“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit.
You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
I’m here to give thanks. Toni Morrison freed me. She freed me from the burden of wanting to be white. She taught how to put down blue eyes and use my brown ones.
I had promised myself that now that the day had come and Morrison has passed, I would not be afraid. But it is a promise I cannot keep.
Even now, I feel the keyboard rise unevenly against my fingers and my heart feels like a possum trapped in a box. What will people think? They’ll judge me. They’ll pity me. My race card will be snatched. I’ll get canceled. The whole world knows her résumé: Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Princeton professor, speaker of truth. No adjective is too big, and no verb can contain the glory of her oeuvre, the ripple of her effect.
I would no more appreciate Toni Morrison than Harriet Tubman could eulogize the North Star. She, as she says in Song of Solomon, is a woman who could fly. With her words, I can see the mountaintop. She taught me real freedom, freedom of the mind.
Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us — if we have the strength to take it. What did she say in Beloved? They do not love your body. So you have to love it and love it hard.
This is not about being seen — a watered-down approximation of affirmation if ever there was one. We are seen every day and seen wanting, thanks to the economic demands of a scientifically ignorant people who built a sweet land of “liberty” on the backs of other, darker humans. It’s not right to own people. But it seems almost worse to convince yourself and those you enslaved and their descendants that it has something to do with their own inferiority. That’s twisted. Morrison put it back straight.
It can be hard to remember to be free — to remember whose best thing I am.
My world sometimes looks like a series of planks I hammer together in front of me, stepping on the last to hammer the next. But it’s mine, free and clear. There can be long breaks between finishing one board and picking up the next, but Morrison understood that. Her books are full of magic, but there are no magical Negroes.
Examining her loss, I feel as if Morrison has always been with me. The Black Book haunted me with nightmares of what they would do to my brown body if they caught me, Song of Solomon strengthened my mind when I thought being brown was wrong, Beloved soothed my soul when being a brown girl felt worthless and then again when it felt like too much.
Her stories are mine, although the names and details were changed. Here is the spot under my chin where I burned my neck trying to look like Laura Ingalls. This is the elderly Italian woman who works at my local grocery — always eager to tell the white woman ahead of me how to braise her beef but anxious and silent when bagging my groceries. Here’s how I wear Hall & Oates T-shirts in order to short-circuit racial profiling.
Lately, I’d been dwelling on omens. Sullen, murderous days slinking one into another, casting shadows of old terrors. Nine in Charleston, 11 in Pittsburgh, 22 in El Paso, so many more in ones and twos. Earthquakes in pairs. Countless aftershocks.
But Morrison taught me to pity those empty bags of death who think automatic rifles can stop us. She showed me that first at Pilate’s stove and then in the clearing behind Sethe’s house.
My wings hold the shape of her words, and so they cannot fail. I know now that as the shadows gather shape in the wagon to take me back to Sweet Home that I will hold my chin high, pick up the hammer, laugh and say,
Right before the end of Act I of Toni Stone, a new play about the first woman to play in baseball’s Negro Leagues, its company engages in an extended shuck-and-jive routine.
The nine actors, all wearing the uniform of the Indianapolis Clowns, sport wide, ersatz grins as they leap across the stage, each performing some grotesque trick. One juggles, another high-kicks. The team of court jesters does its best to amuse an imaginary crowd of white baseball spectators, most of whom showed up to see the team’s feigned merrymaking and Bojangling in the outfield.
There was some laughter from the mostly white and mostly older audience at the performance I attended at Roundabout Theatre Company. It simmered into nervous titters as it became clear that the routine the Clowns were performing was demeaning, soul-deadening work. An uncomfortable silence fell over the audience. The stadium lights of the set flashed bright for an instant, then went black.
Stone, played by April Matthis, delivered the last word: “Our people always did have a way of turning what matters into something beautiful that touches the soul. We call that laughter and they call that clowning. But you know they know. They know it’s powerful so’s they come back for more of it. But they also know they can’t do it … never mind catch a pop an’ flip back an’ throw it in for the double play. White people think if it’s fun an’ have a certain elegance, it ain’t serious. But they know. Everyone knows they can’t turn what’s practical into something more, the Charleston Slide, the Mississippi slow grind, or the art of making a skill pretty. So they laugh and give us a little bit of money so they keep laughing, but they know it’s powerful and they know that we know what they doin’ to us while we still steady makin’ em laugh.”
When the play resumed after intermission, one of the Clowns, known as King Tut (Phillip James Brannon), broke the fourth wall to address the audience. King Tut tried to smooth over any tension from the show’s unexpected turn toward the team’s resentment of racist fans by addressing it head-on. “Oh, good,” he said. “Thoughta mighta scared you at the bottom of the first.”
