Natasha Hastings runs down the obstacles of being a pregnant Olympic hopeful 400-meter relay medalist hopes to go to Tokyo after she has her first child

As soon as Natasha Hastings, 32, learned she was pregnant, she began to wonder.

She pondered all the fraught physiological and cultural questions that undergird the modern motherhood industrial complex: How would her body change? Would her fiancé share equally in the work of round-the-clock baby care? What happens when she returns to her career — and would she even have a career to return to?

But she also had some custom asks: Would she ever run a quarter-mile in 52 seconds or less, again, and if so, how soon? What support would it take for her to make it to the Olympics one last time? And, crucially, would sponsors stick by her as she tries to make the trip?

Early this month, Hastings, a gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, revealed on Instagram that she was 5½ months pregnant. She also announced her intention to return to world-class competition, saying, “I’m going to go to Tokyo! Win a couple more medals!”

Instagram Photo

Questions about balancing pregnancy and world-class athletics aren’t new. At the 1960 Rome Games, sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals 16 months after having a baby, although few knew it. But Hastings is part of a new visibility and debate about the physical capabilities of female athletes after motherhood, and what systems and protection — health, economic, child care — they need around them. They are conversations we’ve rarely had, around questions we’ve hardly asked.

Hastings has been running professionally for 12 years. But now, as she pursues her dream of sport and family, she’s about to cover new ground.


When she found out that she and her fiancé, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, were expecting, Hastings remembers thinking, My God, what’s happening? She saw the excitement in his face, and he saw the dismay in hers. Yes, she wanted a baby, eventually. But she was just back from a knee injury, training for her outdoor season and hoping to compete in this year’s World Championships. They were planning to marry next year and, fingers crossed, she would qualify for the Olympics. For someone who’d been in communion with her body since she began running competitively at 10, the timing felt all wrong.

Natasha Hastings of the United States competes in the women’s 4×400-meter relay heats during Day 9 of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at the London Stadium.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“Track is my life, you know,” Hastings said. “My job relies on my physical abilities.” Everything she’s planned for the next phase of her life — building her 400M Diva cosmetic and beauty line, and her Natasha Hastings Foundation to advocate for women and girls in sports — was predicated on exiting track on her own terms. “I’m not the first woman who has thought about family versus career,” Hastings said. “But I don’t know any man who has to make that choice, you know?”

Hastings was worried her family might be disappointed in the timing. And she was especially worried about her sponsors, particularly Under Armour, which she’s been with since 2012.

“I took a while to share with my sponsors for fear of, just, I don’t know what this looks like, I don’t know how they’re going to take this.” She didn’t know “if I’d have a job at all. Or I shouldn’t say a job, but financial support to continue to train and go after the Olympics.”

While Under Armour continued to sponsor Hastings, her fears were understandable.

Middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a six-time USA Outdoor champion, competed in the 800-meter race at the 2014 U.S. Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. In a Mother’s Day editorial in The New York Times, Montaño wrote that female athletes are often forced into physically dangerous choices because companies such as Nike, which sponsored her, can suspend their contracts and health insurance when they get pregnant.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms.” — Natasha Hastings

Athletes are always vulnerable to risk and injury that is often heightened during pregnancy. And they largely don’t get maternity leave. Some sports have responded to the challenges.

When Orlando Pride star Sydney Leroux posted pictures of her training while five months pregnant in March, her Twitter mentions included people worried about the health of her baby. But teammates and other female athletes rushed to offer their support.

Two members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team in 1999 had children. The 2015 U.S. World Cup team had three mothers, and a culture of inclusion has taken root in the sport, including paid maternity leave. Moms have been a part of the WNBA for more than 20 years and have a portion of their salaries and medical expenses covered through the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

A bobblehead of Phoenix Mercury All-Star DeWanna Bonner features her holding her twin baby girls.

But non-team sports often seem to think female athletes don’t, or at least shouldn’t, get pregnant at all.

The message from the culture has been that female athletes should retire to have children, said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at Penn State University.

“So we haven’t had a lot of cases that have been able to be visible role models, modeling what it looks like to be working moms within sports,” she said. Her own earliest memory of an athlete mother was fictional: Sanaa Lathan’s character in the 2000 movie Love & Basketball. But she calls this new era of visibility a chance to engage in granular conversations about child care, what breastfeeding looks like when you’re also pushing your body athletically and how to bring abdominal muscles and hips back to world-class form.

Davis cites Serena Williams, who almost died after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., via emergency cesarean section in 2017. Her story highlighted the WTA’s lack of maternity leave policies. And her well-documented struggles, both emotional and physical, to return to competition opened a new front in motherhood conversations worldwide.

From left to right: U.S. women’s 4×400-meter relay team members Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix celebrate their gold medals on the podium during athletics competitions at the Summer Olympics inside Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

In track, Hastings is familiar with the history of sprinter Marion Jones, who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics after giving birth the year before. (She was also banned from the sport for two years and had her Olympic medals stripped after charges of doping.)

Sprinter Allyson Felix, whose six Olympic gold medals include the 2016 4×400-meter relay on a team that included Hastings, struggled with complications during her pregnancy last year and had to have an emergency C-section. Her daughter was hospitalized for a month, Felix testified at a recent congressional hearing on the crisis in maternal mortality. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.

Like Hastings, Felix is also hoping to compete in Tokyo.

Along with Under Armour, Hastings’ sponsors — which include the New York Athletic Club, as well as cosmetic and feminine care products companies — congratulated her on her pregnancy and continued their sponsorship.

Hastings feels “blessed. … If there’s anything that can speak for me, it’s that I have been a resilient person and athlete and my back has been against the wall several times.” That resilience helped her get past her failure to make the 2012 Olympic team. It helped her overcome a hamstring pull before the 2016 Olympic trials. She’s relying on it now, including for all the difficult conversations about pregnancy that she wasn’t prepared for.


