OWN’s ‘David Makes Man’ melds surrealism with the everyday oddities of Florida A new drama from ‘Moonlight’ scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney remixes poverty, danger and adolescence with a setting that seasons it all with a little strange

A new OWN drama from the playwright behind Moonlight and Choir Boy has the potential to grow into a compelling work of television — once it develops some consistency.

David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, stars Akili McDowell as David, a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother when their mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), is too weary to be roused. Every morning, David gets Jonathan Greg, or JG (Cayden Williams), out the door to school, then sprints to catch a bus to a predominantly white magnet school across town. He and his mother have high hopes that David can earn entrance into an exclusive prep school called Hurston.

Akili McDowell as David (left) meets with his teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap, played by Phylicia Rashad (right), in David Makes Man.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

There are plenty of unconventional supporting characters, from a drug dealer named Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who urges David to do right with a never-ending supply of riddles and poetry, to Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a kindly, shade-throwing drag queen who lives next door, to David’s best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), a mixed-race, middle-class kid who to David appears to have it made. David’s teacher (Phylicia Rashad) and counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) provide a combination of tough love and constancy in his life.

The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film.

This is the first time McCraney has brought his meditative style to television. He’s working with Dee Harris-Lawrence (Shots Fired, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.), who serves as showrunner. OWN labels David Makes Man, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, a “lyrical drama,” but the results are mixed. Themes from McCraney’s previous work, such as poverty, adolescence and dubious mentors, show up in David Makes Man. A chorus of purples and blues punctuates the visual style of director Michael Francis Williams. But the South Florida setting is what keeps David Makes Man from turning into a collection of clichés about a poor black kid growing up in the projects with a single mom who’s a recovering addict.

Watching the characters of David Makes Man can sometimes feel like a visit to Bon Temps, the fictional setting for True Blood, minus the vampires and werewolves and with significantly more black people. The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film. Its pilot is immersive, focused more on viewer experience than plot. For instance, a needed clarification about where the show and David’s life will go comes in the final minutes of the first episode.

Akili McDowell’s character, David, is a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

The search for balance between styles is evident in subsequent episodes, as the surrealism of ghosts, internal voices and flashbacks creeps into the daily drama of David’s life in The Ville, a housing project officially known as Homestead Gardens. Not unlike the cheery purple of the motel in The Florida Project, the apartments of The Ville are coated in a candy cane pink stucco that’s frequently at odds with the realities of life for most of its residents. As if he doesn’t have enough to contend with, David is also trying to stay out of the clutches of Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), a menacing teenage dealer who is bent on conscripting David into serving him and his boss, Raynan’s fearsome uncle.

A scene at the house of Seren’s white mother and black stepfather veers into soap opera territory, and so does a confrontation between David’s mother and father. That’s not unusual for OWN’s other prestige dramas, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, but it feels out of place in a show that’s set its ambitions rather high. That’s especially true given the abuse that Seren appears to be enduring from both parents.

Still, David Makes Man grows more comfortable and confident in itself by episode five. With engaging performances from Arenas, Coles, Johnson and especially McDowell, who colors David with a potent mix of sweetness and anxiety, it’s ripe to blossom into something special. When Gloria joins Mx. Elijah to dress up as Janelle Monáe, she comes alive for a momentary spark of joy in a show that’s often characterized by the heaviness of lack — lack of food, lack of money, lack of safety — and the tension that comes with the possibility of violence.

It’s intriguing to see a variety of shows find different ways to wrestle with the strangeness that emanates from Florida. There’s Claws, starring Niecy Nash, which recently concluded its second season, and the upcoming On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy premiering on Showtime later this month that follows a woman trying to exact revenge on the pyramid scheme that bankrupted her family. Claws and On Becoming a God offer more levity than David Makes Man, but they’re all panels of a patchwork quilt making sense of Florida. It’s the only thing, really, that can explain the presence of a group of tough but amiable trans sex workers who help David get home one night, like he’s Dorothy in a modern-day Oz.

That balance of earnestness and oddities could make for compelling television, so long as its makers keep tweaking.

A national lynching memorial recognizes the domestic terrorism that killed my great-great-grandfather. My family came to mourn his death and proclaim our history.

The Killers’ Perspective

One-sided reports justifying the lynching of a carpenter for allegedly attacking a white woman in rural Mississippi quickly spread all the way to Maryland and Illinois. Wilkinson County, Mississippi, (white dot) is where Charles Brown was lynched.

Sept. 13, 1879 Wilkinson County, Mississippi Woodville Republican

“Brown’s body we learn was discovered next morning about three miles off suspended from the limb of a tree – of his crime there is no manner of doubt, of his fate, we have only to say ‘served him right.’ ”

Sept. 22, 1879 New Orleans, Louisiana The New Orleans Daily Democrat

“The fiend was secured, while Mr. Phares gave the moment to allay the terror of his wife…Brown hailed from Shady Grove and heretofore had been regarded as a rather good darky.”

Oct. 7, 1879 Bloomington, Illinois Daily Leader

“Charles Brown, a colored man, was hanged by a mob near Mt. Pleasant this morning, for an attempted outrage upon the person of Mrs. Phares.”

Oct. 7, 1879 Cincinnati, Ohio The Cincinnati Daily Star

“After dark, however, a crowd assembled, and, taking the scoundrel from his custodian, they hanged him to the limb of a tree until he was dead.”

Oct. 8, 1879 Logansport, Indiana Daily Journal

“… with the aid of some colored people, Phares arrested Brown and put him in charge of an officer.”

Oct. 9, 1879 Cumberland, Maryland The Daily Times

“After dark a crowd assembled, took the scoundrel and hung him to a tree till dead.”

1/6

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0 miles from Wilkinson County

“Bless you, Karin, you found it all,” she said, sobbing. “Oh. It was all true, wasn’t made up. … Can you believe it really happened?”

Twenty-one Brown descendants went to Alabama for the opening of the memorial. They came from Atlanta, St. Louis, Baton Rouge and a couple of cities in Texas. My first cousins, Gail Delaney and Felicia Powell, came with Felicia’s son, William, his wife, Dominique, and their 16-month-old daughter, Ari. Felicia said they stood in a circle around the column holding hands while William said a prayer. And they cried a little, she said.

“My granddaughter will be able to tell her granddaughter, and the memory will go on forever,” my cousin told me.

Mom’s first cousin Thomas Hudson visited the memorial with his wife, Julia, daughter Carol Hudson and grandson Julian Hudson-Love. They drove in from Fort Worth. “To me, it’s the equivalent of attending his funeral,” he said. “They don’t know where he’s buried, any of that … so you know your final resting place, my great-grandfather’s final resting place.”