In another instance, Stone turns to reassure the audience before lighting into another teammate, Jimmy, while they are all on the bus together. Here’s how it appears in the script:
No … I just called him over here to ask him ’bout his mama.
(to audience) I don’t know Jimmy’s mama. We about to play the dozens. (beat) It’s just a game.
The play is a biographical sketch of Stone, focusing mostly on the ways that she’s an outsider within a group of outsiders. Her male teammates in the Negro Leagues, shut out from the opportunity in the majors, have conversations about what makes a black man like Jackie Robinson suitable to break baseball’s color barrier. Meanwhile, Stone is constantly wrestling with the way her gender impacts how she’s received as a ballplayer, along with expectations about her behavior, hair and style of dress and the roles she and her husband (also the Clowns’ manager) occupy once they’re married.
Stone often faces the audience to explain who she is, what she wants and what she loves to set up scenes from her life. There’s a recurring joke to break up these bits: Stone faces the audience and deadpans, “I’m a little girl” during flashbacks when she is, in fact, a little girl.
But what I kept noticing was how much playwright Lydia R. Diamond had fashioned her play with the white gaze in mind. The show actively talks to an audience it correctly assumes will be majority white, and so it is written in a way to explain elements of black culture that may seem foreign.
Once I realized this was a pattern and not just a one-off, the tic became increasingly grating for a couple of reasons:
1) This sort of narrative hand-holding coddles and enables cultural ignorance on the part of the audience.
2) It tells black audience members that even though they’re watching a show that’s about black people, played entirely by black actors and written by a black playwright, the show isn’t interested in acknowledging its black audience or the knowledge of ourselves that we bring to our own stories.
Considerations about the overrepresentation of whiteness in theater audiences are almost unavoidable because it’s built into the experience of consuming theater in a way that, say, it’s not with television. You can see strangers watching alongside you and their reactions.
So, should playwrights and directors acknowledge this in the work? And if so, how? Three plays running in New York this summer — Toni Stone, Much Ado About Nothing and Fairview — help us focus on those questions.
Toni Stone accommodates its white audience unfamiliar with black traditions. Public Theater’s all-black production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, was utterly unconcerned with explaining Leon’s vision for Beatrice and Benedick. Either you understood the references or you didn’t. Then there’s Fairview, the play that netted Jackie Sibblies Drury the Pulitzer Prize by not just acknowledging the white gaze but also actively challenging it.
I became exasperated with the racial exposition of Toni Stone, but that’s not to say clever ways of acknowledging the whiteness of theater audiences don’t exist. Take, for instance, Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo’, which closed this spring after a run at The Public.
Ain’t No Mo’ starts with a very black funeral taking place in a very black church. It’s Nov. 4, 2008, and within the casket sitting onstage rests not a person but a thing: black people’s right to complain. Or, as the pastor refers to it, “Brother Righttocomplain.”
At one point during an extremely spirited eulogy, Pastor Freeman (Marchánt Davis) begins to lead his congregation in a rather unconventional church shout:
I guess y’all done went to sleep on Pastor Freeman, I-I-I-I-I must be preaching to mySELF this evening cause I ain’t heard a SHOUT yet. I said there ain’t no more tears to be shed because the President is WHAT? Ain’t no more marching in the streets to be heard, because the President is WHAT? Come on and say it, somebody, I can see the spirit doing the Cupid Shuffle in yo chest right now, waiting to rise up and reveal itself as yo true voice. … I want every colored person in this room to turn to yo neighbor and say neighbor … the President is my n—- …… Louder … SAY THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-.
Pastor Freeman would improvise as he bounced from aisle to aisle, among the theater audience turned congregants. “THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-,” the good pastor would holler, raising his arms and making eye contact with the black folks in the audience, encouraging them to join in the shouting. Then a white face would appear in his line of sight. “Not you!”
I practically bellowed with laughter.
Admittedly, my gauge for this sort of thing is heavily influenced by my job, my upbringing and my education. I grew up with a black parent and graduated from a historically black university. I write about culture and race for a site that is mostly trafficked by white readers, but they are not the primary audience I’m addressing. There’s a reason for that distinction. Part of it is simply that not everything is about white people. Even the stuff they can see! But the other part is that getting trapped in a perpetual introductory class of Race Theory 101 becomes rather dull rather quickly. Having to repeatedly pause to explain basic concepts about black culture or about racism eats up time and energy I’d prefer to expend elsewhere. The white gaze doesn’t just assume whiteness is the default. It reorients everything to force that fallacy to be true. It’s indicative of a power imbalance that even in art about black folks, accommodating white ignorance is expected. The fact that Hamilton largely refused to do this was one of the things that made it such a revelation.