In deciding on child care post-baby, Hastings says she and her fiancé have had some pointed exchanges. Hastings is thinking about how she will balance the needs of an infant with her own need for speed. She can’t run if she doesn’t sleep. And in discussing her options with other women, including hiring a nanny, she’s found these mommy conversations can get thorny quick.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms,” said Hastings. She’s finding her instinct to rely on their wisdom difficult to square with her own world-class ambitions. “I mean this with respect and honor, and I know that they’re coming from a good place and I know that I’m also, I am coming from a place of the unknown, right? But then there’s also this space of what I do that is unknown for them.” So there’s a disconnect “even in the conversation of a nanny, you know? It’s almost like, well, you’re less of a mom for having a nanny.”

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities.

She’s always had to curate the people around her and the voices she allows in her space. “I’m in a small population of the world that thinks that what I go out and do every day is possible. I’ve lived up to a standard that to most is impossible without having a child in there, right?” Her career has always been hard. “I’m no fool to what I’m going up against,” she said. “I’m going up against probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever had to face in this sport.” But if she dwells on that, her race is already lost.

Hastings is trying to keep her second-most important athletic instrument — her spirit, her willpower, her determination to completely dust the women running next to her — honed and ready.

As to her body, she’s trusting her longtime coach to help with that. It’s been an adjustment for him as well.


Darryl Woodson of Training Ground Elite in Round Rock, Texas, has been working with Hastings for more than seven years. He’s never coached a pregnant athlete before, so this is new space for him as well.

When Hastings told him she wanted to get back to the Olympics, Woodson said, she was focused on whether things would change between them — if he would start to take her less seriously as an athlete.

He became disciplined about keeping their same routines early on.

Elite coaching is physical, he said, but it is also about keeping athletes in their right mind. “There’s a psychological situation for a person where they’re always feeling like, uh-oh, you’re giving up on me,” Woodson said. When athletes are injured, or have some other physical limitation, “if you make them more aware of it then it starts to bother them, and if you treat them normally then they get through it a lot better.”

Natasha Hastings celebrates winning the gold medal in the women’s 4×400-meter relay final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

As her pregnancy progressed, they made adjustments for her schedule and how Hastings was feeling. He takes cues from her, but he said her dedication to the work hasn’t wavered.

“I’m not a prenatal coach,” he said. She’s in consultation with her doctors, who say her body will let her know how much she can handle. “And that’s when we stop. Obviously, I have altered some of her workouts” to make sure they’re not overly demanding.

Typically, she’d be in the outdoor season now. She’d be doing flat-out runs over 400 meters to build strength and endurance and doing other anaerobic work. At six months pregnant, she’s not doing that, or weight training, running stairs or jumping hurdles.

She’s continuing to do 150-meter sprints. Normally, she would run it at about 16 or 17 seconds. She’s four or five seconds slower now, and she can get frustrated that she’s not hitting her pre-pregnancy marks.

“That’s where the pick-me-up comes from me, where it’s like, ‘Let’s look at the circumstances,’ ” Woodson said. “The numbers matter nothing at all if we’re not stopping training so that your body doesn’t need to get reintroduced to this next time.”

She’s actually working harder because she’s carrying more. Woodson is sensitive about using words such as weight. If she keeps her body trained, her times will rebound when she’s no longer pregnant.

“My job is to modify the program and get the same results or better and not put her under the same psychological stress,” Woodson said. His job is to listen and give her the best shot at what she says she wants. The baby is due in July, and he’s hoping she returns as soon as September but no later than October.

“We don’t know what we can and will be able to do. We just know psychologically, emotionally and spiritually what we want to do,” Woodson said. “We’ll keep pushing the same way as we always have been.”


On the track and off, Hastings wants to be a role model. Davis said it matters that she’s a black woman doing this work. This is not only because of the recent spotlight on black maternal health but also because “the tropes about black women’s femininity and sexuality within athletics have been so tied to ideas of their bodies.” Pregnancy pushes back at larger stereotypes about what is feminine, and what sport does to femininity.

“I didn’t get to this level by thinking it was impossible,” Hastings said. “I had to know and believe that it was possible, and that came with having a plan, putting the plan in place, being able to adjust here and there when you have to.” And that’s what she’s still doing.

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities. She’s doing it for her athletic dreams of speed and glory. For her entrepreneurial dreams of reward and influence. For her dreams of black family and baby love. She focuses on that as she circles the track, chasing the person she’s always striving to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megan Thee Stallion wants to go as hard as the guys It’s a big summer for the ‘Big Ole Freak’ rapper, with her first album and a date with Cardi B

Hip-hop is in Megan Thee Stallion’s blood. The 24-year-old Houston spitter is amassing a ride-or-die following with her two-fisted, blush-inducing rhymes, as heard on her latest NSFW single “Big Ole Freak,” but she was introduced to the rap game by her mom. You see, back in the early 2000’s, Megan’s mother, Holly Thomas, went by the emcee name Holly-Wood. When most girls her age were playing with dolls, young Megan was already a microphone fiend.

“I remember leaving school and my mom would pick me up and we would go straight to the recording studio,” recalled Megan. “We would be in that damn studio from 7 p.m. till 2 in the morning. My mom thought I was asleep or watching TV, but I was really listening to the instrumentals being played over and over. So I would be in the other room just writing rhymes in my little kid’s folder, just things that I thought sounded cool. I owe everything to my mom.”

This is why Megan’s current success is so bittersweet. Her mother, who guided her career as her manager, died in March from a brain tumor. Certainly she would be proud to witness her daughter become the most heavily anticipated rap rookie on the scene since Belcalis Almánzar put the Bronx on her back. At 5 feet, 10 inches, Megan possesses a towering aura and a relentless, swaggering rhyme attack that sounds like a combination of UGK’s Pimp C and Lil’ Kim.

