Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

John Singleton was Hollywood’s first hip-hop director The success of the creative voice behind ‘Boyz n the Hood’ was a game changer in Hollywood

His first film is an era-defining classic, a movie that helped shape so much black cinema of the 1990s. He cast rappers from Ice Cube to 2Pac to Andre 3000 in serious, dramatic roles that didn’t just trade on their personas but afforded them an opportunity to expand on and/or subvert those personas. No disrespect to luminaries such as Spike Lee and Keenen Ivory Wayans, but John Singleton was truly Hollywood’s first hip-hop director.

So much was made of Singleton’s youth when the 23-year old director’s buzzed-about first film Boyz n the Hood became the talk of Hollywood in 1991. Singleton began making the movie fresh out of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, ultimately calling the experience his “grad school” and learning on the fly the do’s and don’ts of filmmaking. The result was a riveting look at the community that had raised him, told through the eyes of a guy not much older than the high school kids Tre, Ricky and Doughboy who sat central in his tale. Singleton would famously earn Oscar noms for his screenwriting and directing.

His age wasn’t inconsequential and, almost 30 years later, it signifies part of why Singleton’s work was singularly important. Directors such as Lee, Wayans and Robert Townsend were a decade older than Singleton, and their affinities belied an older generation; nods to ’70s blaxploitation, ’60s soul and the civil rights era abounded in their work of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Singleton was of the age to have grown up in the shadow of hip-hop and President Ronald Reagan, and that sensibility was prevalent in his work early on and would inform it for the remainder of his career.

Singleton’s coming-of-age classic Boyz n the Hood was a new kind of voice — even among a wave of assertive black directors. Eschewing Lee’s self-consciously “arty” flourishes for a straightforward style he indebted to American Graffiti, Singleton presented his version of the Gen X black experience. This was the story of the kids who’d been raised in the post-Watts riots world, the post-crack epidemic world. Boyz was an unpretentious look at growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the community at the heart of notorious news headlines and hip-hop’s most polarizing supergroup, N.W.A. Singleton gave that world the layers and depth it deserved at a time when outsiders were still largely viewing Compton, California, youths through red and blue stereotypes.

Singleton was of the age to have grown up in the shadow of hip-hop and President Ronald Reagan, and that sensibility was prevalent in his work early on and would inform it for the remainder of his career.

Boyz n the Hood was the harbinger of a wave of “growin’ up in the ’hood” movies that would hit theaters over the next three years, but Singleton, still only in his early 20s, sought to tell a different story with the follow-up. 1993’s Poetic Justice dared to center a woman’s journey in an era when so much of the urban experience was being relayed through the eyes of young black men. With pop superstar Janet Jackson as the sensitive poet coping with the violence of her surroundings, Singleton offered a broader rendering of a generation suddenly at the center of so much culture and concern. No filmmaker documented the hip-hop generation’s coming-of-age more succinctly than John Singleton.

It’s not hard to see how influential Boyz, in particular, was on what followed: the popularity of “ ’hood movies” throughout the early 1990s, the almost standard casting of rappers in prominent dramatic roles. Singleton’s success served as a template for the Hughes brothers, Rusty Cundieff and others who came to the fore in the next few years. Of course, Singleton’s emergence coincided with a surge among black voices in mainstream Hollywood. On the heels of Lee’s late-1980s breakthrough, the early ’90s teemed with possibilities, as Lee forged a path for director-driven auteurism with films such as Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues and established stars such as Eddie Murphy blazed a path for box-office visibility with crowd-pleasers such as the Reggie Hudlin-directed Boomerang.

Boyz n the Hood, the 1991 coming-of-age classic written and directed by John Singleton (right) and starring Ice Cube (left), was a new kind of voice — even among a wave of assertive black directors.

Photo by Pool ARNAL/GARCIA/PICOT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Singleton branched off into all kinds of projects, directing the acclaimed music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” in 1992. And his storytelling expanded with each subsequent film: 1995’s Higher Learning attempted to look at race relations via the microcosm of a major American university, and the 1997 period piece Rosewood peeled back the layers on an ugly episode in America’s racist history. 2001’s Baby Boy was a return to the communities he’d always known so well, albeit with a scrutinizing lens that belied how much he’d grown in his commentary in the decade since Boyz n the Hood.

In the 2000s, Singleton’s creative output became more varied and somewhat less definitive. He scored a major box-office hit with 2004’s revenge drama Four Brothers, once again teaming with artists turned actors in Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson and Andre 3000. And, as if reaffirming the potency of telling the hip-hop generation’s stories, he produced gritty urban films such as Hustle & Flow and Illegal Tender. His move to television projects remained undeniably Singleton, from his work on Empire to his acclaimed series Snowfall. And he challenged Hollywood to cultivate black voices that can tell black stories, railing against the idea that white storytellers all too often are given the reins of black history and experience.

“They feel that they’re not racist,” he told The Hollywood Masters in 2014, referring to white gatekeepers in contemporary Hollywood. “They grew up with hip-hop, so [they] can’t be racist. ‘I like Jay-Z, but that don’t mean I got to give you a job.’ ” The previous year, Singleton praised projects such as The Butler and Fruitvale Station as “a number of films helmed by African American directors that raise the bar and also many questions concerning the industry’s historical outlook on what is commercial and what isn’t.”

The success of Singleton’s creative voice was a game changer; it was a generational and cultural push into both Hollywood’s mainstream and black cinema’s more rarefied corners. He made movies for a generation that understood the ideals of the civil rights generation but didn’t always feel beholden to them. His movies could be as brash, and as hopeful, as a great rap album. He demanded accountability in the industry and commanded your attention in his storytelling. With news of Singleton’s passing, we’re losing a huge part of contemporary Hollywood’s soul and black Hollywood’s legacy. But his success forged a path that the Ryan Cooglers and Ava DuVernays now walk — Cali kids who broke through telling stories their way. For almost three decades, Singleton gave us a map to follow.

Thanks, John.

John Singleton’s storytelling legacy will live on for generations to come As the first black filmmaker nominated for best director at the Oscars, Singleton helped pave the way in Hollywood

Perhaps John Singleton’s biggest contribution to popular culture isn’t the gripping, relatable portrait that is his 1991 instant classic Boyz n the Hood. It’s that he introduced so many talented players to the Hollywood cinema landscape — both on camera and behind the scenes.

Director John Singleton attends A Conversation With John Singleton: Celebrating 25 Years of Boyz n the Hood at The Gathering Spot on Aug. 23, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

That film, in all its glory, was a first for so many significant voices in this industry. It was Ice Cube’s first film. Regina King’s first film. Morris Chestnut’s first film. It gave Angela Bassett and Cuba Gooding Jr. their first major film roles. And, as Singleton excitedly quipped before giving a pound to a nearby friend as he watched the 2019 Academy Awards telecast from the Dolby Theatre bar earlier this year, it was Peter Ramsey’s first. When Ramsey, who collected an Oscar for SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse, stood up onstage to accept his accolade, Singleton rushed to the TV monitor and quieted most of the people around him (celebrities included) and hooted and hollered at the appropriate moments. It was the second time that night that someone from Boyz got up on Hollywood’s biggest stage (King picked up the first award of the night for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk) and collected the town’s most beloved token.

