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The Perfect Struggle: MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry On Being Okay With Making Mistakes

MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry talks life, career and the one thing women should not be afraid of.

In the history of high school drama, nerds tend to get the short end of the stick. While preferring to keep their noses buried in books, the academically zealous usually opt out of Mean Girl gossip and make social sacrifices to land 4.0 GPAs and clock in for extracurricular endeavors.

But geniuses nationwide re-upped on cool points when Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the wildly popular The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC, boldly and unapologetically claimed to be of the same ilk. While the Virginia-raised author, professor and public speaker is warm, funny and personable, MHP is no fool, often diving deep into topics of politics, art, race and whatever else the mother of two feels demands attention.

And while Melissa proudly lets her nerd flag fly, she'll also show off her cool side while dancing in her seat to hip-hop, R&B and other smooth tunes as the show goes to commercial break. VIBE called up MHP to discuss race, balancing life in North Carolina and New York, and the one thing women shouldn't fear.

Shh, enough talking. Class is in session.

My morning routine:
It depends a lot on what morning we're talking about because I live in two different places. On Monday through Thursday, I live in North Carolina and on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I'm in New York for my show. So Monday through Thursday, I wake up whenever baby Anna (we call her A.J) wakes up, which could be as wonderfully late as 5:30am or it could be 3 in the morning. It depends on what she wants. (Laughs) She wakes up and then around 6:00, I get some of the housework done that I never have time to do. I do a load of a laundry, unload the dishwasher, water the plants. At 6:30, I wake up my 13-year-old and put on my running clothes. Then I drive my 13-year-old to school, come back and the babysitter is there for the baby. I hand off the baby, go for a run, come back, take a shower and head to campus. I try to be at campus between 9 and 9:30.

On Friday mornings, I do something similar except instead of hitting campus, I hit the airport. I fly to New York and then on Saturday and Sunday mornings, I'm up at 5 and prep for the show. We start prepping on Wednesdays, but my personal reading takes place on Friday and Saturday mornings. I get up, get my coffee, sit in the living room and I usually read from about 5:00 to 7:00, go for a run and then get to the office by 8:00.

My MLK Moment (Realizing The Dream):
I think educators are a little like doctors. I think doctors have been playing with their toys and taking their blood pressure by the time they're six years old, and I believe teachers similarly were lining up their Barbies and teaching them the alphabet. My dad is a college professor, his twin brother is a college professor and my mom taught at community colleges, even though she worked [for non-profit organizations]. I was always kind of a teacher's pet and used to love my teachers. So I always knew [I would be an educator]. I certainly made the decision when I got to college, saying, 'Well I'm never leaving. This is great.' (Laughs) But the other part was my college adviser was Maya Angelou. Being with her and seeing that she was an educator in so many different ways, I'm not sure if I ever said to myself, 'Oh, I want to be like Dr. Angelou,' but she became the primary model of adulthood for me.

Favorite Maya Angelou quote:
There are two quotes that are particularly impactful for me. One is that, 'Courage is the greatest virtue, because without courage, no other virtue can be practiced consistently.' The other thing she would say is, 'All comparisons are odious.' You don't compare [yourself to the next person like], 'Am I smarter than her? Is she prettier than me? Is that house nicer? Does he have a better car?' Our humanity is unique. It helps when I read the better reviews of some shows and then I just remember, 'Nope, all comparisons are odious.'

On realizing my race and gender:
So I'm African-American. My mother is white and my father is black and both my parents were married before they met and had me. I have one sibling who has two white parents and three siblings where both parents are black, so we're truly a mixed race family. It was something that I was always aware of, but specifically when I was 14 and I was a freshman in high school. Two very different things happened. I was a cheerleader and I loved being one. I went to a public high school in central Virginia where football is king. It was very clear to me that there was a cap for how many black girls could be on the team and that no matter how many black guys were on the football team, people in the stands didn't want to see more than a few African-American girls as part of the cheerleading squad. So I not only learned about being black and a woman, but also being light-skinned because one of my girlfriends who was dark-skinned and was equally good, did not make the team when I did. The other thing is I'm a sexual assault survivor and that was the year I was assaulted. The perpetrator is an African-American man, who was my neighbor. I didn't tell [anyone] for about 10 years. One of the reasons I didn't tell [anyone about it] was about race, [from] experiencing the worst kind of vulnerability as a girl and as a woman, and suddenly understanding what it means to be a girl and victimized in this way, and then for [the perp] to be someone who was in the [same] race group.

