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Band Of Brothers: Friends Of Charleston Shooting Victim TyWanza Sanders Honor His Life And Legacy

For Torrence and Tyrone Shaw, Dominique Gray and T.J. Grant, a friend they never imagined losing was taken away in a heinous act of violence.

For Torrence and Tyrone Shaw, Dominique Gray and T.J. Grant, a friend they never imagined losing was taken away in a heinous act of violence.

Most of us have that one friend:  the one we vow we could never live without.

For Torrence and Tyrone Shaw, Dominique Gray and T.J. Grant, that friend was suddenly taken away from them in a heinous act of violence. The youngest victim of the shooting at Charleston, SC’s Emanuel AME Church, TyWanza Sanders, was an integral member of their band of brothers. On June 17, however, Sanders’ life would be claimed along with eight other innocent people – Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lance, Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson and Susie Jackson – leaving his group of friends without their source of positive reinforcement.

A 26-year-old Allen University graduate, Sanders was killed while trying to shield his aunt, Jackson, from the attacker. His effort would not, sadly, save him or the 87-year-old from succumbing to their tragic fates. Just feet away, Sanders’ mother Felicia would survive the unthinkable ordeal by faking her own death, as her son lay in his final moments. This was not just a horrific news story that rocked the nation; these were heartbreaking losses that fragmented families.

In remembering their fallen comrade, Gray, Grant and the Shaw brothers collectively described a young man filled with ambition, promise and a genuine interest in helping people. They have come to know these qualities after over a decade of friendship, spanning from the preteen novelties of middle school to college maturation. A renaissance man of sorts, Sanders’ friends recall a young man with a wide – and seemingly peculiar – array of interests. From poetry, to playing the keyboard, to acting, to skateboarding, to cutting hair, there were no boundaries their “brother,” whom they affectionately called “Wanza,” couldn’t surpass.

Echoing the sentiments of his closest friends was also Charles Hickman, who served as student body president during his and Sanders’ time together at Allen.

“He was just a very smart, very quiet, but also very humble guy,” Hickman recalled. “TyWanza was also known as the guy with all the jobs. He had more jobs than anybody I knew. He worked at a department store, he also cut hair, he worked on campus, and he had a fourth job. We would just go places, and everywhere we went, we would see him, and we’d be like, ‘Oh my God, you work here too?’”

This was the TyWanza his loved ones had known for quite some time. Now faced with the task of keeping his legacy alive and commemorating the life of their newly-acquired guardian angel, his friends are working to raise funds for a scholarship in his honor. The TyWanza Sanders Scholarship, a previous effort by local non-profit organization Race 4 Achievement that was renamed in Sanders' honor, will be awarded to a student from his James Island Charter High School alma mater. Also contributing to the fund is A. Bevy Inc., another non-profit organization founded by a friend of Sanders. The scholarship serves as a fitting way to acknowledge his penchant for contributing to the advancement of others, and they ensure that Wanza would not have it any other way.

VIBE spoke with Sanders’ closest confidants about his life and how they intend to carry on in the face of their loss. Here, they revisit their oldest memories together, and discuss the social context in which their friend’s life was tragically cut short. – Iyana Robertson

