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Love isn’t an afterthought in our current time of self-isolation. The mélange of it all is felt in the spirit of singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. Resting with her family in Toronto in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, her tribe of fans waits patiently for her to jump on Instagram Live. The intimate meetups were provided in the past but with her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us in the ethos, fans are eager for Jessie’s magnetic energy.
One of her Lives, in particular, was life-changing as aspiring artists had the opportunity to sing for her. Diligently listening to every nayhoo, chord, and harmony from Israel, Florida, and Brazil, Jessie gives strong advice to her young fans. From taking advantage of studio time to the perks of platforms like Soundcloud, the gems are passed from one growing artist to another through the telephone screen.
The transfer of loving energy is something that comes easy for Jessie. At 28, the Colombiana embodies the wisdom of her ancestors and wit of a whiskey-toting millennial. The world’s current apocalyptic omens would shake some, but Jessie is focused on the brighter elements of life. “Love can help with actual survival tactics; survival not for the individual but for the community,” she says on her current mindstate around the outbreak. “The only way I think it could hurt us is if we don't think about the community and approach this selfishly. Anyone that’s scared of losing people to this is hard. Every day I’m calling every single one of my elderly family members to make sure they’re good. There are so many celebrities and politicians talking about it so I feel silly reiterating the same information but it’s literally about the curve.”
Our conversation comes days before the release of her debut, a concept album ripened with the everlasting relationship between love and mortality. We have her fans to thank for its release. After an online poll pushed for the album, Jessie committed to the March 27 release date. “I had a hard time too because the title is literally Before Love Came To Kill Us, like, the whole premise of the album was to trigger people into thinking about mortality and now it almost seems like it's a theme song to what everyone is going through. Everybody is thinking about how to survive right now so I’m embracing it because I made the decision to go with it. I've been connecting with fans online, which has been a nice silver lining. I'm not mad at this. It can be worse for me right now.”
The project arrives four years after her breakthrough hit “Figures” lodged a dagger into our musical hearts. With just a guitar and her signature messy up-down hairstyle, Jessie highlights her worst fears—giving love but never receiving it. It made her stand out in 2016 and soon become a notable rising act and fan-favorite alongside fellow newbies like Khalid and SZA.
”I’ve been chasing this sh*t my whole life man, don’t ever think I take this sh*t for granted,” she said during a VEVO Halloween show in 2017. Her debut EP Kiddo proved this with diary-entry songs about her journey in the industry. The harrowing “Gatekeepers” dropped in the middle of the #MeToo movement and pointed out a producer who attempted to pressure the young singer into sleeping with him. The single showcased Jessie’s lethal songwriting skills and her bravery in a competitive, and at times, misogynistic industry.
Jessie’s resilience paired with her unparalleled voice has kept her shining in R&B. With the release of her EP Being Human In Public in late 2018, Reyez began to align herself with other fearless women in the game like Kehlani and Normani. The project, featuring sobering tracks like “F**k Being Friends” and “Sola,” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Despite losing to Lizzo, Jessie’s voice in R&B had finally been heard.
Women of Latinx descent have always been entwined in soul music. Lisa Velez, known for her groundbreaking group Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam in the 1980s, released songs like “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (1985) and “From Head to Toe” (1987) in a time where Latinas were expected to sing in Spanish or constantly keep the party going with 120 bpm tunes. The release of their tender, 1986 ballad “All Cried Out” would go on to be sampled by R&B quartet Allure in 1997. Sheila E.’s vital percussions not only inspired Prince but are also infused into the tracks by Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, and Lionel Richie.
These steps would also go on to enlighten artists like Amy Winehouse and Ms. Lauryn Hill–two pivotal artists who Jessie Reyez looks to for inspiration. With fearless grit, Reyez takes risks like her sheroes. For one, she’s not afraid to tap into her latinidad by singing in Spanish (hear the touching “La Memoria”) and incorporating the Mexican traditions of Día De Los Muertos in her new video for “I Do.” As R&B turns a new corner with acts like H.E.R., Ella Mai, and Tory Lanez topping the charts, Jessie's abilities make her a new leader Latinx R&B heads can stan and the music industry execs can take note of.
The combination of mindfulness and rustic songwriting taps into a new kind of pop star for people of color today. With love taking a new shape through apps, FaceTime dates and social media, the love songs have become more brutal with Reyez hitting every wrapped high note.
Speaking with VIBE VIVA, Jessie shares the tragedy of soulmates, creating Before Love Came To Kill Us, her consistent chemistry with Eminem and the perks of being yourself.
Before Love Came To Kill Us seems to be here at the right time. How are you feeling about the release?
Jessie Reyez: I'm definitely nervous and I hope it's the best it can be, I hope it is. I tweaked the sh*t out of it. I kept loving it Monday and hating it on Tuesday. Then I would love it on Wednesday and hate it on Thursday. It was very tumultuous. I wasn't feeling pressure when I started. I was free. The more you fu**ing talk to people, the more you risk their perspective affecting your core. Like when people say, “Oh, it's your first album, did you feel pressure?” “Uh, Nah.” And then the second person asks I say, “Nah.” But then the tenth person is asking if you let that sh*t seep in. You're getting closer to the zone where you might be second-guessing your intuition and that never ends right.
On top of that, we had certain people being like, “We have to make sure the album is cohesive.” I remember dealing with song selections and having this word in my head. As a human being, my innate nature and soul are sporadic. I am polar. I am high and low. I am a Gemini. I am a loving woman and a violent woman. I am all these things and for me to comprise and make this album cohesive, as opposed to making the first album me? I had a window of clarity where I was like, f**k that. People are gonna cry and people are gonna bop. The same way they did on Kiddo and the same way they did on Being Human In Public. I didn't want to make everybody cry for the sake of having everybody cry. F**k that. If I'm a rainbow, I'm the worst ends of the rainbow. If it's a bloody rainbow then it's gonna be a bloody rainbow, you know?
I enjoyed the highs and lows of the album because that’s what love is. I enjoyed the collaboration with Eminem. How was it hearing his verse for the first time on "Coffin"?