Our visit to the memorial wasn’t the end of my journey or my great-great-grandfather’s story. I am still searching for the descendants of Charles and Amanda’s five other children. One of my cousins has proposed a family reunion.

But Charles Brown’s family was there: Mattie Berry, Stephanie Berry, Gail Delaney, Felicia Powell, William Powell, Dominique Powell, Ari Powell, Norma Reed, Mariea Dunn, Patricia Dunn, Jimmie Brown, Tommie L. Gauthia, John Henry Brown Jr., Thomas Hudson, Julia Hudson, Carol Hudson, Julian Hudson-Love, Tina George and Ina Hatch. They are witnesses to his legacy.

And I was there. I, too, am a witness.

Anthony Hemingway, a director from ‘Underground,’ takes on the ‘Unsolved’ killings of Biggie and Tupac New USA Network series: ‘It allows you to see how human this story is — how universal it is’

Tupac and Biggie and their untimely — and unresolved — deaths: Sadly, it’s a story we all feel we know so well. Turns out, there’s much that even the most nerdy of hip-hop fans don’t know.

That’s where USA Network’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. comes in. Starting Tuesday night, the network will air a 10-part limited series that will examine the origin stories, the friendship, the deaths and the aftermath of the two artists’ deaths. Marcc Rose and Wavyy Jonez portray Shakur and Biggie, and their characters are in the foreground of what is actually a deep dive into the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigations of the cases. The series was created and written by Kyle Long, and the series is largely directed by Anthony Hemingway, who helped to shape WGN’s much-loved and now-canceled Underground. Hemingway approaches Unsolved with a similar historical paintbrush — the one that turned the slave diary trope on its head. And as usual, Hemingway gives us something for the culture.

We talk.


Why did you wanted to be a part of this project?

Like many of the other things I’ve been blessed and fortunate to work on — Underground, especially — I had an opportunity to [showcase] our culture. I’m continuing to find opportunities that speak to that. That allow us to learn more about ourselves. We have to know about our past and our history before we can move on. And so examining this story that took place 20-some years ago, we get to see these two young men who actually supported each other. I don’t see enough of that right now. Underground showed us our strength, and the superheroes that we are … Unsolved does that too. We get to … learn how to even be confident in ourselves, and to not lose ourselves. So many layers … those are the highlights for me in this.

It’s a story from 20 years ago, but this has a contemporary feel to it — that feels deliberate.

It allows you to really see how human this story is, and how universal it is. Seeing how their music transcended so many lines. From old to young, no matter what creed, color, race you come from. They impacted and affected people, and people loved them. It does feel like today. We still rock and jam to their music. It’s timeless, and it’s one of these stories that I think will continue to be relevant.

The diversity behind the camera right now must feel encouraging, it’s allowing for stories like this to be told.

Yes, but … even with seeing this progress, we can’t get comfortable. We have to continue to strive to be the best. To continue paving the way and opening doors for those behind us. I know there were many before me, and knowing and understanding that is not lost on me. I don’t take it for granted, this opportunity. And it really gets me a lot of times when I see young kids come up to me in various places and are inspired. It’s the things and the people that you touch that you don’t realize. And I love that we’re able to hit it on many levels of different scales, from comedy to drama to action to sci-fi. We’re covering all the bases … I’m having a great time. When Malcolm Lee called me to direct second unit on Girls Trip, I did not flinch. I said, “Absolutely, what are the dates?”

Is stuff like that happening a great deal right now?

Kenya Barris is creating things and is calling me like, “I want you to do this. You tell this story right.” And I’m loving that we are doing what we talk about all the time. We practice what we preach … I pray that it continues. It’s up to us to help make sure it continues. And not just find that moment where we say, “We made it.” We have still have so far to go.

The top 15 best Rookie Game performances in NBA All-Star history Kyrie, Kobe, Durant, Westbrook, Wall: The top rising stars (almost) always become superstars

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — before each signed million-dollar max contracts, negotiated their own lines of signature sneakers and reached superstar status, they had one thing in common. All three balled out in the Rising Stars Challenge, which in the past two decades has become the NBA’s marquee event kicking off All-Star Weekend.

In 1994, the league turned its annual Legends Game, which featured a matchup of teams of retired players, into the Rookies Game, a showcase of the NBA’s top first-year talent. By 2000, the game was renamed the Rookie Challenge, with a revamped format that included second-year players — after the 1998-99 lockout season that deprived rookies of the opportunity to play.

The Rookies vs. Sophomores structure lasted until 2012, when the league rebranded the event as the Rising Star Challenge and combined both first- and second-year players on each competing team’s roster through a draft. Now, the challenge matches American players against international players in a Team USA vs. Team World makeup that began in 2015.

Some of the best young players in recent memory have laced ’em up — from Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway in the inaugural 1994 contest to Allen Iverson vs. Kobe Bryant in 1997, and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running together on the Rookie squad in 2004. In the early ’90s, the games were low-scoring affairs of fundamental basketball. But over time, they’ve become artful displays of athleticism and bravado.

As we head into 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend, which begins Friday with Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell leading Team USA against Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jamal Murray and Team World, these are the top 15 performances of all time from the event that’s become the All-Star Game before the All-Star Game.


1997 — Kobe Bryant

Stat line: 31 points, eight rebounds in 26 minutes

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

On Feb. 8, 1997, the crowd at Cleveland’s Gund Arena booed when Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, the No. 1 pick of the 1996 NBA draft, was named the MVP of the 1997 Rookie Game over Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, the 13th overall pick of the same draft class. Iverson led the Eastern Conference’s rookie squad to a 96-91 win with 19 points and nine assists, while Bryant propelled the West with a game-high 31 points, which set a Rookie Game record that wouldn’t be broken until 2004. Later that evening, the then-18-year-old Bryant avenged the loss and MVP snub by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the Slam Dunk Contest. And he did it with pop star Brandy, his high school prom date, watching him from the stands. What a way to bounce back.

2003 — Jason Richardson

Stat line: 31 points, 6 rebounds and 5 steals in 20 minutes

He was just trying to get the crowd riled up, but he has no class. You don’t do that.” This is what Carlos Boozer, then a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had to say after the 2003 Rookie Challenge, in which Jason Richardson, then in his second year with the Golden State Warriors, went “off the heezy” — that is, he threw the basketball off Boozer’s head — in the waning seconds of the game. “Fans like stuff like that — a little streetball,” said Richardson, who dropped a game-high 31 points to lead the Sophomores to a 132-112 win over the Rookies. Even more disrespectful? Richardson followed up the move taken straight from an AND1 mixtape by draining a 3-pointer in Boozer’s face to seal the game. One of the great unsolved mysteries in NBA history is how Richardson didn’t catch the hands that night.