These pauses that exist solely to enlighten white people who lead racially blinkered lives have been named “explanatory commas” by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, the hosts of NPR’s Code Switch podcast. One of the problems with Toni Stone is that its explanatory commas feel retrograde. Frankly, after a season that included work such as BLKS, Ain’t No Mo’, Choir Boy and Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing, all of which are steeped in black culture and not particularly interested in justifying or explaining it, I began to take for granted that black artists could make theater about themselves without having to include a pause for white people to catch up.
Leon’s Much Ado, produced for the Free Shakespeare in the Park series, is hammy and energetic and encourages audience interaction and scene-stealing. It’s a rendering of Shakespeare that pays homage to traveling black stage plays.
Everything about its design, from the giant “STACEY ABRAMS 2020” banners that flank the set to the Morehouse maroon of the actors’ costumes to Camille A. Brown’s choreography, screams bougie black contemporary Atlanta. Yet Shakespeare’s text remained the same. There were no signposts in the dialogue to direct you to the inspirations for Leon’s aesthetic decisions. They simply existed.
The thing I appreciated about the lack of explanatory commas was how it rearranged the power dynamic between artist and patron to something more equitable. What Leon did with Much Ado is move the baseline for cultural literacy in the theater audience. There were things about black life that you’re expected to know because it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t. And he did it by pairing it with the words of the most universally known and respected playwright in human history: Shakespeare.
Fairview takes a different approach, running head-on at the white gaze, even during its unconventional curtain call. The play challenges the white gaze by making it a part of the show in a way that highlights how such narcissism spills into the consumption of black art.
Fairview starts out as a conventional-seeming work about a black family celebrating its matriarch’s birthday. But lighting and sound changes in the second act reveal to the seated audience that it’s actually witnessing white people watch a play about black people. The second act is a repeat of the first, except the actors are muted while a soundtrack of unseen white people comments about what’s happening in the plot and their own attitudes about race. Finally, the white people physically inject themselves into the story as if they bought tickets to some sort of blackness immersion theme park ride.
Fairview leaves audiences unable to deny the influence of the white gaze and pushes them to question their own complicity in perpetuating it. Toni Stone seems to have succumbed to it. And Leon’s Much Ado ignores it. Here’s to more art that offers up blackness without apology or explanation, expands definitions of cultural literacy and challenges audiences of all stripes to do the reading.
Jay-Z gathered his thoughts as he sat behind a desk at Roc-A-Fella Records’ headquarters in New York. In a rarely seen 1997 interview, the Brooklyn MC gave a striking answer to a question about what percentage of rappers he believed would still be viable artists a decade later.
“A rapper’s life is like three albums … unless you gon’ endure during the times,” Jay-Z said. “That’s a special case. It’s like 3 to 5% of artists who have a successful career. Crazy, right?”
Jay-Z, at the time, was only a few years removed from drug-dealing as a self-described “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.” A product of post-civil rights movement America (I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died, he’d later rhyme) who came of age during the war on drugs, Jay-Z by 1997 was an independent businessman with a critically acclaimed rap debut in 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. But it’s likely that not even the notoriously confident Jay-Z saw this coming: Two decades after that interview, Jay-Z is hip-hop’s first billionaire.
On Monday, Forbes released a review of the Brooklyn MC’s financial portfolio that concluded Jay-Z’s empire had surpassed the 10-figure plateau. His fortune is spread across a variety of endeavors, including real estate, liquor, music, the streaming platform TIDAL, entertainment company Roc Nation, his art collection and more. The confirmation is both unsurprising — along with Diddy and Dr. Dre, he has long been near the apex of hip-hop’s top earners — and awe-inspiring.
“Here we had this hip-hop industry that everybody sort of wanted to dismiss and thought that it would go away,” said Angel Rich, author of History of the Black Dollar. “It has now turned into the fabric of American society. It’s weaved into every portion of business. We have [another] symbol of that success and what it means in Jay-Z becoming a billionaire.”
At the start of the 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune through black hair. In the middle of the century, John H. Johnson became a mogul with lifestyle publications such as Ebony and Jet. And at the end of the century came the start of Jay-Z’s financial success rooted in black music. All cultivated in America. All tapped into the core of America’s spine, black culture, which has alternately been ignored, chastised and co-opted. All understood the power of the black dollar. These foremothers and forefathers of black wealth in white America were prophytes in The Blueprint MC’s real-life blueprint.
Jay-Z’s original (legal) revenue stream puts the moment in perspective. In a career notable for lyrics as literature and congressional honors, one of Jay-Z’s most recognizable lines is his declaration on Kanye West’s “Diamonds (Remix)”: I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man. The potency is rivaled only by its accuracy. The accumulation of wealth has been a constant narrative in his career. “You know n—as die for equal pay right? You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?” he rhymed in 2015. “You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving/ You know this ain’t back in the days right?”