Torrence Shaw

Who TyWanza was: He’s one of a kind. There’s no other TyWanza Sanders. He was very genuine and had a lot of ambition. One of his favorite quotes was, "Ambition over adversity." There was nothing he couldn’t do. If he put his mind to it, he’ll do it. He just had a drive that I’ve never seen anybody else have. You couldn’t tell him that he couldn’t do something. He’ll motivate you to want to do stuff. It was like a radiant light, it gave off him and it makes you be like “Shoot, if he said we could do, then we could do it.” No if's, and’s or but’s about it.
My favorite TyWanza memory: We played football in high school, and TyWanza, he wasn’t the most athletic person ever. He came to practice one day, and he was asking the coach, “How can I get faster?” In the coach’s head, he knew Wanza wasn’t that athletic either. So the coach was like, “Well, uh, TyWanza… I don’t know how to answer that question.” [laughs]
TyWanza’s many talents: He was very talented at writing poems, he used to go to poetry night. A very talented barber, too. Any style you wanted, he’ll put it in your head; he was very talented with the clippers. He even skateboarded. He did it all,man. He played the guitar, he had a piano. He was just doing it all.
When I heard the news: My other best friend called me, and he was like, “You heard what’s going on in Charleston?” And I was just like “Yeah man, that’s pretty sad.” And then he told me TyWanza got shot. I was like, “What?! Whoa, whoa, whoa. I ain’t hear nothing like that.” He was like “Yeah, one of his cousins called me and told me that he was at the church when it happened.” So we were trying to call his cell phone, and it kept going straight to voicemail. We tried calling his mama, she wasn’t answering the phone. We called the house phone, nobody was answering the house phone. Then finally, we got in contact with his cousin, and he was like “Yeah, it’s true, TyWanza did get shot.” So we were like, “Is he okay? Is he in the hospital?” And he just got real quiet. You could hear his voice cracking, and he said “He didn’t make it.” That right there was it, man. We just broke down. And ‘til this day, we’re just trying to make it.
Our final conversation: I spoke to him the day before this incident happened. He was calling me just to tell me about some of his future plans. He was like, “Yeah man, I wanna go to grad school. I like writing poetry, and I kinda wanna take it to the next level and be a producer, and help write for other people.” He was looking into scholarships. So me and my other best friend were trying to help him with that. He said he wanted to go to grad school in Orlando. He had so much plans, and all of it was just taken away.
Checking in with his mother: She’s very strong. She’s taking it better than I thought she would. She said, “TyWanza always told me that he was gonna be famous. I just didn’t think he’ll be famous this way.” But knowing that he went out trying to save his aunt, that goes to show you that he’s a very caring, loving person. He’ll put anybody before him. He’ll give the shirt off his back to anybody. And him trying to save his aunt in the last moments of his life, just goes to show you that.

TJ Grant

The first time I met TyWanza: We met on the football field. He was scared to play football, because we were so small back then and the rest of the guys were so big. And I was like “Man, you might as well go ahead and do it, it’ll be fun. It won’t hurt you. Everything will be alright.” Ever since then, me and him were close.
Our final conversation: We were talking about the t-shirts we were gonna make for my wedding party pictures. I asked him what size he wanted, he told me the size, and then he told me he was about quit his job and go back to the barbershop. And I was just like “Well, if that’s what you want to do, and that’s your passion, go ahead and do it, man.” That was pretty much it. That was Monday [before he passed].
TyWanza’s spot in my upcoming wedding: He’s still in my wedding. The lineup is not gonna change at all. I’m just gonna light a candle, and I’m gonna have his picture right there because at the end of the day, he’s still gonna be there with me, by my side. Physical or not, he’s still gonna be there spiritually.
Who TyWanza was: He was a loving man, he loved his family a lot. He always had a smile on his face. Even if you were feeling bad, he’d put a smile on your face so fast. You’d be shocked, you wouldn’t want smile or laugh, but his jokes and humor made you laugh so much. And the love he gave you and showed you, it was impossible for you not to like him. If you ever told him you wanted to give up, he would say, “Man, don’t give up, you can do it.” He said, “There’s nothing easy in this world. You have to work for it.”
What I hope comes from this tragedy: I just hope people realize that everybody is all the same, trying to achieve the same goals: get ahead in life, have fun with family, and everybody be as one. The world would be a much more peaceful place.