He was a proud papa that night, as he should have been.

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This is where it all started. The Genesis – The Genius – The Genre Maker/Star Maker (Taraji P. Henson, Ice Cube, Tyrese Gibson, Lawrence Fishburne, Regina King,Nia Long, Angela Basset, Cuba Gooding, Jr. – in no particular order as these are all great actors/actresses). John Singleton gave me a chance. When I left the audition for "Boyz N' The Hood" as he shook my hand, he gave me a stronger grip than normal and looked me in the eye. I felt he was basically giving me a signal that I had the job without telling me. From there, there was no comprehension of the massive chain of events that were about to follow. People from all over the world literally tell me how they’re affected by Boyz ‘N The Hood. The magnitude and world-wide impact that his ground-breaking film would have for society cannot be measured. Helping to bring awareness of what it takes to come to maturity as a black male in the 'Hood, or die trying… Helping to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced. Dealing with challenges and adversity in life and in general. From that lesson, for anyone who watches Boyz N’ The Hood, we are able to learn a little more about ourselves and each other. Hopefully, we are able to grow, evolve and gain a deeper love and understanding of our humanity. John Singleton, thank you for your vision. Thank you for holding my hand a little stronger. Thank you for connecting with me and thank you for connecting me to history. Thank you for connecting and transcending generations, nationalities, nations, races, communities, societies. Thank you, John Singleton, for connecting us all. #RIP #JohnSingleton

A post shared by Morris Chestnut (@morrischestnutofficial) on Apr 29, 2019 at 12:36pm PDT

Since his own nomination at the 1992 Academy Awards, Singleton has been a constant presence at Hollywood’s big to-do. At 24 years old, his dynamic portrayal of South Central Los Angeles — and, if we’re being honest here, Any ‘Hood USA — was rightly acknowledged. He didn’t walk away with a win that night all those years ago, but he walked away with something much bigger: an important voice as a storyteller and a person who accurately portrayed familiar situations that were at times, yes, tragic — like young Ricky Baker, who was moments away from landing a football scholarship to better his family when he was senselessly gunned down.

Moments like those, and the talent, were epic.

Sadly, this year would be his last Academy Awards ceremony. On Monday, Singleton died at 51 after suffering a major stroke, a family rep told TMZ.

Yes, his legacy will live on — for generations to come. The gifts that he leaves behind are rich. Singleton, at 24, was the first black filmmaker nominated for the best director Oscar and the youngest. He paved a way. Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and Spike Lee have since been nominated.

A win for best director by a black person has yet to happen.

Cuba Gooding Jr. (left) and filmmaker John Singleton (right) attend the 32nd annual Television Critics Association Awards on Aug. 6, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California. Gooding was one of the stars of Boyz n the Hood, which was directed by Singleton in 1991.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

But the loss didn’t deter Singleton one bit. He wrote and directed 1993’s Poetic Justice, the iconic pairing of Janet Jackson and rapper Tupac Shakur (which also gave King a co-starring role). The 1995 movie Higher Learning rounded out back-to-back films, this one putting Ice Cube (who was beginning to break out big post-Boyz) on a college campus with King, Tyra Banks, Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Rapaport, among others, and highlighted clashes, date rape, racism and the student-athlete struggle.

Singleton’s train didn’t slow down.

He also directed films Rosewood (1997); Shaft (2000); Baby Boy (2001), which introduced us to Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson; 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003); and Four Brothers (2005).

And as much as Singleton has done, it felt like he was only just beginning.

This was not the way Singleton’s story was supposed to end. Most recently, the creator threw us back to 1983, where he homed in on how the crack epidemic has culturally impacted Los Angeles with his most excellent series for FX, Snowfall, which was renewed just last year for a third season.

Singleton had more to give. And he — like Gooding, King, Ramsey, Bassett and Henson, now all Oscar winners or Oscar-nominated actors to whom he helped give a leg up — deserved more time to put out a project that allowed him to get up on that big stage, thank the appropriate people and take a bow.

Singleton had more to give. And he — like Gooding, King, Ramsey, Bassett and Henson, now all Oscar winners or Oscar-nominated actors to whom he helped give a leg up — deserved more time to put out a project that allowed him to get up on that big stage, thank the appropriate people and take a bow.

At times like these, we often kick ourselves for not handing out flowers to people who deserved them. Certainly, the Hollywood voting body failed Singleton, considering his contributions beyond just the culture. His cinematic landscapes have been plentiful, layered and, in many cases, excellent. But perhaps he was OK with where his impact really mattered: in having a vote to cast for the past 27 years — long before April Reign’s viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which opened the door for other people of color to have a say in what Hollywood’s best work should be — and in having that sharp eye for good and, yes, black talent.

And truthfully, considering how excited he was as we high-fived one another in the little room off the lobby — the place where for the past 12 or so years I’d get up out of my seat and gather to watch the Oscars and would see him there every year as well; and as Ramsey’s name was called, I reminded him that a win for King (his former USC classmate) and Ramsey and all the others he helped to hone also was a win for him — I think he got it.

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

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

— Nipsey Hussle, “Blueprint” (2016)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

All Get Right” (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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

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

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

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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

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


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

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

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

Instagram Photo

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stylist and sneaker designer Aleali May on Jordans, Maya Moore, Kawhi — and California love ‘Girls have always been sneakerheads … but we’re starting to get noticed, and it’s just the beginning’

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “When I got a Jordan, we all got a Jordan,” Aleali May told a crowd of sneakerheads at 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend. The we whom the 26-year-old stylist and fashion consultant was referencing? Women.

When May, who has more than 340,000 Instagram followers, collaborated with the Jordan Brand in 2017, she became the first woman to design and drop a unisex sneaker. After she worked for both Louis Vuitton and Virgil Abloh’s Chicago RSVP Gallery, May’s stylish and megapopular “Shadow Satin” Air Jordan 1 paid homage to her South Central Los Angeles roots. The shoe also paved the way for her to team up with four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore, the first female basketball player to sign with the Jordan Brand.

“As far as my style, it’s definitely a mix between streetwear and luxury.”

In December, the women’s-exclusive Maya Moore x Aleali May Court Lux collection was released, featuring new designs of two shoes: Moore’s favorite silhouette, the Air Jordan 10, and May’s second take on the Air Jordan 1.