On 2017’s stellar 4:44, he referenced the history of black wealth and abandonment in “The Story of O.J.” and concluded with the poignant “Legacy.” With daughter Blue Ivy’s innocent inquiry, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Shawn Carter, the patriarch, launches into his explanation while sampling Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”
Take those monies and spread ‘cross families/ My sisters, Hattie and Lou, the nephews, cousins and TT/ Eric, the rest to B for whatever she wants to do/ She might start an institute, she might put poor kids through school.
Jay-Z then turned to his oldest daughter’s future: My stake in Roc Nation should go to you/ Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too.
Success has led to both praise and criticism as well as detailed examinations of his practice of both capitalism and philanthropy. Jay-Z’s financial rise occurred as the income gap between the robustly rich and all other classes has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The word “billionaire” is increasingly viewed as a piece of derogatory lexicon in some circles — even by actual billionaires. But Jay-Z’s black path to entrepreneur and billionaire status distinguishes it from most of his fellow moguls and emphasizes his kinship with his predecessors Walker and Johnson.
For the better part of the decade, Jay-Z, now 49, has taken on the most socially conscious role of his career. And his monetary boasts have evolved. He’ll never apologize for how he amassed his fortune — he never entered the business to stay a starving artist. I ain’t got a billion streams, got a billion dollars, he said on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free.” The 10-figure threshold is a topic of discussion in the Carter household too. We gon’ reach a billi first, he hypothesized on “Family Feud,” also found on 4:44. Generational wealth is a decades-long theme in Jay-Z’s arsenal, dating to 1996’s “Feelin’ It”: If every n—a in your clique is rich, you clique is rugged/ Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.
This largesse has been displayed on a variety of fronts: Paying a considerable chunk of Meek Mill’s legal fees and Lil Wayne’s back taxes. Securing legal representation for 21 Savage’s deportation proceedings. Getting Jabari Talbot’s case dropped; the 11-year-old had refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was subsequently arrested. Covering the cost of college tuition, with Beyoncé, for 11 high school seniors through $100,000 scholarships during the domestic leg of their On The Run II Tour.
A man who doesn’t take care of his family can’t be rich, Jay-Z lamented on “Feud,” paraphrasing The Godfather. That notion gets reinforced in “Legacy.” Generational wealth, that’s the key, he noted. My parents ain’t have s—, so that shift started with me. Given where he started, reaching a billion dollars is an objectively resounding accomplishment and testament to his business acumen. But “Legacy” hits differently given who is touched by Jay-Z’s message and the fruits of his labor. TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSE, I’d like to see/ A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we/ We gon’ start a society within a society/ That’s major, just like the Negro League.
Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it. His story is also the story of the black dollar in America. How it was used to build this country, and how it was manipulated — and worse, destroyed — because of the power and independence it carries.
Looking at Jay-Z today, it’s hard not to think about the young MC who sat in Roc-A-Fella’s offices discussing his plans in an industry often described as cutthroat and soul-draining. A billion dollars isn’t immune to lost friendships along the way — or evidence that he made the right decision every time.
“The genius thing that we did was we didn’t give up,” Jay-Z said years ago.
Some of hip-hop’s most promising thought leaders were murdered on the cusp of their fiscal, creative and business primes. The deaths of B.I.G., Tupac Shakur (his frequent yet spiritual partners in rap’s mythical “greatest of all time” debate) and just recently Nipsey Hussle, with whom Jay-Z shared a particularly close brotherhood that expanded far beyond music, is hauntingly painful.
He is the destiny their fate denied them. That’s why the moment matters far more than the actual figure in Jay-Z’s checking account. A billion-dollar industry that began in the boroughs of New York has been monetized, criticized and immortalized the world over. And now that industry has a billionaire of its own.
It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.
That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.
The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.
“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets
They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast
The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”
Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.
Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.
The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.
But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.
The Plain Brown Rapper
It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.
Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?
The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.
Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”
But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”
As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.
Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”
The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”
Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.
In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.
Triumph of the Will
It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”
The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.
“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”
Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.
His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.
Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.
His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).
This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.
Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”
But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.
Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.
He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”
But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.
His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.
The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”
That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”
Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:
“I believe in God, I believe in destiny
Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined
But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”
He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.
Then he faded from the music scene.
The smartest dude
In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.
Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.
Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.
He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.
“The smartest dude survives the best.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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Join Us for the Celebration of the Life & Legacy of Nipsey Hussle ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Thursday, April 11th 2019 – Staples Center ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ For free tickets & additional info please visit: Staplescenter.com/NipseyHussle
A post shared by Nipsey Hussle (@nipseyhussle) on Apr 8, 2019 at 2:52pm PDT
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.
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.
