VIBE Digital Cover: Pusha T And No Malice 'My Brother's Keeper'

After weeks of planning, schedule shuffling and location scouting, VIBE has arrived in Norfolk, Virginia. The sleepy town isn’t quite Virginia Beach, but 25 minutes on the highway will have you on the boardwalk. It’s crunch time for Pusha T. His album, My Name Is My Name, is scheduled to be released on July 18 and Kanye is still making his final tweaks to the best “hip-hop album of the year,” as Pusha likes to call it. While his older brother, who now goes by No Malice, is also nearing the release of his first solo project titled, Hear Ye Him. Brothers by blood, the Thorntons are a rare breed of post '90s reality rappers who’ve really lived through the street tales that they’ve documented in their music.

Though the Clipse haven’t released an album since 2009, the brothers are finally ready to give the fans a dose of the “new” Clipse. Pusha T and No Malice say nothing has changed between them, but are now on two completely different paths musically.

No Malice arrives first to the Friendship Baptist Church. The modest building is just a 10-minute drive from the Downtown Marriot. He’s accompanied by his 21-year-old son and a few other close friends. There, Pastor Norris greets the camera crew with open arms as the baptism scene is prepared.

Pusha pulls up solo some time later, yapping orders to someone on his iPhone. His ear buds seem to be in throughout the whole shoot. The day also marks the grand opening of the younger Thornton’s second clothing boutique in Norfolk. P’s scrambling to finalize details for Crème’s launch party and has just a few hours of set time before he has to jet. Before long, we’re all holding hands in a prayer circle as Pastor Norris asks God to bless our shoot.

It’s clear that Pusha and No Malice’s brotherly bond hasn’t changed. They share few words on set, but they are seamless when it’s time to work. It may be rare to see the boys stepping out as the Clipse these days, but one thing is clear: brotherly love is sacred. —Mikey Fresh

The Interviews

Click here to read the Clipse talk about the current status and future of the group

Click here to read No Malice explain the direction of Hear Ye Him, his new path in life, and why he’s willing to die for the message

Click here to read Pusha T break down My Name is My Name, why it has to be about the money, and the prison conversations he still has

Video: Orson Whales (Shahan Jafri and Alexander Germanotta)
Story: Mikey Fresh
Music: Rico Beats

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Matthew Salacuse

The Long Road: The Triumph And Truth Of B2K

Every girl remembers her first crush. Perhaps it was the little boy in kindergarten she played “House” with, or maybe it was her best friend-turned-valentine in middle school. For hundreds of thousands of millennial girls, however, their first love was probably one of the four members of hip-hop’s defiant boy band B2K. Like with all romances, feelings either evolve or dissolve; add 15 years and a reunion tour to the equation and that brooding love story becomes rejuvenated once again.

The women at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center are in heat. After years of waiting, they’re finally going to meet face to face with the men of B2K, and those crushes aren’t so innocent now. Twenty-somethings flock to the pillared arena drenched in early-2000s drip, except their garb drapes a little differently than it did nearly two decades ago. Their jersey dresses hug their silhouettes a little tighter. The ink on their spray-painted tees donning either the portrait of their favorite B2K member or a stylized script of their own name looks a tad faded. Even their once sprightly screams have transformed into hormonal cat-calls as Omarion, J-Boog, Raz-B and Lil Fizz shoot up one-by-one from hidden trap doors below the stage. The sold-out venue (est. 19,500) swells with pheromones as the quartet strikes a statuesque pose reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s iconic Super Bowl XXVII halftime moment.

The pause is breathtakingly long. One could easily get sucked into the vortex of the group’s gaze, conveniently concealed by tinted shades, but the blank space is fully occupied by shrieks to solidify this reality.

It’s been 15 years since B2K hit the stage together. Fifteen. That’s more than a decade and enough time to graduate from high school, start a “real-life” job, experience the genesis of social media and witness the end of 106 & Park. Yet, here we here.

“Girl you messed up when you let me in,” Omarion sings along to their club single, “Uh-Huh,” as the boys move in a ripple effect to the staircases on stage left and right.

The crowd joins: “Told your best friend that you wanted me / Then she called me up and hipped me to your steez / Told me that you were lookin' for a guy like me…”

The boys erupt into a choreographed number, executing a series of sharp two-steps and pop-n-locks. Their flawless synchronization hasn’t tired. Not a step is missed as the group bobs and weaves through one another to their next mark, their all-white ensembles projecting the stage light back into the audience. The crowd doesn’t take a breath in between verses as they belt out every word to the group’s hypnotizing discography.

One of the most important things learned from shadowing B2K during the apex of their comeback is that timing is everything. While simultaneously entertaining, unpredictable and aggravating, these fleeting moments with the talk of 2019’s tour circuit—for better or for worse—will ultimately provide some type of explanation for more than a decade’s worth of unanswered questions.

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Haziness aside, the band is back together and claiming their place against a cream seamless in Midtown Manhattan. It’s our first introduction to the boys one month ahead of the Jersey concert, and as seasoned artists in the game, they exhibit a strong sense of awareness of their angles and spacing. Raz-B opens his shoulders at a 45-degree angle so Fizz’s best side can absorb the light. Omarion insists on performing a portion of their stage routine in a diamond-formation of chairs so each acute motion opens a window for members in the back to catch the camera lens.

“Why have one when you can have four Chris Browns?” Lil Fizz will later quip, nodding to their iconic choreography.

Their professionalism and attention to detail keep the room full of production staff on their toes, but B2K’s boyish, around-the-way humor makes them a joy to be around. Like friends who’ve spent the greater part of their childhoods together, they are constantly in game-mode, making inappropriate wisecracks and delivering criticism with a playful burn (Raz’s second ensemble – a captain’s hat and velvet blazer – had to be changed after three-fourths of the group insisted it was too ostentatious for the vibe). That’s probably why shooting with B2K feels like a game of Wack-O-Mole.

During the course of the evening, each member alternates in and out of the Times Square studio at least four times. Omarion, the first one on set, maneuvers between snacking on a fun-size bag of chips and calculating the physics of a new spin-and-toe-kick he put together in mere seconds. In less than an eight count, O moonwalks out and Raz-B emerges in his place. Raz mixes and mingles with folks along the periphery of the set, quizzing them on the best workday, entertainment spots. Then just like that, he disappears.

A flash of anticipation boils until J-Boog arrives. He hovers over the set with business-like acumen, observing the backdrop to coordinate with his wardrobe. He nods in great thought before retreating to the dressing room for a quick shape-up. Lastly, Fizz pops up with no fair warning. It’s tough to see where his attention is as he stands in perfect silence. By the time Fizz gets acclimated, he’s already slipped away until the last hurrah.

Now, there are theories about what fragrant extracurricular activities may be transpiring as each of them waltzes back into the studio with a noticeably tranquil demeanor, but to state anything as a fact would be a variation of the truth.

There are several mutations of B2K’s story – some rumors, others exaggerations. It all depends on who tells it, but the one constant is how quickly their conception and ascension happened.

As their tale goes, the group met in 1998. At the time, Jarell Damonté “J-Boog” Houston Sr., De'Mario Monte “Raz-B” Thornton and Dreux Pierre “Lil Fizz” Frédéric were a part of a different group called Melodic. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve ‘99 that they invited Omari Ishmael “Omarion” Grandberry to join the band. (False reports claim they met at Marques Houston’s 18th birthday party, but the quartet debunked that rumor in an interview with AOL’s BUILD series.) The new quartet would call themselves B2K, an acronym for “Boys of the New Millennium,” of the “Y2K” (the year 2000) era. B2K, the final four, or as Raz will later kid, the Avengers – whatever you want to call them, it would turn out that their star power, in fact, was somewhat supernatural.

They were all inner city kids by way of Los Angeles, California. Fizz notes they “probably would have never hung out with each other” as they were from different parts of the city. Yet, some unearthly force saw the vision before them.

“Los Angeles is a melting pot for all different cultures and creativity. It's really a ground to cultivate artists,” Omarion explains. “Life has shaped it where the fellas [the pioneering three] were already linked up together and certain family members know certain family members... This is meant to be.” (Jhene Aiko, who was marketed as Fizz’s cousin, was also their labelmate on the now-defunct TUG; Fizz and Omarion’s ex-partner, Apryl Jones, knew each other since they were teens.)

