, much in the same way Billy Crystal did for the Oscars. She was that good, folks. Also: Chloe x Halle, the sister duo who gave a pitch-perfect tribute to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack with “Where Is the Love,” have a transformative cover album within them. Beyoncé and Jay-Z were nowhere to be found at music’s biggest night to collect their award for best urban contemporary album for Everything Is Love. Yet, while there were some grand moments in black excellence, the Grammys still have serious work to do.


A moment of Michelle Obama magic

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

“From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side …” That’s how she began. Forever first lady Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at the Grammys was so surreal that even the other legendary women who stood alongside her — Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Keys and Jennifer Lopez — were overwhelmed.

But Obama was instantly drowned out by applause from the crowd. “All right, you all, all right, we got a show to do,” she said with a smile. And yet the statement of women’s strength was just the beginning. Viewers witnessed a record 31 wins by women recording artists and a sharp acceptance speech by best new artist Dua Lipa, who took a dig at outgoing academy president Neil Portnow, who once stated that female artists should “step up” during last year’s ceremony. Calling it an honor “to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year,” she jabbed, “I guess this year we really stepped up.” Ouch.

It’s Cardi’s world

Cardi B continued her fairy-tale run, snatching up rap album of the year for her boss platinum debut Invasion of Privacy, thanking her daughter, Kulture, as well as her husband, Offset of the Migos. “I’m sorry,” the Bronx, New York, rap queen said, before joking, “I just, oh, the nerves are so bad. Maybe I need to start smoking weed.” Cardi B became the first solo woman to ever win the category and brought the house down with her piano-driven, chest-beating 808 anthem “Money.” Rocking immaculate black peacock feathers and surrounded by an army of flapper-era dancers, Cardi earned a well-deserved standing ovation for her 1920s-inspired nod to Josephine Baker.

But Cardi B’s big night was nearly overshadowed by a tweet from Ariana Grande, who posted the word “trash” along with some stinging expletives as the rapper beat out the singer’s ex-boyfriend, greatly missed late hip-hop star Mac Miller. Grande, who won her first Grammy for best pop vocal album, quickly deleted the tweet. Cardi B, however, responded on Instagram.

Lady Gaga turns it up to 11

The first award of the night went to an emotional Lady Gaga, whose “Shallow” duet with actor Bradley Cooper won best pop duo or group performance.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

And then music’s most earnest ham, clad in a glittery jumpsuit, transformed “Shallow” into a ’70s arena rock workout.

But can you play?

Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Janelle Monáe came out strapped … with a guitar. Within her lustful “Make Me Feel” were echoes of the Purple One, Prince. Yet Monáe was not alone in her throwback musician bliss. Singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes started out on piano and then switched to guitar. A confident Ne-Yo tickled the ivories as well during an otherwise train wreck of a Motown tribute (more on that later). Post Malone strummed an acoustic guitar on his somber “Stay” before joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers as if he’s already counting down to the moment he’s done playing on the hip-hop side of the tracks. But there was another artist who flexed the most impressive talent of the entire night.

A star is born

Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Imagine Lalah Hathaway jamming with Prince Rogers Nelson while wearing cooler-than-cool shades. That’s the best way to describe the music of singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist and all-around badass H.E.R. The enigmatic newcomer not only won two awards, including best rhythm and blues album for her self-titled EP, she gave perhaps the night’s most dynamic show with the empowering “Hard Place.” Her seemingly effortless soulful vocals were backed by her cracking band — and violinists. And H.E.R. even shredded a translucent guitar, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Childish Gambino has the last laugh

Childish Gambino was a Grammys no-show. But that didn’t stop the renaissance man from taking home two of the biggest awards of the night for “This Is America,” his surreal and sneering indictment of gun violence and institutional racism. Childish Gambino, who ironically appeared in a Grammy ad for Google’s Playmoji, became the first hip-hop star to win record of the year and song of the year.

Dolly, Diana and Aretha

Three of music’s most revered figures received well-deserved tributes. For country music crossover goddess Dolly Parton, who was joined onstage by Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Little Big Town and the night’s other big winner, Kacey Musgraves, it was yet another reminder that beyond her bubbly, self-effacing image, Parton is a brilliant songwriting machine defying genres. Just check out her string of classics, including “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5” and her 1974 gem “I Will Always Love You,” which was given new life when Whitney Houston’s definitive cover became one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

An always regal Diana Ross, floating through in a flowing red dress while celebrating her 75th birthday, moved the audience after a too-cute introduction by her 9-year-old grandson, Raif-Henok Emmanuel Kendrick. “Young people like me can look up to her for her independence, confidence and willingness to be her unique self,” he said, beaming. “She has shown the world that nothing is beyond our reach. So, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my grandmommy, Diana Ross.”

