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First Take: Mara Brock Akil's Blueprint For Running Your Own Show

Being Mary Jane and Girlfriends creator Mara Brock Akil talks falling in love with screenwriting and tips for running your own show.

Mara Brock Akil has made it her business to tell our stories. Inspired by The Cosby Show and A Different World, the Kansas City-raised writer, producer and show runner looked to those sitcoms for diverse narratives. The Northwestern alum earned her stripes on '90s classics such as The Jamie Foxx Show and Moesha, but soon stepped into her own light with the wildly popular (and hilarious) Girlfriends.

For eight seasons, viewers watched as four women navigated life, love and career (and secretly lusted after all the items in Joan's closet). Here, we were able to see women of color in complex situations that showcased their individuality and humanity. Now, Mara has us all wrapped around her little finger (or pen) with her sexy BET hit Being Mary Jane. Every Tuesday night, millions tune in to see Gabrielle Union's character Mary Jane Paul hopefully inch a little bit closer to making her personal life as successful as her professional.

VIBE spoke with Mara about when she realized screenwriting was her calling, the village that raised her, working with her husband and the one thing all young women should do.

My MLK Moment (Realizing The Dream):
I always had an interest in screenwriting and I finally took a [screenwriting] course during my senior year at Northwestern University, wrote my first screenplay, and I literally fell in love. The same feeling I have for a guy, I had for that script. I couldn't wait to get back to the script, I only wanted to be with my script and that's the first time characters came alive for me. Even today, I live with my characters and I prefer sometimes their company over real people's company. (Laughs)

My second step was I could've taken a $30,000 job, but I knew I would have bills and wouldn't know how to get myself out of that situation because I like to shop. I was willing to sacrifice that nice life until I got the one I really wanted. So I worked at The Gap for a year until I could figure out what my next step was, and ultimately I needed to be in L.A. Finally, I came out here and did it the hard way, which was entry level production assistant jobs and navigating myself to this moment. I came with the notion that I would pursue my career as a writer in television and film.

On realizing a change was needed on television:
A Different World opened me up to the possibility of that being a career. I was excited about the show. It made me feel slightly regretful about not going to HBCU. (Laughs) Kidding. I love Northwestern. Then there was The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air so there were all these beautiful black faces on television and it being done on a great level in terms of television, and then it just went away. It was like, 'Whoa! Where did our stories go?'

Then it came back because new networks emerged. So when I got out of college, left The Gap and moved to L.A., there was UPN and the WB. So when you want to start something new, need our help or don't have a lot of money to spend, they let us in. I benefited from that with the Sinbad Show on UPN and from there, I got to meet wonderful mentors. Then, it went away again. Once networks became successful, they didn't need us anymore. But when I saw Sex and The City, I didn't see myself represented. Also, the type of shows that were on for black people were more like family sitcoms. I wanted to do sophisticated [shows] for young adults. Yvette Lee Bowser had Living Single, and I wanted to build upon that and do something sexier and edgier. I thought, 'My friends are a lot like that' and that's what motivated me to create Girlfriends. The Cosby Show and A Different World era excited me and showed it was possible. Thankfully, I rode the wave and figured out how to use my moment in television when the networks were trying to use us to build their networks.

Three tips for building a strong TV show:
Number one would be having a vision. What do you want to say? And really knowing why you want to say something, and then creating a world and characters that allow you to say these things. Number two would be character, character, character! You need to develop that character. You need to know that character backwards, forwards, ins and outs. Personally, I don't know how you tell a story without knowing your character. Lastly, knowing your craft and knowing the rules before you try to break them.

On the importance of having a village:
One of my mentors is my mother. My mother was basically a single mother and I watched her be a career woman and a mom. She also taught me a lot about budgeting and management, and I not only witnessed her successes but also her failures. She helped me remember the totality of who I am. I am not just a writer and producer. I am many things. I think in the business, I certainly would say Debbie Allen was the first woman I witnessed own her space, and her place as a director and a creator. She did it with such confidence and clarity, and she really set a tone. When Debbie walks in any room, she is a master of being herself. Also, Sara V. Finney and Vida Spears who created Moesha. To me, they represent loyalty, and just do the work. They were the ones who were quietly always doing the work. But I would not be here without Ralph Farquhar. He taught me everything. He taught me how to be a great show runner by being a show runner and by allowing me in the process. As much as I wanted to do it all, he allowed me to do it all. Aside from my mom, he has been the most hands-on, and has been the biggest influence in my career.