On my biggest fear and hope for my daughters:
There's no question that my biggest fear as a mother of daughters is sexual assault, and that's because I'm a survivor and report on it. I also know how fundamentally altering—not just to your life, but to your whole character and sense of self—sexual assault can be. Also, [I know] how powerless any given parent is over it. My mom was a great parent. My dad was a fine, wonderful parent. You can't put your children in a protective shield [to prevent sexual assault] from happening.

But I guess I'll also say, unlike some parents, I don't hope that my children's lives are worry and struggle-free. I mention often that my dad was an intense guy. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, was part of the civil rights movement and when we were growing up, he would sign our birthday cards [when we were] three, four, five years old with 'The struggle continues, Daddy.' (Laughs) Years later, I've learned that [the struggle] is such a gift. What I hope for our children is that their life isn't without struggle, but specifically, they have good allies and meaningful struggle.

Women should never be afraid to...
Make mistakes. The fear of making a mistake so often keeps us from trying the hard stuff, and I think it's particularly true especially for high achieving African-American women who recognize we're not just representing ourselves, but often representing the race. We'll only do the things we know we're going to be good at so that way, we're leaving a good impression about who we are, but then we never try the thing we might fail at. Look, I've failed a lot. Like I said before, Maya Angelou was my college adviser. She did not act perfect in front of me and that was such a gift. She let me see her be a woman and a human, and not just Dr. Maya Angelou. It was liberating because when I went out into the world and I made a mess sometimes, I was like, 'Well Maya Angelou used to make a mess sometimes, too and she is still everything!'

Biggest on-air regret:
The most obvious one is the experience I had at the end of 2013 when we put up a picture of the Romney family. [Editor's Note: Melissa-Harris Perry and a panel of guests mocked Mitt Romney's family holiday photo, which included the governor's wife, 22 grandchildren and their adopted African-American grandson. Melissa later issued an on-air apology.] The way the conversation went turned out to be hurtful—and this is why it was such a great learning experience for me. Things were said and I did not immediately regret them. Then the response came and it was clear to me that we not only did something that was hurtful to that individual family, but we spent two years as a team developing our show as a safe space for all different kinds of families. This should be the one show you can always tune into and know that your family will always be affirmed, and we messed up.

On knowing the audience in TV land:
Part of it is we don't try and simplify [the content]. We do try and use the clearest language that we can, although sometimes we use academic language to define it. But part of it is we really do our very best to respect that our audience is smart. If [viewers] show up on a weekend morning to talk about the stuff that we talk about, then they're actually capable of complex reasoning even if they're not scholars and haven't spent years reading books. I do believe sometimes, some media [outlets] don't respect their audience enough to give them the benefit of the doubt that they can come along.

People would be surprised to know that I'm...
A great baker! I make a mean red velvet cake. I can make cookies. There's sort of a joke that I make cookies automatically. When I start to talk about politics with people in my kitchen, I'll just whip up some cookies from scratch. I'm only an average cook. My husband does most of the cooking because he's from New Orleans. I'm also an HGTV addict.

The best lesson I learned from marriage:
Ahh, man, this is my second marriage. But I will tell you this: a bad marriage will take away your fear of death. (Laughs) A bad marriage is a bad thing but similarly, a good marriage is life-giving in all kinds of surprising ways. Let me be clear: my first husband is a good guy, but we had a bad marriage. I mean, I don't know who I was during those years, but I was not Melissa Harris. So when I met and started dating James, it really was shockingly easy. All these people who are like 'Marriage is hard work,' [I say] grown-up life is hard work. But it's just I see him, he sees me, and we just like the shit out of each other everyday! (Laughs) And I adore the way he parents our children. If there's a great lesson I've learned from this marriage, it's that respect is so central. Love is great but man, when you can pair that love, friendship and deep respect for who a person is, it's a great marriage.