Through a partnership with eBay during All-Star Weekend, May donated pairs from the Court Lux collection to be sold, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting Project Fit, a charitable organization dedicated to encouraging kids to live an active and healthy lifestyle. The shoes were displayed at a pop-up gallery in Charlotte called The Vault, where May interacted with a group of sneaker enthusiasts and signed pairs for women wearing her Air Jordan 1s. The Undefeated caught up with May to talk personal style, working with legends — and her all-time fave eBay steal.

How long have you been collecting?

My uncle has been buying them from me since I was a little girl and I ain’t know what Jordans was. He was in high school, so he was like, ‘I’m fresh … my niece about to be fresh … we gon’ be fresh together.’ I probably really started collecting when I was in high school because you used to come to school with all the fresh s—. You either had the Jordans or you don’t. So I got my first little job at 16. I was like, ‘I’m gonna spend my money at Foot Locker and Finish Line.’ That’s how it worked. But eBay had such a great platform because you could pick so much from it. I think that was the first place where we were seeing things for resale … Jordans or designer.

What’s the best pair of shoes you’ve ever found on eBay?

Black Cat Air Jordan 4s. I found them a couple years ago. … I actually gotta get them redone because the bottom opened up, but that was a really good find. I got them for, like, $160 in my size. I was like, ‘Ohhh, this is great!’ That’s the best part. You find grails and they’re for a really good price and in your size, that’s rare.

How often are you on eBay?

Honestly, I was on it the day before yesterday … I was looking up vintage Chanel. As far as my style, it’s definitely a mix between streetwear and luxury. A lot of times when I am looking for key luxury pieces, it’s gonna be stuff that’s old, and eBay is the first place I go.

Instagram Photo

What’s your grail sneaker?

That’s hard when you have, like, 300 pairs in your closet. I’d probably just say my Black Cat 4s … and the white and forest green 4s. Really like Air Jordan 4s, 8s, 1s. I do have a couple pair of 1985 Air Jordan 1s. When you have shoes older than you, that pretty much solidifies what grail means.

What was it like working on your first Air Jordan 1 collaboration?

That was crazy. It was one meeting in Portland — actually, eight meetings in a day, back to back to back. It was amazing because they were really like, ‘What do you want to do? … What silhouette?’ I was scared. I didn’t wanna say it … but I was like, ‘Jordan 1 … that is what I wear.’ It’s just such a grail shoe. They asked me what I wanted to do with it, and I said, ‘Corduroy … you know, like the Slauson swap meet slippers.’ I just really wanted to incorporate my city in the shoe and be able to represent that because I felt like L.A., we didn’t have our own Jordan. The process was just amazing. They were open to the idea and the story. I had no idea it was gonna take off the way it did.

And what was the goal for your Court Lux collection with Maya Moore?

The first one was more like the young Aleali, who grew up in South Central. A girl who made it out of the ’hood. The second one highlighted what defined Aleali’s style. You know when you’re in your high school years, a lot of those times you’re like, ‘Who am I?’ … My whole deal was when you had people like Pharrell putting together high-end fashion and streetwear, it was always colorful. I took inspiration from the Viotech Dunk and put it on a Jordan 1 for the ladies. Switched it up. I added a fur tongue that’s removable, wanted people to take my story and add their own to it. And Maya Moore had the Air Jordan 10. It was the first women’s pack. We just really wanted to represent both sides: fashion and basketball. That’s what a Jordan is. These worlds coming together, and two women representing.

What’s your relationship like with Maya?

When we first met, it was … natural. It was the launch for a women’s line. We came in there and it was just like, ‘Yup! Yup!’ … Two women really doing it in their own respective fields. That’s what it’s about, bridging these worlds. With this collaboration, I gained so many fans of Maya’s and vice versa. We’re opening up each other’s worlds to others. She’s just really cool. I’m just happy to be in a room with two GOATs, Jordan and Maya.

Instagram Photo

Maya decided to sit out the 2019 season to pursue ministry — how important do you think that decision was to her?

She’s gonna go for it, and no matter what, she’s gonna be undefeated. She already has so many titles. … No matter what, people are going to support her. I really support her.

Who’s the coolest person you’ve seen wearing one of your pairs?

Kawhi Leonard … he had the first ones on. And it’s because he’s from California, and that’s superpersonal for me. I just like how he doesn’t really talk. He’s very low-key. I’m not really the most outgoing person, but my clothes speak for themselves. I feel like, with him wearing those on the sidelines, that just spoke so much about him. Here’s a dude from California, reppin’ the wave. You barely hear anything from him, but he chose to wear my shoe that night. He knows.

“When you have shoes older than you, that pretty much solidifies what grail means.”

What’s next for you sneakerwise?

I’m just trying to represent women in streetwear, women in footwear design, and just those young girls out there who are like, ‘I grew up in a place like South Central. How can I do it too?’

How important is it to illuminate the fact that women are sneakerheads just like men?

It’s natural for a girl to like a pair of shoes, no matter if it’s a heel or a sneaker … and be like, ‘I want to collect these.’ The recognition is the part that’s new. We’ve always been sneakerheads … but we’re starting to get noticed, and it’s just the beginning.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III embraces himself fully as a rapper, a villain , and a black man with albinism The MC-turned-actor portrays Tobias Whale in the CW’s ‘Black Lightning’  

A supervillain who has the lyrical chops to keep up with your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper? That’s Marvin “Krondon” Jones III for ya. Hailing from South Central Los Angeles, he’s a longtime member of the California hip-hop collective Strong Arm Steady. Throughout his career has written for artists including Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Xzibit. And now he has a lead role in The CW’s Black Lightning, inspired by the DC Comics series.

Jones portrays politician-turned-crime boss Tobias Whale, who serves as the leader of a gang called The 100. In the made-up city of Freeland, Jefferson Pierce, aka Black Lightning, is the hero, and Whale is his antagonist — a character Jones brings to life via his powerful voice that bellows over top of his thick red beard. A characteristic Jones shares with the Whale is that both men are African-American with albinism, a rare genetic condition affecting 1 in 20,000 in the United States. Jones completely embraces his rareness. Before the wrap of season one of Black Lightning, The Undefeated spoke with Jones about the moment he got the call to audition for Tobias Whale, his favorite musical artists, past and present, the plight of Colin Kaepernick and the experience of being a black man in America with albinism.


How were you approached for the role of Tobias Whale?

I was working on a solo album with a friend of mine, Evidence of Dilated Peoples … Next thing you know, I get a call … and I have this role in my email. I’m asked to come in and audition for it. I was completely taken aback by the whole thing. I did some research on the comic book characters of Black Lightning and Tobias Whale. I went in and did what I was supposed to do. By the grace of the God, thankfully, I was called back … and told I got the part and that my life was gonna change. It’s true. My life has changed totally.

Were you aware that there was an African-American villain in DC Universe with albinism?