He's actually one of the last features of the album. To be honest, Eminem could've sent me the verse saying “Quack, quack, quack,” and it still would've been dope. He's a legend and to welcome a legend on my project, someone I listened to as a kid, it's an honor. When I got it, and it wasn't “Quack, quack, quack,” I was like, “Ahh this is dope.” It could've been nothing and I still would've been honored. The fact that's it dope it's a double W.
There’s a quote about soulmates I heard on The Good Place. It goes, “If soulmates do exist, they're not found, they're made.” Do you believe in soulmates?
I'm one of those people who are reluctant to love because I know that the moment I do, I'm f**ked. When I say I'm f**ked I mean it's an uphill to get me to fall in love. Once I get there, it's like I'm crawling out of hell. Like a vertical crawl. It's the worst because now I'm at the point where...everybody's great because everybody starts great. I'm trying not to let my past experiences harden my heart. Sometimes it feels like the hell always wins for me. I think it's a beautiful sentiment.
I'm not sure if I believe this anymore but there was a point in my life where I really thought that you choose to love. You choose who you love because it's not always going to be easy. But you fight through it when it's hard because it's not always gonna be there. Some days I'm an optimist and some days I'm a pessimist. It just depends. Today, I guess I'm just indecisive.
Does it ever get annoying being the "deep girl?"
Well, I did when people were telling me to make the album cohesive. But sometimes I just wanna go nuts and it's not that serious, it's just who I am. I definitely feel that sometimes people have that expectation but I think I have that discernment to not let that affect how I'm gonna move. So when Monday and Tuesday show up and I feel like I want to be an intellectual, then on Wednesday I wanna post some ridiculous f**king meme or like Sunday I wanna just mess around with my nieces and put it online, I'm gonna do that. I feel like people expect it but I don't really care (Laughs).
What do you think of people still looking for love via FaceTime dates during the coronavirus outbreak? I don’t understand how dating can be a priority right now.
It's funny how situations like this can pull people in different ways. I was having a conversation with someone about this too and they were like, “How the f**k can you be thinking about this right now?" They had the same reaction as you. I don't know but that's just people are different. If you push someone towards death, some are going to figure out ways to get out and some people are just going to accept that it's the end and they're going to see what else they can do before the end. Go find a King or Queen.
The pandemic put a hold on the music industry and like many other events, your tour with Billie Eilish has been postponed. How were the first two dates you got to do together?
We got to do Orlando and Miami together and that was nice. It was great man, she's got puppies on her rider which has gotta be the smartest most potent way to happiness. To see a little baby puppy everywhere you go while you work, that's been my highlight.
If you had to pick the “Best Part” and “Worst Part” of your life, what gets put on the table?
The best part is (pauses) not dealing with slimy dudes anymore, like when I was a bottle service girl/bartender. There were a lot of times where I had to bite my tongue and just thug it out. Especially when I was a bottle service girl, that job is f**king hard. At least when you're a bartender, you have the bar standing in the way, so there's a little bit of protection against you. But the bottle service girl, you're in the trenches. You have to slide through there and cover your ass because guys will slap your ass and be matter-o-facto, it's a f**king jungle and I'm happy I went through it because it made me thicker skinned and it made me hustle more.
The worst part would be (pauses) I read this often in books, the f**ked up part is that when you get everything you want and you're still not happy. There are a lot of things I have been blessed with; a career right now that's blossoming right now and I've been blessed to help out people in my family financially, but I still battle a lot of demons internally that I haven't been able to grab a hold of yet. There are just times on the road where I'm like, “I gotta figure it out.” I gotta figure out how to make my psychological health a priority because as good as my brain and my heart are, I wonder, "Am I doing life right?"
It’s so amazing to watch you grow. How do you keep yourself so centered?
When I started, I made it a point to be as authentic as possible. From the jump, it's been that and I owe a lot of that to my parents. My family was very strict in regard to me not being able to go to sleepovers, not having boyfriends, being raised in a Colombian household in Canada because kids are allowed to do whatever they want but you're not.
Your a** is still getting beat, your ass is still in the house. So that's the case with a lot of minorities, the culture is just different in regards to what we're allowed and not allowed to do as kids. I wasn't allowed to do a lot of sh*t but the stuff I was allowed to do was through self-expression. Even if I wasn't allowed to go to sleepovers, have a boyfriend or leave the block, I was still allowed to wear all my brother's clothes. If I didn't wanna wear any girl clothes, it was fine. I was still allowed to bleach my bangs if I wanted to bleach my bangs.
My dad was prepared for me to cut my hair off and dye it pink, I used to take the old curtains my mom was going to give away and chop them up and make dresses and make hairpieces and all this sh*t and if I wanted to go to school like that I was allowed. My parents were very liberal in that regard, allowing me to spend time writing and doing poetry all day.
I remember once when we moved, they were taking down the (switch border light). The place we moved into had a ton of those that were metal and embellished and my mom hated them so then she took them all down. They all had them downstairs in a box and I took the whole box and brought them to my room. I thought it would be so dope if I took them and hammered them all over my room. So my mom came in and saw and was like, “What the hell did she do? This looks ridiculous but okay.”
Now, I'm grown. If I feel like someone is telling me what to wear, or if I feel like someone is strongly suggesting I need to be in this, the first thing I think of is, “My parents don't tell me what to wear. You think you're gonna tell me what to wear?” I've had that feeling of self-expression since I was a kid. That's not something I'm willing to give up cause I know that it was a gift from my parents. A lot of kids have that repression. You have to make sure your hair looks like this, your shoes are f**king this, all that sh*t and I didn't have that. So I honor it by being true to myself now.
The premiere episode of Starz’s seminal New York City crime drama, Power, introduced a world that is now blaringly unfamiliar nearly six years later. A very married James and Tasha St. Patrick walk hand-in-hand into the opening of Truth nightclub. Tasha and her best friend LaKeisha are thick as thieves, bonding over drinks and designer threads. James’ drug-toting alter-ego, Ghost, commits a brutal murder within the first ten minutes. Ghost’s partner-in-crime, Tommy, is eyeing a red-haired waitress named Holly. Tariq St. Patrick adorably tries to con his dad into doing his Spanish homework. And after 18 years, James has a chance encounter with an old flame, Angela Valdez; the two trade googly eyes and jokes about the old ‘hood while knowing little to nothing about each other’s current lives.