On whether or not racism can end:
What I want for us to struggle towards is for the consequences of racial bias to be reduced as close to zero as possible. I think there is a lot of reason for us to believe, from social psychology, cognitive psychology and decades of sociological work, people make groupings and they make judgments based on those groupings. Will people stop grouping each other and making judgments? No. But can we move to create a world where the consequences of racial bias be reduced as much towards zero? Yes! Will we get to zero? Probably not. Can we push ourselves, our society, our culture, our public policies, our laws, our practices so that being born in a black body will have fewer and fewer negative economic, social and political and even bodily consequences? Yes! In fact, I think we're already on that track. The consequences of being in a black body in 1776 are very different than in 1876 and different in 1976, and very different in 2015.

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Music Sermon: The Groundbreaking Sprite and St. Ides Hip-Hop Campaigns

Today, rap music is used to sell everything from electronics to tax filing services to nut butter grinding machines at Whole Foods. We understand that hip-hop culture is essentially the root of everything cool and hip in culture, period, and it’s been commodified and appropriated within an inch of its life. But in the early ‘90s, the genre was far from Madison Avenue-friendly. Aside from the groundbreaking deal between Adidas and RUN DMC, brands didn’t yet see full value and impact of hip-hop…except in the food and beverage industry.

Beverage companies centering campaigns for the urban demo around black music was nothing new; Coca-Cola had ads featuring artists such as New Edition and Anita Baker singing their hearts out for the cola in the ‘80s, and Schlitz Malt Liquor had a legendary – and hilarious - run of spots featuring The Commodores, The Four Tops, Teddy Pendergrass and more through the ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, in the early ‘90s two brands put their entire business on hip-hop’s back, by not only building their brands but spring-boarding the recognition of the music and artists as a marketing and advertising tool: Sprite soda and St. Ides malt liquor.

In the ‘80s, Sprite was languishing behind competitor 7Up when parent company Coca-Cola decided to focus on the youth market, and the quickly growing hip-hop culture was part of the strategy. African-American ad agency Burrell Communications tagged hip-hop acts for a series of spots that began a long-standing marriage between the brand and the culture, starting with Kurtis Blow in 1986. It was one of the first national TV ads to feature a rapper.


In 1990, the brand kicked off the “I Like the Sprite in You” campaign, using rap acts that matched the soft drink’s bubbly energy, starting with Heavy D & the Boyz before partnering with Kid ’n Play the following year. The ads featured the artists clad in lemon-lime fare, rhymin’ about lymon.

HEAVY D - 1990 KID’N PLAY – 1991

With Kris Kross, they turned it up a notch and had us crunk inside the Sprite can. Edgy. Also, this was catchy as hell.


Then in 1994, a young brand manager from Clark Atlanta University named Darryl Cobbin had an idea for a new direction: Gen X was about authenticity and independence of thought, not following the hype. Sprite ditched the pop-friendly crossover acts and identified more “authentic” rap artists – lyricists with street and cultural cred – to rep the brand. “Lymon” was also out of the window, as they moved away from marketing taste and towards marketing attitude. (Cobbin later spearheaded the iconic, yet grammatically questionable, Boost Mobile “Where You At?” campaign.)

Gone were the bright yellow and green sets, because while the new slogan said, “Image is nothing,” it was all about image. Bright and shiny was traded for dark and gritty. Now we were in the studio; a fly on the wall for freestyle sessions. In the first spot of the series with Grand Puba and Large Professor, Puba closes with “First thing’s first, obey your thirst.” It’s legend even within Coca-Cola that Puba ad-libbed the phrase that then became the brand’s tagline that remains to this day.


The “Obey Your Thirst” spots also took us the street corner, the club, and inside the ring when Sprite resurrected the legendary KRS One vs. MC Shan battle.