I wasn’t at all aware. I quickly became aware, once I was asked about the role, and was blown away. I didn’t think because the character had albinism that I was gonna just be handed the role. I know I looked the part. I know I was a slimmer, sexier version of the comic book character Tobias Whale. But I didn’t think it was a given.

“I was told I got the part and that my life was gonna change. And it’s true. My life has changed totally.”

What’s the most rewarding part about being an African-American man with albinism?

The ability to see the world through racial ambiguity. I’m a black man with albinism. I’m completely African-American, I’m completely African, I’m completely black — whatever you wanna call it. I grew up in the ghettos of South Central, Los Angeles. I have a black mother, father, grandmother and grandfather. But from afar — or even close up — I do not appear black at all in terms of physical features. My skin tone is that of a very pale Caucasian man, who cannot tan for the most part … So I see the world from both sides of the fence. I live in the black experience, but at the same time I understand the invalid idea that color decides who a man is … Another thing is, any room I walk in, 99.9 percent of the time, no one else looks like me. I’m a completely unique individual, able to create my own attention and attraction.

Aside from Tobias Whale, who are your top three most intimidating villains in history?

The Joker is one of my favorite all time villains by far … I would say Scarface, but he wasn’t a villain when I really think about his story. I have a human understanding of Scarface … Nino Brown from New Jack City, for sure … And then it’s a tie between Jules Winnfield and Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Who’s better than Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction when it comes to a villain? He created the blueprint.

Who were your biggest musical influences growing up in South Central?

Of course, Ice Cube. He was the Shakespeare of my era. Through his N.W.A. catalog and his first three albums, his writings were like plays. Metallica … I had an opportunity when I was touring with Xzibit to perform with them in Europe … That was a big highlight of my career because growing up in South Central in the ’80s crack era, which my family was affected by, Metallica’s music was like a babysitter to me — Master of Puppets, Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, … And Justice for All were like my nannies. I sent a lot of time in the house alone, watching television, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eating cereal for dinner … And I say that proudly, because it made me who I am. Cube, N.W.A. and Metallica showed me much about myself and life, and gave me a voice as a writer. They gave me a dream … Also, Public Enemy, X-Clan, Boogie Down Productions, Gang Starr — that music and genre molded me into the artist I am today.

Colin Kaepernick should be respected as a leader and an activist, as well as a legendary player.

Which MCs would be in your dream cypher?

Dead or alive? Wow … I gotta start with Cube, for sure. Biggie, Jay-Z … in that order … Andre 3000, Black Thought, Kendrick Lamar and Nas. That’s it. Those are the only cats that would make me rise to the occasion that I wanna rise to.

Which artists do you currently listen to?

Kendrick is my favorite, for real. Of this era, of this generation, he’s the best to me. I’m very proud of him and all of TDE. I like Nipsey Hussle a lot. I’ve watched him come up … the Victory Lap album is like a West Coast classic to me. It’s one of those records where you learn about how the city of L.A. thinks by listening … There’s also a kid out of South Central that I’m working with right now named Bale… He was shot a year and a half ago 28 times and survived. Not a gangbanger. Not a thug. Actually went to college to play football, and while at home visiting he was shot. He’s an incredible talent and has an incredible story.

Who’s your favorite athlete of all time?

Muhammad Ali.

Speaking of Ali, what are your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick?

He’s leading by example … For us in the African-American community who are under so much oppression still, whether it be from politics or policing, I don’t care how much money or fame or influence you have, you are still affected by those things if you are a person of color. And Kaepernick is a shining example … I think we should all take a page from his book, and use our voice to affect change.

Do you think Kaep deserves another chance in the NFL?

Of course. He should be given another opportunity to play and should be respected as a leader and an activist, as well as a legendary player.

Have you ever been mistaken for Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones?

People have seen my name and thought I played in the NFL … I wanna meet him! I hope he watches the show. I hope he likes my music, too. Because I want a jersey. I think it’s only right I have one since we have the same name. Shout-out to Marvin Jones of the Detroit Lions. Shout-out to that brother, for sure.

Advice to your 15-year-old self?

Love God and be patient. All things work together for the good … and wear a condom [laughs]. I say that because I had a baby earlier. And don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter. She’s the light of my life, but she could’ve been the light of my life about five or 10 years later.

Advice to every kid with albinism reading this?

You are an angel from God. It is not a coincidence that you are unique. Your beauty comes once in 30,000 … and there is nothing that you can’t do, except sit in the sun. But in truth, the sun is the most powerful thing in the sky that no human being can.

For YouTuber turned actor/producer Andrew Bachelor, telling stories through film is a passion and a goal Known as King Bach, he is now producing and starring in a film alongside Terry Crews, Mike Epps, and Method Man

He started out as a YouTuber but catapulted into the fame lane on Vine. His name is Andrew Bachelor and, yes, he has the Guinness World Record to prove it.

Now, Bachelor, filmmaker and actor, is making a splash in the film industry.

He’s starring in Lionsgate’s comedy feature film Where’s The Money opposite Kat Graham, Terry Crews, Mike Epps and Method Man. He plays a quick-witted young man from the streets of South Central Los Angeles who must rush a lily-white USC fraternity to recover a stash of stolen money. The 29-year-old not only stars in the film, he is also an executive producer on the project.

“I love not only to be in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well,” said Bachelor, known on social media as King Bach. “That’s why I really get involved with every project that I’m a part of.”

Bachelor has evolved into an in-demand actor, producer and content creator, working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As his visibility grew, he caught the attention of casting directors who booked him acting gigs on shows such as House of Lies and The Mindy Project, as well as films such as Meet the Blacks and a spoof of the horror series The Purge.

Later this year, Bachelor will also be featured in the Netflix horror film The Babysitter, opposite Bella Thorne, and the comedy film When We First Met. Forbes named him as one of 2017’s top influencers in entertainment.

Creating content has always been one of Bachelor’s biggest passions. The sketches on his YouTube channel, Pad TV, quickly gained more than 3 million subscribers. The sketches were expensive to produce, so Bachelor searched for alternative ways to share content, which led to his discovery of Vine. In a few short years, he rose to be one of the most followed people on Vine, with 15 million subscribers and more than 5 billion views. His other social media channels also flourished, with millions of people following his content.

“The key for me has been to not lose focus of my ultimate goal,” Bachelor said. “A lot of people come to Los Angeles and leave because they stop believing in themselves and change their dream. You can’t lose focus, even if that means writing down your goal and reading it every day as a reminder.”

Bachelor spoke with The Undefeated on how he went from internet star to Hollywood star and the lessons he’s learned — and is still learning — along the way.


What’s the difference between you and your alter ego King Bach?

King Bach is funny, energetic, charming, handsome and every woman’s dream. I’m just calm and boring … but still handsome, let’s not get sidetracked from that.

What’s the first thing you did when Forbes named you as one of the top influencers in entertainment for 2017?

I told my mom, ‘I made it. I can move out of the house now.’