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A post shared by Lauren London (@laurenlondon) on Apr 2, 2019 at 4:58pm PDT
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
Live in the moment. It’s a motto that many preach and few actually practice. But Dwyane Wade isn’t most people. His season-long #OneLastDance is proof: a case study, actually, in gratitude and the importance of being present. Tuesday night, the icon who took his talents to Miami in 2003, where he has played with the Heat for all but 1½ seasons — takes to the court for his final regular-season home game.
There are two ways to view Wade’s career. One is via the sheer audacity of his accomplishments.
He will have scored more than 23,000 points.
He is a 13-time All Star, and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP.
Wade is a 2008 Olympic Gold medalist and eight-time All-NBA selection.
That he is a three-time All-Defensive selection could have something to do with the fact that, in terms of guards, Wade is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks.
All of which provides context for him being a three-time NBA champion and the 2006 Finals MVP. Wade is quite simply the greatest shooting guard of all time — not named Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
The second way to appreciate Wade is through the prism of the cultural impact he’s had on professional basketball, and on the world around him. There’s his very public journey of fatherhood — including his recent extended paternity leave. Wade as wielding his voice and platform in this new golden era of player social activism. Married to actor, author, and philanthropist Gabrielle Union he is one-half of a power couple with global influence. Wade’s fashion risks and fashion firsts are indelible. And, of course, there is Wade’s critical role in forming and preserving the 2010-14 Miami Heat — the team that unequivocally changed the look, the feel, the style and bravado of NBA basketball ever after.
But now, after 16 campaigns, it’s over. Wade’s farewell has been the NBA’s finest storyline of the 2018-19 season. “This year has allowed me just to play and be free and not really care,” Wade told me in February. “If I score 22, if I score two — I’m enjoying the process … this journey, that I’m ending … It really allows me to live in the moment and just enjoy it all. Normally as an athlete you don’t get to.”
I joined Wade at three of his last NBA games. On March 22, Miami was at Milwaukee, near where he played college ball. As a player, he stepped on court at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the last time on March 30. And then there was his last game at American Airlines Arena on April 9 against Philadelphia. One last ride.
CHAPTER ONE: THE WARM-UP
MILWAUKEE — Now head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, former Marquette Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean has witnessed the legend of Dwyane Wade several times. There was the 2001 31-point explosion against Tennessee in The Great Alaska Shootout. Then there was the victory two nights later against Indiana. But the moment? The one that put an entire country on notice? That’s Feb. 27, 2003, when Wade, Crean and No. 10 Marquette, on the road, defeated No. 11 Louisville.
“[Dwyane] makes a move in front of our bench,” says Crean. “He starts out on a drive so it’s on the left wing, behind the 3-point line. … He gets a dribble out in front of him, he lifts the guy, does a spin dribble, OK?” Excitement rises in Crean’s voice. “[Wade] spin dribbles, shot fakes, lifts the guy and shoots it off the backboard … basically beat three people to the rim.”
Sportscaster Dick Vitale, per usual, couldn’t contain himself. This was the same year high school phenom LeBron James was a one-man sports news cycle. The year Carmelo Anthony’s freshman season at Syracuse was the college hoops storyline. But now a new name was tossed to the hysteria and into one of the best draft classes in NBA history.
And the Miami Heat were anxious to find its next star. “[Everyone in the Heat organization] ended up watching … all of his tournament games to prepare for the draft,” says Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, sitting on the scorers table after shootaround last month. Miami was set to play Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks that night. In 2003, Spoelstra was a Heat coaching assistant. “They were super well-coached,” Spoelstra says. “And Dwyane made you watch that team.”
Walk into the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus and the first face you see is Wade’s. A large portrait commemorating the school’s Final Four run, with Wade as its centerpiece, sits beside Marquette legends such as Bo Ellis, Jim Boykin, Maurice Lucas and Dean Meminger. The 3,700-seat arena is quiet in late March, as both the men’s and women’s teams are at the NCAA tournament. Wade’s presence, though, is everywhere.
There is “M Club” Hall of Fame induction in 2009. His place on the Walk of Champions. A large banner pays him homage in the actual gym. Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey. There’s excitement in the air. Wade and the Heat are coming to town — it’s his last time playing in the city that still claims him as its own.
There’s an upbeat vibe at Fiserv Forum the morning of March 22. The Heat are holding a shootaround as The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s the Same Old Song” bleed into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Maybe it’s a Pat Riley call. He is a child of Motown, after all.
Some players are getting up shots. But Wade’s knees are already iced as he sits courtside behind the basket. Almost directly above him hangs his No. 3 Marquette jersey. He’s having fun talking to the media, and he smiles when the Ja Morant comparisons come up. A day earlier, Morant dropped a triple-double (as Wade did in ’03, and as only eight others have done in the NCAA tournament) in Murray State’s first-round win over, poetically, Marquette. “He’s special for real,” Wade said. “[He] definitely gave me flashbacks.”
