scott lazer
Vlad Sepetov

"It's Almost Like He Can’t Contain Himself:" A Chat With Director Scott Lazer Verifies J. Cole's Intense Work Ethic

Lazer discusses how he made Cole feel comfortable in front of the camera, adapting to an artist's lifestyle, and which big time singer he would like to make his next muse. 

J. Cole may not be reserved with his honest and open lyrics, but when it comes to his personal 24/7, he's not as quick to dish on that part of his being. That all changed in December with the release of a four-part miniseries highlighting his inner musical workings. In a recent open letter he shared with fans on Twitter, Cole considered his musical talents a gift and a curse. "The gift is that I'm not wasting your time and energy by flooding your timeline and headlines with the bullsh*t...," he wrote. "The curse is that you don't ever really get to peek behind the curtain...... until now." Director Scott Lazer peeled back that firm curtain and captured a different side of Cole that his fans only dreamed about seeing one day with the consecutive rollout of the miniseries leading up to HBO's Jan. 9 premiere of "Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming."

Lazer graduated in 2011 with a degree in journalism from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., but swiftly learned he had a passion for being behind the lens instead of behind the pen. He landed his first major film project within his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., nearly three hours west of Cole's esteemed Fayetteville. With the Democratic National Convention in town, Lazer and one of his creative partners shot around 100 short films that showcased various artists, inventors or institutions that highlighted Charlotte's uniqueness, and later sold their work that became a part of the DNC host committee's campaign. But he quickly hit a ceiling and saw the level of creativity he wanted to reach would be an uphill battle if he stayed within his stomping grounds. He decided to make that 2,500 mile move to Los Angeles where he came into contact with the Dreamville collective.

Lazer hit the "on" switch and first shot Cole's "F**k Money, Spread Love" tour during his promotional run for the platinum album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. "Initially I thought it was going to be another 8-10 minute short film about the rollout of the album, but Cole’s manager, Ibrahim Hamad, challenged me to go a little deeper and make something broader," he says. That "something" turned into a first-hand look that follows Cole on the road and in the studio for his third studio album all the way to his crowning concert in his birthplace. With a Canon C300 camera and a Rode NTG-3 microphone, Lazer traveled the globe for over a year with the "No Role Modelz" rapper and Dreamville, capturing bro moments and introspective occurrences, which most likely filled up his memory card, guestimating maybe four or five hours a day worth of material. "Everything up until this point has been short form for the most part," he says, "and having the time in a story to develop characters and grow with characters, because as indicated by the length of Cole's hair throughout the series there's literally growth (laughs), amongst the characters and it was cool to be able to do that."

The videographer also spoke about his HBO partnership into existence. Lazer recounts a few times where he was gathering footage of crowds outside of Cole's shows. A few bystanders would pose the question "What are you shooting for?" to which Lazer would reply "very entirely jokingly, 'Oh it's for HBO. I was totally kidding and now it's actually on HBO which is wild."

All organic everything. Here, Lazer discusses how he made Cole feel like a natural in front of the lens, adapting to an artist's lifestyle, and which big time singer he would like to make his next muse.

VIBE: What type of collaborator is J. Cole?
Scott Lazer: He’s an amazing collaborator. It’s really fun being creative with him. From the first time we started working together we made cool stuff and it has just developed. I started working with him a year and a half ago, summer before last, and it’s been a very organic relationship with just, "What do you think about this?" "Here’s an idea for something, do you want to do it?" "Yeah sounds like a good idea," or "No try something else." He’s a "Yes, and…" kind of collaborator as opposed to a "Yes, but…" if that makes sense. That’s a great thing when it comes to creative relationships.

What was it like being around the Dreamville collective?
They’re very tight. It’s a family-like environment. Everyone looks out for each other. We were on the road for a long time, most of this year [2015], and I was on the road at the end of last year [2014], for almost seven weeks straight flying to different places. On the bus it was okay because you can stretch out, go into your bunk and sleep for a while. Whenever we were going places by plane, and I’m 6’4 so flying is uncomfortable for me, but when I first joined them in New York we went to Boston, and I remember we woke up in Boston early, flew to Minneapolis, did a listening there, and then after that flew to Chicago all in the same day. We hit like three cities in one day. It was like that for a while so it was a little grueling. I got to know them very well and that was cool. There was a certain necessity almost. I think we fell into a rhythm just because of the close proximity.