One moment, Megan’s delivering gloriously ratchet lines such as, “The way I beat the beat up I ain’t rapping this is violence/Hos want a pity party I ain’t got the violin.” The next she has anime nerds going crazy with lyrical tags such as, “Got the moves like I’m Ryu/Yellow Diamonds Pikachu/When I turn my hair to blonde I’m finna turn up like Goku.”

After initially turning heads in late 2016 when she stole the show in the rooftop Houston Cypher, Megan released her buzzy 10-song 2018 mixtape Tina Snow, which has racked up more than 11 million streams. A record deal with 300 Entertainment, the label co-founded by Def Jam heads Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles, soon followed. Her growing fan base of “Hotties” and a list of influential co-signs — from Missy Elliott to Drake, who is set to be featured on the remix to “Big Ole Freak” — are more proof that this internet favorite has made it to the big leagues.

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All this and she still finds time to attend Texas Southern University. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m in school all day,” Megan explained. “So I schedule my shows around my classes.”

Her debut album Fever, which features Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J and DaBaby, is dropping May 17. She’s got an opening slot on Cardi B’s all-female concert showcase, Femme It Forward, which kicks off May 25. And there’s a string of music festival appearances. Megan is not here to play with y’all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Do your professors and fellow students at Texas Southern treat you differently given that you are pretty much a big deal?

What’s so crazy is a lot of times I just assumed that people at my school just didn’t know that I was a rapper. So when a student tells me, ‘Oh, Megan … I see that you are going to be doing a show at this spot,’ and then the whole class is like, ‘Yeah, girl … we are coming!’ that still surprises me. I even had one of my professors come up to me after class like, ‘I follow you on Instagram. I see that you have the Tina Snow alter ego. …’

That sounds awkward.

It was crazy. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God! Please don’t follow me! Just be my professor, please. Don’t be a Hottie!’ But seriously, it’s OK. It just really blows my mind. Now I’m thinking, OK, should I clean up my act on social media because my professor is following me? (Laughs.)

“I’m like, oh, my God! Please don’t follow me! Just be my professor, please. Don’t be a Hottie!”

You don’t shy away from explicit content. But at the same time, a raw song like “Big Ole Freak” is empowering. Did you always know you wanted to make that an underlying message in your music?

It was really kind of an accident. I know that I like to talk a lot of s—. And I know that a lot of women may be scared to say certain things or may be scared to carry themselves in a certain type of way because we’ve been conditioned to just be little princesses. We’re supposed to be prim and proper. People hold women up to a ridiculous high standard to the point that we don’t get the chance to let loose.

So when I listen to some of my favorite rappers like Juicy J and Pimp C … I’m like, ‘Wow, these lyrics are so crazy, so raw! This would sound really good if a woman were saying them.’ So if this is raunchy as the boys can get, if this is as hard as they can go, I feel like women should be able to do that too.

It’s clear there’s no self-censoring happening here.

None. (Laughs.) When I’m writing my lyrics, I just want to be as out there as I can be because I want women to know we don’t have to put any limits on ourselves. If you want to go hard, go hard.

The first time I heard you was on “Stalli Freestyle,” which became a viral sensation. How important was that clip in letting the music industry know that you were a legit emcee?

When I did the ‘Stalli Freestyle,’ it wasn’t even about me thinking, Oh, I’m going to f— the streets up with this one. It wasn’t me just trying to be anything outrageous. I just really enjoy rapping. And I really love just putting it out there on the internet to let people know, hey, I got flow … I can rhyme. I just like to keep my fans engaged. I want to let everyone know that there’s a new girl out here and everybody needs to stay on their toes.

Houston has a rich hip-hop history of lyricists, from Scarface to Bun B. Who was your biggest influence growing up in H-Town?

Pimp C is my favorite rapper. When I was growing up, my mom played a lot of UGK. She played all the Pimp C songs. Pimp makes me feel very arrogant. He makes me feel cocky. It’s all about the way that he rapped. When people listen to my music, I want them to feel how Pimp C made me feel. His flow just really does something to me, just his whole swag and how cool he is. When I’m writing, I’m either thinking about Pimp C or I’m thinking about Biggie.

“I just want to be as out there as I can be because I want women to know we don’t have to put any limits on ourselves.”

Being that you rep Houston, I’m going to put you on the spot: Suave House or Rap-A-Lot Records?

(Laughs.) I’m staying neutral. Houston is so big you can’t even compare what everybody has going on. Those are two different, iconic labels … two different types of sounds that were being put out. We all live in Houston.

Tell us about the impact your mom’s hip-hop career had on you?

She was a huge influence. I would come in her room and my mom would be in the bed writing rhymes. She had CDs with instrumentals on there, so I would sneak in her room and take the instrumentals while she was writing. And she would be tripped out, like, ‘Where are my instrumentals at? Megan, have you seen my CDs?!’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, what are you talking about?’ (Laughs.)

OK, stealing your mom’s own rhyme instrumentals is peak hip-hop.

For real! She actually thought someone was coming into our house and taking her rhyme instrumentals. But it was me! Little did she know I was in the cut getting ready for my turn.

At 5-foot-10, you are pretty tall. How was it being the tallest girl in class?

I never thought that I was that tall. I just thought that all the rest of the kids were little. So when I finally got to third grade, when boys started to really like girls, they would crack on me and say, ‘Oh, you tall.’ And I was like, ‘So what? You little!’ It wasn’t until I made it to ninth grade that all the boys started catching up to me. So we were all cool at that point. But I always thought that tall women are beautiful and sexy. I wouldn’t want to be really short. I feel like the air is different down there.