KRS ONE & MC SHAN - 1996 NAS & AZ – 1997 THE LOST BOYS – 1997

By the late ‘90s Sprite had spent roughly $70M on the “Obey Your Thirst” campaign, tripled sales, and commanded a majority market share of the citrus category (which also included 7Up, Sierra Mist, and Mountain Dew).

Sprite had also succeeded in becoming an official and established part of the culture. They were family. The brand further expanded into urban youth culture through a partnership with the NBA, while continuing to evolve the creative of the rap campaigns.


Near the end of the decade, Sprite explored the overlap between hip-hop culture, comics and martial arts with a series of posse spots based on Voltron (representing all hip-hop regions) and the 5 Deadly Venoms (with all female emcees).


Over the years, Sprite has continued to be one of the most consistent brands in hip-hop. We’ve grown accustomed to spotting the logo everywhere from music festivals and shows to the background of BET’s hip-hop cyphers. They revitalized the “Obey Your Thirst” campaign with Drake in 2010 and paid homage to the greatest lyricists in rap with the “Obey Your Verse” campaign featuring iconic rappers and cans with classic lyrics in 2015.

SPRITE "Obey Your Verse - Cooler" (starring Rakim) from SHOUT IT OUT LOUD MUSIC on Vimeo.

St. Ides’ run with hip-hop doesn’t have the same happy ending as Sprite’s. The brand’s usage of rap petered out in the mid-90s after wide backlash and a series of lawsuits.

For St. Ides, hip-hop was the brand campaign. It’s how they built their business. The brand was introduced in 1987 and their rap campaigns launched in 1988. The malt liquor 40 oz., with significantly higher alcohol content than beer at around a $2 price point, was already a staple in lower-income neighborhoods and hip-hop culture. The “Crooked I” capitalized on that.

Parent company McKenzie River secured Ice Cube as their anchor spokesperson and tapped West Coast producer DJ Pooh to spearhead advertising creative. Pooh lined up a veritable who’s who of additional West Coast rappers over the years, including Geto Boys, Cypress Hill, Warren G, Snoop and Tupac; plus the thorough-est from the East, including Eric B and Rakim, Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie and EPMD.

EPMD & ICE CUBE - 1991 GETO BOYS & ICE CUBE – 1992 ERIC B & RAKIM - 1992

Unlike Sprite’s campaigns which were first jingles and still felt like commercials, even when elevated to trading hot bars for Obey Your Thirst. St. Ides spots, however, looked and felt like straight up music videos with album-worthy production and flow.

ICE CUBE – 1993 MC EIHT – 1994 NOTORIOUS B.I.G. – 1995

Complex even named Wu-Tang’s St. Ides spot “Shaolin Brew” as one of the collective’s 100 best songs! (But at least it’s ranked near the bottom; #97.)


In fact, in 1994, the brand did turn the hottest of the joints into an album, with the St. Ides promotional mixtape dropping at your neighborhood liquor store. It featured full-length songs about getting twisted off the malt liquor from Ice Cube, Wu-Tang Clan, Scarface, MC Eiht, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Nate Dogg.

The Snoop and Nate track is low key a jam, still. Homegirl in the background starting at the 10-second mark is a whole mood.

This blatant marketing of malt liquor directly to black and brown youth wasn’t going to go unchecked indefinitely. It was all irresponsible, even while being genius for the demo. In 1991, the Wall Street Journal listed the St. Ides ad campaign among one of the worst of the year, which probably didn’t matter at the time since WSJ readers weren’t St. Ides’ base.

In 1991, Public Enemy released Apocalypse ’91: The Empire Strikes Back. The album featured “100 Bottle Bags,” a direct criticism against malt liquor companies marketing specifically to urban communities “…but they don’t sell that sh*t in the white neighborhoods.” Shortly after the release, St. Ides found itself in Chuck D’s crosshairs, and he fired the first in a series of big shots against the brand, marking the beginning of the end of their love affair with hip-hop. An 80-second radio spot featuring Cube used a sample of Chuck’s voice without his permission. The ad had already aired over 500 times on rap radio shows when Chuck sued St. Ides parent company McKenzie River for five million dollars (they settled out of court).