And that was an understatement. Ross launched into “The Best Years of My Life” and her solo signature classic “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” imploring the crowd to “don’t be lazy” and to stand up. With 70 hit singles and a string of leading feature film roles — including her haunting, Oscar-nominated 1972 portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues — Ross is the template for Houston, Janet Jackson, Lil Kim, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé.

Finally, the late, great Aretha Franklin was celebrated with a rousing tribute by powerhouses Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia for a once-in-a-lifetime performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Some viewers balked at the idea of Franklin receiving just one song as tribute. “I’m sorry,” said one poster. “Aretha Franklin is one of the most if NOT the most decorated, talented, influential artists in the history of music. The Grammys gave her a ONE song tribute. Trash #Grammys.” Mood.

Berry Gordy Weeps

When it was first announced that Lopez would be taking part in a Motown tribute, the news was met with bewilderment and jokes from the Black Twitter contingent. But to the astonishment of viewers, Jenny From the Block wasn’t merely a supporting player in an already questionable production, she was the star garnering more stage time than the aforementioned Ne-Yo and Smokey Robinson. JLo proved it is indeed possible to lip-sync off-key as she stumbled through such Motown hits as “Dancing in the Street,” “My Girl” and “Please Mr. Postman.”

Free 21 Savage!

Fifteen-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys should be given the perpetual reins to host the aging music award show. She was that good.

There were no loud shout-outs or words of encouragement for the British-born Atlanta native from his fellow rappers. 21 Savage is still being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for failing to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa. Travis Scott made no mention of his collaborator during his performance of “Stop Trying to Be God” and the riotous “No Bystanders.” Post Malone, who partly owes the immense success and the swagger of his career-making single “rockstar” to 21 Savage, apparently wore a 21 Savage T-shirt but was also silent. The first mention of 21 Savage was made by Swedish “This Is America” producer Ludwig Göransson, who warmly stated, “He should be here.”

And album of the year goes to …

Country singer-songwriter Musgraves, whose Golden Hour picked up the top prize. No diss to Musgraves, a talented voice who will shine for years to come. But for the Grammys, it was yet another telling reminder that black art continues to be overlooked in the most coveted categories.

Tell the Grammys f— that 0 for 8 s—, Jay-Z rhymed on “Apes—” in response to the academy nominating his brilliant 4:44 for eight awards in 2018. He left with no statuettes.

The last black act to win album of the year was celebrated jazz pianist Herbie Hancock in 2008, and that was for the star-studded Joni Mitchell tribute album River. Since then, Swift has won the trophy twice, Adele beat out Beyoncé’s monumental 2016 Lemonade and Bruno Mars won in 2018 for 24K Magic, his love letter to Teddy Riley’s new jack swing. It’s a frustration that Prince knew all too well: His genre-busting 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree.

“I don’t go to awards shows anymore,” Prince said in a 1990 Rolling Stone interview. “I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else. But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too. … I know how to do that, you dig? But you will not do ‘Housequake.’ ”

Grammys … do better.

WNBA’s Take A Seat, Take A Stand brings its passion for social justice to its fans The league’s new program allows WNBA to donate part of the proceeds from ticket sales to charities that support young women and girls

For WNBA players, the summer of 2016 was a year — for power and for the ability to speak out against social injustice. Before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, before The ESPYS’ cold intro when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade weighed in on gun violence.

Minnesota Lynx  captains  Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen stood before media wearing “Change Starts With Us  —  Justice and Accountability” shirts. On the back, the names of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and the Dallas Police Department shield appeared.

And that was just the beginning.

To start the 2018 season, the WNBA has launched a program that gets the crowd involved and benefits community programs.

Take A Seat, Take A Stand is the league’s new women and girls empowerment program. It uses proceeds from WNBA tickets to do more than support the bottom line. When fans take a seat at a WNBA game, they also have the chance to support several organizations, including Bright Pink, GLSEN, It’s On Us, MENTOR, Planned Parenthood and the United State of Women.