What is your ultimate goal?

It’s to create an empire. I get my blueprint from Tyler Perry, who’s created plays, TV shows and movies. I had asked myself, ‘Why can’t I do the same?’ And my answer was, ‘I can do the same. And I will!’

When did you realize you were famous?

When my mom told me that people [outside family and friends] knew who I was.

What did you learn from some of the actors on Where’s the Money?

It was great working with those legends. Mike Epps taught me the art of improv. Terry Crews showed me how to be humble and respect everyone on and off camera. And I learned how to really get into character and become involved with my role from Method Man.

Have you ever been starstruck?

Yes, when I met Mario Lopez at an airport.

How do you come up with the creatives behind your videos and films?

A lot of the situations happen to me in real life, and I just figure out a way to turn it into an exciting story.

How did you nurture your desire to perform?

I joined an acting club and comedy troupe. We’d do 30 skits in 60 minutes. It drew me more to acting and wanting to perfect the craft.

You’re a Phi Beta Sigma member. What drew you to the fraternity?

Going to FSU [Florida State University], where everything and everyone is new, I needed a group [that kept me grounded]. Phi Beta Sigma always showed me love [and furthermore] brotherhood, scholarship and service. That’s what we stand for.

What will you always be a champion of?

Learning. [I’ve learned] not to be afraid to fail. The only way to learn is by failing, and once you accept that, you’re golden.

What’s your favorite social media outlet?

Twitter and Instagram.

On the fifth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city,’ California athletes reflect on the epic ‘Sing About Me’ DeMar DeRozan, Chiney Ogwumike and Arron Afflalo remain emotional about Lamar’s most powerful song

I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo / He was the one to follow.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Black Boy Fly”

Now in his second stint with the Orlando Magic, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, recently of the Sacramento Kings, was one of the key pieces in a 2012 offseason blockbuster: then-superstar center Dwight Howard’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Five years ago, Affalo’s name wasn’t only ringing off in the city internationally known as the home of Walt Disney World — it was also popping off in his hometown of Compton, California.

On Oct. 22, 2012, Afflalo’s fellow Compton native, Kendrick Lamar, had released his much-anticipated second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope). Among big hits songs like “B— Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “Poetic Justice” (featuring Drake), “Black Boy Fly” was a bonus record — an homage to hometown heroes whose talents survived the streets of South Central Los Angeles: He was the only leader foreseeing brighter tomorrows / He would live in the gym / We was living in sorrow. Lamar rapped these lyrics, remembering the days when Afflalo was the star of their Centennial High School basketball squad: Total envy of him, he made his dream become a reality/ Actually making it possible to swim/ His way up outta Compton/ With further to accomplish.

Caption: Fan-made video of Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Boy Fly.”

Lamar and Afflalo knew of each other, even if they didn’t run in the same crews. Aside from being a star athlete, Afflalo was the school’s biggest supplier of music. “If you heard [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club’ coming from a car stereo in Compton in 2003,” he told The Players Tribune, “there’s a really good chance that CD was burned by Arron Afflalo.” Business was so booming that teachers and students alike flooded him with requests ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Hot Boys. One student in particular made an appeal for Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. That classmate was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who would eventually become a seven-time Grammy winner with 22 nominations.

DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors looks on during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 7, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Good kid, m.A.A.d city, five years old this week, is of course a modern hip-hop classic, one of the true cultural linchpins of the 2010s. The project is a product of a teenage Lamar’s fascination with The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his own experiences on Los Angeles’ Rosecrans Avenue, the Louis Burgers where his Uncle Tony was murdered, Gonzales Park, and street corners where gang members served as gatekeepers. It’s a gospel of a Compton life — stories that don’t make it to CNN, and rarely ever leave the neighborhoods. The album reflects growing up in Compton “one thousand percent,” said Toronto Raptors All-Star guard and Compton native DeMar DeRozan. “It takes you back to exact moments of growing up in there. Everything was the norm. Growing up, that’s just what we knew.”

The album’s standout track is an epic bit of storytelling called “Sing About Me. I’m Dying of Thirst.” The song was produced in 2011 by the three-time Grammy-nominated Gabriel “Like” Stevenson of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop trio Pac Div while on Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park tour. “He hit me back in a couple hours like, this is crazy,” Like recalled Kendrick’s text message after hearing his beat. “I’m writing to it right now in a room with lit candles. I’m like, word, that’s tight,” he said, laughing.

An appropriate setting given the haunting chorus: When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down/ My main concern/ Promise that you will sing about me/ Promise that you will sing about me. The overall narrative of the song is all too familiar to Lamar, Afflalo and DeRozan. The three verses emerge from three different perspectives. The rage inflicted on black bodies unite them. The tales of gun violence, societal ignorance of women’s pain, and survivor’s remorse are common in the United States and around the world.

Arron Afflalo #4 of the Orlando Magic handles the ball during a preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 9, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

“[Kendrick and I] grew up in the same environment,” Afflalo says. “I didn’t really get a sense of nobody else seeing big things in their life the way I did. It’s fulfilling to know there was another young kid, at the same school, that had the same types of dreams. If not bigger.” Those dreams, though, were cultivated through nightmares.

Dumb n—-s like me never prosper/ Prognosis of a problem child, I’m proud and well-devoted/ This Piru s— been in me forever/ So forever I’ma push it wherever, whenever/ And I love you ’cause you love my brother like you did/ Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/ And if I die before your album drop, I hope… **gunshots**

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

“‘[Sing About Me]’ is the song version of an epic movie,” said Chiney Ogwumike, a rising ESPN broadcaster and forward on the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year is a native of suburban Houston. She was a star sophomore at Stanford University — 200 miles north of Compton — when good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped five Octobers ago.

And she’s right. In many ways, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a remix of Tre Styles’ (Cuba Gooding Jr.) viewpoint in 1991’s landmark Boyz N The Hood—a young black male who grew up in the ‘hood and witnessed its daily joys, pains and fears from the frontline. It’s a comparison Lamar embraced on the song’s second half “Dying of Thirst.” Whereas YG’s 2014’s seminal debut My Krazy Life pinpoints the revolving door of gangbanging and street life seen through Doughboy (Ice Cube).

“The whole purpose … is to describe that lost child that you don’t hear about,” said Ogwumike, focusing on the song’s first verse. Featuring a conversation between Lamar and “a friend” (voiced also by Lamar), following the murder of the friend’s brother, the moment recalls the legendary Either they don’t know Tre and Doughboy conversation following Ricky’s death in Boyz. Twenty years year, Lamar’s friend reasons in the song, America still didn’t know didn’t show or didn’t care what happened in his ‘hood and to his brother.

“It’s crazy, because you never notice it until you’re on the outside, when you’re able to look back at it,”said DeRozan. “I went to a Crip high school [Compton High]. I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. I talk just like him. I walk just like him. I do this just like him. It’s instilled in you, and you follow those rules in a sense of what comes with it. It’s crazy. A lot of people don’t make it out.”