2004 — Amar’e Stoudemire

Stat line: 36 points, 11 rebounds in 35 minutes

Is Amare Stoudemire a Hall of Famer? He certainly thinks so, but it’s an often-debated question when you look back at the now-retired big man’s 14-year tenure in the NBA. Back in 2004, however, it appeared as if Stoudemire was destined to one day be enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. Just watch the tape from his MVP performance in the 2004 Rookie Challenge. Stoudemire’s 36 points broke Kobe Bryant’s 1997 record (31) for the highest scoring output in the history of the game. He also dropped more points in the game than three surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers: Carmelo Anthony (17), LeBron James (33) and Dwyane Wade (22). Stoudemire’s Sophomores dominated Anthony, James and Wade’s Rookies in a 142-118 win.

2007 — David Lee

Stat line: 30 points, 11 rebounds in 24 minutes

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

David Lee didn’t miss a single shot in the 2007 Rising Stars Challenge, which he finished as the game’s MVP with 30 points on a perfect 14-for-14 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds in only 24 minutes on the floor. Lee and the Sophomores demolished the Rookies, 155-114, even with then-second-year New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul coming off the bench. Moral of the story: Lee is definitely invited to the cookout, where he’d bust your drunk uncle’s butt in some post-meal pickup.

2008 — Daniel Gibson

Stat line: 33 points on 11 made 3-pointers in 22 minutes

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Shooters gon’ shoot, as the saying goes, and that’s exactly what Daniel “Boobie” Gibson of the Cleveland Cavaliers did against a team full of rookies in 2008. Coming off the bench for the Sophomores, Gibson, one of James’ most beloved teammates early in his career, took 20 shots, all of which were 3-pointers, and 11 of them fell through the net to set a record for the game. Gibson’s 33 points earned him distinction as the game’s MVP in a 136-109 win for the Sophomores. Ten years later, Gibson is no longer shooting shots but rather spittin’ bars, having retired from the NBA in 2015 to pursue a rap career. You can catch him nowadays on Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood.

2009 — Kevin Durant

Stat line: 46 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists in 30 minutes, 51 seconds

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In 2009 — with James sitting courtside between Kenny Smith and Kevin Harlan, calling the game — Kevin Durant, then 20 years old and the franchise player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, pieced together the single greatest performance in Rising Star Challenge history, with a record 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting from the field. “He’s been phenomenal. If you add a few more wins to [the Thunder’s] résumé, he’s definitely an All-Star for the Western Conference team,” James said that night before the game. After leading the Sophomores to a 122-116 win over the Rookies during All-Star Weekend in 2009, Durant was selected the following season to play in his first career All-Star Game, which he hasn’t missed since.

2010 — Russell Westbrook

Stat line: 40 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 32:16

Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

Russell Westbrook did his best Durant impression with a 40-piece in the 2010 Rising Stars game, the year after his then-Thunder teammate Durant dropped an unprecedented 46. Yet Westbrook’s prolific performance, which he delivered after scoring a mere 12 points in the game as a rookie in 2009, wasn’t enough for the Sophomores, who fell to the Rookie team, 140-128, for the first time since 2002. Tyreke Evans might have the MVP hardware from that game on his mantel, but Westbrook straight-up balled out. He was the real MVP, if we’re keeping it 100.

2011 — John Wall

Stat line: 12 points, 22 assists in 28:56

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

No player in the history of this game has come out and tallied more assists than John Wall did at Staples Center back in 2011 during his first season in the league. His fundamental, 22-dime MVP display paced the Rookies to a 148-140 win over a roster of Sophomores that featured Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden. Pretty sure even Jesus caught a lob from Wall that night.

2012 — Kyrie Irving

Stat line: 34 points, nine assists in 27:03

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

A then-19-year-old rookie, Kyrie Irving didn’t miss a single 3-pointer in the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge. We repeat — Irving, fresh off of being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA draft, made all eight shots he took from beyond the arc as part of his 34-point MVP night that helped his team, coached by Charles Barkley, beat Team Shaquille O’Neal in the newly formatted game that mixed rosters with both rookies and sophomores. Irving’s night, however, was just the warm-up.

2013 — Kenneth Faried and Kyrie Irving

Stat lines: Kenneth Faried: 40 points on 18-for-22 from the field, 10 rebounds in 23 minutes; Irving: 32 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds in 26:46

Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried absolutely dominated the 2013 game, with an efficient 40-point, 10-rebound outing that ended with him hoisting the MVP trophy. But let us take this moment to pour out a little liquor for Brandon Knight’s ankles, which Kyrie Irving, the 2012 Rising Stars MVP, destroyed on the hardwood at Houston’s Toyota Center. Irving caught Knight not once but twice with saucy combinations of his unrivaled handles. About a month after the game, DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers broke the internet after throwing down a poster dunk on Knight. It was a tough year for the young guard out of the University of Kentucky.

2014 — Andre Drummond, Tim Hardaway, Dion Waiters

Stat lines: Andre Drummond: 30 points, 25 rebounds in 28:26; Tim Hardaway: 36 points (7-for-16 from 3-point) in 24:29; Dion Waiters: 31 points (4-for-6 from 3-point) in 21:24

Perhaps the greatest sequence in Rising Stars Challenge history is the back-and-forth battle between New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters in 2014. For seven out of eight straight possessions in the final minutes of the game, Hardaway and Waiters went one-on-one, virtually operating as if there were no other players on the court. Hardaway would hit a 3 and Waiters would answer with one of his own. Hardaway would bring the ball downcourt and pull up, then Waiters would shoot from a little bit deeper. Rinse and repeat. Hardaway finished with 36 points on 7-for-16 shooting from 3, while Waiters scored 31 on a lights-out 10-for-14 from the field, including four 3s. What’s funny is neither player was named the game’s MVP. That honor belonged to Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, who scored 30 points and grabbed 25 rebounds. No defense at all, but what a game.

2017 — Jamal Murray

Stat lines: 36 points (9-for-14 from 3-point), 11 assists in 20:09

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

No player has ever been named the MVP of back-to-back Rising Star Challenges since the game was first played in 1994. Yet this year, sharpshooting second-year Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has a chance to make history, after coming off the bench in 2017 to drop 36 for Team World in a 150-141 win. Can Murray be MVP again? We shall see.

Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”


To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.

Sundance previews ‘Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and  The Notorious B.I.G.’  Will it have the same vibe as FX’s award-winning ‘People v. O.J. Simpson’?

PARK CITY, UTAH: Before the start of the panel about Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G — a limited series coming to USA Networks on February 27, a DJ blasted tracks that made both of the legendary rappers household names. More than twenty years after the genre-lifting rappers were killed, people are still celebrating, dancing and rapping along to the music that soundtracked much of the 1990s. “We get to see what we’ve rarely gotten to see, which is the friendship between biggie and Tupac,” said director and executive producer Anthony Hemingway, who shared Emmy victories for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Also on the panel was showrunner Kyle Long, co-producer / music supervisor Lyah Leflore, Josh Duhamel (L.A. to Vegas, Call of Duty WWII) Marcc Rose (Tupac) and Wavyy Jonez (Big).