Well, you are definitely in rarefied air given that you have been getting shout-outs from Missy Elliott, Solange, Drake and Q-Tip. How trippy is that?

That’s really crazy to me. I mean, the biggest shock was Missy. She’s a queen. When I saw that tweet I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Missy Elliott knows about me!’ That’s wild. And Q-Tip has been a real mentor. He gives me great advice. He’s my No. 1 gasser. He tells me all the time that I have crazy rhymes. Just to have a legend like Tip to be a sincere fan of mine … that really just blows my mind. That lets me know I’m doing something right, because one of the OGs is telling me that I’m live!

Zion in Atlanta would be a win for the culture The Hawks landing the No. 1 pick is a long shot. But Williamson would be a good match with the young, disruptive culture of The A.

Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.

Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.

“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”

Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.

For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.

“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”

Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.

“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”

The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.

The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.

Zion Williamson drives in for a dunk against St. John’s during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 91-61.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.

“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”

“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”

With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”

Andre 3000 (left) and Big Boi (right) of Outkast perform onstage at the ONE Musicfest on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.

The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.

“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”

John Collins (left) and Trae Young (right) of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Feb. 27.

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.

A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.

“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.

“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”

From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles from Atlanta.

Matthias Clamer/FX

In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”

The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.

“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”

Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”

Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.

“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”

An oversized backboard and basketball hoop are seen on a billboard in front of the Atlanta City skyline during practice prior to the NCAA Men’s Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Dancer and choreographer Shamel Pitts returns home to Brooklyn with ‘Black Velvet’ Former member of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company now performs his own work

Before Shamel Pitts began studying dance, first at LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts and The Ailey School, then as a bachelor of fine arts candidate at Juilliard, he was a little boy growing up in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

At 21, Pitts got one of his first glimpses into the world of international dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There, he was introduced to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, where Pitts would spend a significant chunk of his professional career.

From 2009 to 2016, Pitts lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and danced for Batsheva, a company led for years by choreographer Ohad Naharin, who developed a movement language called Gaga. Gaga is a form of modern dance rooted in anti-classical Israeli tradition. It’s not folk dancing, and it’s not popular dance, but it is meant to be accessible to a wide range of bodies and abilities. To see Batsheva perform Gaga is a cultlike experience. It transfixes with its slow, undulating movements and seduces its audience with its mystery, beauty and just straight-up strangeness. You don’t really watch Gaga so much as you submit to being plunged into it for a time.

“It unlocked and unleashed and opened up things that I didn’t even know were closed, just the essence of why I dance and my passion for dance, and how would dance reconnect to our pleasure and our passion to move, and how we listen to our bodies before we tell it what to do,” Pitts, now 34, said of Gaga. “It’s something about those kind of teachings. While I was at school, it was transformative for me. Something about education environments, sometimes it becomes very practical and you kind of miss out on the essential.”

Pitts first experienced Batsheva at BAM, then later danced there as a member of the company. This week, he returns for a series of performances with his creative collaborator, the Brazilian-born performance artist Mirelle Martins. They will dance BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, the second in Pitts’ trilogy of non-narrative works (BLACK BOX: Little Black Book of RED, BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, and BLACK HOLE: Trilogy and Triathlon). The language of Gaga is foundational to Pitts’ work, but, with Martins, he has built upon it to fashion his own dialect.

BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes Performance Trailer from Shamel on Vimeo.

Pitts describes BLACK VELVET as a theatrical meditation on transcending the boundaries of gender, race, love, friendship and identity. It’s performed in a space that’s lighted only with projections designed by graphic designer and video artist Lucca Del Carlo. He and Martins, who is also black, move as two sparsely clad, androgynous beings in light that turns them into a sinewy, rippling pair.

“Part of my idea and interest in using only projector in all of my works actually … is that there’s something about this object and the potential of this instrument, this lighting, to create something that is incredibly cinematic,” Pitts said. “You can feel almost like watching a hologram, but watching something that is really past and present and future change in the matter of moments, and seconds, in front of you.”

Perhaps what’s most astounding about BLACK VELVET is Martins, who began training to dance professionally with Pitts at age 28. They first met in 2013, and then Pitts moved to Brazil to teach Gaga in 2016. Martins and Pitts premiered BLACK VELVET in Brazil later that year and have been touring it internationally ever since. Pitts and Martins are the only two dancers in the 50-minute work. They move with such fluid intensity and purpose that witnessing BLACK VELVET almost feels like an intrusion, as if you are watching two people so connected to each other that they’ve managed to make the world around them cease to exist.

Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins dance Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes.

Rebecca Stella

“I really wanted to create a work with her that was about us meeting each other and taking care of each other and listening to each other and celebrating each other and empowering each other in a performance,” Pitts said. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we definitely, from the very beginning, felt a strong bond between us. We really listened to this pulling to this kind of connection. I don’t know if it’s ancestral or if it’s in the future, but we really felt there was some strong connection between us. We listened to it, and then we came together. … Since then, we’ve kept fueling the fire … so now, we’re very, very, very close. She’s like a soul mate.”

When I reached Pitts this week, he was sitting in the backyard of his family’s Bed-Stuy home, with birds chirping in the background, reflecting on the circular journey his career has taken. He’s moved back to Brooklyn and continues to teach Gaga, and he works as an instructor at Harvard and Juilliard too.

“To come to BAM and bring my own work, as a Brooklyn artist, it really feels like a homecoming to me, and I’m really sort of immensely excited,” Pitts said. “It just feels really like a dream realized, this moment. I remember, as I saw all of these performances that really inspired my past as an artist, I also realized that I haven’t seen Brooklyn artists at Brooklyn Academy of Music.”