“But now,” Ogwumike said, “you do hear about this child. Now … because of these protests.”

DeRozan said a lot of people should just sit down and dissect “Sing About Me.” “They should understand what he’s talking about. This is an everyday thing! It’s still going on all over the world. There’s all types of inner cities.”

Instagram Photo

The verse is deeper than rap. It’s what Keisha Ross of the Missouri Psychological Association describes as historical trauma. Life in the ghetto is traumatizing. I’m fortunate you believe in a dream, Kendrick raps from the perspective of his slain friend. This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine. Anger, hatred and aggression, she said, are both self-inflicted and inflicted on members of one’s own group. “A lot of people know Kendrick Lamar for who I am today,” he said in 2013. “[But] for me to think the way I do, I had to come from a dark space.”

“I think of people I grew up with, that love basketball and love music in my community,” said Ogwumike. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like not a lot of people understand this day-to-day. A lot of hoopers come from certain situations where they are — or they know people that have been — affected by violence. It’s ingrained within sports culture. It’s a humbling reminder that you have to play every possession with a purpose. You gotta live your life with a purpose overall because you want people to sing about you when you’re gone.”

This is the life of another girl damaged by the system / These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ’em / See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ’em / Back to where they used to be, then I’ll probably be in the denim / Or a family gene that show women how to be woman / Or better yet, a leader, you need her to learn something / Then you probably need to beat her.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

If the first verse is an example of the suddenness of the loss of black life as it relates to men, the second leans into the harrowing experience of how black women are expunged from society. While it’s tempting to think of it as a 2017 version of Tupac Shakur’s 1991 “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” the verse is actually a continuation of the cautionary tale “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” found on Lamar’s “final warm-up,” 2011’s Section.80. In it, Keisha is a prostitute who is raped and murdered. In “Sing About Me,” her sister (voiced by Lamar) responds, furious that Lamar would use her life for gain. This, too, is based on real life.

“I met her … and she went at me about her sister, Keisha,” Lamar told MTV days after the album’s release, “basically saying she didn’t want her … business out there and if your album do come out, don’t mention me, don’t sing about me.” Keisha’s sister falls down the same path. How could you ever just put her on blast and s—?/ Judging her past and s—?, he raps, Well, it’s completely my future / Her n—a behind me right now asking for a– and s— / And I’ma need that $40 / Even if I gotta f—, suck and swallow.

She doesn’t die in a hail of gunfire. And with beings such as Shaniya Davis, Sandra Bland and the 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram as tragic contemporaries, Keisha’s sister, her voice, her pain and the resentment for the only society she knows just fades away. Almost as if she was never here.

Chiney Ogwumike #13 of the Connecticut Sun prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Lynx during a WNBA game on September 4, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

“When you have a man who uses his platform to show how women are independent, but then also face even more adversity than their brothers — it’s everything,” Ogwumike said with a sigh. “That was superpowerful to me, about how she’s trying to make a way for herself in any way possible. But that way may end up being her demise. It needs to be told. It needs to be destigmatized.”

And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me / And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me / In a direction to speak on something / That’s realer than the TV screen / By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between/ Her personal life, I was like ‘It need to be told’/ Cursing the life of 20 generations after her soul/ Exactly what would happen if I ain’t continue rappin’/ Or steady being distracted by money, drugs and four-fives …

Kendrick Lamar and DeMar DeRozan are friends. They’re both from Compton. Their high schools are separated by three miles. What links the two creatives isn’t recognizable off the rip — both suffer from survivor’s remorse.

For Lamar, stories of those who never escaped Compton are spirits tattooed on his soul as his career continues to ascend, as his all-time great portfolio has fans including former president Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Compton’s own Serena Williams, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Dave Chappelle. These tattooed spirits will never see the birth of the “new Compton” led by Mayor Aja Brown. Why did they have to die while I live? How could God let this happen Did they suffer?

For DeRozan, a three-time All-Star and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, success does little to erase the pain of the past. In many ways, it only intensifies. “It’s something I deal with,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends that was with me when I was younger, but I took a different route … Then you get a phone call hearing something happened. You start to say, ‘Damn, if I just would’ve took them with me, or if they would’ve stayed with me, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ”

good kid, m.A.A.d city, a half-decade later, is a form of counseling for DeRozan. It’s way deeper than words over beats. It’s his life on what has become the metaphorical wax. But perhaps more than any lyric from the song, its final lines resonate more than anything as he prepares to enter his ninth season in Toronto — 2,500 miles from the place he first called home: Compton.

Am I worth it, Kendrick ponders. Did I put enough work in?

“That’s everything,” DeMar said. “You get to a point where you start questioning yourself sometimes. People don’t feel my pain, and my passion that I’m putting into it. But in the midst of questioning yourself, you find a new inspiration to keep pushing, and be even greater to get that point across.”

He pauses for a second. “I take that approach in everything that I do.”

Tiffany Haddish steals all her scenes in ‘Girls Trip’ She’s gone from homeless in South Central to movie star — and there’s a comedy special and new TV show on the way

Here’s the thing: Tiffany Haddish has been here. For a while. “In every character I play,” she says, “I try to infuse a little bit of myself. I always try to find the places where I can put Tiffany in it.”

It works. Haddish “made it” a bit ago when she was knighted by Arsenio Hall on the short-lived reboot of his talk show four years ago. It was a huge moment for a woman from South Central Los Angeles to do her stand-up thing for a studio audience — and before a man who co-starred in 1988’s acclaimed blockbuster Coming to America.

Today, she’s the breakout star of the successful Girls Trip — and stands out on a screen filled with marquee names like Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah. The film also stars Regina Hall, who first came of notice in 1999’s The Best Man. In addition to finishing second behind Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dunkirk in the weekend box office numbers, Girls Trip, produced by Will Packer and directed by Malcolm Lee, also arrived with a number of favorable reviews. And, almost unanimously, critics marveled at the introduction of Haddish.

The movie features four 40-something black women as sexual, funny beings enveloped in a sometimes complicated friendship. “This role,” she says, “I’d say it’s 85 percent me and 15 percent some stuff I would never do personally!”

And if you want to toast her now because you’ve just now noticed how hilarious she is, go for it. She’ll take it. During her struggle years, she sometimes lived out of her car, wondering whether she could ever escape a scary childhood that included, at the age of 9, being a mother to her own mother. At 12, Haddish became a foster child and was separated from her siblings. At 15, at the insistence of a social worker, she enrolled in the Laugh Factory’s Comedy Camp for at-risk kids and found a mentor in Richard Pryor, who gave her some advice: People don’t want to hear about the woes of her life. They want to laugh and have fun, so have fun.

“This role … I’d say it’s 85 percent me and 15 percent some stuff I would never do personally!”