Before the start of the conversation, guests viewed an amazing never-before-seen trailer. “We get to see them from a young age,” said Hemingway. “We deal with Biggie before he was a celebrity. We get to learn who they were as artists, and get to see their pain.” Actor Duhamel said that his series is done very in the vein of People v. OJ. While in college, he rushed home daily to watch the real-life courtroom drama and because of that, he thought he knew everything about OJ — but was was blown away by the FX because he realized how much he didn’t know. “Even those who grew up on the rappers’ music,” says Duhamel, “and were around during the times of their deaths, will be astounded at all that they discover [in this series].”

For Wynton Marsalis, forgetting the roots of jazz is forgetting the history of race in America The legend explains again why he dislikes hip-hop, and jazz’s identity problem

My former employer, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), invited me to moderate a panel discussion on jazz and race at its first Jazz Congress conference in New York this week.

Wynton Marsalis is the artistic and managing director for JALC. I’ve known him for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him for six years. From time to time, we’ve been able to steal a moment here or there to chat about things, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to have an extended dialogue, so I used this opportunity to sit down with him and have an in-depth discussion about the topic at hand: jazz and race.


JALC is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Marsalis is showing no signs of slowing down. He has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind on the record as well as on issues of race. He won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, which deals with slavery, and the content from his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is self-explanatory.

When asked about the impetus for the panel discussion on jazz and race, he replied, “Because race, race relations, racial tensions, racial harmony and questions of freedom are all tied up with the identity of jazz from its birth.”

Jazz music and Marsalis were both born in New Orleans. Dolores Marsalis gave birth to Marsalis at Flint Goodridge Hospital, and the mythic birthplace of jazz was Congo Square, an open space in the Tremé neighborhood.

When he talks about the origin of jazz, Marsalis is quick to point out the dangers of falling prey to a false binary choice.

“First off, the amalgam of elements in Afro-American music and in jazz come from different forms of European music, like the march form and the combination of a fiddle style or a European parlor piano style, which, when combined with the arpeggiated sound of a banjo and syncopation, becomes ragtime.

“The fact that the slaves could play the drums in New Orleans at Congo Square when they weren’t permitted to in other parts of the South allowed the drums to become the centerpiece of the style. Now the drums, while rooted in Africa, is Afro-American, which is American. To be Afro-American is also to be part Anglo-American. That is at the root of many of the problems related to race in America. It’s hard for us to come to grips with that notion. We have been conditioned into making a false binary choice, an either/or, when life isn’t that cut and dried. Oftentimes it’s both/and. But it’s hard for us to reconcile that both/and when we are so used to having to choose sides.”

Marsalis considers jazz to be America’s gift to the rest of the world and a perfect metaphor for democracy. Which is ironic because it is an art form forged in a foundry by founders who were not free.

“Now in terms of freedom, I think the way that the original jazz musician viewed freedom was extremely acute. It’s like the way a person who hasn’t eaten for days views food as opposed to someone who has a refrigerator full of food, like the way that people who were denied the right to vote, the way that they went out and voted when they finally got the right to vote as opposed to people who already had the right to vote and took it for granted.”

From the early 1900s until the 1950s, there was a very strong dance element to jazz music that began to fade. Marsalis believes that this is one of the contributing factors to the eventual decline in the popularity of jazz, which is now very much a niche music. In 2014, jazz only accounted for 1.4 percent of U.S. music consumption.

“We don’t have a national dance tradition that is intergenerational. Many South American countries have a national dance like samba or tango that is intergenerational that everyone can do that has some type of sexual content that is not pornographic. In a culture, there has to be a way that dance can express a fertility in the intermingling of the sexes that is not pornography. The only dance that we can think of like that in America is the Electric Slide at weddings. We had to find something, because you know you can’t be grabbing on grandma.”

“We need something that is going to engender a mutual respect as opposed to the trash that we give our young people today.”

One of the most devastating impacts on our culture in general, and niche music genres like jazz in particular, is the commodification of music, Marsalis says.

“At some point, people were trying to figure out how to sell music. In music, like anything else, when your primary goal is to sell, then you are going to focus on and highlight aspects that are most marketable, and many of those have nothing to do with music, like someone’s looks, their charisma or some type of tribal association. For instance, country music now is being equated with the military and with being white. That has nothing to do with the birth and origins of that music. Hip-hop is equated with some of the most pathological aspects of being black, and from the music has blossomed a culture of materialism and barbershop-level political discourse. It has also been used to reconnect with the minstrel tradition, with the ’hood replacing the plantation.

“The originators of that form were just creating something with what they had. Their creation was co-opted to tell an old tale. ‘Black people ain’t s—, especially men.’ Then, resources and support came pouring in from all corners of the country because that’s a comfortable story. Black and white people playing together and coming up with something creative, virtuosic, socially aware and elevatory is considered subversive. That’s why it’s so rare to see in the actual public space like on television.”

All of this conspires to create those false binary choices that force us to choose sides. In discussing how polarized we’ve become as a country, we both harkened back to one of our favorite quotes about American and Afro-American identity from Harold Cruse in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership:

Said Marsalis: “… without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that American whites, as a whole, are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negroes. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.”

America is a very young country when we compare ourselves to other countries and cultures, and as such it would stand to reason that our cultural identity is in limbo and still in the process of formation.

Marsalis sees jazz as part of the solution for a shared cultural mythology between blacks and whites as Americans that could help move the needle on race relations. The problem is that both blacks and whites aren’t willing to allow jazz to be placed in its rightful place on the cultural landscape of American greatness.

Interestingly, that cultural mythology already exists in other parts of the world. Jazz has been and continues to be celebrated abroad as a uniquely American art form while at the same time being understood to be Afro-American.

Marsalis explained: “In the places abroad, mainly European countries, they have a tradition of listening, especially to long-form music. They have a concert tradition where music is removed from dance, which suited jazz once the communal dance element stopped being a part of the music like it was from the early 1900s to about 1950.

“They accepted it because it was Western art, they could accept an African-European combination, the Americanism, the optimism in the music. There was also a level of one-upmanship by the Europeans who were saying that America was supposed to be this bastion of freedom, but look how you dog these black musicians and we accept them over here. So in that way it was symbiotic, because the jazz musicians liked to say it and the people in those countries liked to say it.

“The population at that time [1940s-’60s] in those countries did not have the same type of pressure to denigrate people who were not like them, especially people with brown skin. There was less pressure to do that. Of course now there is much more pressure because their brown populations are larger. Also, it didn’t drive Europeans crazy that a black dude was with a white lady. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t go crazy over it, where in America you could get killed over it at that time. A false construct like race which has been used to lord power over the designated group must be protected with punishment and violence. Because if not, people will realize it’s all some bulls—.”