Phillip Youmans becomes first black director to win at Tribeca with his feature debut, ‘Burning Cane’ Teenage whiz kid is about to finish his freshman year at NYU

For months, 19-year-old Phillip Youmans had to hold fast to what he called “the best-kept secret” of his life. His first feature film, Burning Cane, which he wrote, shot, directed and edited himself, was accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, making him the youngest director ever to have an entry there.

In March, when this year’s lineup was announced, the New York University freshman could finally exhale. Now, the stomach butterflies associated with great news have returned anew: Last week, Youmans won the Founders Award, the festival’s top prize for narrative film. He is the first black director to win the prize. Youmans also won the prize for best cinematography in a U.S. narrative feature film. And Wendell Pierce, who co-produced the film and stars as Reverend Tillman, took honors for best actor in a U.S. narrative feature film. Both Ava DuVernay and Black List creator Franklin Leonard tweeted their admiration.

“Everything has changed,” Youmans said when I reached him by phone Monday. “Now it feels like we actually have a trajectory. It feels like there are so many opportunities. … Production companies now wanna work with me. It’s crazy!”

Youmans made the film at age 17 with the goal of commenting on the strictures of religious fundamentalism and the ways men blame their internal faults on outside forces — in this case, the devil. It was a way to voice his discomfort with the beliefs held by members of his own family who harbor transphobic or homophobic attitudes.

“I grew up in the [Baptist] church,” Youmans said. “There’s so many things about the doctrine that I disagree with, and because of that I had to separate, but I’m not antagonizing or demonizing the church. … I still love my family despite our differences, but there are some things I just can’t come to terms with.”

Burning Cane director Phillip Youmans

Bijan Gouri/Denizen Pictures

Youmans grew up in New Orleans and first picked up a camera when he was 13. He attended the city’s high school for creative arts and became interested in filmmaking after acting in small roles in projects filming around New Orleans (Sex Ed, For A Dark Skin Girl and American Hero).

When he worked on American Hero, “I saw a bigger budget set in action and I saw the crews interacting with each other,” Youmans said. “There was so much going on behind the camera that became so clear to me. That was part of the catalyst for me to go behind the camera.”

He started to make short films and experiment.

Burning Cane drops its audience into the cane fields of rural Louisiana, following the life of Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) as she tries, to no avail, to cure her dog Jojo of mange. There are two violent, no-account drunks in Helen’s life: her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), and her pastor, Reverend Tillman.

That the Southern gothic aesthetic of Burning Cane recalls Benh Zeitlin’s work in Beasts of the Southern Wild is no accident — Zeitlin was a co-producer on the film. After the release of Beasts, Youmans contacted the director via Instagram.

After making a short based on the same concept, Youmans started an Indiegogo campaign to expand Burning Cane to a feature-length film. He combined that money with savings and family contributions to fund the film. Pierce, who has had roles on The Wire, Suits and Treme, agreed to take the role as Reverend Tillman based on the script. Youmans was too embarrassed by his attempts at short films to share them with the veteran actor.

“Even though they’re all older than me, none of them imposed any sort of hierarchy or pecking order,” Youmans said of his actors. “None of them were talking down to me because I was younger. The camera is a great equalizer with people on a set — usually, if it’s a respectful set. … I think they respected the vigor that I had.”

Burning Cane is clearly literate in the style of Charles Burnett, and the spare way Youmans lights his characters brings to mind the work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). Youmans also cited Barry Jenkins and Paul Thomas Anderson as inspirations. Youmans is the latest in a line of talented black NYU directors to make waves early in their career; Pariah and Mudbound director Dee Rees is another.

NYU students have to leave the dorms for the summer by May 13, Youmans said, so he’ll be moving to a Brooklyn apartment, where he’ll continue to work on projects already in motion, including a couple of new films with Stay Human and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, who also graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. One is a short documentary that will accompany a release of the band’s recent concerts at the Village Vanguard. Youmans is also fine-tuning the script on his next narrative project, which will focus on the Black Panther Party in 1970s New Orleans.

Matthew Cherry moved from the practice squad in the NFL to first string in Hollywood His second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ ‘Red Line’

The fact that Matthew Cherry was a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens is the least most interesting thing about him.

He was a star at the University of Akron, where he still holds the school record for most yards on punt returns in a season, with 305 in 2003, the same year he was named second-team All-Mid-American Conference.

But Cherry gave up the game in 2007. He walked away from the Ravens, his final team, with a $30,000 pretax settlement for a shoulder injury after being placed on injured reserve.

His professional career lasted about three seasons — some of it on practice squads, some of it on a roster. It was time for a pivot.

The settlement money helped him move to Los Angeles, where he was just another kid from the Midwest trying to make a go at this Hollywood dream.

He worked at it hard. For 12 solid years, including a stint of unemployment that sent him back home to Chicago to live with mom and dad.

And finally, his grind paid off — and then some. Cherry is now a TV director, an executive at Jordan Peele’s highly successful Monkeypaw Productions, helping to bring some of Ava DuVernay’s vision to life on CBS’ new limited series Red Line and working on an animated short in partnership with Sony Pictures Animation. He also is directing in ABC’s new series Whiskey Cavalier.

None of this came easy. Not when he set up fundraising accounts to finance his first feature film. Not when his mother died suddenly of an aneurysm — after telling him the previous night how proud she was seeing him begin to fulfill his dreams.

For a long time, that’s exactly what they were — dreams.

“I really didn’t even tell people I played ball,” he says now, sitting behind his desk at Peele’s Monkeypaw production compound in the Hollywood Hills. “I look at it how athletes are received when they break into music. People always roll their eyes like, ‘Ah, Kobe’s trying to do an album,’ or ‘Shaq is trying to do a project,’ or I remember specifically Allen Iverson, when he tried to drop an album. Athletes are always looked at weirdly when they try to do something outside of what they’ve been known for, and I was always conscious of that. …

“It helped that I really wasn’t a big name when I was in the NFL either. It made it easier just to be like: ‘Matthew. P.A. [Production assistant] I want to learn this from scratch.’ … Because people will have a perception of you, for whatever reason. In my experience, people assume that former pro athletes aren’t hard workers. Or we just want stuff handed to us, and we’re not willing to put in the work and grind for it.”