The group breached mainstream success in 2001 with their Tricky Stewart-produced debut single, “Uh Huh,” a punchy dance record with repetition too irresistible to disregard. The boys’ debut album B2K was next, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. The certified-Gold project included the follow-up releases, “Gots Ta Be” and “Why I Love You.”

By the end of the year, B2K — or rather the life-size poster versions of them, courtesy of Word Up! Magazine — were plastered on the walls and ceilings of just about every pre-teen and teen girl’s bedroom. You could even own a supplemental portrait of your favorite member: Omarion, the Scorpio; J-Boog, the Leo; Raz-B, the Gemini; and Lil Fizz, the Sag.

After embarking on Scream Tour II with Lil Bow Wow, the group returned in 2002 with their fourth single, “Bump, Bump, Bump,” an R. Kelly-penned banger featuring Diddy (the group would later announce their decision to retire songs written by Kelly after the tour due to his ongoing sexual abuse accusations). The song served as an appetizer for their 2002 sophomore project, Pandemonium!. The album debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. “Bump, Bump, Bump” peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the group’s first number one hit and the last time a boy band would sit atop the chart for nearly 16 years — a record that was broken in March 2019 by the Jonas Brothers.

The new millennium wasn’t an uncommon timezone for boy bands. *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees were mainstays, but everything about B2K felt different. For starters, they were an all-black, hip-hop group that oozed a flava that couldn’t be taught. “We contributed to a type of freedom. Our style, the colors that we chose to wear, it was very unique,” Omarion explains.

The video for “Girlfriend,” directed by producer and B2K’s then-manager Chris Stokes, is a perfect illustration of what they brought to the table. It assembled an elite cast of black actors and musicians including Will Smith, Vivica A. Fox, and Ronald Isley. The visual storytelling was indicative of a black teenage saga minus the Godfather-esque kidnapping scenes, but there were several other defining factors. Their vocals possessed more attitude; their lyrics illustrated a sexual maturity; their choreography flowed with ease; their oversized velour jackets with sports bands to match appeared “rougher” than their more pop counterparts. For music executives and future pop stars, B2K’s natural vibe would be something to aspire to or even steal, but for them, it was just what being a ghetto superstar was all about.

The term “ghetto supastar” originates from Pras’ 1998 collaboration with Ol Dirty Bastard and Mya, but was reintroduced around 2002 with B2K’s hit, “Girlfriend (Remix).” The phrase carries a lot of different meanings, much like how the “F” in Weezy F. Baby stands for an array of adjectives, but Boog’s definition seems the most fitting. “I'm all for the deprived legends,” he says candidly. “I'm from Compton. Some of the greatest artists in music history come from there. So when I say ghetto superstar, it's ‘cause there's a million superstars there for me – football to baseball – that just never get the chance. A ghetto superstar is somebody that comes from there and was always a star.”

The height of their success, although fleeting, captured the zeitgeist of early 2000s pop culture – the retro fashion, the dynamic dance moves, and overnight stardom. The Millennium Tour is just a capsule to solidify that notion. The demand for the reunion was merciless, as they tell it. “Dang y’all still ain’t forgot about this,” Fizz remembers asking himself. They hadn’t. The three-month, spring tour has grossed $5 million and sold more than 56,542 tickets in just two months, making it the second-highest grossing tour of 2019.

In many aspects, it really was about timing, Omarion discloses. Fizz and O finished filming for the Love & Hip Hop franchise, Boog inked multiple undisclosed business deals, and Raz-B just returned from a seven-year adventure in China. Their synched schedules heavily impacted their decision to say yes to the tour promoter’s pleas, but Raz concedes his handiwork ultimately thrust the wheels in motion. “I’ve been trying to put the group together for 16 years,” he admits, noting his efforts to secure the B2K trademark for the group. “Just like Fizz said, I never left the group. They like to say the universe; I like to say the price.”

The announcement of the tour’s lineup, comprised of Chingy, Bobby Valentino, Ying Yang Twins, Lloyd, Pretty Ricky, and Mario, triggered some artists. Fellow singer and child star, Sammie, criticized the tour organizers for excluding him. “Can we go on record and finally say that the promoter reached out to B2K to go on tour,” Boog clarifies, dismissing the question playfully. “We didn't have nothing to do with none of that other stuff – the lineup, nothing.”

Drama aside (or at least for the moment), the boys assert the tour has been, “straight pandemonium.” A girl at the Newark meet-and-greet was so frantic to see Fizz that she leaked a little on his lap in the midst of getting her picture taken. “It's funny to see them hold back 'cause they're adults,” Omarion muses, although, in Fizz’s case, that girl let go. “But then they come to the experience and they wanna grab you and stuff again.” Soiled trousers and a couple of wolfish hands reaching for their packages in the front row would turn out to be the least of their worries.

 

B2K has been up all night. Nearly 30 minutes before our scheduled sit-down at Jersey City’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, they cancel the interview. Less than 12 hours prior, Raz-B shares an Instagram video, announcing his resignation from the Millennium Tour, less than 10 shows in.

“Raz-B is officially off the tour,” he declared in the now-deleted PSA. “I don’t feel safe because I feel like Chris Stokes is around.”

Hours after his initial announcement, Raz rescinds his retirement, stating he will persevere due in part to his fans. None of the members respond to his statement on social media. A rep confirms the tour is happening, but the guys’ aura is too heavy to commit to an in-person interview today. Frankly, this snag in the schedule feels all too familiar.

In 2004, Stokes shocked fans by announcing the group’s disbandment. The news landed just as shockingly as Raz’s recent video and hit B2K’s day-one fanbase like a punch in the gut. The breakup ultimately activated a butterfly effect of bad news.

The first headline reported that the members were unsatisfied with Stokes’ management and demanded to be compensated fairly. That blurb was eclipsed by Raz-B’s home video accusing Stokes, his cousin, of molesting him as well as others in the group. (Stokes has adamantly denied the abuse accusations. In 2018, he tweeted: “I never hurt any of B2K.”) While Omarion, Fizz, and Boog denied the allegations, still citing the mishandling of finances as the reason, Raz’s claim left a dark cloud over the group. The real-life nightmare arrived on the heels of their 2014 dance cult classic You Got Served, and smack-dab in the middle of the blogging era. Our understanding of PTSD and sexual assault, pre-Me Too movement, was in the grey area, which opened the door to insensitive jokes on the Internet and in pop culture (Yung Joc’s 2008 single “Lookin’ Boy” makes a thoughtless remark about Raz’s allegations). It also didn’t help that Fizz recorded a YouTube video dissing Omarion’s solo success and dismissing Raz-B’s truth.

Not everyone took the break-up lightly. Girls around the nation drained their eyes. Literal tears. “I attribute it to watching [Michael] Jordan retire after his third ring. You're like, ‘No way, that's not what I want to see. You're still great. Come back, please,’” Boog realizes. “I think back, when we were younger, we really didn't understand how intense the situation was. But meeting [the fans] now, 15 years later and hearing them talk about it and how devastated they were, I kind of get it more as an adult. Like ‘damn, that was kind of messed up.’” Fizz echoes the thought. “We weren't there. It's different when you're in the game. You're not able to see it,” he echoes. “The fish looking out the bowl can't see how big it is.”

B2K’s end marked another loss for pop culture. The industry already sustained two hits with the Spice Girls disbanding in 2000, followed by 98 Degrees’ dispersion in 2002. But to lose B2K, a staple of black representation within the millennial market, felt like a devastatingly low blow. Even so, Raz-B’s recent triggering remarks unveil the haunting effects of childhood trauma and the pressure on black men to suffer in silence.

Fans rallied behind Raz after his Instagram announcement, but reports of unrest within the group were also met with huff-and-puff attitudes as if folks believed the singer intended to sabotage the tour. The relentless spotlight of social media coupled with the lasting impression of built-up anguish is a lethal cocktail and has only spilled over as time has progressed. The gravity of Raz-B’s plight hit again when he was arrested in May 2019 for domestic abuse against his current girlfriend, with less than 10 shows left on the tour.

“Raz-B takes full responsibility for his actions,” the singer’s team said in a statement following his arrest. “This incident represents a turning point after years of isolation, surpassed emotions, and unhealthy coping mechanisms in response to childhood trauma… Being on tour has forced deep-seated issues to resurface that must be addressed.”