When asked what are the barriers to jazz becoming the catalyst for a shared cultural identity that could help advance the national conversation on race, Marsalis responded, “Jazz is not really in the contemporary conversation on race in any meaningful way because it is the one form of entertainment that was integrated first. So if you’re looking to sell something and you’re looking for the kind of titillating thing that’s on one side or the other, you need people cursing and acting a fool.

“Jazz is too rational. It has a history of maturity and of confronting different issues from different perspectives.”

Another reason is because jazz suffers from an identity problem of its own. Every musical genre is defined by a rhythm. There is no consensus among the jazz community as to what if any rhythm defines jazz.

Marsalis has been on a crusade for the past 30-plus years to promote swing as the foundational rhythm of jazz.

“Swing is the rhythmic identity of the music. Musical genres are defined by rhythm and the swing pattern is the foundational identity of jazz.

“Aside from the technical aspects of swing, there are elements to it that when done a certain way can bring about something that is fundamental to resolving differences.

“It’s about opposites coming together. The bass has to be at a certain volume, it has to be soft to make the drums play softer. The loudest instrument has to play with the softest instrument. Jazz is a music that depends on a balance and an intimacy because it is a music of conversation and dialogue.

“The mobility of the bass allows you to have conversations that are ongoing. Once the bass becomes immobile, meaning playing the same pattern over and over again, the music can still be great, but it regulates the way you are going to speak in that conversation.”

When asked why there is so much rancor over something seemingly so trivial, Marsalis said, “… because swing is equated with the American Negro, and nothing objective that comes from the American Negro is being studied with any level of seriousness by any significant numbers of whites or blacks in this country.”

Over the years, there have been some collateral damage in the black community over some of Marsalis’ musings about jazz and his promotion of swing.

I asked Marsalis questions that many black folks ask me when they find out that I worked with him.

Does Marsalis really think less of other forms of black music like rhythm and blues? Does he think there is some type of hierarchy?

Does Marsalis still hate hip-hop?

In response to the first question, Marsalis said:

“It is hierarchical. Let’s be clear, there are hierarchies in everything that exists. Like a family, like a classroom has a teacher, a basketball team has a point guard. Hierarchy doesn’t mean that one thing is necessarily better than another. It just means that there is a relationship of how things relate to one another.

“Those other forms of music came out of jazz. Any form of music with a bass and a drum can draw a line back to jazz. The difference is, like I said before, when the bass becomes immobile the conversation and dialogue become constrained.

“But where we find ourselves now, it really doesn’t even make sense to talk about hierarchies because we have slid so far from where we once were as a culture. It’s like food companies are trying to figure how much food can I take out of this food and still be able to sell it as food.”

In response to the hip-hop question, Marsalis smiled wryly and said, “The results of its 40-year reign are clear. You can draw your own conclusion.

“I’ve said to people over and over again that it is the minstrel show of our time, and nothing that I have seen in this time period has dissuaded me from that point of view — listening to it, having kids that like it, reading books about it, checking out the lyrics. Nothing has dissuaded me from that as a generalization.

“Are there people with a tremendous amount of creativity? Yes. Human beings are creative in whatever they do. If you read that manual that was published during slavery times about how they kept slaves in order, that was creative.”

(Something struck a chord, so he stood up and began to gesticulate as he continued.)

“Look at where we are. Look at how the language has changed. Look at male-female dance and relationships. Look at our young people. I’m not opposed to hip-hop. I just don’t think that it should be mainstream. When the default position is that a black person is a n—– and a woman is a b—–, then how can you side with that?”

He began to calm down, sat down next to me and said to me in a hushed, almost defeated tone.

“I don’t really argue about it anymore. I spent my 20s and 30s arguing about this, but then it dawned on me that people want this, and now 40 years later the results are clear.

“So the people have spoken.”

As we wrapped up, I referred Marsalis to the article that The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan being inspired by Marsalis’ book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

I asked him to explain how the fundamental aspects of jazz could be helpful to people in their everyday lives the same way that it was beneficial to Donovan.

“Jazz can help us all understand how to better manage our space in relation to other people’s space. The three fundamental aspects of jazz are:

“Improvisation: I am. Identifying who you are and bringing your unique self and personality to the table.

“Swing: It’s the opposite of that. Other people have personalities too. Other people need space too. With the same intensity of how you found yourself, find them. Find that common ground and nurture it. In jazz, it’s the opposites. The bass is way down at the bottom and the cymbals are way at the top, and they have to play on every beat together.

“The blues: Stuff doesn’t work out sometimes.”

At that I ended with my final question: “As you know, in the blues form, there’s a turnaround. It’s the place in the music for me when you can palpably feel the hope in the music. For many, Obama represented the ultimate turnaround for black people. It feels now like we’ve gone back to the top of the form.

“Where do you see the next turnaround coming?”

He smiled at me and said, “I don’t see it coming, but I believe in it. I believe in it because, because I believe that your belief creates it and if enough people believe, you all can create it together, and that’s the essence of democratic action. We’ve seen it time and time again in different ways.”

‘Unsolved’ aims to dispel all the misconceptions about Tupac and Biggie Television Critics Diary: Two promising shows about Bad Boys and ‘Good Girls’

PASADENA, California — Last year, FX made it impossible not to obsess over O.J. Simpson. This year, they’re hoping they can do the same with Gianni Versace and the serial killer who murdered him.

So of course other networks were bound to join in and try to get a piece of that true-crime ratings juice.

Which brings us to Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., USA’s 10-episode limited series, which premieres Feb. 27.

Unsolved jumps back and forth in time from 1997, the year Biggie Smalls was murdered, to 2007, when Detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) and Officer Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine) are trying to close the still-unsolved case. And it aims to dispel all of the misconceptions about Smalls and Tupac Shakur, particularly for an audience that didn’t follow every detail in the case.

“There is a huge misunderstanding that these men were gangsters, and therefore that they should be seen in a negative light,” executive producer Mark Taylor told me at the Television Critics Association press tour here. “A lot of that came from the media. It’s an easy way to categorize people. It plays into a lot of racial fears. But it doesn’t capture who they were. It doesn’t fully capture who anyone is to say they’re a gangster.”

It’s a useful revisiting, based on the real-life Detective Kading’s book Murder Rap. Jimmi Simpson plays Los Angeles Police Detective Russell Poole, who investigates the case in 1997. USA has only released the pilot to the press, but it appears to have the makings of something truly addictive. There’s a deeply chilling scene between Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace (Aisha Hinds), and Simpson, and at a press tour panel on Tuesday, Simpson squeezed his eyes shut and gestured with his hands as he tried to convey the depth of his appreciation for Hinds’ performance.