Matthew Cherry played briefly for the Baltimore Ravens.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Cherry grew up on Chicago’s North Side, and the first sport that caught his eye was baseball. He wasn’t a standout athlete, but his dad was a big Chicago Cubs fan, so he stuck with it. His earliest memory of the sport? It was horrible. He couldn’t remember which hand his mitt went on.

But there was always a lesson to be learned.

“I saw very quickly, if you put the time in and you practice, you can get better at it,” he said.

He also was growing. Rapidly. He decided to try football. Although his parents were middle-class, there weren’t enough resources for travel teams. But with practice, he became good enough to catch the eye of the coaches at a private Jesuit school in the northern suburbs, Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

“I very much felt like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Cherry said of his high school experience. “Just being this kid that’s actually from Chicago, a black kid, [and] at the time, it was not diverse at all. I remember my graduating class, we had five black kids in a class of 500.”

In fall 1999, he headed off to Akron, Ohio, and by his senior year he was an All-MAC candidate. Maybe this pipe dream of playing in the NFL — something he never thought seriously about before, as football was merely the means to getting a scholarship — could come to fruition?


He wasn’t drafted. And life in the NFL didn’t look like it looked in the movies, that’s for sure. He was on the practice squad most of his rookie year, until the Cincinnati Bengals signed him to the active roster for the last two games of the 2004 season.

Cherry started thinking of a different plan in 2005. A friend from college called him before training camp of his second season. Cherry had studied broadcasting in college and had worked in campus radio as a music director and on-air personality. He interned at a Cleveland radio station.

“One of my guys that I worked with on the Cleveland radio station, he was like, ‘Man, I’m going to L.A. for the BET Awards. Will and Jada are hosting. We’re doing a live remote there. I don’t know what you’re doing, but we’ll let you kick it with us if you want to come out,’ ” he recalled.

“He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.” — Angela Nissel

“In the back of my mind I was already starting to think about what my Plan B was going to be. Because my rookie year, I got cut and placed on practice squad, and that was really the first time I’d ever dealt with a situation like that, where I felt like I was good enough. But because of some of the politics around coming in as an undrafted player, sometimes if you’re not in the right situation, regardless of how well you do, you’re not gonna get a shot,” he said.

Arriving in Los Angeles, “I just remember my mind being blown. The weather. The mountains. The palm trees — but also how the entire city was just based off entertainment. It was all coffee shops, people in there writing scripts. The print/copy place, they’re talking about a discount for headshots and script printing. I was like, ‘This entire city revolves around this industry. That’s crazy.’ I just remember coming back from that experience just being really inspired. And I met this person who knew this other person who knew this other person who had been part of this program called Streetlights … a nonprofit organization that basically helps men and women of color get jobs as production assistants.”

Fast-forward to year three as a professional football player and Cherry is playing for the Baltimore Ravens after stints in NFL Europe with Hamburg and in the Canadian Football League. He had lived in nine cities and three countries in that three-year span.

He’d had enough. And he was ready to see what Hollywood was about. So he got into the production program, and his first job was working on Mara Brock Akil’s comedy series Girlfriends. On his off weeks, he worked on her spinoff series The Game, about a newly minted NFL player navigating his rookie year with his college sweetheart.

He was earning $300-$400 a week. It was low. But he loved it. This was his film school. He got to see how TV directors such as Debbie Allen, Sheldon Epps and Salim Akil worked, used camera equipment, set up shoots.

His next gig was on NBC’s sci-fi drama Heroes, but this time he took some extracurricular initiative: asking if he could use the camera equipment on off days to shoot music videos. He’d scour MySpace and reach out to rhythm and blues artists, offering to direct their music videos free of charge if they could make it out to L.A. He’d come up with the concept and he’d have the equipment — he just wanted a chance to tell a story. He got his first credit in 2008 directing a video for R&B artist Terry Dexter.

His side hustle served him well. He ultimately directed music videos for Michelle Williams featuring Beyoncé & Kelly Rowland, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred the Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Chloe x Halle.

Which brings us to now. Cherry has hit the place that he’s worked nonstop for since he arrived in 2007. He’s a creative executive at Monkeypaw. An executive producer on the award-winning BlacKkKlansman and a producer on The Last O.G. for TBS, where he just directed his first episode of TV.

“I thought he was going to be a stereotypical, kind of misogynist-without-recognizing-it, football guy,” said Angela Nissel, the co-executive producer of The Last O.G. “I remember the first time he was on set. Sometimes when you bring things up and there are a lot of guys, sometimes they tend not to hear you. He was the first one to say, ‘Wow, Ang, I hadn’t thought of that perspective. I’m glad we have a woman on set.’ He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.”

Cherry’s second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ Red Line, an eight-episode limited series about three Chicago families forced by tragedy to think about how race and racial biases affect their lives. The series is executive produced by DuVernay, who encouraged Cherry to write and direct a film about his experience in the NFL years ago. The result was The Last Fall, which aired on BET in 2012 after having its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and receiving an award for best screenplay at the American Black Film Festival.


Matthew Cherry (left) with Tracy Morgan (right) on the set of The Last O.G.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Now, as he thinks about that decade-plus of struggle, Cherry can smile. He met Peele in the midst of the successful run of Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. Peele liked a tweet Cherry tagged him in, started following Cherry and later sent him a direct message and asked to meet him. That was 2017, right after Peele announced his first-look overall production deal with Universal and Cherry thought maybe he’d be asked to direct a small-budget film. Instead, Peele wanted to hire him. Peele shared with him in that meeting that he was creating a space where he could continue what he did with Get Out: tell stories that have a social message and use genres such as horror, sci-fi and thrillers to make films and TV that are fun and commercially viable.