The league will donate $5 to each fan’s chosen organization, along with a ticket for a young woman or girl. Fans can also donate tickets directly to one of the organizations.

“For 22 years, the WNBA and its players — women playing at the highest level of their sport — have stood up as role models for millions of women and girls,” WNBA president Lisa Borders said in a release. “With Take a Seat, Take a Stand, we are proud to come together as a league to stand with our partner organizations, our fans and the many inspiring women raising their voices for change in the current women’s movement.”

Bright Pink is a national nonprofit focused on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women. GLSEN is a national network of students, educators, parents and community leaders working to create safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ students. It’s On Us is a cultural movement aimed at fundamentally shifting the way we think about sexual assault. MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership unifies quality youth mentoring in the United States. Planned Parenthood is the nation’s leading provider and advocate of high-quality, affordable health care for women, men and young people, as well as the nation’s largest provider of sex education. The United State of Women is a national organization for any woman who sees that we need a different America for all women to survive and thrive — and wants to work collectively to achieve it.

Besides these organizations, fans will have the choice to support local organizations in all 12 teams’ communities, which will vary by city.

“We’re so grateful the WNBA is standing up for the 2.4 million patients who rely on Planned Parenthood and supporting issues that affect the health, well-being and success of women and girls,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Players have used their platforms to bring attention to inequality, and through Take a Seat, Take a Stand, the WNBA is giving fans an opportunity to join them in the fight for social change.”

For Bright Pink, the program demonstrates the WNBA’s strong commitment to women’s causes and is an example of everything the league represents to communities.

“The WNBA has been an incredible partner to our organization by helping thousands of women know their risk for breast and ovarian cancer and be their own best health advocates,” said Katie Thiede, CEO of Bright Pink. “We’re thrilled to be involved.”

“We’re excited to continue our partnership with the WNBA as part of this fan engagement campaign,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN. “The league and its players have made such a difference for so many women and girls, and especially for young LGBT athletes who often feel unwelcome in the world of sports. Thanks to the league and its fans, GLSEN will be able to open so many more doors of opportunity to LGBT students in school, on the court and beyond.”

Tina Tchen — partner, Buckley Sandler LLP, and co-founder of It’s On Us — says they are excited to join forces with the WNBA’s Take A Seat, Take A Stand campaign to inspire and empower women and girls.

“For decades, the WNBA and its players have been strong advocates for gender equality, LGBTQ rights and youth empowerment, and we are excited to partner with the WNBA family to collectively take a stand against sexual assault,” Tchen said.

“We are so grateful for the NBA family’s consistent support and partnership to elevate mentoring,” said David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. “Teaming up with the WNBA in our shared mission to bring people together, build relationships and prioritize equity is such a natural match. Young people seeing extraordinary women competing and leading at the highest level expands the narrative about what is possible in their own lives and in our culture.”

“The United State of Women is thrilled to partner with the WNBA to support young women and girls across the country,” said Jordan Brooks, managing director of The United State of Women. “The WNBA is home to so many inspiring women who wow us with their skills on the court and serve as role models in the community. We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this effort … to inspire and elevate women and girls around the country.”

Camille Cosby’s words show she’s trapped in an outdated space Black women no longer have to be silent about abusive men

I was taught to respect my elders, and I abide by that teaching. I was an erstwhile Cosby kid, and I saw myself in A Different World. I respect the legacy of Camille Cosby, who carved herself out of whole cloth as a philanthropist, a curator, a convener of black spaces and a representation of black womanhood. For all that she has done and all that she’s been through — she’s lost two of her five children: a son to gun violence in 1997 and a daughter to renal failure in February — she’s worthy of the respect we have afforded her.

That said, she has opened up another space around her, and around her predatory husband, which now requires a different conversation. One steeped in pain.

Thursday, a week after Bill Cosby was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault, Camille Cosby took to social media to defend her husband, decry the verdict and declaim the racist history and “lynch mobs” she holds responsible for the undoing of this man and all they stood for.

“Are the media now the people’s judges and juries?” she wrote on Facebook. “Since when are all accusers truthful? History disproves that … for example, Emmett Till’s accuser immediately comes to mind. … This is mob justice, not real justice. This tragedy must be undone not just for Bill Cosby, but for the country.”