I ask Raz-B during our solo phone conversation, nearly 15 shows after his video statement and ahead of his arrest if he feels comfortable with the tour’s current atmosphere. He snickers knowingly. “I’m very grateful and happy that B2K is back together. That’s my comment,” he says with political correctness. It’s a predictable, yet contradictory sound bite. Weeks prior to our phoner, Raz welcomed dialogue, encouraging me to come to the interview with “good questions.” Even as the group and individual interviews commenced, he frequently complimented the line of questioning, but only spoke openly when he was alone, and even then, he offered neutral answers. “I just want to stay in a real positive space if you know what I’m doing. I know you want to get your story,” he utters, hesitant to stir any more controversy.

Perhaps, this turbulence needed to develop in order for it to be addressed, but his final answer – vague in one regard – indicates that his perspective on that portion of B2K’s history will only come when he is ready.

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Past and present trauma and the constant cycle of loved ones dying to gun violence isn’t a part of every pop star’s “True Hollywood Story.” Unfortunately, when you’re black and connected to the hip-hop landscape, this sort of pain is omnipresent. Nonetheless, the show is still expected to go on.

One hour before their Newark, New Jersey stage debut and 30 minutes ahead of their rapid-fire VIP meet-and-greet, Lil Fizz’s chirpy ringtone interrupts our group sit-down backstage. West coast rapper Nipsey Hussle has been shot six times outside of his South Central, Los Angeles clothing store.

The room feels as though it’s been pressurized. Arm hairs stand at attention and the silence feels eerily like thunder. The conversation pivots into a quest for information. As J-Boog and Fizz touch base with their people via cell, it becomes apparent how small the L.A. community is. J-Boog is close to Hussle’s wife, Lauren London; Fizz refers to the L.A. artist as his “brother”; Omarion went to Hamilton High School with him; Raz says they were in talks of creating new music. Their immediate reactions to the news are the most sobering. Fizz masks his watering eyes behind a pair of shades before burying his head in his lap. Boog, anguished and stricken with distress, disappears on the phone between a crack in the wall. It feels invasive to stare.

Nipsey Hussle is confirmed dead seconds after the hour-long meet-and-greet ends. By then, they’ve already retreated to their dressing rooms for showtime. With mobs of people crying at the loss of someone they’ve never met, it makes you wonder: how will they go on?

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Before the Millennium Tour started, the group anticipated hurdles. With a history as turbulent as theirs, expecting bumps should be mandatory. “We always knew what it would take if we decided to do it again. It’s like a formula that we’ve always stuck to,” Omarion confesses. “I think you have to [expect] unforeseen occurrences, but we definitely didn't focus on that.”

Nip’s death was obviously never something they could account for, but they were aware of the questions that would be asked about them. Where have you been? Why did you break up? Are you guys friends again? Perhaps that’s why they included the summary video in the opening act of their show. Produced by Artistar Entertainment’s Deji LaRay, the three-minute visual takes fans through a digital View-Master of newsreels from the start of their career to the very end – the good, the bad, and the ugly. A handful of women in the front middle section of the Prudential Center literally screamed, “OMG,” stunned by the group’s transparency.

“We seen it before the tour started,” Fizz says. “We were all in shock like, wow, this is incredible. It gives everybody the story leading up to now. I think it added a lot of shock value to the tour.”

Raz, on the other hand, seems standoffish about the video when asked about it individually. “Hey, it is what it is,” he says matter-of-factly. “We want to touch on one part of the story, and it is what it is… That chapter of life is there.”

Another foreseeable element was the work that needed to be done for the tour to happen. Sure, there were strict dietary restraints and workout schedules, but it’s also worth noting the self-care, therapy, and communication amongst the members. “I think that is the therapy, which is the communication, speaking as enlightened four brothers from four different corners of the universe,” Raz-B says. Communication doesn’t mean they agree on everything, but it seems to have played a part in why the tour continues to go on despite its various missteps.

Lessons have been learned both on and off the stage. For three of the members, fatherhood has taught them self-love and the value of time. For Raz, his hiatus in China taught him culture, “grace, humility, [and] more compassion.” As a group, they learned financial literacy. “There’s always a conversation about business when it comes to the entertainment industry,” Omarion explains. “First of all, most artists that are creative are not administrative. How do you play a show and then go backstage, make sure your numbers [are] right? It's really difficult.”

Boog cosigns Omarion’s sentiment, illustrating a tale that is all too common amongst early-2000s acts who weren’t involved in their financial planning. “It’s so much going on, and then things get moving and you start to not check on everything the way you're supposed to check on everything,” he recalls, seemingly from personal experience. “If you not in it for the business and you in it for the fame and the little trinkets, then you just gonna be like whatever. That's the way the industry eventually gets you out of your business. Then you look back like, ‘damn I should've been on my sh*t.’”

Although the music industry is a tough teacher at times, the group insists the lessons they learned in communication, family, and money are at the forefront of their reunion and their individual endeavors.

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To witness four fine black men who stole a fragment of every girl’s childhood on stage feels electrifying. What’s been a reunion for the boys has also turned into a homecoming and celebration for former middle school and high school friends. It feels like “old times” – girls gushing over autographs on their vintage denim jackets. Sadly, this string of shows and the nostalgic moments that come with them could quite possibly be a one-and-done.

There’s one question that the guys didn’t anticipate being asked: What’s next for B2K? They joke about a 2019 album continuing that “ghetto superstar” pizzaz, but their brazen laughs and round-about ways of answering the question at hand shows the group’s next steps are the furthest thing from their minds. Instead, the focus lies on their individual paths, which potentially includes solo projects from each member after the Millennium Tour’s hype dissolves. The self-care, however, starts now. With less than one-fourth of the tour left, B2K reveals Raz-B made a “brave decision” to not perform during their three-show streak in Florida “as he embarks on this self-care journey.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all grown men and we all live our own separate lives,” Fizz reveals during a short intermission in the tour schedule. “It’s not like we’re brothers and best friends and hang out after the tour. Everybody’s home. I haven’t spoken to any of them. They haven’t spoken to me. And you know, that’s just that. It’s business, but we know what it is. When we come together, the spirit takes over.”

Fizz’s outrightly honest words land as brutally as the realization that the cast of Friends won’t be meeting at Central Perk anymore. It stings, but it’s reality. B2K’s brotherhood is by no means artificial. We’ve seen it up close backstage, at intimate shoots, and on arena stages. “The love is there,” Raz says. “Even when you dislike them for a moment or you guys got into a miscommunication, if we can come back to a cohesive space of love, then you’re cool.” So if by chance fans get to see the group together again—on wax, on screen, on stage— it’ll have to be left in the unpredictable hands of timing.

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Photographer:  Matthew Salacuse Photo Assistant: Carl Chisolm Stylist: Mickey Freeman, Winnie StaCkz Concert Videographer: Jason Chandler BTS Videographer: Kristen White

Additional Style Credits (Header/Cover Image) | Omarion | Coat: Yves Saint Laurent, Pant: Fear of God, Necklace: Talent's own, Boots: Yeezy, Sunglasses: Versace // Lil Fizz | Sunglasses: Tom Ford, Shirt: Hakan Akkaya, Pant: Huf Worldwide, Shoes: Top Owens Collection, Necklace: Cartier // Raz B | Hat: FreeMen By Mickey, Jacket and Pant: Hakan Akkaya, T-shirt: Dissimilis, Boots: Louis Vuitton, Sunglasses: Rayban, Watch: Valdecio Collection // J-Boog | Blazer, Necklace and Sunglasses: Versace, Leather Tie and Pant: Hakan Akkaya, Boots: Angela Mitchell

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Winston Duke Can’t Be Boxed In

Scowling to FKJ and Masego’s “Tadow” is a pretty nefarious task, but Winston Duke doesn’t so much as crack a smile when its svelte saxes and warped keys slice the tense air of a Midtown New York studio. Marking the midpoint of the Black Boy Joy playlist he curated for Spotify, the 6’5” actor stares down the camera with a glare that could send a mischievous tot running off in tears. From a white chair that looks embarrassingly miniature beneath him, he hunches forward at the lens and the cluster of people standing behind it, hands firmly clasped. Turn your head to the side. A little bit more. Duke pivots slowly, inching his chin to the left with surgical precision, eyes cutting the wall as if he’s sizing up someone no one else in the room can see.