The benefits of working with your husband:
Oh gosh! There are so many great parts. A part of our courtship was me falling in love with his art and who he is as an artist. He's my best friend. In this business, it feels a lot like you're going to summer camp all the time. Everyone's friendly. There's a lot of agendas because money and fame go hand in hand. He is just someone that I can completely trust. He completely has my back I completely have his back. I get to work with my best friend and on top of that, he's my husband and my lover. If I don't get my way, I know how to get my way. (Laughs)

On what Mara is doing for Mara:
Exercise. I used to exercise strictly for vanity. Now, in the last three years, I exercise for my mental and physical health, so I need that and definitely do that for me. The thing I'm going to do more of is travel and read more. Reading is such a luxury and if I could say anything to you women who have a lot more time than I do and don't have the demands of motherhood and wife, I would read and travel as much as I could. I would tell anybody do that right now at whatever financial place you're at.

On what I want my sons to know about women:
Our femininity is valuable and a life force that they need. It's not weak. Hearing a woman's opinion is needed and it's not additive. Having a woman's touch and perspective is needed. My sons both see me as someone who can do many things. I also want them to value women and their femininity and appreciate the beauty for those purposes, but also for the purpose of valuing and protecting women's bodies, place space and voice.

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Then & Now: Common Details How He And J Dilla Collaborated On The "Thelonious" Track With Slum Village

J Dilla and Common had a really tight creative bond and, at one point, lived together in L.A. So you know that Common got dibs on all of his hot beats first. They were hip-hop brethren just trying to work together and of all of their collaborations, living and posthumous, the track “Thelonius,” is the sharpest intersection of the two legendary artists' careers.

A singular song fit for two albums, the cut was placed on Common’s fourth studio album Like Water for Chocolate and Fantastic Vol. II, Slum Village's classic sophomore album. “Thelonius” as we know it was in a way an accident...a soulful snafu that we get to enjoy forever. In this excerpt of VIBE's Then & Now video franchise, Common shares how the song manifested unplanned, willed into existence by Dilla’s uncompromising creative compass.

The story is brought to life with artwork by visual artist supreme, Dan Lish (@DanLish1), the man behind Raekwon’s The Wild album artwork. The illustrations you see in this video are a small fraction of what you can find in his upcoming book: Egostrip Vol 1 – The Essential Hip Hop Art Book, a psychedelic visual history of hip-hop to be enjoyed by the genre’s oldest and youngest fans alike. 

Today is the last day to support Lish's Kickstarter for the incredible project. Click the following link for a copy of your own: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dan-lish/egostrip-book-1 

“I picked up on what inspired me about the artists, whether it be a certain lyric from a classic song or my perception of what may be going through their mind at the moment of creation,” says Lish.

There is much more to be said about all of these artists. For more stories on Common’s catalog, including several more Dilla cuts, stay tuned for the upcoming episode of Then & Now, where we dig deeper into notable tracks in the career of one Lonnie Rashid "Common" Lynn, Jr.

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Courtesy of Biz 3 / FCF

Quavo Is Introducing 'Fan Controlled Football' To The Culture

From their penchant for popping tags and name-dropping designer brands in their rhymes to the obsession with diamond-encrusted neckwear, the Migos are the modern-day poster-children for decadence and opulence. But when it comes to balling, group member Quavo is a seasoned veteran, literally and figuratively. Notorious for his appearances in NBA all-star celebrity games, where he routinely dominates the competition, Huncho has built a rep as one of the athletically gifted hit-makers in music today.

Although he's known for his skills on the hardwood, football is definitely among his passions. His newest endeavor, an ownership stake in Fan Controlled Football (FCF), the first professional sports league to put the viewer in the coach's seat and the general manager's office, in live time, finds him putting his focus back on the gridiron. Having inked an exclusive, multi-year streaming broadcast partnership with Twitch, the FCF will be the first professional sports league to be fully integrated with the streaming platform with the potential to explode in the digital age, where user interest and participation is the main recipe for success.

Having tossed the pigskin around as a Georgia high school football star, to Quavo, it was a no-brainer to get involved with the innovative league on the ground level. “We are building a brand and something different in our league – with the fans. They are in control and get to pick the team names, colors, logos, and more,” said Quavo said in a press release. “I’m really excited because FCF is fast-paced, high-scoring 7v7 football and you are in control. You go from sitting on the couch watching TV and pressing buttons on the remote to actually pressing the buttons on the plays.”