Dominique Gray

My earliest memory with TyWanza: I wouldn’t say this is the first time I met Wanza, but this was the first memorable experience I had with Wanza. I got off work, and just like any other middle school or high school kids, we’d go to the mall, or the movies with our friends, or the bowling alley. So after I got all washed up and ready to go out with my friends, Wanza pulls up to my house with my friend Martin in what would be the epitome of your first car. We called it “The Toaster.” It was a silver Volvo, with no a/c. You had to manually put the windows down, and there was barely any radio. So he came to pick me up, and I’m like "What did I get myself into?" We were about to go out with all my friends, try to talk to some girls, and we’re in this car. And South Carolina is hot. So you can imagine being in a car that’s already old, and doesn’t have any a/c in 100-degree weather. We were sweating, which gave birth to the name, “The Toaster.” So we all pull up, I think it was at Checkers, our local meet-up spot. And we just all started ragging on Wanza. Then he looked at me and was like "Well, if you don’t wanna ride in my car, you could’ve just stayed yourself on the highway. You don’t have to ride with us." And that ended it for me, ‘cause I definitely needed to get home.
Our coming-of-age moment: When I graduated. Out of our main, core group of seven friends, only Torrence and Wanza was able to make it, because they were in the Columbia area. I remember seeing how proud he was for me to graduate, and to accomplish my goals, and he saw his coming down the line as well. When we both respectively graduated, he looked to up me and he said that he’s proud to see the man I’ve grown up to be. Which he always used to say, and I thought it was just Wanza talking. He used to always big me up like that.
If I could speak to him one last time: I’d tell Wanza that I love him, and that I can’t wait to see him again, and to please just keep shining. I’m sorry for not fully believing him in every aspect of his life that he wanted to do. His mom told me something that was very telling and brought everything full circle for me. She said “Wanza only had 26 years to live his life. And though you wanted him to fixate on one individual task, he needed to get done everything he had to get done, because God only gave him 26 years to live.” So I would tell him that I respect the fact that he dipped and dabbled in everything that you can possibly think of, and tell him that I’m grateful to have him as a friend for always having my back.
Visiting his home after his death: When I got there, they had his room locked up, but I asked his mom if I could go inside. So, we actually changed the room up. I saw his keyboard, and his mic, and that little beat pad that producers use. I remember when he called me when he bought it, I was like, “Oh Lord, Wanza done got this now. This ain’t never gonna stop. I’ll never hear the end of this.” He had his guitar in there. I remember when he had a ukelele – this man had a ukelele. But it was just Wanza [laughs]; it was what you expect out of Wanza. Think of something random, and Wanza’s doing it, or Wanza did it. I also saw his letter of acceptance to the school down in Orlando to pursue his dream of producing. I didn’t believe it when he called me, but after talking to his mom and seeing the physical document, it really was true. This weekend, he was supposed to be coming down to Orlando to look at apartments.
What I hope comes of this tragedy: I just hope America wakes up. It’s a bigger issue than what everybody’s trying to pawn it out to be. When Obama did his speech, one thing he said was that America needs to look back and reflect on the fact that things like this are not a common occurrence in other advanced countries. And that really hit home with me. We’re all human beings on this earth.

Tyrone Shaw

Who TyWanza was: He was the realest. He was a real person. He always had a smile on his face. He didn’t let anything bother him that much. He always had a positive attitude on things. He was the life of the party. Every moment he lived, he had fun. No negativity. He was just that type of dude you would want to have in your circle. He was very ambitious also. He always wanted to do better and strive to do more to better himself as a person and challenge himself as an individual. He liked to see his fellas, his partners, doing good too. If he’s doing good, then everybody else is doing good. He encourages people; he encouraged us to do better for ourselves.
My favorite TyWanza memory: We played football together, also at James Island High. He played defense, he was a cornerback, and I played receiver. Wanza wasn’t the most gifted in athletics. He was just getting used to playing football, he never played football before, so he came out that year and tried out for the team. He made the team, but at practice, the defensive coach would do their defensive back drills, and Wanza wasn’t the type to catch the ball very well. So the defensive coach would throw the ball, and every time he would catch the ball, he’ll yell out “Touchdown Wanza.” He never catches the ball; he’ll catch the ball every once in a blue moon. And every time he did, we’d go crazy. So the defensive coach would always say “Touchdown Wanza,” and that carried on throughout his high school career. It was all fun and games.
Our final conversation: He just went on and told me about the things he planned on doing in the next couple of years down the road, telling me that he’s going to church now. He actually was thinking about settling down too, because he saw me having a child now and starting a family myself, and he said he found himself a young lady. He was talking to the young lady, and he felt like he wanted to settle down with her. I told him to go on and do if he felt like he was ready and not to hold anything back.
If I could speak to him one last time: I’d tell him that I’m proud of him and what he’s done. I’m proud of him for the man he was focusing on being. He just died so young, and he just had a lot going for him. I was just anticipating what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it, because he was going to bring us with him on that ride, no matter what. If I could have that last talk with him, I’d just say “I love you, and I’m proud of you man, for being that stand-up guy that you were.”
Knowing that TyWanza did not die in vain: I just heard today that the guy that committed the murders was actually at the sermon that night, he almost changed his mind – just because of how nice those people were. Allowing him to come in the church, with open arms. I guess it really hit him how nice this race of people can be. I could tell when they showed the video at his bond hearing, that deep down inside, he knew he made a mistake by doing that. I got that sense because when all those families gave him that forgiveness, and I know that ate him alive. Knowing that he’d done such a heinous crime, he’d expect people to retaliate, and his plan backfired in his face. I know deep down inside, in his soul, that he knew he made a mistake. That’s what I get from that. And I forgive him. I really do. Because God doesn’t make mistakes at all. Things happen for a reason, things are meant to happen. Unfortunately, it was my homeboy that was involved in it. But I know now that he left his mark here and his legacy will continue to live.