There is a wrinkle in his olive Rag and Bone shirt. His stylist urgently flocks to his side to tug and tuck, opening the floodgates for the rest of glam — the groomer dabs his Adam’s apple and brow bone, his barber is armed with a cape, and his rep analyzes his pant cuffs from behind the computer screen — to tend to things that have hardly shifted in the two minutes he’s been sitting there. Winston’s facade hasn’t softened for the entirety of the first look, but by the time he stands to review the images, Machel Montano’s vibrant and percussive “Take It Slow” tumbles out from the speakers. Duke breaks form, unable to refrain from softly singing along with the Trinidadian soca artist, a hometown hero, and his body instinctively sways to the riddim. “Making up for not going down to Carnival this year, huh?” I tease from behind the Canon. And for the first time within the hour, he cracks a toothy smile and nods, still dancing.

While our team wonders what he's really thinking, we forget Winston Duke knows how to commit. He's a damn good actor. We’re in the presence of a man whose entire day job is to master the art of staying in character. As he floats from set-up to set-up, he comes alive in different ways, carrying with him the traits of all the versions of him we’ve seen on the big screen so far: The dominant stance and steely disposition of M’Baku from Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the grit of a tethered Abraham and the glee of Gabe Wilson from Jordan Peele’s new film Us. Duke can be whoever you want or need him to be when the camera’s rolling, but sitting face-to-face to figure out the real Winston is the true experience.

Enough time spent with the Yale-trained thespian will reveal that he’s quick on his feet when it comes to the creative realm. Duke plucking a story from thin air is impressive, and watching him do so in real time is a downright treat. When I meet him in the book-lined Reading Room of the art dealer chic Whitby Hotel a week or so prior, he’s been mouthing off all day. As we learned from Black Panther, Duke knows how to be a larger-than-life scene-stealer when he wants. Right now, however, the man who cemented his cinematic entrance as an intimidating mountain warrior is trying to conjure up a tender tale about critters.

“It could be a story about an ant that learns to fly because he wants to find love with a fly,” he says, entertaining a tangent he stumbled on about his enamoration with stories. The conversation began with his scary-movie preferences but landed on the fact that he’s drawn to narratives about almost anything. “I love stories period, it’s just gotta be tied to something. It has to be about something. That story I just described is about love.”

Without pause, we chuckle at the charm of his Pixar-perfect non-sequitur, but admittedly, it would be interesting to see where his mini Bug’s Life saga could go. He’s clearly interested, too. “That’s actually a cool idea,” he quietly repeats to himself, sussing out the synopsis to see if it could grow legs. “An ant? An ant that learns to fly because it’s in love with a fly …”

There’s more where that came from, but he doesn’t have time to tell it. His four handlers for the day gently call out the five-minute mark to wrap up an interview that has, presumably, gone on for an hour, but Duke isn’t done yet. Without truncating his stream of thought to honor the time crunch, he leans deeper into his last response. Hint taken. An additional 10 minutes have been granted, and although Duke has offered to shorten his responses to accommodate as many “last questions” as possible (and continues talking even as he gathers his belongings to leave), he simply has more to say. A lot more.

“I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” —Winston Duke

The Tobago-born film star has been stateside for more than 20 years, even attending undergraduate school in icy Buffalo, N.Y., but still has not adjusted to the bite of winter. “I can’t do anything below 60 degrees, honestly,” he says, cocooned by a massive Canada Goose down coat he refuses to take off, even though we’re indoors. He removes it only for a photo, revealing a linen summer suit and salmon shirt befitting the warm weather he’s accustomed to, then puts it right back on. So, no ski trips for you? He lets out Thor’s hammer of a hearty laugh, one of many that escape from him during our chat. “Ah, it’s never appealed. Snow is not my thing.”

Growing up along 116 square miles of pristine coastline he still refers to as “home,” despite emigrating from the island to New York as a child, means that he still subscribes to a very island lifestyle. Duke, now 32, moves at a nonchalant, easy-going pace, listens more than he speaks, and he considers himself flexible and always willing to change (“I try to maintain a feeling that’s like water.”). Anyone with ears can tell he’s a natural orator; his speech is painted with a charming lilt that intensifies the more comfortable he gets. Although he has a warm heart, his naturally dignified presence and stoic delivery may intimidate someone unfamiliar with a Caribbean’s stern humor.

Duke was insulated by the constant flow of love from his mother, Cora, his sister, Cindy, and the small community of Argyle that became an extension of his family, especially those who spent their days eating and drinking at his mother’s eatery, Cindy’s Restaurant, a local gathering spot. “This old man used to come every single day and spend a quarter to half of his day eating, just talking. He would tell all these stories about what Tobago was like before electricity came,” Duke says. “A lot of his stories were filled with a lot of magic because everything cast a shadow before 6 p.m.”

Young Duke’s mind was molded by this Tobagonian folklore, and Duke soaked in this gift of narration, although, for the most part, it was a private passion. He was a quiet kid whose traditionally-Caribbean family ideally wanted him to take on a practical, reliable profession like his older sister, who went on to become an infertility specialist. However, he knew their route wasn’t his calling. There were stories he soon wanted to tell on his own.

After the abolition of slavery in 1834 under the British Empire, indentured servants were brought into the country to continue the necessary manual labor. As a result, Trinidad and Tobago is now home to a mix of not only African natives but those from East India, Syria and China. Living on the diverse island exposed Winston to a bit of everything as a youth. His island’s major interfaith community meant that both Christmas and Diwali were celebrated by all, and Duke learned about the Bhagavad Gita, one of the Indian holy Vedic books, prior to immigrating to the U.S. He was exposed to the ins and outs of local politics since campaigning prime ministers and visiting presidential candidates would parade right past his house along the main road. And with black and brown bodies occupying all levels of the social and political scale from the homely to the elite, his dominant culture wasn’t squarely rooted in white supremacy. “That’s one thing that I didn’t have to grow up around,” he says. “Not to say that all those -isms didn’t exist where we’re from; it just manifests differently. Especially when you have a black president and prime minister, and then an Indian president and prime minister and coup by Islamic progressives.” These rich, cultural stories and the normalized integration of various lifestyles made it easier for him to see people as people instead of as others.

All this worldly knowledge and exposure did not age him, however. While surrounded by endless stimuli, as a child, Duke was still allowed to be a child. For most of his life there, he was spoiled by the delights of daily sea baths and river swims, endless spicy pepper pot and pone and pelau, toys and playtime. “I was sheltered a lot by a mother and sister and larger extended family that was just like, ‘You’re gonna keep your childhood,’” he says. “Children are treated like children, and men, especially in these family cultures, are babied for a very long time. The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it. They didn’t want me exposed. Then coming to this country, they had to shelter me in a whole different way: ‘We don’t want no police stopping you. Survive every encounter. Always take ‘no’ as an answer. No means no.’”

“Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.” —Jordan Peele

By no means was life handed to Duke on a silver platter; he just had the luxury of being ignorant to it all. “We went through hard times as well, but I never saw those hard times while we were living back at home,” he says. Because his mother owned a restaurant, he was never hungry. She would pay for a car to bring him home from school if she wasn’t able to. “I grew up thinking we had a private car and driver,” he jokes. “It was just a dude that she would pay to pick me up from school.” And because his mother was one of 12 siblings, somebody was bringing even more food to the house. “In my early childhood, I never thought about money. I didn’t have to think about it.”

That notion of not thinking about things has changed plenty. He has grown into this thoughtful, weighty version of himself, and he’ll tell you this. True to Caribbean culture, Duke grew up in a household that had a lot of nicknames for everyone, so until he reached the age of thinking for himself and “defying the rules a little bit,” he was known to his family as Winny. “It was Winny because Winnie the Pooh was a big thing, so Winston turned into Winny, and I grew into Winston. That name seemed like a big name for a child, I think. Winston Duke. It felt big.” Those cushioned Winny years did not reveal his passion for the stage and the screen in the way fans of his might expect. “My creative pursuits were pretty private for a really long time,” he says. “Just my immediate family knew that I wanted to be an actor, and they were always trying to convince me to be a lawyer or doctor until I was just like, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ It doesn’t make me happy.”

That acting bug didn’t actually break skin until his high school teacher dragged him outside of his comfort zone and pushed him into his first performance: a student-run, 24-hour play. Writers would meet one night to start writing, actors came in the morning to read and memorize the scripts, and the director put it together for it to be performed the next evening — basically, a whirlwind of fatigue with equal parts stress and reward.