I was shooting Cole, and I intentionally put the camera in his face quickly because I wanted him to get used to it and not feel like he had to hold anything back. That’s evident in a lot of the series. The overarching narrative of the piece is this was a benchmark year for Cole. He reached a new level, just from a scale standpoint. His tour was huge. His albums sold more than any of the other albums. It was a real level up for him this year. The stories that we’re telling in this series is not a biopic. He’s got a long career ahead of him, I’m sure. It really zeroes in on just this last year which was transformative for him. That’s what I liked about it, a peek into a very specific time in his career. The overarching narrative is these guys—meaning the Dreamville staff and all of the people involved with it—were all having to level up and deal with higher stakes. It’s about them dealing with that, and it gets stressful. The first episode is really an introduction to Cole if you don’t know him, or if you do know him it’s a more closer look at the kind of person he is. If you don’t know him, it gives you a very clear idea of who he is, where his head is at, and how he was thinking about this project. It’s the project that sort of bookends the series. It’s really about these guys having to deal with a newfound level of even greater success.

How’d the conversation with HBO happen? What was you reaction to the news?
I wasn’t really involved in that. I was all focused on creative, so I can’t speak to that process, but I was thrilled. It’s weird because I remember when I was shooting on the road, and it’s a big camera, but people would ask, "What are you shooting for?" And I would say very entirely jokingly, "Oh, it’s for HBO." I was totally kidding and now it’s actually on HBO which is wild. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I've never done anything on HBO, but it’s appropriate that it’s on HBO because it’s very much modeled off their Boxing 24/7 series which I love and have watched many of. You see the fighter in training camp and then you watch the main event. It’s the same format. You see the process to the album and the tour and then you finally get to see the show in the end.

Did you have to adapt to an artist’s lifestyle? Any late nights in the studio and insane traveling schedules?
I was thinking about that recently. While we were shooting, it was probably one o’clock in the morning and Cole stays up late working. He works a lot and I wanted to shoot as much as possible. I remember when he was mixing the album in the studio in the first episode. That’s one example of many where at some point I had to say to myself, "I’m committing to shooting this guy until he goes to sleep." And it worked out because in that instance I got the footage of him riding home on his bike which is in the first episode, but it was also the same shoot where we shot the music video that became the “Intro.” It wasn’t any of the same footage, but it was the same time and that was at 5:30 in the morning in Manhattan. I love that video, I love that it’s in the series too, but I really love that video. That was another example of a very organic, fun thing that Cole and I did together.

I directed that and the “Apparently” music video in Atlanta, then we flew to London. There was a lot of positive energy at the “Apparently” shoot. Cole wanted to see something. He kept at it like, "I got to see something man, let me see a cut." I was in the hotel room working. We had a day off and I worked all day. I got a cut together for him and I showed it to him late at midnight. I met him at a diner, showed it to him, and he wasn’t feeling it. I remember saying to him, "Look man, if you’re down to do this I’m willing to sit with you and edit this thing until you’re happy with it." And we did. We were up until eight in the morning. But it was fun. It was me, him and Ib for a while. Ib went to sleep and then it was just me and Cole for a long time, too. It was positive creative energy. We finished it and got it to a place where he was said, "Alright, this looks great. We’re down with how this is feeling." Cole was so excited he said, "What else can we do?" I said, "What do you mean?" I can’t remember if he suggested to pull up the bike stuff or what, but he gave me two songs off the album and one song was the “Intro." I remember taking the music for the “Intro” and putting it into a sequence in my editing software and dropping one clip of him riding the bike. We watched the raw footage, and we immediately thought it fit the mood and tone of the song, and the symbolism of him riding his bike in Manhattan in the wee hours of the morning matched really well with the visual of the song. That was totally spur of the moment. We cut two music videos in a night. It's one of the more fun, creative experiences I’ve ever had.