To donate to the TyWanza Sanders scholarship fund, email [email protected]

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Nicky Jam: A Love Supreme

Love has neurological effects similar to those of cocaine. That’s what researchers from Syracuse University discovered in a study called "The Neuroimaging of Love.” According to science, falling in love triggers the same feeling of ecstasy experienced by people when they consume the drug.

What’s more, the withdrawal of love—or the emotional mourning that transpires after a serious breakup, for instance—can result in what is called Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The chest pain, characterized as sudden and intense, can rear its ugly head no matter how healthy one might be.

So when one of the biggest reggaeton singers to ever walk the planet tells me he resorted to the use of narcotics after an unexpected breakup during his formative years, I was all but flabbergasted. A 15-year-old Nick "Nicky Jam" Rivera Caminero had slipped into subterranean levels of depression in the face of cyclical family trauma, maternal abandonment and, ultimately, adolescent heartache.

“That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time,” and Nicky experienced a coke-induced euphoria that he spent the following 15 years trying to reproduce. Not long after recording his first album in 1994, ...Distinto A Los Demás, Nicky set on a path of years under the devilish grips of chronic addiction that saw him rise to teen fame in Puerto Rico and practically fade into oblivion by his mid-20s.

A considerably brief, yet successful stint as one-half of Los Cangris with reggaeton compatriot Daddy Yankee during the late 90s served as a precursor to Nicky’s solo career in the early 2000s. After the two parted ways professionally, Nicky went on to release a pair of studio albums, Haciendo Escante and Vida Escante between 2001 and 2004. By 2010, Nicky—now a struggling addict and self-described embarrassment of the Latin Caribbean music industry—relocated to Medellín, Colombia.

It was there in one of the most criminally notorious Latin American cities where Nicky Jam was able to produce a cadre of concerts and hit singles— “Voy A Beber,” “Tu Primera Vez,” and “Juegos Prohibidos,” to name a few—that helped revive his once-dwindling career. A city he feels indebted to for nurturing him when he most needed it, Medellín would also go on to backdrop the near overdose that almost took Nicky’s life before he made the radical (and perilous) decision of going clean.

In 2015, Nicky earned his first Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Urban Performance with Enrique Iglesias for “El Perdón.” By 2017, Nicky had effectively kicked a deadly habit, resurrected his career, and from the ashes emerged with Fénix, an award-winning and Latin Grammy-nominated studio album that gathered collaborations featuring everyone from Sean Paul and J Balvin to El Alfa and Kid Ink.

Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.

In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.

On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.

To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.

On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.

Love is, indeed, in the air.

But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”

Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.

I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.

What were you feeling bad about?

I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.

I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.

The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?

Yeah, basically.

What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?

Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.

What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?

Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.

Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.

One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.

I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.

What else don’t people get about drug addiction?

Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.

In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?

It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…

Is that what sparked your love for music?

Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.

What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.

Yeah, melody wise.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.

I see.

But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.

Who taught you how to love?

Who taught me how to love?

Yes.

My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.

What is your relationship with God?

God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.

You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?

I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.

 

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“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?

That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.

Would you say music helped save you?

Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?

For sure.

Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.

Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.

It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.

What are your fears?

My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.

You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?

Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.

What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?

I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.

You like to serve.

I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.

And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?

I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.

Really?

I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]

Do you see a life with her?

Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].

 

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My goofball ❤️

A post shared by Cydney Moreau (@cydrrose) on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:11pm PST

Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?

It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Dexterity Productions

Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro

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Courtesy of Neon

Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘CLEMENCY’ Reveals Incarceration's Hidden Perils

It pays to take note of films that encourage viewers to rethink how much space empathy and understanding take up in one’s conscience—and how to continue to allow more of both in. CLEMENCY, Chinonye Chukwu’s award-winning and thought-provoking film, explores those themes through the lens of capital punishment.