Then, St. Ides and McKenzie River fell under legal scrutiny from the New York State Attorney General in 1992 for using verbiage like Cube’s lyric “Get your girl in the mood quicker, make your jimmy thicker…St. Ides.” to suggest the malt liquor increased sexual prowess. Can you imagine the think pieces if that spot ran today?

They were later in hot water with the New York AG’s office again, along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (the ATF) for advertising perceived to the be targeted towards minors, with complaints that it glamorized gang affiliation and promoted sex. After having production completely shut down for a short while and getting hit with heavy fines, St. Ides tried to clean up its act, adding “drink responsibly” messaging into the spots.

By ’96 the run was over. Hip-hop was growing up, getting money and moving towards more sophisticated alcoholic beverage choices. Alizé and Hennessy, anyone?

The relationship between hip-hop and alcohol never ended, of course, but has continued to evolve to match the evolution of the lifestyle. We don’t go to the corner store no more, homie (save a brief return in the early aughts of Four Loko). We’re toasting to the good life with premium brands, some of which are now owned by the artists.

We can look back now with the wizened, woke eyes of maturity and possibly scrutinize our artists selling out at the expense of the community, but for the young and burgeoning hip-hop culture, both the St. Ides campaigns and the Sprite campaigns opened the door for the power and commodification of hip-hop and consumer brands. For better or for worse.

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J.Cole, Teyana Taylor And Other Snubs Of The 2019 Grammy Nominations

It's that time of year again when inner circles and strangers on the Internet debate who's up for a gramophone.

On Friday (Dec. 7), the nominees for 2019's Grammy Awards (Feb. 10) were announced to a span of hot takes, early but informed predictions, and a wall of confusion as to why certain artists were overlooked. While some entertainers excitedly received the good news (Cardi B discovered her nods while leaving a courthouse), others were left scratching their heads.

Here's a look at why those who were snubbed by the Recording Academy deserved to be nominated.

READ MORE: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, And Cardi B Lead 2019 Grammys Nominations


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Anderson .Paak, Tierra Whack And More Praise Female Artists At 2018 Billboard Women In Music

Some of music's biggest stars attended Billboard's annual Women in Music event on Thursday night (Dec. 6).

Pop star Ariana Grande was awarded with the night's highest honor, "Woman Of The Year," while SZA, Janelle Monae, Cyndi Lauper, Hayley Kiyoko, and Kacey Musgraves were awarded with subsequent prestigious honors.

VIBE got a chance to speak to some of the musicians in attendance on the carpet, including hip-hoppers Anderson .Paak and Tierra Whack, the Janelle Monae-cosigned St. Beauty, and Massah David, the co-founder of the creative agency, MVD Inc..

When prompted about some of their favorite bodies of work by female artists this year, a resounding amount of musicians stated Teyana Taylor's K.T.S.E and Tierra Whack's Whack World as some of their personal picks.

The 23-year-old MC and first-time Grammy nominee confirmed with VIBE she's working on "something really special" with fellow Philadelphian and friend Meek Mill. She also stated that while the accolades for her work have been exciting, she's more excited for society to stop gendering dope artists, especially in the hip-hop game.

"I hope that [labeling through gender] ends soon," she said. "I know, technically, rap is a male-dominated industry, but, like, I’m better than all of ‘em! [laughs] It is what it is! I don’t even count gender or color, it’s just whoever’s got it."

What are some members of the music industry looking forward to in 2019? More women in high-profile positions and more chances for women in general.

"Hopefully just having more opportunities for women in different spaces in music, whether it’s radio, behind-the-scenes, engineering, actually making the music," said David. "I’m just hoping we get to see women in more executive roles."

Watch our recap video above.

READ MORE: Janelle Monae Discusses Creative Freedom, Her Relationship With Diddy In New 'Billboard' Interview

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