Yet, some things about that very episode bear a striking resemblance to the show’s sixth and final season. Before turning into a cold-blooded killer himself, Ghost scolds Tommy for cavalierly bringing street drama to Truth. Ghost’s flashbacks of his murderous act turn to lovemaking with Tasha into a moment of animalistic catharsis. Tommy lets out a hearty laugh at Ghost’s dream of “growing up, going legit and living happily ever after.” Tariq naively questions how his dad even learned to speak Spanish. Tasha watches dreadfully from across the room as a visibly enamored James takes Angela’s phone number. Angela defends abandoning her and James’ teenage courtship with a foreshadowing truth: “I would’ve dropped everything for you. Everything my parents worked for, everything I’d worked for.”
Ultimately, the old and new worlds combust, leaving the death of James “Ghost” St. Patrick in their wake.
“The show kind of told its own end,” says Courtney Kemp, Power’s creator and showrunner. “If you’re writing for as long as we have, the characters start to tell their own stories after a while. You’re not really as much in control of them as you think. There are certain things that they do and certain things that they don’t do, certain things that they will and won’t say and do, and so you go with where the story is leading you.” But how does a bevy of creatives stay in-tune enough with a fictional world to relinquish control and allow for natural progression? Apparently, with an incredible amount of empathy—even for the story’s most devious.
Omari Hardwick describes his Power character, James “Ghost” St. Patrick, as “dynamic,” “duplicitous,” “big,” “angelic,” and “magnanimous.” Try your luck at adding “narcissist” to that list of adjectives, and Hardwick will stop you in your tracks. “I would say that he’s maybe the most empathetic character in the entire story,” he says. “He went to a little white boy—who was the only white boy in the neighborhood—and to a girl who hid powder and drugs for him, and said, ‘We could be more.’ He didn’t say ‘I could be more,’ he said ‘We can be more.’ By the end of the series he says, ‘Tommy, I got more.’ And that’s only after asking Tommy a million times to believe in we. Tommy said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ Tasha said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ But Ghost kept saying ‘we;’ he never said ‘I.’ Eventually he said ‘I.’ Eventually. The narcissism was a growth pattern.”
This level of humanity has been a part of Hardwick’s approach since the very beginning of his career. With roots in poetry and hip-hop, Hardwick asserts that affinity for the human plight is necessary for artists of any kind. “Those that are natural at this—those that look like they were pulled off the side of the road and made for every character they play—that natural thing is as synonymous with empathy as anything else that makes you a naturally good artist.” Even with the early knowledge that Ghost would either die or go to jail, Hardwick insists that treating James St. Patrick as finite would be against the ethos he brings to his craft. “I would imagine that you do a disservice immediately to the character if you’re thinking about that. I’ve always been an actor who believes that a character can’t be known until the job is actually completed.”
If viewers tally up what they know about Ghost, the math may not check out on the side of righteousness, even after Power’s final curtain call. Twenty murders. One failed marriage. One fallen mistress. One child lost, another scorn. And if one say, Googled the traits of a narcissist, Ghost would certainly fit the profile. Inflated sense of importance. Entitlement and need for admiration. Obsession with success, power and finding perfection in a mate. Manipulative for the sake of their own interests. Unwilling to consider the feelings of others. Hardwick, however, proposes that we look at more than just figures and textbook symptoms.
“He grew up with no mom,” the actor points out. “There’s no father introduced to Ghost. There’s no uncles, no brothers, none of that; he’s just got surrogate people all around him. The only family we know of Ghost is the one he made with Tasha. That’s the only family we know. His major overriding insecurity is that he’s still on a search, not only for betterment, but first to be better, you gotta know who the f**k you are!” This staunch ability to come to Ghost’s defense suggests that Hardwick, in fact, succeeded in his personification of such a labyrinthine figure.
No less confounding is Ghost’s right-hand man Tommy Egan, whose on-screen rap sheet boasts upwards of 30 murders—including his ex-girlfriend and his father. Crimes of passion, albeit often misguided, carved Tommy into an “emotional gangsta,” calling into question the difference between brutality and heartlessness. For actor Joseph Sikora, the lines are not so fine. “I think sometimes people make the mistake of saying Tommy is a sociopath,” he says. “Which of course he couldn't possibly be because of how emotional he is and how much he is present in all aspects of his life, even if it is murder.”
“Even if it is murder.” The phrase alone is striking evidence of a connection Sikora has grown to his fictional counterpart. “I feel like it's the only way to be in a relationship with a character, is to make it intimate so you know all the dynamics of that person's personality and thought process,” he notes.
Similar to Hardwick, Sikora—who Hardwick affectionately refers to as his “very talented Scottie Pippen”—urges Tommy’s critics to consider his character’s origin story. According to the actor, Tommy’s volatility is an asset on the streets, and a liability in his relationships. “[Tommy’s emotions] also can be his downfall with trying to build his family and find love, probably because of the lack of love he had from his mother growing up and then obviously growing up with a father who was absent,” he says. “A lot of that comes out of him trying to fill those holes.” Ultimately, Sikora brings it back to the beating heart of the matter. “I think Tommy Egan's legacy is that there's humanity in everyone. That everybody needs love. And sometimes, maybe not even sometimes, all the time, it's that you can always judge the action but you should hold back from judging the man.”
An intentional feat by Kemp, Power’s enduring dichotomy finds nobility and savagery in a constant tug-of-war, making it difficult to crown any of its characters as a hero or villain at any given scene. This tension finds the show forsaking the black-and-white, and existing in the grey. Still, any defense of murder and treachery remains jarring—for everyone except Kemp, that is. “Well, I guess the question I have for you is, why is that surprising though? They don't watch the show like you do.” Fine. Checkmate. “They're reading the scripts and they're having to inhabit the character. So, of course, they have to be invested. And plus, when you write well, every character is in their own positive intention. There is no such thing as a villain. There is no such thing as evil.” The proposed absence of evil hasn’t stopped the show’s audience from finding characters they love to hate, however.