From behind the lens, what’s something unique that you learned about Cole?
The thing that’s always been so inspiring to me about getting to know him and spend time around him is his work ethic is really unlike anyone else I’ve ever seen. He’s constantly working. He’s always making music or doing something. It’s like he almost can’t contain himself sometimes. I think that, among many other things, is what sets him apart from a lot of other artists. He’s constantly doing it. He gives his work a lot of attention and he puts a lot of himself into it. Granted I haven’t hung out with a lot of rappers or musicians at his level, but I’ve known a lot of creative people and he goes really hard all of the time. It’s inspiring. I remember feeling lazy around him because he would always be doing sh*t and it motivated me to go hard while I was filming.

There were a lot of intimate moments that you gained access to. Describe that experience.
The fans are a big part of the concert special and in an interview with one of them after the show this girl was crying hysterically, sobbing. I was filming her and she was talking to me, but she was crying hard. After she finished talking I didn’t want to walk away so I gave her a hug (laughs). His fans—and again, I haven’t been around an artist while they’ve been on tour like this before—I don’t really have anything to compare it to and I’m sure lots of artists, especially artists of Cole’s caliber have meaningful and deep connections with their fans, but it was cool to see people have that and express that.

What was the hardest or toughest scene to shoot? Did you have to push Cole at any point?
I never pushed him like that because I don’t think that would yield a positive outcome. I very much tried to be as relaxed and observant as possible and not try to push him in any direction. The only thing I would ever do is ask him questions. Even in the first episode when he was talking about the mastering process, I asked him questions, but I cut my voice out of it because I wanted it to be his point of view. If either I was just curious about it or I thought there was a potential storytelling opportunity with him just explaining how he was feeling about something, I would ask him and he was always game to tell me or to say something. He never said, "I don’t want to talk about it." The only thing is sometimes he would want space. A lot of the times I would go with him into his dressing room after the show because he and Ib would talk about the show and sometimes there were funny moments. But one time I went back into his dressing room at the Staples Center and it was him and a few people around and there was nothing really going on. I wasn’t getting anything good and Cole looked at me and said, "Alright, Scott, I think you’re good here." I said, "Alright, catch you later!" (laughs). There were a few moments that I was calling attention to myself because of the camera and he wanted his time. Of course, he deserves that.

"Filmmaking is all about drama, that’s one thing that it can be. It can also be informative which is what this series is." —Scott L.

Did you have any “pinch me” moments when you looked back on the film?
It was pretty wild. I watched the first episode on HBO Now, and it wasn’t so much when I was watching it then, because we had to do a lot of preparation for the series and part of that preparation was adding the HBO click-on and click-off

. When I added that to what we had to deliver, because you had to deliver it in a certain way, that was pretty trippy. I said, "Whoa! This was really going on HBO."

How does this music doc differ than others? A lot of people on social media said this visual got it right in terms of the content, how it's displayed, or the storyline. How’d you get it right?
I think that there was a lot of mutual respect between myself and all the characters that were involved, and a level of trust that makes for interesting commentary. I followed my gut with a lot of this. I started to get an idea of what I thought it could look like the more I got into it. Once we were in Act III of the tour, I had a pretty clear idea of what sort of story I wanted to tell overall, but it was listening and I find that a lot of documentary filmmaking is having a balance of an idea of something you want to do, but also being open and observant enough to change course accordingly. There were definitely moments throughout the process where I needed to readjust what I was doing for the sake of the film. The first episode is all of Cole’s point of view, you can think of it as the first act of the story, introducing the audience to the protagonist which is J. Cole. The second part, which is the second act, you get introduced to all of these characters and you come to understand what his objective is which is to tour this album and hope that it’s successful.

If there was a dramatic question it would be he’s released an album, he’s going on tour, is it going to work? I think the likelihood was pretty high so it wasn’t, "Is it all going to fall apart?" And although there are dramatic moments throughout the series, less so much in the first episode which is more of an intro to Cole, but they’re not like corny, not live or die things. It’s things are going wrong and they have to fix them or they don’t have enough time. Conflict with the elements like time or other characters. Not trying to over dramatize it may be what people are reacting to. Filmmaking is all about drama, that’s one thing that it can be. It can also be informative which is what this series is, educational and inspiring. But with this I adopted the Maysles Brothers movies. Gimmie Shelter, the Rolling Stones documentary from the sixties, was a big influence on this series. A lot of what the Maysles Brothers did so well was let things happen and then decide how to construct that into a story once you’re done.