CLEMENCY follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden, whose livelihood of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on her marriage and mental health. Bogged down with flashbacks of a recently botched execution that occurred under her watch, she must face the psychological and emotional demons her job manifests. This reckoning eventually connects her to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge)—another inmate she prepares to execute.

Each act in the film is a layer unfolding the intricate complexities of the death penalty—from how it impacts those who implement such acts as their day-to-day, to their community, the victims, the inmates’ advocates, and their own families. CLEMENCY, while leaving you speechless, shows how much more there is to learn about this form of punishment and poses the question of whether it’s even worth it—given the consequences all parties involved suffer over time.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 29 states in America still uphold the death penalty with over 1,500 executions performed since 1976. Of those executions, about a third of the deceased defendants were Black. And just like the case of Anthony Woods in the film, many inmates are wrongfully convicted of the death penalty, where very few are able to get their cases exonerated.

Clemency is the process that defendants pursue, where a governor or member of the executive branch of government can reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. This process is especially important for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and have had their appeals denied. Though rare, clemency gives the possibility that an inmate’s life will be pardoned.

Chukwu says that Troy Davis’ clemency case is what sparked her to develop this film. Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested against it, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. “They were urging for clemency, not just on the grounds of Troy’s potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences they knew, from first-hand experience, killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so,” she explains. “The morning after he was executed, I was really obsessed with the question, ‘What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to taking a human life?’”

From there, the director embarked on a four-year journey of researching for CLEMENCY. She did her due diligence, speaking and interviewing wardens, corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in prisons and death row facilities. She touched base with men currently on death row, including a man who was exonerated from death row after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years. Chukwu also spent time volunteering for nonprofit legal organizations on 14 different clemency cases for women who are serving life sentences as well as initiated a writing program in prisons called Pens to Pictures. Such a deep dive helped inform how humanity is tied to incarceration.

Putting in the preliminary work and paying attention to details the untrained eye would gloss over in this world was evident in CLEMENCY. Chukwu was intentional on drawing parallels between Bernadine and Anthony with her use of color theory, isolation and evoking emotion. “I wanted to show how anyone is connected,” Chukwu says. “They’re both tied to this ecosystem of incarceration—they’re both impacted in some way and so I really wanted to make that clearer as the narrative progresses.”

For Hodge, knowing how much preparation Chukwu did inspired him to do his homework as well. Alongside producer Bronwyn Cornelius, Hodge visited San Quentin Prison with the intent of speaking with men currently serving on death row. “I was only able to talk to the brothers serving life sentences—the warden wouldn’t allow us to speak with the death row inmates,” Hodge says. “How they were treated, their increased sense of isolation from the other inmates was very polarizing—and informative. It shaped my idea for my character’s world. From there, I went into who I thought I wanted my character to represent to the audience, which was hope.”

The actor saw playing Anthony as an opportunity to show people a man beyond his situation, to show empathy in human form. “I wanted the audience to be able to see a man and see something familiar before judging him based off of his situation,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to see a criminal. As it goes, when it comes to black and brown people in this country, I think we are disproportionately targeted, especially by the prison system and the judicial system, because we are still seen as less than human.”

Hodge also hopes CLEMENCY is a conversation starter that helps push the conversation of how American society is pacified by the idea of taking lives under the guise of justice. “What I keep asking and repeating to myself is that as a society, do we have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life? Would that not make us also the same kind of monster? And granted, there are people who do some heinous things and yes there are a lot of folks that need to be put in jail, but jail in the sense of actual rehabilitation—I’m not sure I’ve seen it,” he says.

CLEMENCY is Chukwu’s offering to the viewer, where she hopes they see the humanity of people who are incarcerated while narrowing the gap between those who think they’re not directly impacted by incarceration and those who are behind prison walls. Even when embarking on challenging work that intersects social justice and film, one would wonder how this impacts a director and actor personally. Chukwu notes that she’s still processing it for herself, tapping into being intentional about finding and embracing joy and detaching from ego; utilizing helpful tools like meditation and therapy.

“It was hard to make this film emotionally and psychologically,” she shares. “There were definitely moments where I had to compartmentalize because I had a job to do—and as the leader of this ship, I can’t can’t break down every time I want to. But I stuffed it in and saved it for later. I knew when I needed to let myself cry and really let myself feel all the things and then feel through it.”