For many fans, Michael Rainey Jr.’s portrayal of Tariq St. Patrick was worthy of picking a switch. The once innocent, wide-eyed son of Power’s principal character is led into darkness by his father’s former mentor, Kanan Stark. Under Kanan’s street tutelage and through the revelation of Ghost’s distortion of their family life, Tariq begins a marathon of crime and disrespect that succeeds at getting under the skin of viewers—a fact that Rainey Jr. is proud of. “Actually, all of this feels like an achievement,” he says between elated laughter. “If people are in tune and they're engaging with my character, then it makes me feel good. No matter if they hate my character, I love my character. But I feel like if you could make an audience hate you then that's a good thing.”
Less likely to be categorized by viewers as a “good thing,” is Tariq’s own track record, which, though less extensive than Ghost’s, culminates with an unthinkable deed: the murder of his own father. Still, Rainey Jr.’s voice is somehow filled with assurance when describing Tariq’s love for the elder St. Patrick. “It was just hard for him to show how much love he has for his father since his father is disappointing him so much,” he says. “It's his father at the end of the day, so he still has a lot of love for him, but he also just doesn't really know how to show it and he's just kind of lost in it.” Even as a younger thespian, Rainey Jr. enacts the same compassion for his character as his more seasoned peers, using his own life as a driving force.
“Ghost and Tariq’s relationship is kind of similar to me and my father's relationship,” he reveals. “That's a reason I really relate to those scenes with Ghost and Tariq where they're really going at each other because that's something real in my life.” Though the St. Patrick’s father-son fissure suffered a bloody ending, Rainey Jr. points to the admonition in their story. “I feel if they watch it, then they could learn from it. Just because you don't have the best relationship with your father, it doesn't mean you should rebel and act the same way,” he warns. “I feel like there's always a way around things. And if you just talk things out, and just hear each other out and listen, then I feel like things could get straightened out and you can have a healthy relationship.”
Coming in second on the “Power’s most hated” list, is Andre Coleman, the series’ resident slithering snake. After rising in street ranks from Ghost and Kanan’s protege to running a drug operation of his own, Dre’s fall from grace lands him breaking a cardinal rule: snitching to authorities. Witness protection aside, actor/singer Rotimi Akinosho still holds his character in (very) high regard. “This is a kid that was a corner kid with Kanan and ends up being the most sought after character because he has taken everything from Ghost, Kanan, and Tommy and has forced them to be a group, to work together to bring him down. No one else on the show has had a trajectory like that.” Akinosho is also very adamant about his criticism of Ghost—to whom he insists Dre owes nothing.
“I feel like they both are very narcissistic, but I think that the difference is that Dre genuinely, genuinely wants to do the best for his daughter,” he says. “I think with Ghost, he's so caught up in his self and the narcissism in himself that he doesn't see anything or anybody's side of anything. Everything is somebody else's fault.” Ask Akinosho if he believes Dre is a better father than Ghost, and his answer is, “One-thousand percent.” How then, does he justify Dre committing a blood-splattering murder with his daughter in his arms? Necessity, of course. The “Love Riddim” crooner, like his other castmates, is a sworn defender of his character’s sanctity.
“With Dre, it's literally two sides of him, where he's the killer, but then when he's with his daughter, he's the softest, most caring person and wants what's truly the best for her. And so, I think the motive of fatherhood is different, you know?”
Kemp has previously cited parenting as a leading theme on Power. From Ghost, Tariq and Raina, to Tasha and Tariq, to Dre and Heaven, to LaKeisha and Cash, the definition of “mother” or “father” is contorted to reveal a spectrum of light and darkness. In the single most sinister display of parenting, Kanan, played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, murders his son, Shawn, in cold blood. The scene immediately called to mind 50 Cent’s relationship with his real-life eldest son, Marquise Jackson, who he’s been estranged from for nearly a decade.
While the rapper-turned-actor has been candid about using his own life to fuel his character’s interactions with Shawn, his father-son divide was also a driving force in Kanan’s scenes with Tariq. Accessing another facet of his strained relationship with Marquise, 50 Cent taps into his son’s penchant for making friends out of his father’s enemies. “The intention was to kill [Tariq] on that couch [in season three]. But when I found out he doesn’t like his father, I’m like, ‘Wait, slow down,’” 50 says. “The relationship is actually the one my oldest son builds with anybody he sees me argue with.”
On the whole, the parallels between 50 Cent’s storied journey and Power’s plot doesn’t end at his parental hardships. For the South Jamaica, Queens native, the show is closer to home than any of his castmates; in fact, Kemp would often call him to discuss his former life of crime while writing episodes of the series. With this level of intimacy, it was no wonder that 50 upped the ante from executive producer, to actor, to director by the show’s final season. In his directorial debut, empathy may have played its biggest role yet in his work. “A big part of directing is being able to communicate or give an alternative description of the emotional piece of the performance,” he says. Per usual, he attacked this new role like he’s attacked everything: by striking a nerve. This time, with Alani “La La” Anthony.
In the third episode of season six, Anthony’s character LaKeisha Grant is out on a limb while aiding Tommy in the kidnapping of Alicia Jimenez, a drug lord in federal custody. As Keisha makes her way inside of the courthouse, 50 Cent compels Anthony to dig deep by likening her son, Kiyan Anthony, to Keisha’s son, Cash. “I told her, ‘La, when you get to the top of the steps, you realize that Cash... that’s Kiyan. And there’s not gonna be anybody here to take care of him if once you decide to go through that door, it doesn't go right,’” he whispers, reenacting the moment. “I’m giving her a note using her actual son as a character.”
Likely, a purposeful choice by Kemp, Keisha’s final display of motherhood ends in the character’s death, as Tasha thwarts Keisha’s plan to drop a dime on Tommy and run off with Cash by lodging a bullet in her chest. “It was poetic,” Anthony says of the scene. “And it was tough to shoot too, because we've had such a journey on the show, Naturi’s character and mine, as friends. To see it come down to this was very sad and hurtful.” The showdown, which finds actress Naturi Naughton committing Tasha’s first on-screen murder, also finds Anthony at her most vulnerable. “To see two mothers come down to that and as Keisha was laying there pleading for her life, she's saying, ‘What about Cash?’ Like, what about my son? That was heartbreaking because that's just a mother's love.”