“My teacher signed me up for that after she saw me do a presentation in Spanish class.” As a slowly acclimating immigrant going through New York’s schooling system, Winston didn’t know many people, so he kept to himself. “[I was] doing a Spanish presentation, and for some reason, I had a yo-yo in my pocket. I pulled it out and started doing it, going through my presentation.” She requested to speak to him after class, not because he was in trouble like he’d thought, but because she was intrigued. “‘You came alive in front of people counterintuitively,’” he recalls her saying. “‘You’re very shy otherwise, but in front of people, you came alive. I think that you should do the school theater.’ She went and signed me up for the play, and I had to show up.”

The fun of it all set him off, and he started tossing his hat in the ring for small projects, like mall auditions for The CW walk-on roles, but he knew he wanted more. “People who know me are always like, ‘You always seem like you know what you want,’ but it’s not like it comes easy,” he says. Duke has been a beneficiary of the power of his own mind on numerous occasions. He assesses himself almost daily to figure out if a particular course of action is or isn’t working out and how he should reroute accordingly. “I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” As far as acting was concerned, The Yale School of Drama, he surmised, would get him better.

His move to attend the Ivy League garnered praise from his family, as they finally accepted his acting dreams since he was “getting into a school where [his] ethnic mom could gloat about it.” After graduating from University at Buffalo, Duke spent a year diving into the audition process, but after bombing several auditions and waiting on line in several “this could be your big break” cattle calls that went nowhere, he knew more schooling was necessary. “I needed to be more competitive, and I did not have the tools necessary to do the work that I wanted to emulate,” he says. “I needed training. I decided at that moment that I was going to get into grad school. There was no Plan B. I put all my eggs in that basket, and then that worked.” By that, he means those strengthened muscles in stage and camera work, and small gigs snowballed into major TV appearances like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Person of Interest and Modern Family, the former of which sent his island into a tizzy. “There was an outpouring of love. It was all over every magazine in both islands. That was huge.” Then along came his big film debut with the Marvel canon: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and eventually, Avengers: Endgame.

Duke represents what Hollywood is slowly becoming: a diverse pot of TV and film offerings flavored with actors and characters who run the whole gamut of relatable, human experiences. Casting directors are stepping away from the easy way out. Tinseltown has a way of funneling big, tall, black actors (think Good Times’ John Amos, Green Mile’s Michael Clarke Duncan, and Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames) into gruffer roles, but consider Us Duke’s way of shaking things up and challenging those archetypes.

“Black Panther was just a watershed, and now with Us, it’s another big cultural watershed because they loved Get Out,” he says, throwing his head back for emphasis. He still has recordings from friends back home of people yelling at Daniel Kaluuya’s character through theater screens. “So, now for me to be in Jordan Peele’s second movie, everyone’s excited.”

The pride his homeland feels for him is a next-level feeling because it’s not just his blood relatives. At this point in his career, the entire Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is his kin. To his neighbors and beyond, “their family has done something, so by extension, they’ve done something,” he explains. “They believed that they also raised me, so, technically, their thoughts, their beliefs, their teachings, their cuisine, their history is now in Black Panther. In Us. In Hollywood. In production meetings. In table reads.”

Everything about Duke exudes intention, right down to his measured mannerisms in conversation. When he reaches a peak realization mid-soliloquy, he’ll rearrange the crossing of his legs, how far away or how close he’s leaning from the table, whether he pivots to face me or lets the full weight of his body fall back into the seat and his hands stretch across the table, fingers tapping its surface in rhythm. Each of his fingertips has his own weight when it lands on the wood, its own felt vibration, to accentuate each point. All of that comes from where he comes from, traits from every person in his community now stitched into the patchwork of his being. “I’m called an ‘all we boy.’ ‘All we’ is ‘alla we.’ So, when they say ‘all we boy,’ it’s our boy. ‘All we boy doing good. Winston’s an all we boy.’”

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The first time Winston watched Us, the air felt different. After spending two hours as one of 15 bodies in a 150-seat theater, the hugeness of the occasion hung overhead. The hazy sunset, though he’d seen them many times before, felt unfamiliar this time. Despite his spectacle-enhanced eyesight, the colors cast along the sidewalk outside the theater looked different. “I think really good art changes the air,” Duke says ahead of SXSW. The Austin premiere would mark the second time ever seeing Peele’s highly-anticipated Get Out follow-up, and the first time with a crowd — “the public.” While he emits an air of confidence, suppressing the butterflies of knowing your work is officially “out there” is a tall order. “You either feel tense, you feel happy, you feel sad, you feel something, because the air changes. It shifts.”

Duke isn’t lying. When black entertainers, tastemakers and media rivered into New York City, Atlanta, and Los Angeles theaters for simultaneous #UsFirst early screenings — Peele says “it would’ve been a big problem for [him] if black journalists weren’t included in the unveiling of this movie” — the energy shifts were palpable from scene to scene.

“What the hell is wrong with Jordan Peele?” an audience member exclaimed during one of the film’s many twisted scenes. A particularly charismatic bedroom scene in which Duke was the star downright drew an onslaught of cackles from the crowd. Aside from there being no doubt in Duke’s magnetic star power, the spirited conversation between the audience and the screen was confirmation that Us is another moment for both black entertainment and Hollywood at large.

“When people take big swings with love, we are rewarded, but black people — certainly in the film industry — haven’t been given enough leeway to fail, let alone succeed,” Jordan Peele says during an L.A. roundtable. He’s addressing being embraced by former skeptics after Get Out, especially given that both his films can be safely categorized as “weird.” “Like Get Out, I’m trying to push representation into a place and into a type of story we don’t usually see.”

While Us isn’t explicitly about race as its predecessor, Peele doesn’t feel like it has to be in order to shake the table and reframe how black people are seen on screen. Being a dark-skinned black family at the center of a scary movie is enough. “To be able to normalize this idea of representation in film, we have to be ready to represent the spectrum of where we are as African-Americans. I hope it’s therapeutic to be able to see a black family buy a boat in a movie, to be able to play the good guy and the bad guy, and not have it be a movie that has to be about race. I think that’s good within our community, and it’s good for the outside communities to be able to see — don’t put us in boxes.”

Even in casting Duke, the goal was to break the mold a bit. When Peele had originally written the script, he did not picture the Wilson patriarch as physically formidable as Duke, but rather as a nerdy version of himself. When initially considering him for the role, he thought choosing a dad people still see as M’Baku might make the movie less scary. However, talking to him and discovering a different shade to his character made him realize Duke was “not only essential casting because he's a great actor, but [it’s] important to put a guy who wouldn't be cast in a movie like this, for these reasons, in that role. It's an important piece of representation to take a guy that we assume is one type of dude and allow him to be a different type of dude.” Or to put it even more plainly: “Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.”

When Duke took the part, it was more important to get into the nitty-gritty of why Gabe Wilson exists in this film and understand the life experiences that made him who he is. Gabe was penned as a weekend warrior, Keeping Up With The Joneses, all-American corny dad, so Duke drew from sitcom fathers as inspiration for the jokey nature of his character. “He lives on the balls of his feet,” he says. “Very impulsive and playful, but he’s that dad.”

That dad is spinning water wheelies around a lake on a secondhand clunker named the Crab Daddy, not knowing terror is about to befall his family. To bring out that sense of blissful obliviousness, as well as lean into his larger purpose, Duke sought out dramaturgy help. “I wanted to get inside of the world and the genre, and I wanted to hold fast to the allegory and commentary that was being made, so I wanted my character to be deeply functioned in that space.”

Peele says having Duke offset the on-screen bloodshed by humorously calling out “duh” moments was essential to keeping the edge off his viewers. “I have to have somebody voice what the audience was saying,” he says. “In the case of Get Out, it’s Rod, like, ‘How have you not left yet?’ [In Us], Winston is largely that voice. There’s one moment where Lupita [Nyong’o] takes a step into the unknown, where black people [will think], ‘I don’t know.’ But to have Winston say, ‘Aaaand she left. Your mother just walked out of the car.’ That’s all we need.”

“His function isn’t to see through the veil,” Duke adds, nodding to Gabe’s general unawareness. “His function is to tell the absolute truth how he sees it. He’s sometimes there to say the things that other people don’t want to say, but he’s also there to make fun of things to keep it from not getting too heavy, even though it’s real. That was my job. Jordan respected that. I like to lean into functions. If I’m going to be your antagonist, I’m gonna really push you. If I’m gonna be your clown, funny guy, I’m gonna do that.”