Hodge stresses that he was able to separate the two, as he does not carry his character home when working on projects, otherwise he would lose himself in the craft. “I have to be able to step out of it and be able to observe and refine what needs to be worked on,” he says. “My ambition is to increasingly improve every single take; to show this person I’ve built up for the audience to see. I’m also quite ambitious about showing the world what this rawness is—so the harder it is, the more excited I get. Oddly enough, with all those crazy scenes [in CLEMENCY], I was just actually really excited about shooting them.”

The end of 2019 was the time the world could finally see why CLEMENCY was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival—making Chukwu, who also wrote the film in addition to directing it, the first Black woman to win the award at the festival. This accomplishment was the launchpad she needed to expand the reach of the film but revealed yet another challenge for her to navigate as the film makes its theatrical runs nationwide.

“I realized that before Sundance I was comfortable in the struggle. I was comfortable climbing up the hill and I realized that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy the view,” she says. “I think the struggle this year for me was allowing myself to thrive and really align. I’ve been working on other projects and writing. I needed to stop and have compassion for myself and enjoy and say to myself, ‘You did that.’ I’ve been doing the work spiritually to allow myself to thrive and enjoy it and not think that means I’m not doing the work. As a black woman especially, it’s an act of resistance to rest. We work, but we’ve got to rest. And it’s alright.”

As the 92nd Academy Awards approaches, Chukwu was one of the many women and filmmakers of color who were snubbed despite releasing critically-acclaimed bodies of work in 2019. Following her reaction to the lack of acknowledgment after the nominees were announced in January, it’s evident she still taps into joy in the face of willful ignorance.

“I speak on joy because in a world that is more comfortable with my oppression than my empowerment as a black woman, owning my joy is one of my greatest tools of power,” she says in a tweet. “To the many artists who have been overlooked and undervalued, I see you—I see US—and we are glorious!”

CLEMENCY is still playing in select cities. You can see if it’s available for viewing near you here.

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Courtesy of Management

Meet Wande Coal: The Afrobeats Pioneer Who’s Ready To Reintroduce Himself To The World

Before Wande Coal discovered that singing was his true calling, he had dreams of being one of Missy Elliott’s dancers. The artist, one of the few who laid the foundation of the buzzing musical movement we know coming out of Nigeria today, is ready to make another shift of leveling up his global appeal on the heels of his latest release, “Again.”

The 34-year-old Lagos native, born Oluwatobi Wande Ojosipe, is the multifaceted mind behind afrobeats hits we all know so well—including his 2015 collaboration with Patoranking, “My Woman, My Everything,” his prolific linkup with DJ Tunez in “Iskaba,” as well as the groovy track “So Mi So” produced by Juls. Prior to his steady rise, Wande’s musical foundation began in church, where he picked up the piano and learned how to sing.

Nigeria's innovative take on its pop music scene emerged in the 2000s, and it was in 2007 where the singer, songwriter, and producer would join Mo’ Hits Records after its former founders Don Jazzy and D’Banj noticed him as a dancer in his music videos. He then became a fixture at Nigeria’s top record label at the time, penning some of the biggest hits to come out of the label including D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist”—the single that caught the ear of Kanye West, a moment that contributed to the imminent hype that surrounds the genre today.

In 2009, Wande stepped out with his debut album Mushin 2 Mo’ Hits. The classic LP is home to his timeless singles “Bumper to Bumper” and “Ololufe,” where it was also an indicator of afrobeats being well on its way of going global. A year later at the 2010 Headies (the Nigerian take of the Grammys), Wande would then take home a record five awards for that album. Six years later, Wanted, his second LP dropped and it did not disappoint—with “Baby Hello” being a single of note, produced by Maleek Berry. Since 2017, Wande has consistently dropped solo singles and features that showed growth in his sound and would reveal his continued relevance in afrobeats’ global expansion.

REALMS, due this March, is Wande’s first project in five years, as well as his debut under a new partnership between himself, producer Screwface’s Starstruck Management and indie distributor, EMPIRE. The five-track EP is stacked with solid collaborations with producers including Sarz, London’s Lekaa Beats and Melvitto—who produced “Again” with Screwface.

“His process is crazy,” Melvitto shares. “He'll just go in a room and lock the door and just be in there. You'll hear him singing but you don't know what he's doing in there. Then he'll come back with his laptop and there are 30 voice notes in there that are two minutes long, of just song after song. He'll tell me to take them and find something that I like.”