If Power does indeed serve as a commentary on motherhood, Naughton says it shows how painful of a duty it can be. “Motherhood requires us to become superhuman. And I think that every superhero sometimes gets hit. Every superhero sometimes falls or their wings don't always open up the right way. Or their cloak doesn't always help them fly. I think people forget we're also human sometimes. That's why it is so painful because you have to put on a mask at times and be a superhero for our kids.” For Tasha, being a superhero for Tariq finds her looking her son in the eye, and uttering a line that sends shockwaves: “Alright Tariq, I’ma teach you the game,” a move even Naughton didn’t expect. “That was a moment where I was a little shocked and taken aback. Like, ‘Wait a minute, what?’ I had to turn the page and reread it.”
“Sometimes I want to tell Tasha, ‘Tariq just needs a good ol’ whooping! What are you doing protecting him?!,’” she says. “I think that's Tasha's flaw, that she's blinded by love for her son. And I think that's something that she will have to suffer for.”
Suffering, according to Naughton, has become a way of life for her character. “I think that Tasha has emotionally been dragged through the mud, honestly,” she says. She also notes, however, that much of Tasha’s suffering comes at her own hand—or heart, rather. “In a lot of ways Tasha's deep love for even Ghost, even after he dogged her, cheated, she was still the one sitting up at court. Still, the one trying to raise money to get him bail money. She's still the one that was lying for him to protect him whenever he was under fire. Tasha's love of course for her son is also blinding. I think that's her flaw.” So what, then, does Power teach us about love? Naughton’s answer is swift: “That love will get you killed out here in these streets.”
But Naughton doesn’t want anguish to be the point of Tasha’s tale. “I hope that Tasha signifies the strengths of us as black women, the resilience that we possess,” she says.
Finality is a new idea to attach to a show that has run for six seasons. For the actors, there’s a wider rear view of what each of them hopes the show and their characters will represent. It’s just not that simple for Kemp, who has already begun working on Power’s spinoff, Power Book II: Ghost, starring Mary J. Blige and Method Man.
“I cannot step back from the show and say that I know what the legacy is,” she admits. “What I can tell you is that the show is about, ultimately, 50 Cent, my dad, the election of Obama, what it means to be a black man in America, what it means to be a father, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a son or a daughter, what it means to be Black, what it means to be white, what it means to be brown or Asian. It's about race. It's about culture. It's about music. I mean, it's all those things, but I can't tell you what our lasting legacy will be.”
Photographer: Karl Ferguson Jr.
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Vince Patrick and Jason Chandler
Makeup Artists: Julia Jovone (50 Cent, Rotimi, Joseph Sikora), Autumn Moultrie (Courtney A. Kemp), AJ Crimson (Naturi Naughton), Sheika Daley (La La Anthony), and Vanessa Scali (Lela Loren)
Hair Stylists: Johnny Wright (Courtney A. Kemp), Aviva Perea (Lela Loren), Alexander Armand (Naturi Naughton), and Ray Dodson (La La Anthony)
Wardrobe Stylists: Christina Pacelli (Courtney A. Kemp), Merced Jackson (Rotimi, Joseph Sikora, 50 Cent), Alyssa Sutter Studios (Lela Loren), Brian Mcphatter (Naturi Naughton), and Maeve Reilly (La La Anthony)
As black as Queen & Slim seems on its glossy exterior, there's another layer to explore beyond the blackness, a level of self-awareness that both protagonists endure that encapsulates the heart of those that relate on a spiritual plane. To see the realization of that happen in real-time at the highly-anticipated film’s star-studded premiere afterparty at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel is something you wouldn’t soon forget.
Snoop Dogg walks through, Janelle Monae is over there, Tracee Ellis-Ross’ illuminating smile turns heads, Rihanna flicks it up with stans, all while the fearless foursome of the movie’s screenwriter Lena Waithe (creator of Showtime's The Chi), director Melina Matsoukas (of HBO’s Insecure and Beyonce music video directing fame), and stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) and new stunner Jodie Turner-Smith bask in the accolades and appreciation. So much so, that there is a moment where the movie’s many co-stars (Bokeem Woodbine is stellar as "Uncle Earl") and fellow Hollywoodites stare in awe as Turner-Smith takes pics and b-lines to her reserved section where her mom and family welcome her with open arms. Clad in an all-black skintight number, Turner-Smith shakes what her momma gave her in a happy two-step victory dance that looks like a “Momma I Made It!” commercial.
And rightfully so. Kaluuya watches proudly from the stage, as does Waithe and a beautiful middle-aged black woman from public relations rushes up, hands shaking from nervousness and bursts into tears while speaking to Turner-Smith. “You have no idea how much joy you gave me seeing you with your brown glowing skin, strong stance and grace. You. Gave. Me. Strength!” Turner-Smith takes in the energy, delivers a hug and love right back before she gets emotional. Her task of breaking through the screen to touch hearts is seemingly accomplished. Yet, her job of explaining how she and Kaluuya brought this universal gem of a tale to life starts now and will continue for them both as their performances elicit a certain soul-stirring bond for viewers that will stick with them for eternity.
Earlier that same night presented the most Hollywood of movie premieres for Queen & Slim. You know the setup: the hustle and bustle of overzealous security guards, stressed-out public relations reps trying to wrangle talent from the hangers-on in tow of celebrities that barely know where to go or which camera to look into while on the red carpet. Then there's the air of VIP status from everyone else in attendance, scrambling on check-in lines for prime viewing seats and after-party wristbands so they can drink the spirits and the night of celebration away. The scene at the legendary TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd., for the early view, rebels on the run film was no different. Well...maybe it was for a bit this unusually chilly November night.
Before the movie starts in front of the dark cavernous 900-plus seater with only the stage area lit, Waithe and her choice in director and good friend, Matsoukas address the crowd. Both have heartfelt words to impart to one another, the audience and the lead actors Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The British thespians stand next to them, while Waithe and Matsoukas wax poetic on the two that create the world that Queen and Slim navigate through so thoroughly.
Waithe’s short-cropped haircut and orange and blue tapered slacks and fitted jacket takes to the podium and loves on the satin-white-suited Kaluuya: “With a single look, you can break my heart. With a single movement, you can make me feel like I’ve known you all my life. You don’t just disappear into roles, you morph into the human being you’re playing, because you’re not playing. You’re doing the impossible, you’re existing in celluloid so that we as a people can never be forgotten. You are not an icon awaiting, but an icon already...we love you and thank you for sharing your gift with us.” There's a loving embrace between Waithe and Kaluuya, surrounded by well-deserved applause.