Wade’s eyes glisten when I mention the name Gaulien “Gee” Smith. He’s owner of Gee’s Clippers Barber and Beauty Salon on Milwaukee’s Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where Wade got his hair cut while in college. Gee, who has cut the hair of more than 200 NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, recalls Wade as a soft-spoken, respectful guy whom he held out as special. “I told him [at Skybox Sports Bar across the street],” Gee says, “ ‘Man, I knew you would be great. But I’ma be honest with you, I had no idea you would be who you are today.’ ” Wade beams at the memory.
Udonis Haslem, who entered the NBA in 2003 with Wade, returns to the court and looks over at Wade, whom he considers more than a brother. “This is … the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Haslem. “I’m living through him and his happiness. I’m enjoying all this as a friend. Real friends enjoy seeing their friends happy.”
Heat fans have piled into the Bucks’ home arena to watch the Eastern Conference’s top squad play the Heat. The past 20 years of Wade’s basketball life are on people’s chests and backs: Marquette jerseys, Olympic jerseys, Chicago Bulls jerseys, even a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. But overwhelmingly it’s about that Heat No. 3 jersey in all of its hues.
Fans Felix and Linda have made the 80-mile trek from the capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee for the moment. “This is his home! Even though he’s in Miami for now,” Linda says, not even trying to hide her sarcasm. “He’ll always be welcome here.”
“It means a lot to see him in his last game here,” says Felix. “The things he does in the community off the court outweighs what he does on the court. Everybody knows he’s a great player, but he’s also a great human being. That’s the sad part about seeing him hanging up his sneakers.”
It’s a common sentiment at Fiserv all night. Midway through the first quarter, during a timeout, highlights of Wade’s March Madness run splash across the JumboTron and elicit a standing ovation. “This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”
When Wade checks in with 4:41 left in the first, an even louder ovation erupts. Wade’s 12 points, though, do little to prevent the inevitable: The Heat — in a royal rumble with Orlando, Brooklyn and Detroit for three of the East’s final three seeds — lose 116-87. But the moment was bigger than the game. Both Milwaukee All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, swapped jerseys with Wade after the game. His who’s who of jersey swappers this year includes LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and others.
“He is definitely a mentor, somebody I watch from afar,” Middleton said after the game. “[He’s] one of my favorite players growing up. Still one of my favorite players to this day.”
In the locker room, Wade sits on a chair with his shirt off and a gold chain around his neck with a throng of reporters around him. “I have no regrets,” he says of his farewell tour. Those who came out to see him don’t have regrets either. Pride is mixed with sorrow. Honor is in bed with sadness.
“I just know,” Linda says, “I’ma miss him.”
Crean, Wade’s coach at Marquette, has a theory about why the star’s connection to the area runs so deep. It’s not about the highlights, or the notoriety both men brought to Marquette in the early 2000s. It’s not even about what they did in the spring of 2003. It’s about the soul of a man.
“He never, ever stopped caring about Marquette or Milwaukee even after [we] left,” Crean says. “It never stopped being his home. It never stopped being his school. … He’s incredibly loyal to his friends, his family, his community. … He gets it.”
PART TWO: DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY
NEW YORK — It didn’t take long for Wade to have his first Madison Square Garden moment. Or, in other words, rip the hearts out of New York Knicks fans. The date was March 15, 2005, and with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the 49-16 Heat were tied at 96 with the 26-35 Knicks.
Double-teamed by Stephon Marbury and Kurt Thomas, Wade (then known as “Flash” in his second NBA season) turned the ball over, giving the Knicks a chance at pulling off the upset. Thomas missed a baseline jumper, allowing Wade to pull down his third and final rebound of the game — thus setting him up for the final shot. Moments later, Wade called for iso far beyond the top of the key. A hard drive left. A vicious step-back jumper. Nothing but the bottom of the net. Heat win 98-96.
The Heat’s shootaround takes place at NYC’s Basketball City. It sits on the East River with a clear view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the Statue of Liberty. Some players are getting shots up. Others have side conversations with coaches. The energy is calm and inviting as media types surround Wade. He’s wearing a black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.
“Besides playing at home, [Madison Square Garden] is my favorite place to play,” Wade says. “It’s a lot of great arenas in the NBA, but there’s something about MSG that’s … special. … Heat Nation is strong here, so we always have a home crowd kinda feel. It’s the lights. It’s the way the floor is lit. It’s everything.”