My Lord, where to begin? Maybe we should see past Camille Cosby’s words and look to her frame. For much of American history, the stakes for black people have been life and death and the battle lines were clear: It was us, black people, trying to survive, grow, ascend, have dignity, citizenship and rights, versus them, the white people who were trying to deny us all of that. It was a time that required loyalty, that demanded silence by black women in the face of abuse by black men as if the race depended on it because it did. And the silence of these black women helped buy future generations the ability, the purchase and platform, to speak.

My Lord, where to begin? Maybe we should see past Camille Cosby’s words and look to her frame.

It was a coping mechanism for its time, but that time, and some of that pull-you-out-of-bed-and-hang-you-from-a-tree peril, has passed. Not totally, and not for everyone, but significantly enough for Camille Cosby’s invocation of Emmett Till to be a blasphemy. To be a sin and a foolishness. To contribute to the real and perhaps permanent undoing of Camille Cosby herself.

I mourned Bill Cosby as he fell. I came to terms with his con, felt acutely by those of us who remember what the cultural landscape was like before the Cosbys. But we needed to evolve past him and his hectoring, rapey ways.

When I brought Camille Cosby up in an interview about the generational divide in the #MeToo movement earlier this year, before the second Cosby trial, Tricia Rose, author and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, told me, “I want to respect Camille Cosby but I also want to challenge her. She had some other options at some point.”

Perhaps she saw her options as either to defend her husband or leave the perch they had staked their lives on. She’d said little as the sexual abuse allegations unfolded and was not at her husband’s side during the second trial. Perhaps she could have made a solo life for herself, or simply continued going out without him, supporting her own causes. Surely she could have defended her husband without invoking Emmett Till.

Brittney Cooper, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, said a generational shift is underway with regard to black women and abuse. In a general, unrelated conversation that also predated the second trial, she pointed out a larger dynamic. “Very often, what we do is indict folks that came before us for their silence, not understanding what the costs of speaking were, and not understanding that what they are doing in that silence is building the infrastructure, the visibility, the universal representation that makes it possible for a new generation to speak.”

Those new voices have now rushed in with calls for greater accountability, more truth-telling, better support for victims of assault, and all of that is as it should be. At 74, Camille Cosby has been called to a reckoning, a greater complexity with regard to race, abuse and justice, as are we all. Her answer is wrong, an outgrowth of a different time, and indefensible in this moment.

She blames everyone else for her husband’s criminal conviction and ended her Facebook statement with this: “Someday the truth will prevail, it always does.”

But here’s the truth that needs to be said: It is not white people who most feel Bill Cosby’s betrayal, who believe he betrayed you, who understand he must, finally, be held accountable. It’s me. It’s us. It’s victims too long silenced. It’s black women.

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s new album uses jazz to heal communities dealing with gun violence The multiple Grammy winner talks about working with Spike Lee, listening to the universe — and the real-life hurricanes of this lifetime

John Coltrane used to say that we’ve got to learn how to play in tune — and he meant with the universe, not in terms of pitch,” says trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, a man who has created 40-plus film scores and played on 50-plus. “That stuck with me. It’s about learning how to pay attention.”

The four-time Grammy winner (on 13 nominations) listened to the universe as it reminded him that young black men, women and children across the country are dying because of gun violence.

So he took his musical talents on the road to four U.S. locations afflicted by the epidemic of that violence. Along with his quintet, E-Collective — Blanchard on trumpet, Charles Altura on guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano and synthesizers, Oscar Seaton on drums and David “DJ” Ginyard on bass — Blanchard created seven songs for his newest project, Live (Blue Note), released April 20. The locations included Minnesota (Philando Castile), Cleveland (Tamir Rice) and Dallas (where on July 7-8, 2016, five police officers were killed).

“We’ve been trying to keep the debate alive, so we … recorded music in four cities that had [experienced] atrocities,” Blanchard said. His goal is to further the conversation on gun violence, and he hopes Live will help. “We hope the music can help people heal. We hope that the music can help take away from the frustration and anger. We hope that the music can help other people reflect.”

“They were picking us up, putting us in a boat right off the porch of our house, that’s how high the water had gotten. Men were in the water pushing the boat, trying to help us find dry land.”

Blanchard, via phone from his New Orleans home, describes the last two hurricanes his hometown experienced, catastrophes that changed the culture of America and shed light on the county’s socioeconomic breakdown.

Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 1965’s Hurricane Betsy was the largest storm to ever hit the city. Blanchard remembers both storms.