One of the things that Peele was drawn to about Duke is just how seriously he takes the job, no matter how far away from serious the role may seem. “I was really taken with the fact that he wants to dig deep,” Peele says later on the phone. “As I do with all my actors, I asked him, ‘What's the biggest help I can be with you?’ He said, ‘Information. The more information I know the better, the more confident in my performance I will be, the more I can strategize.’” That affinity for proper planning, he says, is common amongst Yale Drama grads, his Us wife Lupita Nyong’o included. As homework, she watched a laundry list of Peele’s horror film suggestions to prepare to play Adelaide Wilson and her doppelganger, Red.  “This is going to be somebody who was in a constant search for a deeper meaning and deeper layer,” Peele continues, “and that thoroughness is something that I've come to really pride in my collaborators.”

Teamwork surrounding character development was another extension of Peele honoring his actors’ processes. Take Gabe’s wardrobe selection, where neither Peele nor Duke could resist the Howard University representation. “We talked about different [HBCUs], and I was like, I think he feels like a Howard guy. I feel like he’s playful, he could be serious, he’s going to protect his family at any cost, so he’s many things at once. That’s another thing about Gabe that I love. He’s not any one thing. He’s sensual, he’s playful, he’s serious when he wants to be. He’s all these things, but he’s still super privileged. He’s not any one thing throughout the story. It feels like Howard,” Duke says — although shouts from the audience at the NY screening begged to differ. Reacting to his lack of “catching it” when first seeing the family, “Naw, he’s gotta be a Hampton man” was heard from either side.

After the screening, hardly anyone went straight home. Instead, they gathered at the hotel’s now-closed bar, hoping for more wine to help them unpack what they’d just seen. Regardless of whether viewers instantly heralded it Oscar worthy, had more questions than answers, were still shaking or wanted to square up with Peele, the clusters of discussion created a deafening hum in the space. Eyes widened and scattered yells ensued as conspiracy theories and thesis-level analyses shot left and right. Duke already knew this project would be a conversation starter he wanted in on.

“Other than it being a Jordan Peele movie, when I read the script, I said, ‘Whoa, cool discussion about power and privilege,” Duke says. “Cool discussion about American culture, about the American dream, about its global proximity to others.’ I want to be a part of that conversation. And to be part of a conversation about the nuances of black psychology. It’s a lot of psychology, and what kind of person does that create? Sorry To Bother You, psychology. Beale Street, Moonlight, psychology. It’s a lot of nuance of black psychology instead of just celebrating your physical attributes and vilifying or fetishizing it. We’re not in a blaxploitation age.” Duke as Gabe helps deliver Peele’s poignant Easter eggs and social commentary. “[Gabe] is intentionally the American dream, and as a result, he is very insecure because he’s not grounded in reality.”

"The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it." —Winston Duke

“All throughout the movie, I've used American imagery and the duality of American imagery because that was, first and foremost, the ‘us’ that I was attempting to address,” Peele says. “We as a culture, we're a culture of finger pointers. We're a culture that is xenophobic. This movie is about many different forms that the word ‘us’ can take, but on the level of this country, it conjured the true horror of what's going on in this country right now.”

Real-life horrors indeed. Even Duke found himself scared watching Us, despite already knowing the paths of all the characters. “Even though I read it on the page, watching it on its feet is 100-percent different, and I wasn’t there for the filming of those things, so it was brand new to me,” he says. “I didn’t get to experientially go through that moment, so it’s scary.” And that says a lot, considering the fact that he wouldn’t even call himself a scary movie person. “I think this is the kind of scary movie person I am, which is one that’s wrapped around a really intimate, well-composed story.”

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I ask Duke if M’Baku will be a hard shadow to step from under, and he instantly recoils, wrinkling his brow at the proposition. The defense mode comes naturally — and rightfully so. “It’s my work, I don’t really wanna step away from it. I don’t wanna step out of it,” he says. “I think it should be a part of a library of work that I’ve done and celebrated. I celebrate it. People sometimes are haunted by the work, but that’s just how you approach it. That’s up to you to think as an individual, the kind of work that you do and put out there and how boldly you attack your work and do things [so] that people will remember other things, too.”

Duke may still be emotionally attached to the character that made him one to watch, but the Jabari tribe leader is not synonymous with him, and neither is the Wilsons’ goofball.

“I think Gabe lives somewhere along my spectrum, [and] I think M’Baku lives somewhere along my spectrum,” he says, assessing where he falls between the two cinematic poles. “I think I’m very many things. I think I’m funny, I’m intellectual. I think I’m vulnerable, I think I’m guarded. Gabe has a lot of my impulsive playfulness, but he doesn’t have my consciousness. At all. Gabe, to me, represents the culture that he belongs to. He’s too privileged.

“M’Baku is at the total opposite end of that spectrum,” he continues. “He’s actually not privileged. He comes from a group of people that are oppressed by the dominant culture of his society. M’Baku is socially conscious. He knows his place within his community and the responsibilities that he has to his people. He has a civic duty and wants to challenge his country to be better but will risk everything to save it.”

So, who is Duke in the middle of all that? It’s all part of the process of figuring him out piece by piece, role by role, extreme by extreme, and in each layer that pulls back, slowly but surely, there will be a lesson, a reflection of a deficit within mainstream conversation. “I’m deeply humbled by it and I tried to understand what it was because people still don’t know me that well, they don’t know who Winston is. But they did respond to M’Baku,” he said last year, responding to a red carpet question about his sex appeal. “I feel what they were responding to is something that felt authentic, something different from what they’ve been consuming before, and the image that presented: A confident man. A confident black man, 6’5”, 250-pound man with stretch marks. A man with a gapped tooth. I feel they were just saying, ‘We want that, we want more of that.’ If we just take the time to understand it, they’re not just lusting, they’re screaming out for something different.”

Looking at Duke’s social feeds will reveal just how much he likes to switch things up. “I’m not a perfect person in any way because I do struggle with some of those same things, too — like if I put this up, people might make fun of me; I do worry about potentially being bullied online — but I have to live. People are going to be people, and I have to be me. I just try to embrace the freedom of what it means to live at this time. I want to embrace the freedom of my time.”

Duke wants his work to drown out tropes that try to limit our frame of thought. “It’s important to embrace what is a word that has become so watered down by our world, not just our culture — the word ‘freedom,’” he says. “Freedom to not be anything in particular. Freedom to self-define: self-define yourself, self-define your language, self-define your verbiage and your lexicon, and choose for yourself what those things are. Choose for yourself what love means because you have to define that. Choose what art means for you. Choose what success means for you. And that, for me, is the biggest thing.”

Winston Duke will be whoever Winston Duke wants to be and will live as freely as he can while doing so. That’s all he owes to himself — no boxes, no borders, no baggage.

READ MORE: 'Black Panther' Star Winston Duke To Portray Kimbo Slice In Biopic

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Photographer: Stacy-Ann Ellis

Stylist: Jenny Ricker, Stylist Assistants: Thomas Kivell, Richard Sifuentes, Tabitha Sanchez

Makeup Artist: Laila Hayani

Groomer: Martyse Lewis

Videographer: Kristen White

Additional Style Credits (Header Image) | Jacket and Knit: Rag and Bone, Trousers: Vince, Boots: Frye, Chain Necklace, and Bracelet: David Yurman

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Sue Kwon

21 Reasons To Love H.E.R.

Ten years ago, Gabi Wilson wanted to be the “next big thing.” The platform was Radio Disney’s contest of the same name, with listeners voting on their favorite artist. Charming and talented, the Bay Area native was confident that her pathway would be paved in gold. But it wasn’t Wilson’s time just yet, as she lost to pop singer Jasmine Sagginario. “If I was the next big thing, it would be everything I’ve dreamed of,” the 11-year-old said at the time. To Wilson’s credit, her dream wasn’t far-fetched.

There was nothing wrong with Gabi Wilson. A darling to YouTube’s music cover lovers and a favorite among industry insiders, Wilson’s powerful voice gathers the soul in silk, allowing harmonic melodies to wow any listener. In a digital age where every aspect of one’s image seemed to matter the most, Wilson decided to take herself out of the equation and allow the music to take center stage. In 2015, Wilson uploaded a SoundCloud cover of Drake’s “Jungle” under a ghost account and the rest is R&B history.