Melvitto and Wande began to consistently work together after they met while “Iskaba” was in production. The producer also adds that “Again” was recorded in New York in August 2018, with parts of the track recorded in London and Nigeria.

“It's definitely a different record,” he continues. “For me, as a fan of Wande Coal, as a fan of music and as a fan of making great music, I always try to push artists to go beyond what they normally do outside of what they know. Wande's voice is so crazy—people don't get to hear it that often since he does more uptempo things. But with giving him the opportunity to have him sing on a slower song, you have to pay attention to his voice.”

Tina Davis, EMPIRE’s head of A&R, wholeheartedly agrees. “It's infectious,” she says. “When you're in A&R, you're hearing [a track] in its rough stages. I love it when I can hear a record from that point and see or know where it can go. Every time I listened to the record I wanted to hear it again—no pun intended. I love what he's saying. I think we need more records about women that are supportive of women, positive and records that show love. I think the world needs a lot more love today.”

Although Wande Coal is renowned, there are still pockets of the pop music market that have yet to get to know him. For Davis, that’s why EMPIRE couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with him to build a higher platform that reflects where he started as well as his contribution to music. “He’s extremely talented and I feel like he hasn’t gotten the shine he deserves,” she adds. “And people are stepping up for him.”

As much as his collaborators sing his praises, Wande, in turn, does the same for them. He’s one who says so much using few words. His humility is one folks can learn from as it truly takes a village—in conversation, he amplifies those around him in lieu of bigging up himself. Admitting he’s a gentle soul and a loverboy at heart, the crooner pulls from life’s experiences, especially moments of heartbreak, to pour his reflections out in a track like “Again.”

When asked when he truly knew music was the right path for him, he mentions fervently, “I feel so, and I know so.” It’s evident that Wande Coal is in tune with his calling and his purpose. It manifests in his music.

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VIBE: How has linking with EMPIRE been for you as you begin to engage with a wider audience? Wande Coal: It's a great move for me because I never had that—this is a first for me. At first, I thought it was a joke, but now, it's becoming a reality. I'm really blessed and grateful.

"Again" is a standout track in your upcoming release. Your vocals and how you approach melodies are a marker of your impact to afrobeats all these years, and it's a track where the focus is on you. What was your creative process putting the song together? My surroundings, what I go through, my environment, my feelings, my relationships—everything around me inspires me. For "Again," I was going through a lot emotionally. I lost a girl and I'm trying to tell her that I want her back, I don't want to lose her and I want life to change and it's never going to be the same [without] her again.

With the REALMS EP, what inspired you to come out with new music now? It's my first time ever having an international major establishment back me, so it's a good look because it's been long overdue. Now I'm just ready to drop that and show the entire world that I got something in me.

You're an OG in the afrobeats game, but for a lot of folks, this will be their first time realizing that they should've been hip to you long before now. Just looking back on your career from your Mohits days to stepping out on your own, what else should new listeners know about you? Besides all of that, I was first a writer. I wrote, "Why Me," "Oliver Twist" [and] I developed Wizkid and Davido. I wrote songs with Wizkid, I gave Davido the name "OBO"—they both used to live in my house. Davido left school in Atlanta and came to my house [in Nigeria] twice using his school fees. Wizkid came by often too because I had three studios and I was inspiring them. I'm glad I was able to be a role model for them. They're big artists now, alongside Burna Boy and Maleek Berry, and the feelings are mutual. I'm glad they're doing so well.

How have you been able to balance being so multifaceted in Nigeria's music landscape? To me, everybody uses the same type of template, so I decided to always create new sounds to stand out and be different. When you check out songs like "Iskaba" and "So Mi So," it's a different vibe to what everyone is singing. I'm glad that people appreciate it and I'm glad to lead the change since I was there from the start. I stay ready to always change the game and create new sounds. I don't like to sing what I sang before and avoid singing the same lyrics.

When you were first starting out, did you ever imagine Nigeria's pop music scene would become as big and recognizable as it is today? Yes—see, I had a vision. When I met Mohits in 2006 they asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I was trying to take this music global. Because I listened to the likes of Usher, Akon, T. Pain, Michael Jackson—they inspired me to be what I am today [as an artist]. I decided to fuse both my culture and American culture together. That's why I sound the way I do.

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