Played on "a 35-yard x 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones,” the Fan Controlled Football league will kick off in February 2021, with a four-week regular season, one week of playoffs, and a Championship week. The league will consist of former elite D-1 athletes, the CFL, XFL, and the Indoor Football League. Broadcasted live from the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility in Atlanta, each game will be 60 minutes in length and will allow the viewers to play a hand in the final outcome on Twitch.

Aside from sports, Quavo has been relatively lowkey on the musical tip as of late, with two years having passed since a solo release or a Migos album. However, according to him, this delay can be considered the calm before the storm, as he assures him and his brethren are primed for one of their biggest years yet. VIBE hopped on the line with Quavo to talk Fan Controlled Football, what he's got cooking in the studio, and his foray into TV and film.

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You're the newest team owner at Fan Controlled Football (FCF). What about the league piqued your interest and made you wanna get involved?

It's just showing my interest in the game of football and just trying to put a twist to where it's fan-controlled, fan-involved. A lot of times we watch the game, you watch the game, you just have some concerns. Sometimes you feel you can make the plays or call the play, [with FCF], you can sit on the couch and make the play. I just think we came together to make something crazy like that. I feel like it's something hard, it's something new, it's something fresh. It's a new beginning to something, like giving ni**as a chance. Giving D-1 players who couldn't make it to the league a chance, giving ex-NFL ni**as a chance if they still got it, [and] to go with the fans. When we saw the Falcons lose the Superbowl LI, we [fans] just knew what plays to call, we knew to run the ball. We were up 28-3. All we had to do was hold the ball, but we wanted to air it out and we made a mistake and lost to Tom Brady. Just like when Marshawn could've won a Superbowl. If they'd have given him the ball on the two-yard line. We knew that Marshawn Lynch was supposed to get the ball, [but] they wanted Russell Wilson to win it and the New England Patriots caught an interception. So that's how we're trying to shape it, we're trying to make something new.

The FCF will be live-streamed exclusively on Twitch, which has become one of the leading platforms for eSports live-streaming and will kick off in February 2021. Do you feel the FCF has the opportunity to fill that NFL void during the spring, particularly given the fan engagement that FCF enables?

Most definitely, cause after the Super Bowl, it just feels like you just want another game. You feel like you want one more game. and coming from something [where it's] eleven on eleven players to seven on seven, I feel [there’s] still a difference. After coming from watching the game and the regular politics, the regular structure of the game, now you're getting to be involved in a game that you can control. You can pick the jersey, you can pick the helmets, you can pick the jerseys, you can pick the coaches, you can pick the plays. I just feel there are two different dynamics [between the NFL and FCF). You come from sitting on the couch and pressing the remote to actually pressing the button on the plays."

Speaking of fan engagement, the FCF is the only professional sports league that enables fans to call the plays in real-time and puts the viewer in control of a game’s outcome like never before. Have you ever had that experience, as far as fantasy football?

Nah, but I'm into Madden. You can sit at home and pick your plays [with FCF], it's just like the lifestyle of Madden. It's like a reality of Madden. You're playing with people at home, with these unique athletes, and it's seven-on-seven.

As an Atlanta native, how significant was the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility being in your hometown in your decision to come on board as an owner?

It's very important. We got top-tier talent here, so it's opening up opportunities for a lot of guys. We're just glad it's in the south, it's like a hub. Everybody loves Atlanta and everybody wanna be here. Everybody wanna play and the weather is good.

NFL Super Bowl Champions Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, boxing legend Mike Tyson, and YouTuber and podcaster empire Greg Miller are among the FCF's team owners. How does it feel to be competing against some of the most accomplished athletes and entertainers in the world? Have you had the opportunity to meet with any of them?

Most definitely. I have a good relationship with Mike Tyson. I've met Marshawn Lynch, it's a blessing. I feel like we're not competing right now, I feel like we're building a brand. I feel like we're building a league. I feel like we're trying to make the world understand what we're bringing to the table and what type of game we bring to the table, you feel me? I feel we're trying to create something different. Once we get the ball rolling, it's all together and moving into a real FCF league, then we'll get to compete. Of course, we all wanna win, but right now, we're just trying to get the foundation and the basics going and letting the strength of the owners and the relationships show on the field.

Being that you'll all be working with your respective fan bases in shaping your team’s personality and identity, any thoughts about what the team’s name will be? 