Wilson was now known as H.E.R. (Having Everything Revealed) with the music doing just that — allowing everyone to relate without an impulse to dig into the singer’s personal life or social posts. Her callings of love on “Focus” were now their own while the poetic truths on “Pigment” were fluid in nature. It wasn’t a secret that Wilson was also H.E.R. as she shared plans with the lifestyle site Stuff Fly People Like in 2015 to release her first EP under that acronym.

The mysterious allure—H.E.R.'s facial features are usually obscured on all project artwork and onstage—along with the molding of her first two EPs, have made her an instant staple in R&B today. As a selfless artist, H.E.R. has proven that R&B can thrive without heavy production or a marriage between hip-hop’s current fascination with trap beats. With five 2019 Grammy Award nominations, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year for her eponymous compilation album, the singer’s move to hide in plain sight worked out for the better.

“My reason for being anonymous in the beginning was to make it about the music and really keep the focus on the music, so being nominated is like, ‘Wow, I did exactly what I wanted to do,’ which was to be recognized for my music and nothing else,” H.E.R. softly reflects over the phone. Producing music and playing instruments like the piano and guitar have allowed the singer to deliver her talents on a silver platter to listeners. “I just feel very blessed because the intent was to be recognized for the music, so these nominations are so true to making it about the music and the celebration of music. I’m so thankful. It’s kind of crazy.”

Much like Beyonce’s refined approach to surprise albums, H.E.R.’s anonymity has been carbon copied a few times, even to the levels of one artist absorbing her sound and non-image. “It’s definitely flattery. If anybody sees anything that’s working they’re going to try to emulate it or copy or try to use it in their live show,” she says generally of her effect. “People have always tried to imitate, but at the end of the day, no one can do me better than I can do me, you know? But I wouldn’t be bothered. Some people can get annoying with it (Laughs), but at the end of the day, you can only be so successful doing what somebody else is doing.”

H.E.R.’s Grammy nods are also a testament to the institution’s abnormal history. On the polished side of the coin, the singer’s five nominations are akin to host and mentor Alicia Keys. Eighteen years ago, Keys took home five gramophones including Best New Artist and Best R&B Album for her debut, Songs In A Minor. Keys' tied with those of Ms. Lauryn Hill, who took home five awards in 1999. Hill won the Album of the Year category for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, making it the first hip-hop/R&B album to take the crown. H.E.R. could become the next woman of color to take home the award as her album is also in the same category. The jagged side of the coin, however, hasn’t been kind to R&B.

Five R&B categories were cut in 2011. They included "Best Urban/Alternative Performance" (2003-2011), "Best Female R&B Vocal Performance" (1968-2011), "Best Male R&B Vocal Performance" (1968-2011), "Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals" (1967-2011) and "Best Contemporary R&B Album" (2003-2011). The chopped categories didn’t do much to help the pace of R&B, which experienced a shift in identity near the top of the 2010s. Hip-hop, which has always relied on R&B, soul, and funk, continued to do so with R&B facing little to no room to grow. Singers wanted to be rappers and rappers wanted to be singers, leaving behind harmonies and falsettos R&B heads loved deeply. But the sonic shift wasn’t without a few gleams, as artists like Frank Ocean, Jhene Aiko, Jazmine Sullivan, and Miguel helped bring a balance back to soul and R&B. With H.E.R., the precision is razor sharp as she combines classical notes with pulsating 808s to create a time machine of the genre’s past and future.

As talk of R&B’s resurgence to the mainstream continues, H.E.R. is aware that she’s at the center of the conversation. Instead of feeding into the hype, the singer-songwriter is just as focused as ever.

“It’s a great expectation. It’s a great thing to hear people putting me up to this standard and putting me on this pedestal and expecting greatness from me, but at the end of the day, I’m just trying to be a better me as an artist musically,” she says. “As a person, I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday and continue to elevate. I keep hearing all this stuff. It’s so easy to second-guess and overthink everything you’re doing now that people are watching. That’s when it starts to go downhill when you give in to that pressure. I have to keep doing me. I have to not look at what everybody else is doing, or what everybody else thinks should be happening right now. I can’t listen to the outside opinions of people who weren’t really there in the beginning, who weren’t embracing who I was, who were always jumping from wave to wave or what’s popular or what’s new. I can’t be that person because that’s when it goes downhill. I’m definitely trying to stay away from that mentality.”

Just last year, the singer headlined her very first tour in addition to endless festivals: Atlanta’s One MusicFest, Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and Brooklyn's Afropunk. At the latter fest, nearly all the attendees, draped in pan-African garb and amethyst crystal bra sets, rushed over to her stage to hear their favorite songs like “Carried Away,” “Every Kind of Way” and the tender duet “Best Part” with Daniel Caesar. The crowd, a mirage of black faces spanning the diaspora, were living one experience, which happened to be powered by H.E.R.

“When I think about the reason why I dropped the projects under the name H.E.R., the people resonate with it so much because H.E.R. is everyone,” she explains. “All my stories have no face attached to it, there’s no name attached to it, so it’s like you have no choice but to be attached to the feeling and the emotion and relating it to your personal diary. A lot of people come to my shows and they say, ‘That’s my diary, she’s speaking my life. I relate to this so much.’ It’s like they have no choice but to put themselves in that position, put themselves in connection to my music.”

The storyline and dynamics between singing and poetry are woven together so effortlessly on "Pigment." Bianca Jeanty, the co-founder of Minorities in Media says about one of her favorite H.E.R. tracks: "It goes through all of the emotions of a relationship at its peak and its downfalls. The song is relatively short, but there are some relationships that feel like that. Rich moments that feel like forever. And the reason why this song is so powerful to me is because sometimes there isn't a fairy tale ending. And that's real."

This year, H.E.R. plans to spread her verbal love language with new music, take on bigger stages like Coachella, and embark a European tour. “I’m so thankful for all the stuff that happened in 2018 and now 2019 is even crazier,” she gushes. “There’s so much going on, so many places that I’ll be going to that I haven’t seen, but I’m definitely going to drop an official album, a real album because the projects that I dropped weren’t even official. They were just EPs and it’s about elevation this year.”

Other women in R&B are elevating as well, presenting stories and perspectives outside of their own. Fellow soul sisters like Ella Mai, Queen Naija, Summer Walker, and fellow Grammy nominee Jorja Smith have provided a sonic safe-space to not just feel, but to enjoy love jams again. Kuk Harrell, Grammy Award-winning vocal producer, and engineer shares, "I love people that come out and just...they create a new lane, they create a new sound and everybody just jumps on it." Creating that space where the old feel of R&B can live with its new packaging is special to witness, and we all are enjoying the view, to the point that even today's young rappers want that old thing back. "I love H.E.R.'s music because it reminds me of the R&B that I grew up listening to," says Cali rapper Saweetie.

“I think real music is coming back, real lyrics,” H.E.R. explains of her peers. “A lot of people are writing more songs that mean something, that have a story. A lot of people are using real instruments, which is really cool to hear. I think it’s in a good place, in an authentic place. We’re not really in the age of gimmicks anymore. It’s real artistry, normal people just being themselves on stage and in the music, which is really cool to see.”

This year’s Grammy Awards ceremony aims to build a bridge between the past and present with tributes to the late Aretha Franklin and the much talked about Motown 60th anniversary performance event happening later this week. As living legends like Diana Ross and Fantasia belt the songs we love so much, H.E.R. will be present with a performance of her own, reminding us that the future of R&B is here.

As much as H.E.R. believes in herself and her abilities, a host of friends, collaborators and cultural critics believe in her twice as hard. Here, 21 creatives reflect on all the things they love about the 21-year-old’s artistry and what exactly makes her a remarkable force in R&B.

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9th Wonder

Grammy-nominated producer, professor and founder of Jamla Records

I'm a historian by nature so I watch trends and I watch culture. Everything repeats itself whether we're talking about fashion and especially music. When I was 20 years old, D'Angelo was my version of something 20 years before that, which was Marvin Gaye and Stevie [Wonder]. So D'Angelo was my Marvin Gaye and Stevie. I think with H.E.R., Ella Mai and Daniel Caesar, Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid and a myriad of R&B artists who are budding believe in the music and believe in the feeling. That's similar to another resurgence that happened in the '90s but everything runs in cycles, history repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun.