One of those projects is TBS’s The Last O.G., which stars comedian Tracy Morgan as a newly released felon who is trying to acclimate himself to society, get to know the twins he never knew he fathered and adjust to the new whitewashed affluence of his old Brooklyn neighborhood. The series also stars Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish.

“Jordan really has given me that boost. When I first started working here, I was always looking at it like, man, what are the opportunities for directing? Maybe I can do some shows here and try to get that first opportunity. And The Last O.G. was always on my mind … just really fell in love with that show. The heart that it has, seeing Tracy in a way you’ve never seen him before,” Cherry said.

And for what it’s worth, we’ve never seen Cherry like this before either. He’s in the zone. And there doesn’t appear to be a slowdown anytime soon.

“It just literally felt like all these 10-plus years of being in L.A. and struggling, and living out of my car at some point, all these things you would do just to stay in L.A., stay in the game … if you could just stay here long enough, you might be able to make it,” he said.

He did that as a high school football player trying to get a college scholarship. He found it when he was struggling in the NFL and knew he needed to pivot.

And now, he’s figured it out in Hollywood. That early life lesson was key.

“It really is an athlete thing,” he said. “I would even go back further to that first time I picked up a baseball glove and put it on the wrong hand. Being able to see progress is something as an athlete that’s probably been the most important thing. Knowing that if you work hard enough, if you just stick it out long enough, you’ll get your shot.

“And then when you get your shot, you gotta take it. Or you have to go back to the bench. And that’s just always been a thing that’s been with me. I never felt like I had any opportunities that were just given to me. I’ve always had to create my own opportunity or give my own look or try to figure it out myself. And I just think, luckily it’s worked so far. And I think that’s the biggest thing about being an athlete, is being able to set a goal and knowing if you work hard enough, you can reach that goal for sure.”

Gentrification encroaches on Howard and Texas Southern campuses It’s a clash of cultures, aspirations, history and money

Washington, D.C., apparently is the capital of the Gentrification Nation too.

Want to see the effects? Just take a stroll through the environs near Howard University’s main campus these days and you reflexively say, “My, how times have changed.”

Gone are many of the decaying structures and dilapidated blotches of disrepair. And gone are some of the small black businesses and shops that were the lifeblood of a once-vibrant community.

Look up and you will see high-rise thickets of fancy apartment complexes dotting the landscape around Howard, which in recent years has sold some of its properties near campus to raise funds. Look down and you will see the new cafes and coffee shops.

Those are signs of gentrification, not only in Washington but also in cities such as Houston, home of Texas Southern University, another historically black institution.

To understand the change of scenery around Howard, you must study the metamorphosis of Washington as a whole.

Gentrification sweeps through D.C.

Check the city’s gentrification numbers. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which advocates economic support for economically distressed locales, Washington had the highest intensity of gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States between 2000 and 2013.

Furthermore, Washington’s population was 71.1% black in 1970; in 2015, that number had plummeted to 48.3% during this new age of gentrification and black displacement. Also, the white population in areas surrounding Howard’s main campus was about 4% in 2000; by 2015, it had increased more than sixfold.

Of the eligible tracts for gentrification, Washington leads the nation with a 40% intensity rate; second is San Diego, double digits behind at 29%; third is New York at 24%.

Gentrification can mean new residents. With different cultural likes, dislikes, habits. And behavior.

Such as dog walking.

Howard students know this firsthand. And they don’t like it.

Because their campus has been a dog park for some area residents — white pet owners.

Students say it’s their grass and their walkways, regardless of the gentrification projects that have altered the landscape surrounding the university.

“Seeing dogs on campus isn’t an uncommon thing. I have seen them relieve themselves and the owners don’t pick it up,” Kenneth Fling, a freshman psychology major from Buffalo, New York, told The Undefeated outside on a breezy, blue-sky day at the main campus. “Here, we take the culture of our campus and our community very seriously.”

The first part of Fling’s comment is a key point of contention among many Howard students: non-student pet owners allowing their dogs to defecate and urinate on campus apparently without taking any responsibility.

The Yard on Howard University is located at the center of main campus, surrounded by public spaces where fraternities and sororities emblazon trees with their insignia.

John X.Miller

On “The Yard” — that priceless, grassy commons — which students consider hallowed territory, the pulse of their universe.

Call this situation Howard’s get-off-my-lawn moment.

It would be foolhardy to believe that Howard was the nation’s only historically black college or university in a dense urban spot feeling the effects of a culture clash that’s exacerbated by gentrification. Travel about 1,500 miles southwest of Washington to Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

There, Texas Southern University is in the throes of its own challenges that, in some respects, are more problematic than the dog issue at Howard.

Houston’s Third Ward, where Texas Southern is located, is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation plan.

While the hot topic at Howard is about the pets, the concern at Texas Southern is about the pocketbooks.

According to the Houston Defender, a black-owned newspaper in the city, the number of black residents in the Third Ward, as of 2017, had decreased by at least 10% while the white population had doubled, as education and income levels have risen. Other effects of gentrification can include an increase in home and property values, an improvement in safety matters and a rise in credit ratings for residents.

However, on the other side of the ledger … well, let Sherridan Schwartz, a visiting professor in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern, tell it:

“In recent years,” Schwartz told The Undefeated, “luxury development and gentrification have made the Third Ward mostly unaffordable to the faculty and staff of TSU [except for a few executive-level administrators with higher incomes]. Now those employed by TSU have to find more affordable housing farther away, primarily in Houston’s suburbs like Pearland and Missouri City.”