“I was a little kid,” he said. “We lived in the Lower 9th Ward, and … there was just a lot of rain, and they were picking us up, putting us in a boat right off the porch of our house, that’s how high the water had gotten. Men were in the water pushing the boat, trying to help us find dry land. We wound up at this woman’s house.” He said he doesn’t even know who she was. “We were sleeping in [her] front living room on the floor trying to get dry. And we couldn’t find my dad for a couple of days, didn’t know where he was. … I remember there was another little girl in the boat with us, just crying hysterically the entire time. The rest of us were like in shock, in a daze, trying to figure out what was going on.”

Forty years later, Blanchard was in the midst of Hurricane Katrina and became part of a documentary that detailed the crisis. His longtime colleague, Spike Lee, with whom Blanchard has scored films as far back as 1988’s School Daze, produced When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

“I was very angry,” Blanchard said. “Angry because Hurricane Katrina, to me, is the manifestation of everything we hate about politics. There have been politicians who will kiss your a– … kiss your baby and do whatever they need to do to get your vote, but once in office they don’t serve the public. They serve themselves.”

He says the tragedy for him was that New Orleans never even got hit by Katrina. “The hurricane bypassed us,” he said, “and we still had that high level of devastation. To me that means that somebody didn’t do their job. Somebody should have … went to jail for that. … Hurricane Katrina should have been a wake-up call for America. And it was. For a hot second. It was.”

Blanchard has always used his music to make powerful statements about race, culture and American tragedies past and present for most of his long career. His film scores include 4 Little Girls, Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Jungle Fever, Eve’s Bayou, Chi-Raq, Jungle Fever, Red Tails and Inside Man and his own legendary discography. He also stepped into the opera world with Champion at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

“I’m working on my second opera now, and when I sit down with my mind thinking that I have to write an opera, my ego freaks out,” Blanchard said. “It’s like, man, that’s a lot of work. But when I throw the ego aside and allow the creative process to take hold, then ideas start coming.”


When did you start working with Spike Lee?

It was probably 1989. I was hired to play a session for School Daze. I walked in and I had on my Lakers hat, a Lakers T-shirt, and purple and gold Converse. And Spike, he looked at me and says, ‘Lakers fan, huh?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’ And next thing I know, he was giving me tickets to the Knicks. Sitting courtside. I played some solos and then he heard me playing the piano, and that’s when everything started with the relationship and me scoring his films.

What can we expect of your new score with Lee for the upcoming BlacKkKlansman?

It’s a really great movie with John David Washington. Spike always wants to have a good orchestra for his scores, which we did for this one. But we also have a little twist … we use electric guitar and … an R&B rhythm section for some things to create a ’70s type of R&B sound for some of the score. That’s going to be a little different.

How did you begin infusing culture and art in your work?

My influences were Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, so the people that I admire were people who contributed greatly to American culture. They did it by having a high standard of excellence … and being themselves and sticking true to life. I’ve tried to model myself after those guys. When I was at the Monk Institute teaching, I was working with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Herbie’s never shied away from tackling topics. And when you watch what he does with his music, he’s trying to manifest his beliefs into his music.

How old were you when you first picked up an instrument?

I started playing piano, my mom started making me take lessons, when I was about 5 years old. We lived in this double house, and the piano teacher lived in the other side of the house. So I could never miss a lesson. Every weekend. I’d come outside and go right next door to Miss Francis’ house and get my lesson and come on back. It was fun.

How did you become involved in education?

I come from a family of educators. My mom was a teacher’s assistant when I was a little kid. Her sister taught voice and piano in high school for years, and then I have cousins in Lake Charles, they are all educators. One of my other cousins, Lawrence, he’s Dr. Lawrence Blanchard. Education has always been big for me because it turned my life around. It introduced me to some great people, and those great people were very generous … helped turn my life around and allowed me to see a bigger world … have broader experiences. It’s through that that I see all things are possible for anybody who wants to work hard.

Where do you find yourself most creative?

Creativity can happen anywhere. You just have to allow yourself to be open to it. All too often our egos get in the way when we say, ‘Oh, this must be this way, it has to be that.’ But being an accomplished human being in this universe, you’ve got to constantly listen to the universe itself. It’s always talking to you. It’s always telling you what’s going on. You have to learn how to tap into that. I do it at various times through chanting, through prayer, whatever you want to call it. But the main thing about it is to let it do its thing.