Man, I wish I did, but it's so straight strictly fans that you never know. Just like with music, can have an idea that is a smash, and then the fans don't think it is. You gotta strictly listen to the fans on this one. You gotta listen strictly to how they want it because it's the point of the game, that's the point of the league. We gotta let them control this game and then we the players and we the people that's listening to the people, the culture. FCF stands for culture, too, you feel what I'm saying? We listen to the culture, we're letting the culture run the field.

How involved will you be in the drafting and scouting process for your squad?

The fans make the draft, fans get to see everything. Open books, everything. It's an open thing, it ain't nothing to hide over here. The fans control it all.

In addition to sports, you've also been delving into acting, with cameos in shows like Atlanta, Star, Black-ish, and Ballers. Earlier this year, you appeared as yourself in Narcos: Mexico. How did that opportunity come about? 

Narcos reached out. We [Migos] had this song called “Narcos” on the [Culture II] album and we went and shot [the video] in Miami and everybody thought it was a Narcos movie scene and it ended up being Madonna's house. So we just shot that there and then they reached out to us. I think Offset had a performance somewhere and Takeoff had to do something and I just ended up being free that day and I went and shot it in New Mexico. I had fun, I loved it.

Do you have plans to pursue any supporting or leading roles in film or television?

Hell yeah, most definitely. I've been sitting down and having real great meetings with directors and people that got some movies in the works for 2021. I feel like I’ve got some good spots. I don't wanna tell it cause they’re gonna make some announcements. It's coming soon.

It's been two years since you've released a solo project or one with the Migos. Can fans expect any new music from you anytime soon and what are your next plans on that front?

Most definitely, hell yeah, we're shooting videos right now. We’re vaulting up a whole lot of videos so we can give you music and visuals at the same time. “Need It," the song came first and then the video. Right now, we wanna get a lot of videos and a lot records in the vault and smash [them] all at once 'cause it's been two years.

Pop Smoke's passing was one of the more tragic events in rap in recent memory, but his debut album, which you appeared on throughout, has been one of the most successful and acclaimed projects of 2020. How has it been seeing how the album’s been received, especially after you and him developed such a bond in a short time?

I'm happy. I'm proud of him, that was my partner. We did a lot of records, we spent a lot of time together and I feel like the album would've did even more with him being alive. A lot of people's album just go crazy when they die, I feel like his sh*t would've still went crazy. He had the momentum, he had the buzz. He was having fun. He was hot, he was fresh, he had everything ready.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Toots Hibbert performing at Hammersmith Palais, London in 1983.
Photo by David Corio/Redferns

Remembering Toots Hibbert

The best singers don’t need too many words to make their point. Otis Redding could let loose with a sad sad song like “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” and get you all in your feelings. Bob Marley got pulses pounding with his “Whoi-yoooo” rebel yell. Gregory Isaacs melted hearts with nothing more than a gentle sigh. Toots Hibbert, who died last Friday at the age of 77, could sing just about anything and make it sound good. One of the world's greatest vocalists in any genre, Toots paired his powerful voice with the understated harmonies of Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias to form The Maytals, a vocal trinity that never followed fashion and remained relevant throughout the evolution of Jamaican music—from the ska era to rock steady straight through to reggae, a genre named after The Maytals' 1968 classic “Do The Reggay.”

Whether they were singing a sufferer’s selection (“Time Tough”), a churchical chant (“Hallelujah”), or the tender tale of a country wedding (“Sweet and Dandy”), The Maytals blew like a tropical storm raining sweat and tears. The lyrics to Six and Seven Books,” one of The Maytals' earliest hits, are pretty much just Toots listing the books of the Bible. “You have Genesis and Exodus,” he declares over a Studio One ska beat, “Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges and Ruth...” Having grown up singing in his parents' Seventh Day Adventist Church in the rural Jamaican town of May Pen, Toots knew the Good Book well.

The Maytals broke out worldwide in 1966 thanks to the song “Bam Bam,” which won Jamaica's first-ever Independence Festival Song Competition, held during the first week of August as the island nation celebrated both independence from Great Britain in 1862 and emancipation in 1834. They would go on to win the coveted title two more times, but “Bam Bam” was a singular song with a message every bit as powerful as Toots' voice. “I want you to know that I am the man," Toots sang. He was young and strong, ready to "fight for the right, not for the wrong." The trajectory of "Bam Bam" would not only transform Toots' life but make waves throughout popular music worldwide.