Wade is balancing reflection and being in the moment. The night is largely about him — he’s the third-leading active non-Knick scorer at MSG, behind LeBron James and Vince Carter. Yet, for Wade, the night is more about the playoff push. The Heat at the time were still clawing for their postseason lives — and, at press time, still are. Wade is as mild-mannered as they come in the NBA, but it’s clear that questions about Knicks coach and close friend Dave Fizdale’s ability to lead his team out of a perpetual state of rebuilding begins to annoy him. Wade’s professional career began in the Garden at the 2003 NBA draft, but in March 2019 at MSG, he had not retired yet.
Much like in Milwaukee, and at other stops this season, droves of fans arrive in Wade-associated paraphernalia. One such Heat fan, sporting the statement pink Wade jersey, walks around a concourse in full Braveheart mode, high-fiving and hugging any other Heat fan he sees. “Let’s go Heat!” he belts out. “Let’s go Wade!”
Other fans couldn’t let Wade leave New York without saying goodbye.
“I’ve only seen him once,” says New Jersey native and die-hard Wade fan Ahmed Doumani. “I can’t have him retire without seeing him again.”
Celebrities also pile up at MSG for Wade. Tennis great John McEnroe, actor John Turturro, New York Jets Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and Kansas City Chiefs MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes are all in attendance. The most important courtside seat though, as it relates to Wade, is that of his wife, Gabrielle Union.
“It’s so nice to see him appreciate [this final season],” Union said during an in-game interview. “They say give people their flowers while they can still appreciate it, and the NBA has just done a tremendous job [of that].”
Midway through the first, Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude is gargantuan. Hairs rise on the back of necks. Goose bumps have nothing to do with the air conditioning. Fizdale, who spent eight seasons as an assistant and associate head coach in Miami, paid homage to his former player from the Jumbotron and had more to say after the game.
“I’ve learned more from him than he has from me, for sure,” Fizdale said. “When he says he’s your friend, he’s going to be there for you. He’s been there for me every step of the way. He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.”
Every time Wade touched the ball at MSG, the crowd cheered. He received “MVP” chants when he went to the free throw line — perhaps the lone accomplishment not on his career portfolio. The Knicks offense stalled in the second, allowing Miami to push ahead for good. This allowed Knicks fans to focus on what’s really important.
“Thank you, D-Wade, for whooping our a– one more time!” one fan behind press row yelled. “We’re one step closer to Zion [Williamson]!”
Wade finished with 16 points and seven assists in a 100-92 victory — although the crowd would’ve much rather preferred for it to be 18 points. A called offensive foul on Wade in a missed alley-oop drew the biggest boos of the night — from Heat and Knicks fans. After the game, hundreds of fans stuck around to take in Wade’s final moments in the Garden. New York has never had an issue with telling opponents off. It’s an unforgiving fan base. But if the city respects you, they’ll love you forever.
“Gotta pay respect,” a Knicks fan says, patting his young son on the head, “to one of the GOATs.”
Chants of “One more year!” ride shotgun with “D-Wade!” And as a shoeless Wade finally runs off the court, he’s showered with one last ovation. Inside the locker room, Wade, in a pink “Play Make Her” hoodie (a fund launched by the Entertainment Industry Foundation to empower women in the sports industry) is looking forward to summing up the night.
“I’ll be here, I’m sure, a few other times in my life. But as a player … it’s your last time, you just enjoy it,” he says. “The fans staying around after was so cool. You expect that at home, but on the road you don’t expect it.”
As the locker room clears, Wade is smiling. It’s almost over. He taps me on my shoulder. He’s seen me at many of these stops. “See you in the next city, bro.” He takes pictures with two kids — one in a Heat jersey and another in a Knicks jersey. Then he’s off into the New York night, hand in hand with Union, as hundreds of fans wait near the team bus hoping for one last glimpse of a legend.
PART THREE: VICTORY LAP
MIAMI — “Feed him the rock,” the man says, a grin overtaking the real estate of his face. Decked in a white Wade jersey and Miami Heat hat, he takes a couple of pulls from his cigarette and carries on with another guy doing the same. “He can beat Kobe’s 60.Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”
Miami knew this day would come. Erik Spoelstra made a vow to Wade (and to himself) at Wade’s home last summer when he learned this would be the superstar’s final run. “I just wanted to enjoy all these moments and be present. Not think about when it’s over, or next year,” the Heat head coach said. “I wanted to [do] everything we could to make sure it was as he imagined.”
Dwyane Wade’s final home game was the topic around the city all day Tuesday. Miami is fiercely protective of Wade, and for a certain generation of south Florida sports fans, Wade is not just one of the greats. He’s the greatest.