Then Matsoukas steps up in a hunter green leather pantsuit, long bob hairstyle and shines a light on Tinseltown's newest black woman lead in Turner-Smith, who's rocking a sheer lavender gown with 1920s Billie Holiday finger waves. “Jodie, our Queen, this was the role of a lifetime and not only did you take it on and exceeded all of our expectations, the moment we saw your face, we knew it was you," Matsoukas said. "When you walked into the room for your chemistry read with Daniel, he shrank. Not because he felt small, but because he knew he was in the presence of royalty. [Wild applause] Your stride, your skin, your power can’t be forced. You are walking joy. So for you to play a woman that liked living in the dark, that doesn’t smile easily and doesn’t like to let people in, is truly a master class in acting. Your performance is stunning. We are so honored to introduce you to the world. Thank you for trusting us with your gift. We love you and we know the rest of the world will too.” More applause, more hugs and more screams of positive affirmations flood the venue.
Queen & Slim's production is rather rare in its make-up when you analyze the team that put it together. Waithe, a Chicago repper, is a certified star of writing (Queen & Slim is her first movie screenplay), acting and producing, being the creator of a hit cable series and part of successful productions (Netflix's Master Of None, NBC’s This Is Us, BET’s Boomerang). The New York native, Matsoukas is a directing vet in the music and television world, but Queen & Slim is her directorial film debut. This project screams breakthrough for not only those two, but also for both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The main characters are in new positions as Turner-Smith’s first leading role and Kaluuya’s first executive producing shot. Understand, this cinematic offering rarity is majority woman-led and black woman-led at that.
Being in prime production position to cheer for from the get-go is what has everyone so wild with enthusiasm about Q&S. The movie trailer, in its present-day setting is fast-paced, glossy and gritty all at once. You see the slick old school ride with big chrome rims, Queen’s thigh-high snakeskin boots, dirt and gravel paved country roads, lush greenery that speeds by in blinks, Slim’s velour sweatsuit so synonymous with parking lot pimpin’ pros from the aughts era that you’d think he was a rapper first and not on the run. Yet, all of the glitter to gain your attention is slashed with what the movie is here to do for you...for us, as a people. “We wanted this to be a love letter to blackness,” Waithe shares at the premiere. What she means by that is how the little things throughout the viewing experience will trigger nuances that attach to damn near every aspect of black life you can live out. The food, the attitudes, the dancing, the words, the rhythm of walk [Queen glides in scenes with the strides of a Gazelle], the tension, the music [the soundtrack will make you dance in the aisle], the love, the anger, the softness, the humor, the confusion, the pure black assed blackness you can’t wash off and you’ll understand it even more so if you are black.
Two days after premiere night's bright lights, the fearless foursome and various supporting cast members are jetting from suite to suite for press interviews. They're all hunkered down on the second floor of Hollywood’s lavishly-laced The London Hotel of Young Thug and J. Cole song fame. Kaluuya is in a friendly state, interacting with hotel staff on the elevator. “Pardon my Bluetooth speaker playing, I need this song right now,” he states with wit. He later admits that the song was probably one by Travis Scott. Waithe passes by in haste to another interview when we say, “Great job on the film, Lena. It’s a hit.” She replies warmly with her hand over her heart, “Why thank you…” No...thank you.
After our photo shoot at the hotel, Turner-Smith appears in elegant style. Still, in the salmon-hued double lapel blazer we shot her in, her face is full of quick smizes and her energy refreshed by a few bites of lunch. We sit and chat on the balcony of the press suite. She's exhausted but ready.
Jodie, seeing you and your family interact at the premiere party felt like a family reunion. Can you share what that moment was like for you?
It's so funny because it made me immediately think of how my mom and my stepdad came to visit me on set in New Orleans. It was so special for them. When I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, they didn't know what the hell I was doing or why. They’re Jamaican and they were very concerned. They were like, "This is not a plan." When they came to New Orleans [where Queen & Slim was filmed] to see me, they had a chance to actually see me work. I rented this house in the Garden District and I remember one day coming home from set and we all started dancing in the living room. It was the first time we did something like that. What I love about my parents and Jamaican families is that exuberance we have, which I think is where I get my joy from, my energy and my attitude. They're just like very fun-loving people, but I had never really interacted with my parents in that way because when you're a kid it's like you need to be seen and not heard, you need to do what you need to do. For them, I feel like to celebrate with me in that way, it was like how far we'd come in our relationship and how far I thought...like they trusted, and what joy that I had come in my life. When I was dancing with my mom at the premiere, it just made me think of that day in New Orleans when we danced together.
It makes me so happy that they can see me doing this and feel proud of me because really that's worth everything.
(Wipes tears from her eyes) I'm so emotional.
Yes, that's beautiful. And then just as your emotions are coming out now, right after that moment, you start to mingle with everyone else and a woman comes up to you as I'm about to approach you and she starts crying.
Oh, my God.
Yes, I do.
And you were trying to console her, but she was going on and on about how your character was strong throughout the film and gave her so much strength and how beautiful you were in how you moved within the film.
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thursday night was better than anything i could have expected!!! ✨ i’m still so blown away by the fact that i was chosen to be a part of this very special film and i cannot wait for you all to see it!!! a very special thank you to @alessandro_michele #gucci for making me into a fierce mermaid queen 👑💜
Do you understand as much as you've made your family proud, how many other women, especially women that don't get the representation that you're putting on screen, do you know how much you're representing for them?
I mean, I'm starting to see it. Wow, I'm just like a mess. I'm sorry, you're making me cry.
Oh, my goodness. Take your time. It was such a beautiful moment to see because she just started pouring her heart out. You're taking this energy, you know, from this woman that was just obviously wowed by your performance.
Honestly, you think about it in a way, in a smaller way because...when they were casting this role, they wanted a specific kind of woman for this movie. You think about that because I'm a black woman, I'm a dark-skinned black woman. I think about what I grew up seeing, what I didn't see growing up, and what it felt like when I did see someone who I thought that I could relate to, just living their life on screen.