Aliya S. King

New York Times Bestselling Author

I hope it's okay that I choose "Best Part." I know it's a duet and not technically her song, but I was driving down the street when I first heard it and I had to pull over and ask Siri who it was. It hit me that quickly and viscerally. I'm lucky that I was able to have a front-row seat to the birth of the neo-soul movement in the ‘90s. I saw early shows with artists like D'Angelo and Erykah Badu and many of us walked away knowing we saw history being made. That's how I felt the first time I heard her music. This is special.

Angela Yee

Media personality

She's one of my favorite artists and even though she's young, her music feels nostalgic. It's beautiful for when I'm feeling in love and beautiful when I'm feeling mellow and emotional. In this age when everyone is sharing everything, I appreciate the mystery she encompasses.

Arin Ray

Singer-songwriter

Sheʼs a wonderful artist and so full of potential and promise. As you can see from the five Grammy nods, H.E.R and her team have got something really special going. Sheʼs a really good person too and carries herself like a true star. I think she fits the blueprint of what an artist is to me. As for the future of R&B, I think weʼre moving in a great direction. I think along with H.E.R. there are a lot of artists coming up, pushing a wave thatʼs very promising for the genre. Iʼm very intrigued to see what it looks like in the next few years.

BJ The Chicago Kid

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter

I think the future of R&B is safe with her contribution. Fans resonate with the vibes and emotion her music evokes. Her sound is very right now while still keeping the soulfulness of the R&B we grew up on alive.

Carolyn Williams

EVP, Marketing at RCA Records

When I look back on 2018, I’m just so proud of H.E.R. I’m proud of what she’s been able to do as far as inspiring people to really focus on music. This is what it’s all about. It’s not always about imaging and visuals and your social game. I love the fact that she really forced everyone to focus on music because we are in the music business and this is what it is supposed to be about.

It’s not just H.E.R. I think a lot of these artists kind of forced you — they did things differently and it wasn’t always about imaging. It was really about amazing new music, and I think a lot of artists have followed in that footstep, in that path.

Cautious Clay

Singer-songwriter

We worked together on a brand new song and we finished it the same day, so she’s fast, personal and has her own unique melodies, which I respect the sh*t out of. On top of that, she comes up with really good lyrical ideas and is just self-sufficient. My favorite song would have to be “Focus.” That song to me is just so undeniable and it really reminds me of Ravel or Claude Debussy, a classical song, but it’s R&B at the same time. It’s just a really beautiful record that’s going to stand the test of time.

Carrington Brown

Drummer for H.E.R.

With “Focus” I can remember hearing it for the first time, knowing once it dropped nothing would ever be the same. Fans love the direct connection, life application, and the transparency. Most artists try to put themselves on a pedestal above everyday people but she meets them right where they are and lets you know we’ve all been there. I like that she’s limitless and the future of R&B with H.E.R. in it is looking like a run further than the eye can see.

 

ELHAE

Singer-songwriter

I think apart from her voice being as beautiful as it is, I’m more in awe of the sheer skill that comes with it. Her control is stuff of legends, and I’m sure she’s on her way to being just that. Adding to that, she plays every instrument in the book (Laughs). She’s a great talent and I believe she’s a great example for upcoming aspiring artists.

Ella Mai

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter

I'm a big fan of H.E.R. and I think our sounds are related to bringing back what we all grew up on and what inspired us. We’re not even trying but it's not even a conscious decision, it's just like the music we love to make.

Kiana Lede

Singer-songwriter

“Best Part” is my favorite H.E.R song. I love that she made a classic love song and not many people can do that anymore. She’s a strong leader in the movement that is putting female R&B at the forefront of the music industry right now.

Landstrip Chip

Singer-songwriter, producer

I worked with her once, she’s real laid back and chill. I like her energy and her passion for music. Everything starts with the music. I feel like R&B is going in a good direction right now, and as long as young artists continue to put out solid bodies of work, the genre will continue to thrive in this new age of the music era. Right now, I’m liking “Carried Away.” I like the melodies, the guitar, the mix on the record is solid. Reminds me of some old Justin Timberlake.

Masego

Musician and inventor of TrapHouseJazz

I love when a real musician, a real vocalist, and a real songwriter wins. She’s real kind, genuine and a timeless human being.

Ro James

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter

I don’t mean to be predictable but I LOVE “Focus!” It’s the VIBE! The energy, the emotion, her voice, her runs, her tone. And the production by my brother DJ Camper. I think the fans love H.E.R.’s musicality, her sultry tone, her runs, what’s she’s talking about. Women can relate with her truth. She provides a vibe for sure. She definitely fills a void that we’ve been missing in music from a woman.

And the future of R&B, we’re back after they said the genre had died. I’m proud to be a part of the resurgence. We all come with our own take on R&B.

Robert Glasper

Grammy-winning singer and producer

I was in L.A. for the Grammys and I am guessing it was 2013. At that time she was Gabi and I came downstairs in my hotel and Gabi and her manager Suzette Williams were down there. I guess Gabi was 15 or something. Her manager came over to me and said, “I have a singer and she really loves your music. Would you mind going over to her to chat and take a photo?”

So I went over there and I met her and we took a picture. Her manager said, “She looks up to you a lot,” and so I gave Gabi my email and told her to send me some music. Push came to shove two years later and I ended up doing the Nina Revisited... A Tribute to Nina Simone project with Suzette as an executive producer. She shared on the first day that Gabi was doing her debut show at SOBs in New York so I surprised her and shared how proud I was. I didn’t see her anymore after then. A year later, my manager gets an email from Gabi’s people asking to clear one of my trio songs for her first EP which turned out to be H.E.R.

I just remember being in awe of her when she was at SOBs as a teenager. She took the music so seriously and she played every instrument and I felt back then, “Yo, she is gonna save the genre of R&B.” I said that back then because even talking to her she is an old head. She is a super old head and she has so much reverence for the history of music in general and not just R&B, but definitely R&B as well.

Sammie

Singer-songwriter

My favorite song thus far by H.E.R. would be “Focus”... that’s truly every woman’s desire. They want a man’s undivided attention so the concept alone draws you in and is very relatable. H.E.R. is extremely gifted, she writes, she plays, she’s a strong live performer as well. I also love that her new success has opened doors for true traditional R&B to be propelled once again, back into mainstream audiences.

Sevyn Streeter

Singer-songwriter

My respect level for an artist such as H.E.R. is at such a peak level because she cares and it shows. Only someone with a deep understanding and admiration for music and creativity can create the way she does. H.E.R.’s ability to sing from her soul but to also play so many instruments from the bottom of her soul speaks to her God-given talent. “Focus” was my introduction to her and I look forward to focusing and enjoying H.E.R.

Shane Adams

Visual Director for H.E.R.

“Losing” is my favorite record by H.E.R. Sonically, it’s such an amazing record and personally, we’ve all been there before. This generation needed music that we could say ‘You don’t know nothin bout dis here.’ 20 years from now to our kids. H.E.R. provides that. I like that we’re growing every day and that the band we’re delivering to the masses is one my family and I can be proud of.

Tone Stith

Singer-songwriter

It was amazing touring with H.E.R. last year. It was great to watch her interact with her people, her band and just how she controls it and she is just like, ‘This is what I want, this is when I want it, this is how I want it.’ My favorite had to be coming out on her set and singing “Could've Been” together because we just get in the moment. It was great being a part of that because that's a real artist and I took a lot from that.

Trevor Jackson

Actor and singer-songwriter

My favorite song from H.E.R. is “Focus” because her voice sounds like butter. Fans love that her raw talent shines through her music, there is no gimmick behind H.E.R..

Van Jess

Singer-songwriting duo

“Focus” has to be one of my favorite songs. It puts you in such a trance. One of those simply beautiful and classic feeling R&B records. I love that she’s got this laid back down-to-earth real energy and is bringing musicality and real vocal talent back in an amazing way. ~ Jessica

“Say It Again” is that song for me. I get so many feels every time, because I can relate to the lyrics. I love that she is herself and has stayed true to who she is as an artist. She’s given us great music thus far, and I’m excited for her next release. I feel like the future of R&B is in good hands. I like how authentic everyone is when it comes to expressing their art. There are so many dope R&B artists out right now. It feels like a renaissance. ~ Ivana

Wyclef Jean

Grammy-winning artist and producer

H.E.R. is that rare artist who is also a super talented musician. She took her time and perfected the craft. Her genuine dedication to real music is reflected in all of her songs.

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