“For really anyone 40 and under, he’s the symbol of sports excellence in Miami,” says columnist and 5ReasonsSports.com podcast host Alphonse Sidney. “We’re too young for the 1972 Dolphins. We were in elementary school or not alive even when [Dan] Marino was elite. We’ve seen two Marlins championships, but we never really had a chance to fawn over those teams because as soon as we won the championship they were gone.” He pauses momentarily. “When it comes to elite athleticism, elite players, superstars who are a symbol of a team and a community, it’s Dwyane Wade and really no one else.”
“Dwyane Wade represents us Miamians in a way no other South Florida sports figure has,” says Maria Cabré, head of operations at J Wakefield Brewing. “He [just] gets it — a balance of humility and ego and forward thinking yet rooted in tradition. [Miami] will always be his home.”
Inside American Airlines Arena is a celebration fit for a king. “L3GACY” shirts are placed on every seat in the arena — which is filled long before tip off. Dwyane Wade highlights run in an unapologetic loop on any and every screen. The entire arena chants for some 10 minutes before tipoff.
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
There are clips and voiceovers from Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Gabrielle Union. A deafening roar erupts when Pat Riley declares, “This will be Wade County forever!”
On a night defined by emotions and immortalized by beauty, Wade’s oldest son Zaire introduced his father in a moment best described as surreal. “That one almost got me,” Wade quipped in a hallway after the game.
Following roughly 20 minutes of pre-game Wade-themed nostalgia, and a speech from the man of the hour, an actual basketball game took place. Though it was more like glorified scrimmage with the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly content with having the best seat in the house for Wade’s final Florida farewell. Spoelstra said following the game the decision to start Wade was a “no brainer.”
And, fittingly, with Chris and Adrienne Bosh, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Tim Hardaway and more courtside and nearby, the first bucket of the game was a dunk from No. 3. Everything Wade did Tuesday night — scoring, assists, rebounds, waves to the crowd — elicited thundering ovations. Everyone was soaking up the moment, even those in press row.
During timeouts, the video tributes continued. Derek Jeter’s was booed. NBA commissioner Adam Silver saluted Wade, telling him Springfield, Massachusetts was his next stop. As did his mother (Jolinda), father (Dwyane Sr.), sister (Tragil) and nephew (Dahveon). “You’ve given me the biggest gift you could ever give any of your fans,” Gabrielle Union says in hers. “Your heart.” Zaire returned on screen to thank his father for giving him a blueprint for how to live life both on and away from the court. His youngest son Zion, who participated in the Miami Beach Pride march on Sunday, had but one request for his dad. “Don’t lose your last home!” The biggest ovation was reserved for President Barack Obama. Via video he saluted Wade for a career well-played.
“Now, I know what you’re going through because saying goodbye to a career that you love is never easy. I’ve been there,” Obama said. “In my case though, I didn’t really have a choice. My knees were shot so I had to give up basketball forever.”
News about Magic Johnson stepping away from the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t derail what was instantly one of the most special nights in South Florida history, and the Detroit Pistons’ comeback victory over Memphis, officially eliminating the Heat from the playoffs, didn’t dampen a parade 16 seasons in the making. A truly special sequence in the fourth quarter soon ignites. The game was already decided. The crowd had already erupted into another “We want Wade!” chant. Then Wade and fellow Miami favorite Udonis Haslem checked into the game together.
Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time. A turnaround fadeaway from nine feet. Then a three pointer that turned the arena on its collective head in euphoria. Then another three pointer. Then a 23-foot step back jumper that prompted his wife Gabrielle Union to slap him on the butt as he ran by. And then three minutes later, another three.
All in all, Dwyane Wade closed out his career with 30 points, including 14 in the final frame. And the 20,153 in attendance managed to squeeze in “Paul Pierce sucks” chant for good measure.
As the clock ran to triple zeros, the moment had finally set in. An era was over. Wade saved his most personal jersey exchanges for last. He swapped jerseys with his entire team. Then Zaire. The most personal swap was with No. 11 Heat jersey with “Hank” on the back. This was a homage to Henry Thomas, D-Wade’s late agent who became far more than just that over the course of his career. Wade credited Thomas, who passed away from neuromuscular disease in 2018, for molding him into the man he became after leaving Marquette.
“Wade County,” Dwyane said to the hundreds of fans who stayed long after the final whistle blew, “I love you.”
Following the final press conference of his career in Miami, Wade, in a red suit and sneakers, holding his daughter, left the building — no shirt under the blazer. Friends and family members follow him as he shows his daughter pictures of himself on the wall. Union soon joins them. This is how Wade wanted it to end. On his own terms celebrating with those he loves most.
It feels like just yesterday that he, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were covering Sports Illustrated with the tagline “The New Era.” And now, Dwyane Wade is no longer in the NBA. Wade valued his career. And he walked out of American Airlines Arena at close to midnight one final time knowing that an entire fanbase, an entire city — and an entire generation — did, as well.