All of that is wonderful, but what you really want to know is whether USA found actors who effectively captured Biggie and Tupac.

Yes. The answer is yes.

Marcc Rose, who played Tupac in Straight Outta Compton, is revisiting the role for Unsolved. The producers found a newcomer in rapper Wavyy Jonez to play Biggie, and it’s a relief to see that he’s not just doing an impression. Both men give their characters depth and an unexpected youthful playfulness under the direction of Anthony Hemingway. There’s one scene in particular where the two are playing under a sprinkler system in the California sun with real, but unloaded, guns, and Hemingway makes his point: They were just kids when they died in 1996 and 1997, barely adults on paper and even less so in spirit.


Retta, Mae Whitman and Christina Hendricks, stars of the NBC show “Good Girls.”

Maarten de Boer/NBC via Getty Images

NBC has a new dramedy from creator Jenna Bans that follows three suburban Detroit moms who decide to hold up a grocery store after they find themselves and their families in dire financial straits.

Good Girls stars Christina Hendricks, Retta and Mae Whitman as moms Beth Boland, Ruby Hill and Annie Marks. Beth discovers that her used-car salesman husband, played by Matthew Lillard, has not only been cheating on her with his spokesmodel but has also mortgaged the house several times over and maxed out their credit cards trying to save his floundering business. Ruby’s daughter has a rare kidney disorder that requires either a transplant or a drug that costs $10,000 a month out of pocket. And Annie is a struggling mom to a genderqueer tween whose well-off father wants to sue her for full custody.

NBC is selling this show as a cross between Thelma and Louise and Breaking Bad, which I suppose makes sense. Mostly, it reminds me of Set It Off, the 1996 film starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise as four desperate women who turn to robbing banks to get the cash they need.

Good Girls tries to capture all of the ways women are ignored, disrespected and underappreciated while also portraying the danger that women face — Annie has her own #MeToo moment — and managing to be darkly funny.

It’s Retta who brings a wonderful, tender ordinariness to the show. She and her husband, Stan (Reno Wilson), both work low-paying full-time jobs, neither of which affords them great health care for their daughter, played by Lidya Jewett. Retta spoke at length Tuesday about how she immediately responded to the script, precisely because she’s playing a person and not a best friend, or a meter maid, or a postal worker, or some other stereotype of what dark-skinned, plus-size black women are imagined to be.

Ruby and Stan have a loving, working-class marriage. Retta told me that Bans alerted her a few days ago that Ruby and Stan were going to have a fight because they have a sick kid and money’s tight. It makes sense.

Still, “I f—ing had a panic attack,” Retta said, “because I was like, ‘I love — don’t let them get into a fight!’ My thing is, because I love Ruby and Stan so much, and I love them together, and I love our kids — our kids are super f—ing cute. The kids are so cute, and Lidya is so damn smart. We just love being together. A lot of times, you know, you don’t necessarily loooove to perform with the kids. We love our kids. I’m having anxiety about the fight that we’re going to have to have.”

Timbaland on Missy Elliott’s ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ and how hip-hop got its groove back The Grammy-winning producer reflects on the songs that made Missy’s debut a classic

“I made hits with Total, Madonna and so many more,” says Tim “Timbaland” Mosley. “But far as chemistry? That just don’t come. Me and Jay[-Z] got it. Justin [Timberlake] too. Of course, Missy. When you think about it, it’s not a lot of people.”

The Grammy-winning Timbo is busy being an “architect” on the ABC competition show, Boy Band, but there’s always, always time to talk about the music. Especially when it involves his longtime friend and musical soulmate Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Collaboration creates hits. But chemistry? That’s the ingredient from which classics are built.

Mention Missy’s genre-bending debut Supa Dupa Fly turning 20 this week — Rolling Stone named it one of the 100 best albums of the ’90s — and you can just about feel the twinkle in Timbo’s eyes over the phone. “We did our job. We impacted the world,” he says proudly. He goes silent for a second. It’s long enough, though, to get that he realizes the magnitude of the achievement. “We made history.” He won’t go as far to say they shifted the culture. “But we came in and shifted the tempo, and the bounce.”

“We made history … we came in and shifted the tempo, and the bounce.” — Timbaland

Missy and Tim are but one in a line of Siamese twin-like creative musical partnerships: Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, Nas and DJ Premier, Big Boi and Andre 3000 of OutKast and Organized Noise, and, in more recent years, Drake and Noah “40” Shebib. Missy and Tim are bound by creativity and trains of thought best described as “outside the box.” And by ZIP codes as well. Missy, a Portsmouth native, and Tim, from Norfolk, hail from the Seven Cities region of Virginia — an area Teddy Riley helped put on the map, and one Missy and Timbaland (along with The Neptunes) stamped as a songful hotbed between the musical metropolises of New York City and Atlanta.

Timbaland, Supa’s sole producer, and Missy, the visionary who wrote just about everything save a song or two from Timbaland mainstay Magoo, weren’t looking to change the game. They wanted to do what they’d always done with music: have fun. And fun is what rap desperately needed in 1997. The officially unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and 1997, respectively, hovered over the scene. Shakur and Biggie’s music still dominated airwaves, and their videos were on constant circulation on MTV and the now-defunct The Box. Missy attended the Vibe after-party after which Biggie was murdered. “We were young,” says Timbaland. But Missy remained steadfastly focused on her songwriting even in the midst of an industrywide depression. “Her whole thing,” said Timbaland, “was, ‘I gotta do this and make it fun.’ ”


Supa Dupa Fly almost never got off the ground. Famously shy, Missy Elliott was content behind the scenes. She’d already crafted a name for herself with composer credits on works from artists like Jodeci, Gina Thompson, New Edition, 702, Ginuwine and more. She and Timbaland were the chief architects of Aaliyah’s 1996 double-platinum masterpiece, One In A Million.

A frame from Missy Elliot’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” video

Courtesy of Atlantic Records

But the occasional times Elliott stepped in front of a mic or camera, the entire music industry took notice. Sean Combs had positioned himself as the hip-hop King Midas, but Missy’s scene-stealing appearances on Thompson’s “The Things You Do (Remix)” (see below) and 702’s “Steelo” proved she was of the same crossover caliber. Her sound and wardrobe were unique, appealing and new. Her hip-hop Michelin Woman look shocked the world.

“Best Friend” was about us coming together as “superfriends” as we called ourselves when we did a record together.

Missy’s dream was to own an imprint and build her own crew of artists. The idea was a brilliant one as far as then-head of Elektra Records, Sylvia Rhone, was concerned. But under one condition: that Missy release a solo album of her own. “People think I did this for the money, but I was comfortable just writing for people,” Missy told SPIN in 1997. “And I mean really comfortable.”