That's interesting you mentioned Gimmie Shelter because I was going to ask if you watched any other music docs for research.
Definitely Gimmie Shelter was a big inspiration. There’s actually a shot in the second episode that was directly influenced by it. This is something that I did initiate, something that I put in the scene. Throughout the Gimmie Shelter documentary, Mick Jagger is watching footage of himself and commenting on it. I always thought that was really interesting. There was a moment in Act II of the tour in the second episode of the series where Cole is not happy with how the lighting looks. He wanted to see what it looked like so I pulled up what I shot on my computer and gave it to his creative director Adam [Rodney] and they reviewed it together. It’s Cole looking at himself on the laptop of the performance and critiquing it. That’s totally, absolutely an influence from Gimmie Shelter which was cool, I was excited to do that, a little nerdy doc moment. Mick Jagger and J. Cole were talking about different things, but the act of them watching themselves was what was interesting about it.

Is this a gateway to doing more film?
Cole mentions it in that letter, and Ib mentions it as well of this being Dreamville Films. There are a lot of projects we’re looking to do in the future which I’m excited about. This was the foray into that world with Cole, and all of the people at Dreamville are curious and eager to do creative things. I’m excited to do more of that stuff with them in the future because Cole and a lot of others in Dreamville have great ideas for film projects beyond documentaries.

In Cole’s letter, he said he doesn’t share much outside of the music. How’d you bring that personal aspect out to capture it on film?
I don’t know if I thought of that consciously. I just shot and listened and what you see is what went down. The only thing I was conscious about was getting him used to the camera. I can talk to him, I’m pretty good at having a conversation with most people, and I was a fan beforehand so I had lots of questions for him. I was glad I had the access to pose those questions to him directly. I would think he probably saw a genuine interest and curiosity in what he was doing and probably felt comfortable explaining or telling me how he thought about things on camera.

Are there any other artists you’d like to work with?
Rihanna, she’s got so much great stuff going for her. I love her music, visually she’s exciting, she’s willing to take risks. She’s a huge artist of course. I don’t even know what I would do with her. I would do doc stuff for her, music videos, anything. I just really love everything about her brand and her art. There’s still stuff going on. It’s been hard for me to think beyond this project. I’m excited for once everything is done, it’s up, people watch it and be able to move past it because I’ve been working on this project for over a year and it’s been my primary focus for over a year. I’ve never done that besides that Charlotte video project and even then I was doing a lot of different things too because we were hustling and just trying to make work for ourselves. Aside from those two BJ the Chicago Kid videos, and one video I did for Bas and maybe one or two other things, this was all I was really working on and I prefer that honestly. I like to be able to sit with my work for a while and marinate in it.

What's one thing you learned about yourself?
I don’t know if this answers the question, but I think I became a much better filmmaker in this year. It was really the first time I had the opportunity to do something long form. Everything up until this point has been short form for the most part, and having the time in a story to develop characters and grow with characters because as indicated by the length of Cole’s hair throughout the series there’s literally growth (laughs), amongst the characters and it was cool to be able to do that. That’s why I was into the series idea because Cole’s obviously constant, but there’s other characters you see in the episodes. In the first you see Ib, he’s a character throughout, and there are others throughout that you get to check-in with in a later episode. There are some interesting people that are incredibly talented that are part of Cole’s team, part of Dreamville. I’m glad those people get to be recognized. They do a lot of great work that all contributes to what we know of as J. Cole. He does a lot on his own, don’t get me wrong, but he can’t do it all by himself. There’s some really talented people there.