For everyone to see, you know? So that wasn't lost on me that. There's going to be people that felt like I felt when I was younger and that first time that I saw someone that was like me. I have definitely thought about that before, but you can never really account for what it feels like when someone stands in front of you, when they are so moved. I was just so humbled by that because I really understand that what that's coming from is that I allow myself to be a vessel for Queen's truth, and for who that woman was created to be. I know that because I know that in order to do it so many times, I have to tell myself that I have to get out of the way because if I try to do this through the lens of who I am, I would be lost and confused. There were so many times where I just had to be like, "I surrender to the story. I surrender to the process. I surrender to the leader's vision because I trust her so much that she knows what she's doing and how she's doing it." It's just really beautiful to be able to be a vessel for that because I know that in many ways, it's not about me.
I know that it's happening because I was able to be that vessel. I'm humbled and glad. I remember when we were making the film that there would be small times and moments where people on set would say something to me and it would make me feel like if even one person had a response like that. Like I've done something, I did something.
I don't know what I did, but I did something. It's such a privilege to be given the opportunity to make us feel something. I feel a lot, as you can tell. I'm just here weeping.
Well, it's beautiful. Throughout the film, what you get to see is a strong black woman who fights for others’ rights and is dealing with so much past trauma.
Listen, trauma. It's so funny because I was talking to someone about it. I was saying it's interesting how certain things that you experience, whether you believe in God or not, certain things that you experience will make you feel God. Love, you know what I mean? Trauma, tragedy. All those things will make you feel—
Joy. Hope. "I'm not a prayer person." You'll always hear that [from others]. "I don't usually do it, I don't usually talk to you [God], but I'm going to talk to you now because..." So interesting how whatever you believe that God is, we all feel God.
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ALL THIS CHOCOLATE. @queenandslim premiere. #AFIFEST
Yes indeed. Did you believe that it was destiny for you to be able to have your breakout role with Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas where everyone seems to be in a new position with their firsts: Lena's screenplay, Melina's directorial debut and Daniel's first big executive position?
Definitely. It feels way too special to just be. I don't really believe in coincidence. And the way that everything has happened in my life, especially for the last 10 years of living in L.A. and the way I've seen things happen, it's like everything has been like this. It's always like this culmination of being. I went to business school so what they teach you in business school was that success is about positioning yourself to get lucky. It's not just about how hard you work. It is also about a little bit of luck. To position yourself to catch the luck when it comes. There have been so many things that I've done and it was doing that, where I was just, without even knowing, because I was never attached to what it would look like if I was positioning myself to one day find myself in an opportunity like this. When it happened, I need to sit and sit with them and hear them talk and hear them say that they knew when I walked in that I was Queen. This whole thing has been a meditation and remembering that yes, you deserve this, you earned this, you're supposed to be here.
It's okay to embrace that.
And Daniel would always tell me that, too. I see now that I've gotten through the process and the experience of that, that we're all kind of evolving in our relationship together and with the filmmakers. Someone very close to me watched the movie and said to me, “When I watched that movie, I saw how much Melina trusted you.” It's something that even I didn't realize while I was doing it.
The iconic imagery of it, like the photo, everyone wearing your shirt, you know that's going to happen immediately after this film.
Everyone loves the shirt already. I have a box of merch, my family, my friends. I mean everyone.
They were handing it out after the after-party.
Yeah, my aunt puts on the T-shirt...I'll tell you my mom was so upset. She said, "Why are you putting that on over your outfit?" My aunt said, “I don't care, I'm wearing this.” It's so dope to be a part of a film that I feel like we've made for the people and the people love it.
And the messaging of it. Do you feel like there are different layers as far as self-love? Police brutality?
Yes. I feel like that speaks to blackness in that it's like you have love, right? Then you have this violence, you have this trauma. For example, the love scene is intercut with the riot.
It's such an example of what it means to be black and the black experience because here you have black love existing and thriving. Meanwhile, there's this violence and turmoil and the way that Melina cut that scene. It was always written that way that it would be intercut, but the way that she cut that scene and made it like poetry. Then to see these two black people making love and it was sensual, passionate, and urgent. Nothing about it felt hyper-sexualized and animal, which is usually how it is. And especially for myself, I came from modeling and doing music videos. It's like the way that people always want to depict and I'd be like myself is in a way that's animal.
And look, all of those things exist in us. Whereas humans, we're also animals. But it's often just being depicted in that way, in a way that is not about the art of it or even it's not about the agency, it is that this is the lens through which the person who is trying to take your picture or capture you sees you.
Just the way they got the look on there, too. Lit beautifully, the cinematography is amazing.
The cinematographer was a white man, Pat Radcliffe. Melina said something that I thought was so interesting, too. He never gave us any limitations of color because some people say, "Oh, you know, you don't want to put black people in white because then we don't know how to fu**ing light it." And it's like no, this man knows how. To me, things like that, that's being a white ally.
When you and your craft understand, like our makeup artists. My makeup artist is a white woman. That woman in the beginning of the movie, I remember the first time I said, “Oh, you know what? She's the truth.” [It] was when she did my makeup and when I came to the end of the day to take my makeup off, I was like, “Oh, it's still my face.”
It wasn't much different. Whereas toward the end of the movie, because she was creating a story with our faces because as we were on the run, everything was trauma. She started creating the trauma on our face as well, you know? The stress. By the end, I would take my makeup off and say, “Oh, thank God. That wasn't my face," because I was like, “Oh, I look fu**ed up.”
Queen going through it.
"I'm tired, girl, what's going on?" Melina, after a set point in the movie, said, "You have to be ashy." And I was like...wait a minute, “Melina, what?” She said, “You're on the run. You're not going to be lotioned up.” I said, “Melina.” I'd have to sneak lotion in the morning before I came to work. I could never put lotion on at work. I looked awkward, too, like “Baby, you're ashy.”
When I watched your Today Show interview, you said it usually takes you about four hours to read a script, but you read this one in an hour? What part of that hour did you say, "All right, I'm in?"
There were no breaks. I just wanted to know what happened next. At the end, I said, "What? We're going to make time work." Especially after Get Out. I'm sitting there like, "All right, cool." [Black] Panther hadn't come out yet. Widows hadn't come out here, and I'd got Panther and Widows pre-Get Out, coming out.
I realized that "Oh, after Get Out, I need to be very purposeful. It's going to say a lot about me, what I do after that." It just felt like I really wanted this to go, "When I'm more responsible for my career, this is how I move, this is the direction I want to step into." It was after filming it that it came to me.