To compound the gentrified problems, public transportation, especially bus service, can be affected in a negative way. Food and utility prices can skyrocket.

Also, in some neighborhoods around Texas Southern, similar to incidents in Washington, new residents have vehemently complained about publicly played music, lingering crowds, noise and block parties — often staples of many predominantly black communities.

Darnell Latney knows all about those staples.

For 48 years, Latney has been a part of Georgia Avenue, a street that directly borders Howard’s main campus. He’s seen the full scope of changes on this thoroughfare, which stimulate much-heated debate in the neighborhood, Latney said. A barber for 22 years, he works at Joseph’s Barber Shop, mere steps away from the university. And he is adamant about what he calls a disservice to a longtime predominantly black community encompassing Howard.

Darnell Latney stands in front of a building on the 2800 block of Georgia Avenue across from Howard University where he and other barbers cut hair for years. The shop closed last year, according to Latney, at the same time the condos (on the right) were being built.

John X. Miller

“It’s all about economics and raising the tax base,” Latney passionately told The Undefeated. “They are just using gentrification to get rid of black people in this area. We are not being displaced but replaced.

“At one time, D.C. wasn’t like this at all, from about the 1990s on back. Now everything is so expensive that the average black person can’t afford it. Georgia Avenue is a long street. It used to be an 80% black neighborhood that catered to 80% black businesses. Not anymore. I’ve seen a lot of black businesses close down in the past six years on Georgia Avenue — all because of gentrification. And this dog stuff is another sign of what’s going on around here.”

The tension regarding Howard’s dog controversy ratcheted up even more when dog owner Sean Grubbs-Robishaw, a white man who lives nearby in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, announced it was time to relocate.

No, not him — the 152-year-old Howard campus should depart, he proclaimed.

In an interview with television station Fox 5 DC, Grubbs-Robishaw, who admitted to traversing Howard’s various open patches of grass with his dog to reach a nearby reservoir that’s a popular spot for pet owners, barked, “So, they’re in part of D.C., so they have to work within D.C. If they don’t want to be within D.C., then they can move the campus. I think we just need to work together, and I don’t think it should be a he or there or here . . . it’s our community, and that’s how it should be.”

Yes, he jolted us when he said “move the campus,” the higher-education domain of such illustrious Howard alumni as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, singer Roberta Flack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and California Sen. Kamala Harris. And note that Grubbs-Robishaw has since been derisively referred to by a hashtag on social media: #GentrifyingGeorge.

“They [dog owners] just don’t realize that this is sacred ground,” Hidaya, a Howard student who didn’t want her last name used, told The Undefeated.

The temperature of these dog days had gotten so hot that several media outlets, from Essence magazine to MTV News to The Guardian newspaper in England, have carved out space for coverage. And a petition has even been started to effect change regarding the dog debate.

Ironically, while students and dog owners on Howard’s main campus have been in the midst of a seemingly adversarial relationship, on the university’s so-called West Campus, located in a traditionally wealthier community that houses Howard’s law and divinity schools about 3 miles away, students and dog owners have maintained a symbiotic association.

“We do events each year when, during final exams, area dog owners bring their dogs over so we can pet them,” second-year law student James Walker III of Atlanta told The Undefeated.

For stress relief.

Does it work?

“I don’t partake in it myself, but I’m sure it helps, as the data has shown it works,” said Walker, whose parents both graduated from Howard’s School of Law.

Final exams are scheduled this week and next.

West campus students, neighbors get along better

Walker said it isn’t unusual to see dogs on the grounds of Howard’s West Campus, a predominantly white area off Connecticut Avenue, and added there’s a communal environment with the neighbors.

There doesn’t appear to be an antagonistic relationship with the surrounding West Campus community, he said.

There could be three reasons, besides the communal engagement:

  • The much smaller West Campus is a bit more isolated than the more open and sprawling main campus, which, of course, draws more foot traffic.
  • The dog owners on the west side appear to be very responsible in picking up waste material from their dogs.
  • The West Campus isn’t in the crosshairs of gentrification projects, unlike the main Howard campus.

The dog conundrum on the main campus became so polarizing that university president Wayne A.I. Frederick publicly announced that pet owners are prohibited from bringing their animals on the grounds.

He said: “We recognize that service animals are a necessary aspect of modern-day life and we will accommodate them as needed. We appreciate pet owners respecting our campus by not bringing pets on to the private areas. Howard is a private institution nestled in the heart of an urban city and we’ve shared a long-standing positive relationship with our evolving community for more than 150 years, which we look forward to continuing in the future.”

However, a few students indicated that they still have seen some non-student pet owners and dogs on the main site after the release of the president’s message, although freshman Fling observed, “I have seen a decline in dogs on campus.”

The animal regulations imposed by city’s Department of Health, in association with the mayor’s office, appear to be on Frederick’s side.

Alison Reeves, interim director and public information officer in the office of communications and community relations for DC Health, told The Undefeated, after consultation with the agency’s general counsel, that “the leash law applies to dogs off of their own fenced property. The pet waste laws apply to anyone off of their own property. Whether anyone is or is not allowed on Howard’s campus is a function of whatever rules Howard would have in place and provide notice of to the public. Any person on private property could be considered to be trespassing if not allowed on the property, but that would be up to Howard to enforce.”

Much of this issue between dog owners and students revolves around respect and reverence in the nation’s capital, which now doubles as the Gentrification Capital.

Howard freshman Ahzaria Garris, a criminology major from Norfolk, Virginia, told The Undefeated:

“It’s the principle behind the situation with the dog owners. They don’t interact with us; they don’t even look our way. They seem to keep tunnel vision, minding their business and just hurrying along. If they interacted with us and actually cared about the school, it would be different.”

Simply put, Howard students don’t want their main campus to go to the dogs.