She’s having the time of her life and, at 37, is ready for it. “I’m so grateful that I’m at this level of my career now at this age. I can appreciate everything. My maturity level is way better. My comprehension level … is better,” Haddish said. “Had I achieved this at 24, it probably would have been all bad. I might not have been able to handle it all very well emotionally or mentally. I feel like everything is given to you when you can deal with it best.”

There’s a great deal more coming. Later this summer is the premiere of her Showtime comedy special, Tiffany Haddish: She Ready! From The Hood to Hollywood! (Aug. 18 at 9 p.m. ET/PT). This fall, she co-stars with Tracy Morgan in a new TBS show called The Last O.G. “My slogan is ‘She ready,’ ” says Haddish. “I feel like God and the universe only puts on me what I’m ready for.”

And she’s been putting in the work. Since the beginning of NBC’s The Carmichael Show, she appeared as Nekeisha, the wisecracking ex of LilRel Howery’s Bobby Carmichael. She also voiced a character in Comedy Central’s animated Legends of Chamberlain Heights and played an around-the-way-girl love interest in Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s 2016 Keanu. She’s also appeared in Tyler Perry’s OWN soap opera, If Loving You Is Wrong, and in Kevin Hart and BET’s Real Husbands of Hollywood. “I always perform like I have nothing to lose,” Haddish says. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it to tomorrow. I try to enjoy every moment and give 110 percent of me, every single time.”

And in the comedy community, it’s been all love. “I talk to Jada [and her other castmates] all the time,” she says. And she often references the role Kevin Hart has played in her journey. She met him years ago during one of her rougher moments, and he helped her develop goals and inspired her to have the confidence to execute them.

“Comedy saved my life,” she says. “If I wasn’t in a comedy camp as a teenager, I probably would be a baby mama. Doing customer service. Hating life. Cussing out men. An angry person.

“But luckily I got to be in that camp, and there were [people] there that gave me confidence and communication skills. That was all I needed to start making that push in that direction.”

“Comedy saved my life. If I wasn’t in a comedy camp as a teenager, I probably would be a baby mama. Doing customer service. Hating life. Cussing out men. An angry person.”

Here, perhaps, is Haddish’s real gift: a refreshing candor. She openly talks about her life as a homeless woman, her mother’s schizophrenia and how she herself regularly sees a psychiatrist. She’s all about mental wellness.

“I remember being that kid … in a youth mentoring group, and adults would come in and talk about their experiences,” she says. “That … gave me fuel. If I share my story, who knows who can relate to it? If she can do it, I can do it. God gave me this life, and it’s not for me to be greedy or stingy. Maybe it’ll help somebody navigate through their experience.”

Why Ice Cube should be a future Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee The film mogul is one of rap’s all-time great wordsmiths — and cultural forecasters

This week, Berry Gordy, Jay Z, and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They will join immortals such as Little Richard, Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, Dolly Parton, Nile Rodgers, Jerry Garcia, Marvin Gaye, Cyndi Lauper and more. This week The Undefeated celebrates future Songwriting Hall of Famers — the ones who make the whole world sing and bop, and even milly rock.


For 400 years — I got 400 tears, for 400 peers/ Died last year from gang-related crimes/ That’s why I got gang-related rhymes

— Ice Cube, from 1991’s “Us

Ice Cube pulls up on a group of friends. It’s the summer of 1989 in Los Angeles. All young black men, all from the South Central area, his friends are slanging crack. Cube, by then, is already famous, the most vicious wordsmith of America’s worst nightmare: the rap supergroup N.W.A. He rolls the window down on his Jeep.

“Yo, y’all don’t need to be out here,” he said. “All you’re gonna do is get arrested.”

His boys looked at him, puzzled. In 1980s South Central Los Angeles, the streets were a war zone. Born O’Shea Jackson in 1969, four years after the Watts riots and during the rise of the black liberation movement, Cube’s life was a courtside seat to gang and police violence. He saw black boys’ and girls’ lives cut short by violence that turned neighborhoods into prisons, and to graveyards.

Does a résumé as decorated and diverse as Cube’s obscure who he is as a songwriter?

As in many major U.S. metropolitan areas, crack was the crème de la crème narcotic. For users, crack was an escape. “It is also a drug of desperation, linked to the urban poor’s struggle to be part of the greater society,” said Joyce Hartwell, founder and director of New York’s Recovery Hotline and Addiction Anonymous Education Project. Fast money, cheap product, economically deprived ‘hoods: an elixir for violence.

Ice Cube in 1992

Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In Los Angeles alone, the murder rate had risen every year since 1985. In 1988, the year N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, there were 452 gang homicides — 29.7 percent of all area murders. In 1989, 554 gang homicides accounted for 32.7 percent of all homicides. The numbers would only increase, rising to 803 gang murders (39.4 percent of all) by the time the Los Angeles riots popped off, for a long list of reasons, in the spring of 1992.

So it makes sense that Cube’s friends were dumbfounded. The songs he wrote, for example, for Eazy-E’s 1988 Eazy Duz It, weren’t soundtracks of their lives. Nor were the songs quite entertainment. Cube’s lyrics, motion picture moments on records like Straight Outta’s “8 Ball (Remix),” were their lives. Cube’s friends were trapped in a hell of crack, guns, gangs, liquor stores and funeral homes. “Everybody can’t rap,” one of his friends said. “You’re living good, so you can say s— like that. If you wasn’t making money, you’d be right out here with us.”

Cube recognized quickly his platform, and the responsibility that came with being one of the most recognizable rappers in the country. For Cube, his art was chemotherapy for a cancer the country had long ignored in neighborhoods portrayed as ground zero on nightly news broadcasts. He thanked his friend and bought him a beer.

“[I said] thanks for setting me straight. Peace,” Cube told Spin in 1989. “No, I didn’t say ‘peace,’ cause peace is a fictional word. Peace is a dream.”


Thirty years after the Straight Outta Compton album, Ice Cube is a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. He’s sold over 15 million albums through his solo work and compilations and as a leader of N.W.A. and Westside Connection. Cube has long since established himself as a force in Hollywood as a producer, screenwriter and actor, starting with 1991’s timeless ode to life in South Central, Boyz N The Hood. From there, cult classics such as 1998’s The Players Club, acclaimed smashes such as 1999’s Three Kings, as well as his Friday, Barbershop and Ride Along series strengthen his portfolio as he heads into thriller territory. Come later this month, he’ll have successfully placed Allen Iverson back on a basketball court with the creation of his BIG3 basketball league. And just last weekend, Cube gave Bill Maher a lesson in the use of the N-word. But is one of rap’s finest lyrical storytellers the victim of society’s selective amnesia? Does a résumé as decorated and diverse as Cube’s obscure who he is as a songwriter?