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Slim in The Underground, 2019. By Andre D. Wagner. #QueenAndSlim
What made you say, "I'm going to step into this role”?
I felt a kinship to the source material. I wanted to help it get over the line and do what it needs to do, but also it's understanding the frustration and the disappointment in so many films that you'd hear about being from England, being from London, black films that you'd hear about and they never make it to the cinemas.
And they just said, "Oh, they don't travel. They don't this. They don't that." And feeling a responsibility to go, "I want to change that narrative and say no." Not necessarily other films that are way more specific than, I don't know, a Great Debaters or a Menace II Society. They travel, they managed to make it through. They managed to get a nationwide release and there's not a pressure for them to make money in order for them to be valid. I felt a responsibility to go, "Listen, I need to be part of those conversations." And also to support these women, I was helping out with a script. There's a lot of the stuff that's in the script that's from conversations me and Lena have had. I was the first person to read it.
Whoa. She felt like it was for you?
No, not at all. We were just in conversation. We were talking and chilling and then she said what she was working on. Then she sent it to me and said, "I'd love for you to read it." Then I said, "I want to play Slim." We just had early conversations. I read it before Melina, so it was that kind of situation.
Now that you are an executive producer on it, why did you name your company 59%?
It's the win rate of Billy Beane in Moneyball. I love Moneyball, I feel like my life is Moneyball.
Because I had to think differently to get what I need to do, to do what I need to do.
To act, you had to think differently?
Because I'm black.
But also, hold on. If you're out here [in America], you're not just black. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, has said something along the lines of "the black British guys get the best roles." But, it’s as though you had to...
It's not... Not only I'm black, but I also come from a background where... I was on free school meals. People don't know to understand the nuance of the British experience and what it's really like. I couldn't afford drama school. So this perception I'm coming in with like, "You're benefiting from XYZ," I don't. I couldn't afford the privilege that I'm supposed to have had. So there's this self-education that I've had to have had and have to think differently before I could even think about working in America. I had to have a 10-year career. I've got to get my mom situated. I've got to get my family financially supported and have a foundation in order to even think about living my dreams. And that's the same with Damson Idris, John Boyega, Letitia Wright. We're all a wave of people that didn't go to conventional drama school.
But that label is there because of what—
But that's the problem: we're misrepresented. And that's a parallel, we're told who we are. You didn't even have a conversation with me about it. That's what I'm trying to say, I have to then take that in and go, "All right, cool. Dah dah dah dah dah," and try and go, "That's not who I am,” and still navigate that space. That goes about thinking differently and seeing the game differently.
Things really shifted in me when I stopped playing the conventional game and tried to do what everyone else is doing and go, "Listen, I'm not competing with anyone but myself. And my past. And the stuff I want to do. That's it."
What 59% represents is... I Googled all my favorite football managers, like soccer, football managers that I love, and over a 40-year career, the best managers, their win rate was 59 percent. I said, "This is a through-line in here and this is what winning actually looks like. This is because the winning is in the win. The win is the journey, and the fulfillment and satisfaction you have on that journey." So I said, "How you think differently when an obstacle or something's trying to derail you, is actually an opportunity to grow, and figure it out." At the end of the day, no one's 100 percent. It's just how you show up the next day. There's always another game and I love that metaphor.
Did you gravitate toward him in that way because of the transition he made?
Well, yeah man, there's an evolution there. And I think it's an interest in meditation and the interrogation of black masculinity. What does that mean to be hard? The parallels between Slim and Uncle Earl, he's the one that's outwardly, overtly what someone would go, "That's that guy." But look at the turmoil he has gone through. Look at what he does when he's intoxicated. Look at the hurt he inflicts to people that he supposedly loves. Then Slim is seen as the more vulnerable sensitive type, but he's there for his woman.
He called his family. That was an important thing for him to get to his family.
Exactly. He just wants to be with his family and there's strength in that. There's strength in wanting to have a life just there. Just wanting to have family, wanting to chill. There's strength in that, and we put a lot of these aspirational people on a pedestal when actually, sometimes they're just running from stuff. He's not running from anything. He's trying to keep his life together because he actually loves his life, and he loves the people in his life. He's surrounded by love.
For me, a satisfying element of cinema is seeing someone change over the course of two, three hours. I always look for points where I could do that.
You did it excellently.
What did you feel was the film’s message outside of police brutality, poverty, relationships and love? What did you get out of that, working with Jodie?
Compromise was a big theme. Relationships are about compromise, respect, and how easy compromise is if you respect each other. You don't hold onto sh*t, you don't need to because it's, "All right, if that makes a person happy, then cool." Putting the ego to the side when you have to and making sure you're present. It's so interesting that they’re able to connect when they throw their phones away. They're not running away, they're not trying to go, "I can get someone else in this app, get someone else here, I can go out there." They have to face each other and they actually have more in common than they realize.
And I think that's a really great theme that's in it.
You're looking to play Fred Hampton. What was it about his story that attracted you?
I just thought he's a brilliant man. And I'm similar to you, where I heard about him, rap lyrics, and then I saw the Soul of the Nation and there was an art piece that was inspired by him. I was like, "He's 21?" It blew my mind. And he doesn't look 21. He's got such a presence.
When this came through and Ryan Coogler and Shaka King spoke to me about it, and I read it for the first time, I said, "I don't even understand the ideas he has." This is like 1969, and I said, "I don't understand how he speaks and what he thinks." And just any opportunity, for me, what's blessed about all of our jobs, we live in a space where we can just learn stuff that we wouldn't know because...and we get paid. We can spend all day like, "Oh, what's this mean? What's that mean?." It all informs our work. It's really great to go into his psyche, go into the world of the late '60s and understand the history and what led to that point of that generation being, "We're not having it anymore." And understanding him as a man, and what he was around and the tide he was up against.
Photographer: Peter Dokus
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Laetitia Rumford
Wardrobe Stylist: Petra Flannery
Wardrobe Assistant: Lauren Mock
Makeup Artist: Allan Face
Makeup Assistant: Ruby Vo
Hair Stylist: Larry Sims
Groomer: Tasha Reiko Brown
Nail Artist: Thuy Nguyen