Missy’s debut peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. She immediately became a bona fide star. And 20 years later, it still sounds ahead of its time: a gumbo of hip-hop, R&B, soul and dance. She and Timbaland’s musical, lyrical and stylistic vision was free and futuristic and helped make Missy a clubhouse leader in evolving discussions around feminism.

Missy’s body-positive and sex-positive lyrics thrived alongside the overt sensual raunchiness of Lil Kim. I’m the stewardess of the plane / Feel the turbulence and maintain, she coos on “Friendly Skies.” Please refrain and stay in your seats / Until we reach the gate. She didn’t need a plane to join the “mile-high club.” She was the club.

“It was a girl power thing … She was never a hater. Every girl that came out, she championed.” — Timbaland

In 1997, Entertainment Weekly dubbed Missy and the album “a wickedly innovative singer-rapper who favors expansive song structures and trip-hoppy textures. In the process, she creates an evocative space-age soul all her own.” SPIN said Supa could become “the most influential album since Dr. Dre’s The Chronic” and “everything here has ‘hit’ stamped all over it.” And a year before Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation declared her independence and became a blueprint for the matriarchal fusion of rap and singing, All Music Guide called Missy’s premiere project “the most influential album ever released by a female hip-hop artist” and spoke of its “tremendous impact on hip-hop, and an even bigger one on R&B, as its futuristic, nearly experimental style became the de facto sound of urban radio at the close of the millennium.”

Ahead of the album’s anniversary on Saturday, and Friday’s vinyl re-release, The Undefeated caught up with Timbaland. The legendary producer breaks down Supa Dupa Fly’s standout cuts as well his own memories of how the album Missy originally didn’t want to record changed their lives.


If Missy was going to be “forced” to do her own solo project, best believe she’d bring her friends along with her for the ride.

“Sock It 2 Me” feat. Da Brat

Timbaland: Da Brat is one of her good friends. They’re still best friends to this day. She wanted it to be like an all-girls thing. Like, ‘These are the top girls.’ It was about hooking up with women that were creative like her. She always looked at it that way. She always made friends with other women who were doing it like her. It was a girl power thing. Even when Eve came out, Missy was like, ‘That girl Eve is hot!’ She was never a hater. Every girl that came out, she championed. And she championed hard.


For “Not Tonight,” Missy links up with one of her closest friends in the industry: Lil Kim.

“Hit ’Em Wit Da Hee” feat. Lil Kim & Mocha

Timbaland: Oh, now that was dope! When we did that we [were] in New York. Missy was always cool with Kim. She always wanted to do songs with her friends. Mary J. Blige was her friend. Lil Kim was like the closest. When Missy heard [the beat for] “Hit ’Em With The Hee,” she was like, “I’ma get Lil Kim on this.” It was more like just getting her girls together. Watching her do that and watching her have so much fun, I don’t think the record had any intentions. Missy just wanted to make Missy music and make the world be like, ‘Whoa!’


The record not only changed the sound of hip-hop and R&B in 1997, it changed Missy’s life altogether.

“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”

Timbaland: That one I was going through my keyboard and I had this little loop. Missy was like, ‘What’s that?! That’s dope!!’ And I just kept doing it. Then I just put the bass line in it and she just started going off! ‘This about to be crazy!’ Next thing you know, ‘All right, all right, y’all gotta get out.’ I’m like, ‘Gahhh, damn!’ But we kinda created that one kinda together. Missy knew it was gonna be a hit the moment she heard the beat. We were both hype. After that, she took it to the radio station. I remember it was DJ Al B. Sylk, back in the day. She took it up there to 103 JAMZ [Norfolk’s WOWI-FM 102.9]. She was hype about that record. That was like one of the first records. And then after that, she tapped into a zone.


Timbaland dubs this duet one of the more underrated cuts on Supa Dupa Fly. It’s tough to argue its staying power either, with artists such as Bryson Tiller sampling it for last year’s “Let Me Explain,” and Drake sampled it for 2009’s “Bria’s Interlude” from his landmark mixtape, So Far Gone.

“Friendly Skies” feat. Ginuwine

Timbaland: If you’re from Virginia, man, it was about being in the studio. That may be how kids do it now, but they also do it a little differently. We just had fun. I think when I do the track it made them feel a certain way. Both of them [Missy and Ginuwine] start, they’re laughing, and once again I’m getting kicked out the room (laughs). I come back in and the song is done (laughs). And I’m like, ‘Oh this is dope,’ but I’m like, ‘Change this, change that.’

Timbaland, Supa’s sole producer, and Missy didn’t seek to change the game. They wanted to do what they’d always done with music: have fun. And fun is what rap desperately needed in 1997.

That’s how it usually is, and it’s cool for me that way. It gave me time to go play my PlayStation. And if I’m in the studio [when they’re recording], I’ma critique it. … I put so much time into the music part, making sure that their emotions are there. I gotta walk away. I can’t really pay attention to how they write the song. It’s hard, but it’s kinda good she kicked me out. But also, I’d probably walk out. I want to hear what emotions they came up with versus what I was feeling.


Missy and Aaliyah — so much potential. While not their most famous collaboration, “Best Friend” is Missy and Aaliyah’s most personal duet.

“Best Friend” feat. Aaliyah

Timbaland: How we vibed in the studio, we was family! Missy and Aaliyah had a very close bond. Missy is a person who is fun and jokes around. Aaliyah was the same way. She could make you laugh all the time. So “Best Friend” was about us coming together as “superfriends,” as we called ourselves when we did a record together. Missy just made the title “Best Friend.” When I created music, she’d go in her own space and create lyrics. She don’t talk about it. She kicked me out the room! (laughs)


Music is defined by its eras, but more truly by those who dominated them. It’s why Def Jam, Death Row, Bad Boy, Roc-A-Fella, Cash Money, No Limit and now October’s Very Own and Top Dawg Entertainment have such a fascinating hold on cultural history. The conglomerate of Missy, Timbaland, Magoo, Aaliyah and the late Static Major never had an official name. But their output is on par with the best of the best.

“We did stuff with feeling,” said Timbaland. “We know how we felt from a small place called Virginia. We knew if it felt overjoyous to us … it would flow to other people … We didn’t know how big it was gonna be, but we knew we had a sound.”

The story behind The Notorious B.I.G.’s spooky ‘Life After Death’ album cover 20 years after the photo shoot, the photographer recalls a long day at the cemetery

Twenty years have passed, but the shock is still fresh — and still incomprehensible. On March 9, 1997, Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. It remains unsolved.

At 12:30 a.m., Wallace left a Vibe magazine Soul Train Music Awards after-party at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum. The SUV in which he was traveling stopped at a red light just 50 yards from the venue. A dark Chevrolet Impala SS pulled up along the passenger side. The driver rolled down his window, drew his weapon and fired. Four bullets struck Wallace. He was rushed to nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m.