“It’s Ice Cube’s lyrics that forced people to take the West Coast seriously.” — Todd Boyd

“Ice Cube is the first guy outside of New York to get recognition and visibility for his lyricism,” said Todd Boyd, professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He’s the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture. “It’s Ice Cube’s lyrics that forced people to take the West Coast seriously.”

Cube’s relentless output during the late ’80s and early ’90s writes its own chapter of American history. He’s one of gangsta rap’s main creators, along with Ice T, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. His music shed light on the despair, anger, yet resiliency of life in the ’hood. Cube’s 360-degree view of the black experience in America was a persuasive counterpoint to politicians and critics who painted black individuals and groups with broad strokes.

It was Cube’s call of duty to tell South Central Los Angeles’ story — which, in turn, spoke for the millions nationwide dealing with similar situations. By doing so, he warned America of a simmering resentment. His graphic street scriptures, however bold and outright disrespectful of women, law enforcement and whatever else, function as the Old Testament for what exploded on television screens across the world in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

The first three songs on the album Straight Outta Compton, which sold 3.5 million copies (and led eventually to the acclaimed and successful 2015 biopic of the same title), became part of a 1988 hip-hop trifecta, along with Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and the launch of Yo! MTV Raps, which changed the culture, and music as whole. Straight Outta Compton represented art by fire. And Cube was its lead arsonist.

“Straight Outta Compton”: Straight outta Compton, crazy m—–f—– named Ice Cube/ From the gang called N—–s With Attitude/ When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off/ Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off/ You, too, boy, if you f— with me/ The police are gonna have to come and get me/ Off you a–, that’s how I’m going out

“F— Tha Police”: F— the police, coming straight from the underground/ A young n—- got it bad ’cause I’m brown/ And not the other color so police think/ They have the authority to kill a minority/ F— that s— cause I ain’t the one/ For a punk m—–f—– with a badge and a gun/ To be beaten on, and thrown in jail/ We can go toe-to-toe in the middle of a cell

“Gangsta, Gangsta”: Here’s a little something about a n—- like me/ Never should’ve been let out the penitentiary/ Ice Cube, would like to say/ That I’m a crazy m—–f—– from around the way/ Since I was youth, I smoked weed out/ Now I’m the m—-f—— that you read about/ Takin’ a life or two, that’s what the hell I do/ You don’t like how I’m living?/ Well, f— you!

“Not all of what we say on records describe us,” MC Ren said in 1989. “We also describe the exploits of people around us. So this is telling it again, like it is and how people really behave.” As N.W.A.’s acclaim and infamy spread, so did its influence. Fishbone’s 1991 The Reality of My Surroundings, the Geto Boys’ 1990 “City Under Siege” and Public Enemy’s 1990 “Fight The Power” further enunciated a desperation. For Cube, it wasn’t about taking — or making — rap music literally, lyric for lyric. It was a reclamation of identity.

“[Black people] lost 400 years of teaching, of schooling of any kind of knowledge of our culture,” Cube said in a 1991 interview. “Right now, we’re in the process of getting that back through rap music.” Cube’s music was the crystal ball. On 1990’s “The N—- Ya Love To Hate,” Cube advises: The day is coming that you all hate / Just think if n—-s decide to retaliate … then Kicking s— called street knowledge / Why more n—-s in the pen than in college.

But it’s his second solo album, 1991’s Death Certificate, where final warnings were spelled out. This was Cube masterfully executing a concept album in the early ’90s, a new task for the still-infant genre, yet Death is comparable to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On, or Stevie Wonder’s 1973 Innervisions. Aside from Cube’s spectacular songwriting was his attention to sequencing detail. While the first half of the project revolves around life in the ghetto (“The Wrong N—- To F— Wit,” “My Summer Vacation” and “A Bird In The Hand”), the second half is Cube offering cultural and societal critiques (“Us,” “True To The Game” and “Color Blind”).

Certificate’s complex commentary provided validation that Cube was far more — if more was required — than a “gangsta rapper.” And importantly, gangsta rap itself was far more than violent imagery. “Cube was of that moment,” Dr. Boyd says. Racial and political tensions were high in the early ’90s. “And if you were tapped into that moment, you understood something was about to pop off. You didn’t know what it was. You didn’t know what form it was going to take. But you felt it. Cube personified that.”

His music shed light on the despair, anger, yet resiliency of life in the ’hood.

On Death’s “I Wanna Kill Sam,” Cube skillfully lacerates the federal government: Tied me up, took me outside/ And I was thrown in a big truck/ And it was packed like sardines/ Full of n—-s who fell for the same scheme/ Took us to a place and made us work/ All day and we couldn’t have s— to say/ Broke up the families forever/ And to this day black folks can’t stick together/ And it’s odd/ Broke us down, made us pray — to his God.”

Cube’s cutthroat examination of the medical discrimination black people receive in South Central also goes under the microscope “Alive on Arrival:” Woke up in the back of a trey / On my way to MLK/ That’s the county hospital, jack, ha/ Where n—-s die over a little scratch/ Sittin’ in the trauma center/ In my back is where the bullet entered/ “Yo, nurse, I’m gettin’ kinda warm!”/ B—–s still made me fill out the f—— form.

For “Black Korea,” Cube experienced backlash for his attack on Korean-Americans: So pay respect to the black fist/ Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp/ And then we’ll see ya/ Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into black Korea. “Korea” was largely viewed as a lyrical retaliation for the March 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American store owner — a death that, along with the Rodney King verdict, is canonized as the two biggest sparks for the riots. Cube apologized for the song in February 1992, saying the record was not an indictment of all Korean-Americans but a rebuke of a select few stores “where my friends and I have had actual problems.”

Two months after the apology, the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted. To Ice Cube and residents of South Central, the verdict wasn’t surprising. This was no isolated incident. And soon, the Los Angeles skyline was painted with smoke rising from the flames that enveloped Los Angeles streets. The deplorable conditions that Cube had lamented for years, attempted to explain in interviews and broadcast to an entire country had finally come to fruition.

“That’s the only way you can get white people to hear what black people have to say. If you tear s— up,” Cube said of the riots. “This country uses violence for its justice. But then the country gets mad when we use violence for our justice.”

Ice Cube didn’t necessarily predict the L.A. riots as much as he diagnosed urban illnesses. Communities were ravaged by drugs. Resources provided to other parts of the vast city were omitted from South Central. Desperation led to violence. Although rap music had its faults, and didn’t please a lot of people, Cube’s music wasn’t created with the intention of making people feel good.

It was created with the intention of the listener feeling the pain and hopelessness of so many of the people Cube grew up around. He peeled back American hypocrisies and, in his own way, changed the course of American pop history. Cube did it for his people. He did it for those same friends he pulled up on in his Jeep, some of whom may not even be alive anymore.

“When it comes to records,” he recently told Apple’s Beats 1 radio station, “I just think you gotta be a voice for the voiceless.”