Out of all the parts of the miniseries, do you have a favorite episode?
I think the last one has the most emotional impact. I think that’s the episode that anyone can watch and feel something towards. The first four are a little bit more niche in that they’re for people who are Cole fans, hip hop fans, music fans. But favorite episode… I don’t know. I more or less did them in order. We did one, two, three, five, and then four. That was the order in completion. I kind of felt like every time we finished one I said, "It’s the best one so far." I said that for every one we finished so it’s hard to say. They all have their own thing going on, and there are parts from some of them that I really like. For instance the first episode, the scene where he’s at Forest Hills, there are shots of people, fans listening to the album with headphones, and then there’s some interviews with them after. My instinct was to play the interviews under the people listening to it so it would happen at the same time, but something about watching the fans listen and you can hear a little bit of the music leaking through the headphones or you hear them breathing. There was something really fascinating about it to me. I just made a fat scene of that and there was of course one of the best moments in the whole series when the two kids are laying on the bed listening to the music. When I shot that that I was like ‘Oh my God, that was so hilarious,’ it took everything in me to not crack up laughing in that instance. I thought it was a strange creative choice but it was really exciting to me. I said, "I should’ve done it this way but I did it that way and I’m much more happier that I did it that way." Instances like that made me really excited about it from my own creative storytelling. I chose to do that and it worked.

As a Cole fan, I’m excited about people getting access to Cole that they’ve never had before. This is the first long form film in a way. It's continuous or it’s chronological, the episodes they go forward in time. I play around in time a little bit. Even in the first episode it’s not entirely chronological but it’s non-linear technically. I’m excited for Cole fans to get that access that they maybe never had before, but I’m also excited for people to judge it as quality films that I hope other artists can use as a blueprint for showcasing themselves or their work in the future. Almost like a formula, and different artists and directors will do it differently of course, but it’s an unorthodox way of doing it and that’s exciting being able to do something that’s not normal in many ways like where it’s going and how it’s done and who it is.

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

View this post on Instagram

Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey


Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Tom Hauck

NEXT: Kobe Bryant

This story appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE, months before he won his first of five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Written by Isaac Paris

Okay, Sherlock, we know Kobe Bryant is way past the verge of stardom. As an all-star shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gets thousands of fans screaming with excitement every other night. Bryant's baseline drives are as smooth as Nate Dogg's vocals, and his slam dunks bump like a gritty bass line from a DJ Premier track.

Now, with his debut rap album, Visions (Columbia), due in March, the 21-year-old is poised to follow in the footsteps of teammate Shaquille O'Neal (who he occasionally exchanges verses with in the locker room) and prove that his skills aren't limited to flying above the rim. Although Bryant realizes that being the man on the hardwood is no guarantee that you can actually hold it down in the studio (NBA stars/inept MCs like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd can attest to that), Visions proves his wordsmith capabilities are ample enough to allow him to play with the big dogs.

"People are gonna be surprised," Bryant says self-assuredly. "Toward the latter stages [of recording], I was real comfortable. I was like, 'I got this sh*t!'" In fact, tonight in his Milwaukee hotel room––on the eve of a game against the Bucks––Bryant's more pressed with defending the unproven mike skills of his homegirl that he is his own.

"Tyra can sing," he says of supermodel Tyra Banks, who makes her singing debut on Visions' first single, the buoyant "K.O.B.E." Destiny's Child, the Roots' Black Thought, 50 Cent, and Beanie Sigel also support the hoopster on the CD.

"The album is pretty hard. People expect me to come a little more commercial than I did," says Bryant. "At first it was all battle raps, but I really wanted to give the total picture of what was going on around me, like money, jewelry, women, and trust issues."

Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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Tyler the Creator attends the 62nd annual GRAMMY Awards on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

11 Takeaways From The 2020 Grammys

There are many factors that go into winning a Grammy, the most coveted music prize of the industry. It’s more than “is the song good?” Sometimes it’s based on campaigning, other times it’s based on what voters feel should be the industry standard. However, the fun doesn’t come until after the ceremony, where all the winners have been revealed and it’s time to process what it all means for the larger picture and the future of recording.

The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards was met with controversy this year thanks to a lawsuit against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences from ousted CEO, Deborah Dugan. Through her explosive claims and allegations, the voting process has gotten even less transparent— and we’re left with more questions and mysteries than answers. Still, artists and media moved forward, and the focus has temporarily shifted back to the music and the awards.

Here are 11 takeaways from VIBE that capture the essence of key wins (and snubs) at the Grammy Awards.

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