Not long afterward, The Notorious B.I.G. rose again: The double album Life After Death was released March 25. It sold 700,000 hard copies almost immediately, jumping from No. 176 to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in the space of a week. The album’s cover art featured the man formerly known as Biggie Smalls in a long black coat and black bowler. He stared us in the face while leaning against a hearse that bore the license plate “B.I.G.” There were no sunglasses to hide his lazy eye. He wore it full and proud, looking over his shoulder as if he already knew. He wasn’t smiling. But he wasn’t mad. He was just stating the facts from the other side of the grave.

It seemed like a prophecy.

Biggie wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t mad. He was just stating the facts from the other side of the grave.

Six weeks beforehand it was just a job, albeit one of the biggest of photographer Michael Lavine’s career. Hailing from South Denver, Lavine arrived in New York in 1985. After a stint at Parsons School of Design and an internship with fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, Lavine started his own business in 1988. Rick Rubin hired him for his first music gig: photographing heavy metal band Danzig for Def American (now American Recordings). Lavine was best known for shooting bands such as Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. In the early years, it was hard to cross over into the hip-hop scene. He remembered, “The look was different, a lot of clean and clear. It wasn’t supposed to be crazy and wild like it is now. Back in the early ’90s, you couldn’t get away with doing weird, arty photographs for the urban market.”


Bad Boy Records had grand plans for Life After Death. But the album, originally scheduled for a Halloween 1996 release, was pushed to ’97. “Puffy [Combs] was very demanding,” Lavine said. “He did not mess around. I hired a location scout to find a graveyard. I took photos up to Puffy’s office and he was like, ‘These are terrible! Find a better graveyard!’ And he was right. They just weren’t dramatic enough. We had to push the shoot back a day. We scrambled, and we found the proper graveyard.”

Established in 1848, Cypress Hills Cemetery is as proper as it gets. The graveyard is seated on a promontory on the border of Brooklyn and Queens and has majestic views of Manhattan, the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island countryside and even the distant blue hills of Connecticut. Jackie Robinson is buried there, as well as Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Eubie Blake and pioneering actress Rosetta LeNoire.

Permits were secured. A date — Jan. 24, 1997 — was set. It was cold and gray. Big was walking with a cane, his left leg shattered in a car accident months earlier. Those who knew him described him as grumpy, but he maintained a professional demeanor throughout.

Although the cover has been described as having overtones of Alfred Hitchcock, Lavine said he doesn’t use references. “It’s very risky to do that. There’s more opportunity for failure [without references], but there’s a better chance for greatness. In this situation, I was given certain elements: I didn’t pick his clothes, and I didn’t decide ‘cemetery.’

“I was told, ‘Get a hearse.’ That’s all the direction I got.”

“Back in the early ’90s, you couldn’t get away with doing weird, arty photographs for the urban market.”

Lavine scouted a location within the cemetery where he could visually tell the story of Life After Death. “I wanted to have some space around the hearse,” Lavine explained. “I didn’t want it to feel too cramped. I found a spot, and then we had a smoke machine to give it some atmosphere. Groovey Lew was trying to get the styling right, and Puffy was yelling about the buttons. Puffy kept jumping in. He was like a guy who wanted to be in the picture. He would literally be getting in a lot of the shots with Biggie.”

Then, during the shoot, Lavine asked for another camera. His assistant Karen Pearson whispered, “It’s not in the truck … it’s missing.” A bag with $15,000 worth of camera equipment had been stolen while they were loading the truck outside of Lavine’s Fifth Avenue studio earlier that day.

“I almost threw up,” Lavine said with a laugh. “Fortunately, I had a lot of other cameras.”

The last thing he wanted was Biggie or Puffy to be aware that anything had gone awry. But the stolen camera bag was not the only thing amiss. Lavine remembered thinking, “ ‘I need to find something else,’ because [the shoot] wasn’t rendering right in my mind. I wasn’t happy with how things looked. At lunchtime, I scouted on my own. I drove around until I found this amazing spot at the top.”

As soon as he saw the location, Lavine could see the picture in his mind’s eye. He drove back and told Puffy.

“Surprisingly, he said ‘OK.’ We were not in tune, but … he trusted me enough to go,” Lavine remembered. The entourage was assembled, and the caravan headed out. “Puffy, Biggie and I got into my Ford Explorer. I had a six-disc player, and it automatically went to Elvis. … I don’t know what it was doing in there, but Elvis came on and Puffy was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? What do you listen to this for?’ Biggie was in the back and he said, ‘Hey, man, chill out. Elvis was cool,’ ” Lavine laughed. “I thought it was so awesome that Biggie was sticking up for me for listening to Elvis.”

At the second location, Lavine set up the shot with Biggie standing in front of what appear to be endless rows of ghostly tombstones. “There’s this timelessness to it,” said Lavine. “It takes you out into a different realm because it’s black and white, his outfit looks like it’s from the 1800s and his eye is like jacked over. It’s a powerful presence. It makes you feel like he works there, or presides over all those souls. It’s like his home.”

“Biggie was in the back and he said, ‘Hey, man, chill out. Elvis was cool.’ ”

By the time the world saw the photograph, Biggie was gone. His death lent the image deeper meaning. “If you go there to that spot, it doesn’t look like that. That’s the nature of photography: You can sculpt an image out of a location. That’s my challenge, how to make him seem bigger than life. On the most simple level, I want people to look cool as hell.”

The news of Biggie’s death of course caught everyone by surprise. “It was shocking, really nonsensical. How do you process something like that? You feel helpless,” said Lavine. “That’s one of the things that’s so powerful about the photos. That changed the whole dynamic pretty radically. You have a photograph of a man in a graveyard who died violently weeks later — it makes the image more emotionally laden. … It’s not just a photo. … What’s the name of the album? Life After Death. That’s crazy. Flirting with disaster.”

On the 20th anniversary of his death a new perspective comes, one that is only possible with the benefit of staying alive. “Twenty years is a long time,” Lavine reflected. “Time is hard to describe until you experience the passing of more time, and then it becomes relative. A kid who is 15 can’t comprehend what 20 years feels like.”

In many ways, the title “Life After Death” isn’t just about Biggie — it’s about us. We are the ones living life after his death.

“The album changed my whole life in a way,” Lavine revealed. “I had been working in New York for 10 years to get to that moment. The brilliance of the record alone was enough; to just be associated with it is a big deal. The gravity of his death was overwhelming.

“As far as my photography is concerned, it became a magnet. People wanted to be associated with me because I was associated with him. It shot me out in space. It changed the trajectory of things. It fueled my spaceship, and I rode it for a long time.”