"Festival in Jamaica is very important to all Jamaicans," the veteran singer stated in a video interview this past summer while promoting his latest entry into the annual competition. "I must tell you that I won three festivals in Jamaica already, which is “Bam Bam,” “Sweet & Dandy” and “Pomp & Pride.” Toots described that first festival competition as a joyous occasion. "Everybody just want to hear a good song that their children can sing," he recalled. "Is like every artist could be a star."

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of "Bam Bam" winning first place, Toots looked back over the legacy of the tune that made him a star. "I didn’t know what it means but it was a big deal," he told Boomshots. "You in the music business and you want to be on top and you write a good song and you go on this competition and if they like it then it becomes #1." After The Maytals won, the group was in demand not just all over the island, but all over the world. "We start fly out like a bird," he says with a laugh. "Fly over to London."

"Bam Bam" went on to inspire numerous cover versions, starting with Sister Nancy, Yellowman, and Pliers. It would also be sampled in numerous hip hop classics, and interpolated into Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones." But according to Toots, he did not benefit financially from these endless cover versions. "People keep on singing it over and over and over, and they don’t even pay me a compliment," he told Boomshots. "I haven’t been collecting no money from that song all now."

 

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“This man don’t trouble no one... but if you trouble this man it will bring a Bam Bam” Original Maytals Classic @tootsmaytalsofficial 🎶 All them a talk, them nuh bad like Niya Fiya Ball ☄️🔥💥 via @tonyspreadlove . 💥💣🔫#Boomshots

A post shared by Word Sound & Power (@boomshots) on Sep 12, 2020 at 8:19am PDT

When Toots began singing in his parents' church, music was not seen as a career prospect, and the profits were slim for Jamaican recording artists in the 1960s. "Those days we get 14 cents for the record to play on the radio," Toots said. "I get three shillings and five shillings for a number one record, which I had 31 number one record in Jamaica... It’s not about money for me. It’s about the quality that Jamaicans need to go back in the festival jamboree... You gotta talk to the children."

On the poignant “54-46 (Was My Number),” Toots recalls the dehumanization of his arrest and 18-month imprisonment at Jamaica's Richmond Farm Correctional Center for what he always insisted was a trumped-up ganja charge just as his music career was taking off. The song's crescendo comes two minutes in when Toots breaks into a scat solo that cannot be translated into any language known to man, delivered with palpable passion that made his message universal. During Toots' ecstatic stage performances he would follow this riff by commanding his band to “Give it to me... one time!” Then the 'd make 'em say Uh!  (Way before Master P!) “Give it to me... two times!” Uh! Uh! And so on and so forth until Toots worked the place into a frenzy.

The Maytals' live show was so explosive that Toots began touring all over the world, opening for rock megastars like The Rolling Stones and The Who. While Bob Marley richly deserved the title King of Reggae, his friend Toots was performing internationally before The Wailers, and remained a force to be reckoned with throughout his life, blazing a trail for generations of reggae artists to follow in his footsteps.

On his Grammy-winning 2004 album True Love, Toots recorded some of his greatest hits with a host of legendary artists, many of whom were also good friends, including Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton. His 2006 cover of Radiohead's "Let Down" was a favorite of the band's, who used to play it on their tour bus. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood called Toots’ version “truly astounding,” according to Easy Star Records Michael Goldwasser.

Toots supported himself and his family by touring all over the world. During a 2013 show in Richmond, Virginia he was singing John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" when a teenager in the crowd threw a vodka bottle at the stage and hit him on the head. He suffered a concussion and had to stop touring for several years. As his first album in a decade, Got To Be Tough was highly anticipated when it was released on Trojan Jamaica label August 28. On the cover the former boxer and lifelong fighter can be seen throwing a punch. Just a day after the album dropped, Toots came down with symptoms similar to COVID 19. Within a few days he was hospitalized where doctors placed him into a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. As his Tidal obituary pointed out, he passed away exactly 33 years after his old friend Peter Tosh died by gunfire.

Songs like "Just Brutal" from the hit different now, with Toots pleading for more love in a world gone wrong. "We were brought here," Toots sings. "Sold out. Victimized brutally. Every time I keep remembering what my grandfather said before he died."

“I’m feeling alright,” Toots said the last time we spoke, while he was still sidelined with stress issues due to the bottle-throwing incident. "I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling just cool because is Jah works. You seet?" I asked him if the song "Bam Bam," was about him—a peaceful man who should not be provoked—or else. "Nooo don't trouble him," Toots said with a laugh. "It’s gonna be double trouble, triple trouble. A lot of trouble."

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